Photo: Jeremy Cowart
Keb' Mo' On Purchasing His Childhood Home, Honing A Continuum Of Feeling And His Companionable New Album, 'Good To Be'
Have you ever stepped into your childhood home and absorbed its invisible energy, its spectrum of lingering emotions? Keb' Mo' did more than that: he purchased the place for himself and his family.
"How did all five of us live in this little, bitty house? But we did. We did," the Americana singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com of that two-bed, one-bath abode, which stands a stone's throw from the Compton/Woodley Airport in Los Angeles. In recent years, Keb' Mo' — who is also a Nashville resident — purchased the home, renovated it and made it his vacation home and workspace.
There's evidence of his upbringing everywhere, the five-time GRAMMY winner and 12-time nominee says. And his soul-nourishing new album, Good To Be, grew from that bittersweet homecoming.
Released Jan. 21 via Rounder Records, Good To Be explores various permutations of American music. These include silky-smooth soul ("Sunny and Warm"), back-porch country ("Good Strong Woman," featuring fellow GRAMMY winner Darius Rucker) and an Appalachian stomper ("The Medicine Man," featuring Old Crow Medicine Show — also GRAMMY winners.)
These days, Keb' Mo' is less interested than ever in being a boundary-demolisher; he knows what he does, and wants to keep honing that vision.
"What I'm looking to do is to do a better job of what I did before," he says. "It's like, how do I write a more pertinent song? How do I write a more fun song? How do I make the music sound and feel better?" Fortunately, Good To Be sounds and feels as good as (if not better than) just about anything Keb' Mo' has released in his long and idiosyncratic career.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the Americana favorite to describe the moving parts of Good To Be, what makes a classic song and why we don't need to bring the blues back to the mainstream — rather, it happens on its own in trusty cycles.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Compton is an area that tends to garner negative associations, but I'd like to hear about it through your eyes. What might people not understand about it?
Well, it's like any other area. Some areas have a negative connotation; some areas have a positive connotation, depending on who you're talking to and what their perspective is on it.
For me, Compton — that's my home. That's where I grew up. It's got soul. It's got a thing that my neighborhood doesn't have. I live in Tennessee in a very safe, nice neighborhood. My house in Compton was in the hood. I enjoyed being around working-class people and everyday folks — you know what I mean? — which most Americans are.
In the house that I grew up in, there's a kind of comfort there. I've got family and people dropping by to see me. It's good. It just feels good. Like the song.
Tell me about the physicality of the house and the experiences you had there.
It's an 800 square foot house — two bedrooms, one bath. Very small rooms. It's a nice big lot. I hope somebody will put a guest house in the backyard. Maybe the same size as the house. It's right by Compton Airport — half a block south. It's just on a working-class block with nice palm trees.
When I'm living there with my wife and son, we've created a little working space — it's a vacation space. It's the home of a lot of great things. There's a school there; the Compton Cowboys ride through the neighborhoods. I don't know how to describe it to you. It's a little dangerous at the same time. But it's always been kind of dangerous. [Chuckles.]
My mom passed away at 91, and four years ago, we bought the house. It was in bad need of repair and renovation, so we did all of it. We put it back together.
Do you notice any evidence of childhood you in there?
Oh, yes. It's all over the place. Like, how did all five of us live in this little, bitty house? But we did. We did.
What led you to purchase the place? Did you just see it for sale and jump on it?
My mom owned it — she never sold it. She bought another house, and kept it and rented it out. Had I seen it for sale, I probably wouldn't have bought it. I would have just passed it and pointed: "Hey, I used to grow up in that house." But because she had it and kept it all those years, I thought it was a chance to build a legacy there and pass it on.
I still have family in the area, so they come by and visit. We have gatherings. It's pretty cool! Beautiful backyard, landscaped and everything. We put a big deck on the back of the house that adds more living space to it.
Can you talk about your connection with Darius Rucker? It's inspiring how he made one mark with Hootie and the Blowfish, then a completely different one in the Grand Ole Opry sphere.
I commented when we were listening to the record, "What if Darius Rucker sang on the second verse?" Somebody happened to be in the room that took it upon themselves to go find Darius. [Laughs.] She found him and he said "Yeah, I'd love to sing on this!" So he came over and sang on it. We were quite blessed to have him on the record.
When you think of all the styles on the album — from country to soul to blues — do you delineate them or consider them to be basically one thing?
They're all different variations of a musical language based in America. Country, blues, rock, soul, rock 'n' roll, classical — I just see it as a variation on a kind of folk music. Dance music, bar music, juke-joint music… drinking music! [Laughs.]
As a string band, Old Crow Medicine Show represents one of those permutations. What do you appreciate about them?
I was talking to [Old Crow member] Ketch Secor. I'd been talking to him for a few years about doing something. While I was out in Compton, I was listening to this "The Medicine Man" song, and I sent it to him to maybe work on it with me. He said, "I don't know, man! Sounds finished to me! Let's do it!" So, we did it and it worked out great. We had a lot of fun with it.
At a Country Music Hall of Fame gig I did on Dec. 9, we were talking about it to the audience. He came by and sat in with me and said, "How're you doing with this song?" and I said "I'm doing really great!" There's a line about how "[The] president lost/ But he don't wanna go." I think his audience is a little more conservative than mine. He didn't want them to hear that!
You've made records since the '90s. What did you want to say with Good To Be that you hadn't with past ones?
I don't know if the phrase "want to say something" resonates with me, because my aim is to portray a feeling. It's not necessarily to articulate anything — I'm looking to do something. I just say what I want to say and hopefully people will hear it in the most positive way. Also, [I hope they'll] be inspired and somewhat enlightened by it, or just feel good.
