You’d think a solo show would make life easier for a musician who spends most of his time travelling to gigs or recording in his basement.
Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way for Steve Hill. When the Montreal guitar hero released his first solo recording last year, the focus was on his whiskey-soaked voice and powerful playing, with accompaniment stripped back to bass drum and percussion.
But now there’s a new EP that suggests Hill had a hard time sticking to the less-is-more strategy. On Solo Recordings, Vol. 1 1/2, the 39-year-old bluesman has added new layers to his solo sound: bass and harmonica.
“I’m a one man band,” Hill says, “which I never would have thought when I started doing solo gigs a couple of years ago. I was just playing guitar, singing and foot stomping.
“Then I got a bass drum, and a high hat and a snare, and then something, I wouldn’t say I invented it, but I’ve never seen somebody add a pickup to the guitar so it grabs the sound of the two big strings. Then it goes through an octaver to give the sound of a bass and then it goes through a bass amp. So I’ve got a bass sound, too. And I picked up the harp a year ago.”
His urge to pile it on stems from a desire to entertain. “It’s a blues show but it’s also a bit of a circus act,” admits the long-haired axeman.
“I just wanted it to sound like a band: Bigger and bigger. Especially because I’m playing theatres but I also play bars, and in bars, you need something that rocks a bit more. That’s the reason the setup keeps getting bigger — I have as much gear as a band and I carry two technicians.”
So much for the simplicity of the solo gig. On the plus side, Hill has found himself digging deeper into the blues for inspiration. Standards by Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson are part of his solo repertoire, songs that Hill discovered when he was a teenager in the 1980s.
“I didn’t like the music scene in the late ‘80s, with the hair bands and New Kids on the Block,” he says. “So we got into the old records that a friend of mine had. It was his older brother’s record collection. We would spend our days in the basement listening to those records.
“I really dug the bluesy stuff, and I kept reading interviews with Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter, and they would talk about the same guys: Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson. So I got those records and I was blown away. I still am.”
An avid fan of many genres of music who was a hotshot guitarist as a teenager, Hill has been a professional musician since he was 16. After demonstrating his bluesiness on his first two albums, Hill spent almost a decade playing rock, cranking out a string of harder-edged releases with a band that included two of his oldest friends.
“We just sounded better when we played louder,” Hill explains. “It didn’t sound as good when we were playing blues but we had a great time together.”
The solo albums mark Hill’s return to his blues roots. In addition to playing all the instruments, he built a studio in his basement and did the production himself. He’s produced albums for other artists in the past but it takes time to get the sound he wants for his own music. That’s part of the reason that Vol. 2 of his solo recordings project has been delayed until spring.
“You can’t be a big fan of sleep,” Hill says of his one-man operation. “It’s a lot of long, long hours. But the feeling you get at the end of the day when you get it right, you just can’t replace it.”
As much as he loves recording, however, being in the studio will never trump the live show.
“At one point I thought I’d be a producer but I love playing too much and I love touring too much,” Hill says. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I’m not tired of it. I love being on the road and I love doing the concerts.”