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NO COMPROMISE: Richie Kotzen On His Life In Music & The Making of ‘Salting Earth’

Richie Kotzen has never been an artist known for playing by the rules. Through the years he has carved out one of the most unique careers in rock ‘n’ roll and built a dedicated fan base. Most importantly, he has done it all without compromise. On April 14th, he will officially release his 21st solo record, ‘Salting Earth.’ The album comes hot on the heels of the mega-success of the 2015–16 tour behind his band The Winery Dogs’ sophomore effort, ‘Hot Streak.’ For Kotzen, who’s a one-man production machine, the new album serves not only as a creative reset but an exciting new musical chapter in his story as an artist. The proof is on display deep within the grooves of ‘Salting Earth,’ which veers from the balls-out, heads-up declaration of the opening track and first single, “End of Earth,” to the burning-sky harmonic thrust of “Thunder” to the Prince-like funk-jazz swing of “This Is Life” to the raw acoustic power of the album’s final song, “Grammy.” Bringing this powerful new record to the people is Kotzen’s next mission. His “Salting Earth Tour” is slated to kick off on April 21 at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, CA and will take him on a whirlwind tour around the United States, into Mexico, South America, and Europe. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Richie Kotzen to discuss his life in music, finding his creative voice as both a guitarist and songwriter, bringing ‘Salting Earth’ to life and what fans can expect when he takes the show on the road this Spring!

What went into finding your creative voice as both a player and songwriter early on in life?

It was a pretty drawn out process. I started really young, so naturally I was influenced by my surroundings. As a really little kid, it was my radio and my parents’ record collection. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, there was a lot of soul music that I was exposed to. That was everything from Hall & Oates to The Spinners to Stevie Wonder and those sorts of things. The first concert I remember going to was Stevie Wonder in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and shortly after that I saw George Benson. At the same time, I also had a rock influence. My parents listened to classic rock like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and those kinds of artists. Those were the concerts they would go to when they were young. There was kind of a hybrid influence of rock and R&B. Later on, I got into the guitar and started gravitating toward more guitar driven music like Van Halen and specific hard rock/metal bands like Iron Maiden. Somehow, that led into more jazzy stuff with guys like Allan Holdsworth and Al Di Meola. By the time I got to my late teens, I realized that I really wanted to write my own music and sing my own songs. I started listening to singers like early Rod Stewart, Paul Rodgers and tried to emulate them. I would say that by the time I hit 20 or 21 years old, I knew what it was that I wanted to do and I fell into my own kind of sound and style. I had found my confidence as an artist. It all kind of happened around the time after I had made my 3rd record. I had moved on from instrumental work and was really focused on singing and writing. That is when I really feel into my groove, so to speak.

You have come along way through the years. Looking back at your leaner years, what had the biggest impact on you as an artist and ultimately helped shape the artist we see today?

Like I said, your surroundings are really what influences you, along with being able to play with musicians that inspire you. I was very lucky as a young guy to play with people locally who were much older than me and much more experienced. You learn a lot from that. You also learn a lot from just living your life. I moved to California when I was 20 years old, right around the time I was turning 21. I don’t know if it was 1990 or 1991 but it was around there. At that point, I was alone and taking it all in. I went from living in a very rural community, farmland in Pennsylvania, to suddenly being in Los Angeles, so that was very interesting! [laughs] Something I discovered much later in life, as it relates to writing music, is that when you’re writing music, making records and putting the stuff out there, it’s output, no pun intended. You have to some kind of input. The input for me is not sitting in a room practicing and doing the same thing over and over again but getting away from music, living life, experiencing things through travel or whatever else. It’s different for everybody. When you come back to music, it should be inspiring and fresh to find yourself with some new ideas. At least for me that’s how it works!

The music industry has changed exponentially through the years, but through it all you have managed to persevere as a working artist. What is the key to longevity or success these days?

I don’t think there’s any key. I think it’s different for everyone. Some people have the luxury of having a great team of industry folks behind them such as powerful record labels, powerful managers, great business deals and partnerships which helps their longevity. With other people I think it really comes down to quality of work. I think it’s important, even if you have a great team behind you, that if the work isn’t living up to the standard you have established for yourself in the past then you’re going to have a problem. For me, I have never been a huge artist. I’ve never had a commercial hit record with the exception of the record I did with Poison, which was a platinum album. Beyond that, I’ve never had a platinum album as a solo artist but what I do have is a career that is continually growing. Thankfully, every time I release a record, when I tour I am playing to larger audiences than I have before. I’m also staying on the road longer and I’m seeing more revenue in record sales and streaming. It’s been building. The key to that is kind of mixed in with the quality of work. For some reason, because I take these long breaks for music, when I come back I have a new perspective which allows me to grow artistically. I definitely feel like I am growing as a musician and becoming more connected. It also comes down to being persistent and continuing to perform and play. Playing live is the key. You have to get out there and play live!