When you ask the question of what I want to do differently: I'm never looking to do anything different than I hadn't done on a record before. What I'm looking to do is to do a better job of what I did before.
So, you're honing one thing — it's one continuum.
Yeah. It's like, how do I write a more pertinent song? How do I write a more fun song? How do I make the music sound and feel better? How do I sing better? How do I play better? How do I do everything better than I did last time? How do I talk about different things than I talked about last time?
At the same time, the ultimate goal is to put some music out that adds a little spice to your life. There's so much music out there; there's so much noise. There's a lot of music out there making a lot of noise, especially in the pop world. Most people listen to popular music, so for me, I'm in a side genre — blues, Americana. But there's still a lot of people listening; not as much as in the pop world, but still a lot.
I just want to be in the game, you know? In my older years, I really love the fact that I'm still around playing. I don't feel like I'm slowing down at all. I feel good, like I did when I was younger or middle-aged. I'll always do my best work, and I feel like my best work is still out in front of me.
Tell me about your internal growth over the past quarter-century.
Well, 24 years ago, that was the late '90s. I got signed to Sony. Keb' Mo' [was born] in 1994, with the first record. Before that point, there was Kevin Moore, and then there was Keb' Mo'. Keb' Mo' is a more actualized version of Kevin Moore.
They're the same person, but Keb' Mo' has a mission — to be important in a way that people feel good and feel something from the music. There's something happening that involves spreading joy. Before that, Kevin Moore just liked playing music. So, Keb' Mo' just pops along and does what he does.
He's just a better version of myself. I'm not necessarily a person who's going to break down boundaries, or break the walls and make a mark, so to speak. I think just being myself is my mark. There's only one me. I don't have to try to make a mark. I am the mark.
Is there a way to articulate the feeling you want to transmit to listeners? Obviously, music is abstract and subjective by nature.
The words that you use are important, but the way it feels is even more important — the way it makes your body and soul feel. What's one of your favorite songs?
You're a lover of great music. You're a classic guy. You like music in the highest sense of the word. When I listen to music alone, I like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard… I'm across the board with things I really like. I play them because of the way they make me feel. Jeff Beck playing "Over the Rainbow" — I just love that.
These musicians coming to wide popularity are important in that what they do influences society. The blues were never a big [money-maker], but it's like the Earth. It makes everything grow, the blues.
You asked which song is really resonating with me lately, and I thought of one: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
You clearly have very eclectic tastes. I remember when I realized that I was listening to music by the decade. If I'm still playing them after 10 years, that's a big mark.
So, you think of someone who made [the biggest] mark: the Beatles. No band, no musician probably made a bigger mark in pop culture than the Beatles. They set the standard. They raised the bar. And we're forever grateful for the Beatles, because they changed everything and continue to change everything.
The Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, George Jones, Donny Hathaway — the list goes on and on and on. Paul Simon. Music that really matters. My hope is that I can make music that matters. And the blues isn't held in high regard in a lot of cultures, but it matters.
If I've got one song that matters, that can mean something to somebody and can last or stick around for a long time, I think that's pretty cool. That's a life well-lived.
Keb' Mo performing in Los Angeles in 1997. Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
So much music steeped in the blues has weird longevity. How do we bring the blues closer to the center of the conversation?
I don't think you really have to.
I had this conversation on a [recent] panel. The blues has made its mark. Every time, it's a cycle, and it always comes around. It just keeps resurging and reminding people that this music is important and has affected everything. So, it's already been there. It's already been recorded in the history of all our great musical institutions. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian… you name it.
You mentioned Hank Williams. I recorded "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on a Hank Williams tribute record called Timeless. I love music that's centered, and I try to take whatever [ability] I have and tell a story to move that narrative forward.
The thing that trips me out about that particular song is that he's citing images that suggest the action, or support the central thesis.
"Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/ He sounds too blue to fly." The whippoorwill is a little bird, and he's putting himself with nature — putting himself in there.
And there's a fantastical haze to it. Nobody's seen a robin weep.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but he got away with it! He's not talking about words; he's talking about a feeling. Imagine a robin weeping! Why would a robin weep? We weep. Why would a robin be sad?
Well, he answered the question: "When leaves begin to die."
What have you been listening to lately?
I don't listen to much at all.
There's some things I listen to. On a plane, I listen to… This might surprise you, but my favorite album right now of new stuff that I listen to is Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Really cool. Upbeat, funky. Super cool.
But when I'm really listening, getting in the mode, getting in the zone? I listen to folklore, Taylor Swift.
You're a Swiftie!
Yeah, I'm a Swiftie.
When I had just moved to Nashville, she was coming around. They were talking about her around town. I was totally intrigued by her, because I saw a badass. I would watch her and I could see the fire in her eyes that none of those other folks had.
She made three of the greatest country records. And then Red? Freakin' genius! And then people started taking her seriously and she said, "Watch this, b****es!" and left everybody in the dust. I'm like, "OK! I saw it!" And she continues to keep moving and being creative and being a brave artist and a serious businesswoman.
What's been percolating in your imagination that might inform the next batch of tunes?
Ah, I have no idea. I'm in a period right now where I don't know what to do next. The way I find out what I'm going to do next is I just start doing.
I don't like plans so much. I plan to keep recording. I plan to keep creating. But right now, it's like I'm in a desert where I just want to go out and play this new record for people. I'll do that for a while, and maybe six months down the road, I'll start working on some new songs.
But I want to experience what people think about this one. I want to live life and hang out and take life in if I can. The way I keep [active] is by taking life in and creating.