I first became aware of Selwyn Birchwood when this incendiary bluesman released his “Pick Your Poison” album on Alligator Records and then headed up to Maine for some performances back in August of 2017. This guitarist, who also plays a mean lap steel as well, writes his own material and has a style all his own making for a refreshing breath of the blues. This is evident on his latest album, “Living In A Burning House” (again, on Alligator Records). When I heard about it, I put in for a phone interview so he and I could reconnect again, and on Jan. 11 he called me from his Florida home. The conversation began with me reminding him of our first chat.

Q: The last time we talked was in August of 2017, you were coming up for a mini-Maine tour with four shows in Bangor and one down in Rockland.
Birchwood: Yeah, that was a great run up there. It was the American Folk Music Festival and then we did, I think, the Time Out Pub in Rockland on the way back.

Q: I do believe that was indeed the case. Those were the good old days when you could tour.
Birchwood: Oh, man, I miss ‘em (chuckle).

Q: I bet you do! I miss chatting with artists coming up here for live shows, but when I found out from Marc Lipkin, director of publicity at Alligator, that you had a new album coming out, I put in a request for this interview.
Birchwood: Yeah, and I’m really excited about it, too.

Q: Having listened to it via a link from your record company, I’m excited about it, as well, and 13 new original songs again, the same number that’s on “Pick Your Poison.” They say that 13 is an unlucky number, but that’s definitely not the case with you!
Birchwood: (Laughter) Yeah, man, it’s a baker’s dozen.

Q: And as with “Poison” this new album has a collection of songs where no two are really alike. I appreciate an album that takes me on a journey, but I don’t like going down the same road twice, and that’s definitely the case here.
Birchwood: Yeah, you know, I really pride myself on the songwriting aspects of it, and I think that’s all part of it. … I want to use as many colors and as many different styles as I can. It’s like if you were to try to do a painting and only use the color blue. You could make a really cool painting with just blue, but it would be more interesting if you put some other colors in there, too. That’s what I try to do with my music, so when I write I try to do that, as well. I think that this album is the most colorful record that I’ve done so far, and I’m really proud of the way that it turned out. I can’t wait for people to hear it!


Q: I know what you mean — I taught art for 26 years and monochromatic is OK and can be compelling, but as a steady diet? No thanks, I want a broader range for my palette.
Birchwood: (Chuckle) Yeah.

Q: But anyway, how have you been hanging in there as far as this COVID-19 thing goes?
Birchwood: Well, I’ve just been doing the best I can. That’s all any of us can really do, but I’ve switched to pretty much all digital this past year. So I’ve only been performing on livestreams. I just now took a break off of that; I did my last livestream on Saturday night. Now, I’m taking the time to do some promotion. I want to get some attention to the release of this album; we’ve had to wait for over a year now. We finished recording this record in December of 2019 and we’ve only been able to release it now because of the circumstances. We were hoping to be able to get back to touring full-time so people could get ears on it.

Q: Is there anything else special about this album other than the “colorful” aspect of it?
Birchwood: This is my first record with a producer, and it was great to have Tom Hambridge in on this record utilizing his expertise in the studio. And I think we really came up with a great-sounding record. I feel like with this record we really found our sound. I don’t think that there’s another band out there right now that sounds exactly like us, and that’s what I’ve been shooting for for all these years — to tell you my own story in my own way with my own sound. I feel that “Living In A Burning House” is it.

Q: Just out of curiosity, what influenced you to get into the blues?
Birchwood: Well, I was 12 when I first picked up a guitar. It was just kind of casual, learning songs off the radio and playing with friends. I got bored with that pretty quickly. I got a hold of a Jimi Hendrix record from a friend of mine, and I was blown away by his creativity. His songs sounded like nothing I’d heard before. I feel like even to this day you can’t really put Hendrix in a clearly-defined musical genre because he’s done so many different things. I really dug that aspect of him, and wanted to know what inspired him to write like that. I found an interview with him where he talked about the old blues guys: Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Albert King and all those kinds of guys. And Buddy Guy actually was coming into town the very same week that I found out about him. I just bought a ticket blindly not knowing anything about him besides what I had read in that Hendrix interview. I went to the show and I said, “Whatever this is that I’m hearing, that’s what I want to learn, and that’s what I want to do!” Ever since then I’ve been trying to do that, and it’s a crazy thing to go full-circle.

Q: How’s that?
Birchwood: Well, after doing multiple shows and festivals with Buddy Guy, now on this record I have Buddy Guy’s producer producing my record. It’s really surreal to have things come full-circle that way.

Q: That’s got to be a real validation of what you’re doing, having someone of his stature working with your music.
Birchwood: Yeah, absolutely, it’s very exciting, and I’m really proud of what we did on this record. It really sounds like us.


Q: I know this is kind of a silly question, but are you scheduling any shows in 2021?
Birchwood: There’s a lot of unknowns still going on now, only unknowns pretty much. So in the meantime at least, I’m just looking to promote the new album and do the best I can digitally, because I can’t get in front of people and perform live right now.

Q: When you’re livestreaming have you been playing some of the new material?
Birchwood: Well, I write all my songs with my voice and guitar first, so I’m able to perform solo acoustic. But that’s only a fraction of it, because I also write for the other instruments in the band. I was one of the ones who was adamant about never livestreaming before all this went on, because it’s just not the same. It’s pretty much the antithesis of everything I enjoy about music — everyone showing up at the same place and sharing an experience together … You don’t get that livestreaming and performing to a computer camera.

Q: That’s true.
Birchwood: But I’m really grateful and happy to have that rather than to have nothing right now.

Q: One last question: When did this album come out?
Birchwood: This album is actually on pre-order right now. It’ll be released on Jan. 29.

Q: Oh, wow — and this story will run on the 27th!
Birchwood: Perfect!

Q: Is there anything, Selwyn, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Birchwood: Tell them, “Everybody go pick up the record on Jan. 29 — it’s out on CD and on vinyl!” (Laugher)

Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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