Your new album is titled “Salting Earth.” What can you tell us about your mindset going into this project?

You have to understand something. What I’m about to say is consistent with almost every record I have made in the last 10 years. Most guys, when they make a record, sit down and write their songs and once the songs are written, they book a studio. From there, they go into the studio and within a month or however long it takes they make a record and it’s over. Then they move on and do a tour. Because I am one person, I have the luxury of not having to work that way. I have much more of a free and loose approach to how I write and record music. One thing that happens with me is that in recent times I’ve never been in a situation where I had to put anything that would be filler or compromise a record. If there’s a song on the record, it’s there for a reason. As time goes on in the course of the year, I write here and there. I might write two songs one month and three months might go by and I might not write anything at all. Suddenly, one month, I might have four or five ideas for songs. As this process is happening, I document the ideas. Sometimes I document them by starting to record them, sometimes I record and finish them within the moment but usually by the end of the year, and I’m using a year as a random time period, I can look and see what I’ve done. I can say, “Okay. I have 10 songs that I like. ^^^I have for that I’m not sure of that I have six ideas that I really want to develop.” I look at that and see if I have a record. If I feel like I have a record, I can choose what I think fits and makes the most sense together on the same record and then I release it. It’s a luxury that I have, and can do, because I’m one person. The great side of that is that I’m never in the situation where I’m forced to write, which is really not fun. When I say forced writing, I mean having a deadline or meeting one more song when you don’t really have the song and suddenly you are compromising and saying, “Okay, that’s fine.” That happens a lot with bands more than anything. I’m really happy to have the luxury of doing things the way I do them!

How often do you revisit this material or the ideas you have created in years past? Does anything come from the past and make it on a record?

Absolutely and I can give you a couple examples on “Salting Earth.” If you look at the record, “End of Earth,” “Meds,” “Divine Power,” “This Is Life” and “Grammy,” all of that material was written around the same time and within the same year or two. However, there are a couple songs that were not. One of them is “Make It Easy.” That song was recorded, not completely recorded but the basic track and a guitar solo, was recorded back in 2003. That song was originally meant to be on my album, “Get Up.” It was one of those songs that I love the energy of what I did on the recording, but I had no idea what I wanted to sing about. I had no lyrics and I kind of had an idea for melody. When I was making the new record and I had “End of Earth,” “Grammy,” “This Is Life,” “Meds” and “Divine Power,” I knew I had the core of the new record. I thought, “Maybe I have some things that I never finished.” I went back on the hard drive and I looked. I found “Make It Easy.” At that time, I said, “All I have to do is write some words and sing it.” It just came to me in that moment. I thought, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll sing this!” I cut a vocal and added the keyboards, organ and I believe there is a clavinet on there. I added that to the mix and there I had a new song and it’s a song when I started writing over 10 years ago, only to be finished now! So, yes, it does happen all the time!

You hear people say all the time that they have encountered certain challenges or learned lessons throughout the recording of the album. What was your take away with bringing “Salting Earth” to life?

I don’t know. I’m not a challenges or lessons learned kind of guy. I’m honestly not. I can’t sit and say, “Oh, I learned a lesson there…” on anything that I’ve done, other than the fact of saying, “Oh, I don’t want to do that again!” I mean that in the sense of “Oh, I didn’t like playing in that particular situation.” That’s not really learning a lesson but more of having a revelation that something isn’t for me. I keep going back to my process and there are never really challenges because I’m so relaxed and in touch with what I’m doing. I keep going back to saying, “I’m just one guy.” If there was a challenge, and I would be having a conflict with myself and I might be schizophrenic on some level! [laughs] Also have to say that I don’t even believe in writer’s block. I think that if you’re in a situation where you don’t have an idea, it simply means that you don’t have an idea. It goes back to what I was saying about going back and getting some inputs. Put it down, get away from it and do something else. Then when you come back you will probably have a situation where you have even more ideas and that sort of thing. It’s interesting, it’s just something that happens. I guess I have done this for so long that I just have a flow. When I’m in the music flow then I’m making music and it’s all just roses for me and when it’s not, I’m doing something else like going to Home Depot and building a deck out by the pool or something, I don’t know! [laughs] That’s just the way it is!

You have an impressive body of work behind you and a plethora of great songs. You recently put out “The Essential Richie Kotzen” as well. What do you consider the one song or album that you would want to check out?

