Mike Zito Interview by Jim Stick

Posted on 5/01/2010 by Jim Stick

Mike Zito is a rarity in today's blues market. He is equal parts a singer, songwriter and guitar player and he is damn good at all three aspects. He showed up on the national stage with the critically acclaimed CD "Today" in 2008 on Electo Groove Records. He followed that up in 2009 by releasing "Pearl River" which has garnered two nominations in the 2010 Blues Awards in Memphis next weekend.

Jim: I want to get to your music, but first let's talk about the really important things in life. About two weeks ago you and your wife just had a baby girl. Tell me all about her:

Mike: Yeah we sure did. Her name's Josie Zito. She was born March 30th, 7lbs, 19 inches, healthy, happy, Momma's doing good, baby is doing good, that is number 5, we're very happy and that's it. She's a keeper and she is the last one.

Jim: It sounds like with your new baby girl and five children you are truly blessed Mike. Now let's get to your music. In 2008 you came out with a CD called "Today" that blew me away. It is in my top 10 favorite CD's in the last 10 years. You seemed to just appear out of nowhere. Reading up on you, I saw where you grew up in St. Louis and played around that area and put out a couple of CD's ,but what got you from your beginnings in the St. Louis area to bursting onto the national scene with such a marvelous CD as "Today"?.

Mike: I appreciate that first of all. I grew up in St. Louis and went to work in a guitar shop right out of high school. I started playing around town in bands and before you know it I was starting my own bands, playing rock and roll and blues and I even played in a country band--I just wanted to play and learn, but all along I was trying to write songs and try things out. Then I was probably 25 or 26, I decided I wanted to play blues\rock guitar and do originals. I did my first CD in 1996 or 97. That was it--I was hooked. People were coming out to see us and asking to hear my songs instead of the cover songs.

Then I did another CD in St. Louis and all the time I was drinking, partying, getting caught up more in the party than the music and next thing you know I was doing heavy drugs and not getting into playing so much and not showing up for the gigs and it all fell apart. Then I ended up in Texas and I got cleaned up and got back into music. Then I did two more CD's in Texas one called "Slow it Down" and the other was called "Superman" . By the time I did Superman, I sent it out. I was doing them to write songs and get a record deal. So I sent them off and that is the one that sparked interest. I got signed to Electo Groove Records. When "Today" came out in 2008--I'd already done my first record 12 years ago and I had done 4 albums of original music that I did on my own. Now I had progressed I keep trying to keep better. So when we did "Today" it was like man we got a lot really great songs here. There was a song on their called "Hollywood" that I had done on my very first record. We picked all the songs we thought were really, really good and had a possibility of maybe getting played on the radio, along with a couple of new ones I wrote . Most people had never heard of me when that came out it was like--hey who is this guy?

Jim: Yeah--that was me.

Mike Zito at the Blues From the Top Festival in Winter Park, CO in 2009.

Jim: The songwriting on "Today" is so strong. I knew you worked with new producers on that, Randy Chortkoff and David Z, but I was wondering if that wasn't the case, that a lot of those songs weren't earlier songs you've had for a while.

Mike: Whenever a new band comes a long---the first record--you figure they have been playing those songs for a long time--and they have been writing songs and those are their best songs.

Jim: You seem to relate life experiences really well into songs. Who were your influences in the songwriting department?

Mike: I really like John Hiatt. Lyle Lovett is my all time favorite musical person. He's got the songs, the voice , the style. I'm a big Bob Dylan fan. I like Anders Osborne--I was a big fan of Anders before we got to work together. I also like the older blues--I think Willie Dixon is an excellent songwriter, absolutely .

Mike on stage with son Zach.

Lyrics from "Love Like This":

"..and when I saw your picture on the screen\
and when I felt you kicking deep inside\
I was lost for all my words\
I was truly mesmerized\
and when I got to hold you in my arms\
you know I'd finally understand\
just how true love truly feels\
and what it's like to be a man..."

© Mike Zito - Delta Groove Publishing, ASCAP

Jim: I'm guessing that the song "Love Like This"--which is obviously about your son Zach--has to be a favorite on "Today" for you.

Mike: Absolutely, yeah, yeah--I love that song. When I wrote that song, when I got done, I played it back and listened it was like this is a rip off--I must have stole this from somebody. That's pretty good, that's got to be somebody else's song. So I went back and found all of my John Hiatt records and played them, trying to find where I must have blatantly ripped off some song you know and I couldn't find any. And then when I wrote the song "Today"--I thought the same thing--I really got concerned--I really love this song I wrote, but I think I must have copied this but I didn't. Obviously they sound similar to something and I found out that is why they ended up being the popular songs because they sounded familiar. Most people don't like to hear anything new. They want to hear the same shit over and over.

Interviewer's note: The first time I played the CD "Today" at work and the first song "Love Like This" came on--one of my co-workers said to me: "Who is this--I've heard this song before". And knowing my co-workers pop only music background--I knew there was no chance he had ever heard it. It was eerie to listen to Mike while I was interviewing him about that song--describe exactly what happened with me at work.

Jim: You have a very bluesy, soulful voice. Where did that come from? Did you take voice lessons?

Mike: I did take some voice lessons in high school. Just a few. When I started singing--I could play you my first record, and it is barely singing--it's like yelling or talking. But I was determined to do it. For 20 years I've been playing and in bars 5 nights a week, singing 4 hours a night. 18 years later I'm starting to get some control over it. The soulful part--that's just the way it sounds--I'm not making it sound that way--it's just like me talking to you now--it sounds like shit (chuckling), it's rough and it's gravelly--that's just the way it sounds.

Lyrics from the song "Today":

"I take my time about growing older\
I try to live like I'm getting younger\
all my friends say that life is colder\
well I just smile and offer my shoulder\
my life is simple. for that I'm grateful\
with all my blessings. I can't be hateful\
this world is heaven with you beside me\
my eyes are open to what may find me\
well I know that life is going to bring some pain\
but with some help from above\
well I know it's going to be OK\
just for today..."

© Mike Zito - Delta Groove Publishing, ASCAP

Jim: Let's move on to your last CD "Pearl River". It has been nominated for two awards at the Blues Awards in Memphis in the first part of May. One for "Best Blues Rock Album" and one for best song for the title track "Pearl River". Tell me what is the song "Pearl River" about?

Mike: It's an interesting question. Cyril Neville wrote the lyrics to it. He gave me the lyrics and said--see what you can do with this. It's the first time I really did any writing with anybody. When I read the words I thought: man this shit is deep, it's pretty heavy. It's kind of dark--so of course I asked him to tell me what we are talking about here. He said Pearl River is a river on the edge of Louisiana and Mississippi and lets down into Lake Ponchartrain -- so when you leave New Orleans going up over to Mississippi you'll cross Pearl River several times. And it's a real dark river, the water is real dark. Cyril said his family when he was a kid, they would go fishing there and his family and parents would tell him that river is so black, because they killed so many slaves and they'd throw them in that river and they would wash down into the lake. They'd just throw them down in there so people couldn't find the bodies. So he thought that is wild and he always remembered that. So that's what he had in mind when he wrote the words and that's pretty heavy.

So I did the music, and this is really out there, after we recorded the song and he was really excited about it he got a call from these the Chahta Indians and their reservation is out there at a town called Pearl River. He didn't know there was a town called Pearl River, so he went out there and visited these Indians and this is crazy-- they look exactly like Cyril Neville and the Nevilles, like he is one of these Indians--like they are related. Cyril said--you've got to hear this song I recorded--called Pearl River. So he played it for them and they all started crying. They told him that he didn't write that song about the slaves and that apparently thousands of these Indians were killed by the government back in 1800's and they took them all and threw them in that river. They told him that he wrote that song about them, and he didn't even know it. So now Cyril is the Ambassador to the Chahta Nation in Pearl River--it's crazy and I'm not doing this story justice. You can go online and look this up and there a bunch of articles on this. Isn't that wild?

Interviewer's note: You can google: "Cyril Neville Chahta Indian Ambassador": and find the pictures of Cyril Neville with these Chahta Indians and see the resemblance for yourself.

Jim: Whereas "Today" might be categorized more as a blues tinged Roots or Americana album with the emphasis on the song--on your last CD "Pearl River"--while it is still based on solid songs--you let out more of your bluesy guitar side on "Pearl River". Was this intentional?

Mike: Absolutely. When I did the first record, the label and the producer, their idea was to be on the radio. They were really hoping for a hit song. Hey it was my first record and I was hey whatever you guys say. On this second record I said I want to play more guitar. The second time around they told me you do what you want to do. I wanted to do it in New Orleans and get some of my friends from there and people I want to work with. We went in and did it live in two days. I wanted a record that sounded like what you are going to see when you come see us play live.

Jim: What guitar player have you learned the most from?

Mike: You mean now?

Jim: Growing up and throughout your career.

Mike: Growing up it was Eddie Van Halen. When I was 8 years old I got their record and that was it--I wanted to be a guitar player. As I was playing guitar and working in the music store I got into all of the guitar players. As far as blues goes: T-Bone Walker, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, and Earl Hooker. Stevie Ray Vaughan was fantastic, Jimi Hendrix: absolutely, and all the country guitar players. I worked in a guitar shop and so that was all I did and it was all I wanted to do was hear guitar players and learn how to play. It took me a whole year to learn how to play country style finger pickin' when I was young. I mean I cannot tell you one person. If you can think of one I haven't heard--I want to know who it is so I can listen. Right now as we speak I'm listening to Ronnie Earl. I think Ronnie Earl is awesome. Old Buddy Guy. Two weeks ago I was listening to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys learning some of those chords they used in those country swing songs.
I try and play with the song and the music and the band. Be the guitar player and be real good, but try and make it not just about the guitar. Try to make it a little bit of everything: the song, the singing and the guitar. Along those lines I like Tab Benoit and Susan Tedeschi, people that play and sing that have the whole package.

Jim: So what does the rest of 2010 hold for Mike Zito?

Mike: (laughing) Changing diapers and mowing lawns. We got this big European tour--that's going to be great. We got the awards--I'm excited to see what is going to happen. We've got a full summer of festivals and touring--all through the end of the year we are really booked up coast to coast. What I have got in mind is a live album because the band I've got live now is really good. We've got all this material worked up and I think we have really developed into a really good sound live. I want to record that this summer so it can come out this fall. I think a new record will come out next spring. I've got a bunch of new songs and material and we are already playing them live. Hopefully we will get in the studio this fall and then it will come out next spring.

Jim Stick is a blues writer\photographer living in Longmont, CO.
He has his own blues information website for the state of Colorado:
©Jim Stick, 2010

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