I liked that question. It’s a challenging question in a sense! Actually, there’s the challenge! Answering this question! [laughs] It’s a challenge because there’s so much music out there that I have put out over the years and it’s very diverse. You have records that I did when I was 18 years old with songs that I wrote when I was 16 years old and then I am doing what I’m doing now. There is one song that was “go back to” and it’s a song called “Fooled Again.” I think it’s pretty cool in the sense that it is a rock song, it’s a more up-tempo song but for solo artists it always seems that writing those songs, you get less. You always get, coming in, the mid-tempo tunes and the slower paced things but the up-tempo things like that are few and far between. I don’t know why that is, but it just seems that way for a lot of guys who are left to their own devices. Being that that song is more of a rock song and it still encompasses the kind of singing, phrasing, influences and style that I’m known for. For someone who’s never heard me before, I think that song really shows me in a good light. On the new record there’s another song I really love called “This Is Life.” I think that one really shows me in a good light in the sense that you have the guitar elements that I have obviously been known for for many years, along with some of the other things people may have overlooked like the piano and the approach to the harmonies. The baseline on that song is also something I’m very proud of. Those are two songs that I think really showcase or highlight what I do and what I’m capable of.

Where do you find yourself looking for inspiration these days? Other places you find yourself pulling from as you move forward creatively?

My record has been done since September. So, from September until now, I’ve not been active musically and that’s been on purpose. I recently moved into a new home. I was in the old house for 20 years. I moved out of the city to the country. I’m out here on 3 ½ acres in the mountains and I’m doing some work to the new house. I love that! I like to get my hands on stuff and be active physically, so my focus has been on that. Now, we decided to rehearse early for the tour, which starts April 21st. We’ve got everything in line now. We’ve rehearsed and we have everything ready, so now I have time to mentally prepare for the fact that I’m going to go on the road. That allows me to touch up on anything I might need to touch up on musically but right now I’m not actively writing new music because I just finish the record. The Focus now has shifted to what I’m going to put it in my suitcase, what I’m going to wear when I go on stage and what guitars I want to take or leave behind.

You were known for your live show. What can you tell us about the material you are bringing along for the upcoming tour?

It’s exciting! In the past, I would have the band learn a bunch of songs and in the old days I wouldn’t even make a set list. I would just call out the tunes. I’d say, “Tonight we are going to open with “Fooled Again” and I will just tell you what is next. Follow me!” Now that we have been together for over six years, we kind of played on instinct. We are connected musically, so to speak. This time, I put together a legitimate set list and show where I have four songs where I’m on the piano, an acoustic part of the show and a part where my bass player is playing upright which is really interesting. I think we put together something a step or two beyond what we have done the past. I’m really excited to take it out on the road and have that connection with the audience again.

Awesome! Obviously, I can’t talk to you and not ask about the success of The Winery Dogs. What are you feel the future holds for that project? Any plans for a future record?

No. No plans for that but never say never. I have to be really candid; when The Winery Dogs came together, I was never one who was looking to form a band or be in a band. I thought it was going to be a very cool project because Mike [Portnoy] and Billy [Sheehan] are fantastic players. Of course, Billy and I had a history from years before when I played with Mr. Big. When I did this, I thought, “Hey, let’s go out there, let’s make a record and do something really cool.” I figured we would play a few shows in major markets but then we would go back to doing what we had always done. Pleasantly and happily, I was surprised that the band really took off! When people saw those first teaser videos that we put out they really reacted to them, so it keeps us on the road for over a year. It was a very long time with a lot of touring. We decided to dive back in and do a second record. Now, it’s time for me to go back home so to speak and go back to being Richie Kotzen. I know Billy and Mike are very active and they always have a new band or new project to keep them busy. I know Billy is back with Mr. Big and making a record and I hear rumors that there maybe something else brewing with Billy and Mike that I think people may really love! We are all busy and we are all friends. Like I said, never say never, but right now I’m focused on doing what it is that I’ve always done and those guys are doing their own thing. Only time will tell!

Fair enough! Looking to the future, is there any clear musical direction you see yourself headed in or anything you are still anxious to tackle with your solo work?

You know, it’s hard to say because I like to let life lead me to where ever it is it wants me to go but I will say I have really been enjoying playing the electric piano live. I’ve got a really great electric keyboard made by a company called Vintage Vibe that is kind of a hybrid between a Wurlitzer and a Fender Rhodes. I’m really having a great time with it. In fact, I’ve written some songs on it and some of those new songs are on the new record. That’s definitely direction I could see myself moving in even more because when I sit down at that thing I just get so inspired because it such a great sound!

Very cool! That’s our time, Richie. Thanks for connecting with me today and I can’t wait to see what you are bringing on the upcoming tour!

Awesome! I will see you on the road and thanks for your time, Jason!

For the latest news and tour dates for Richie Kotzen, visit his official website at www.richiekotzen.com. Connect with him on social media on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.