September 2010. by Greg Phillips
AM’s Greg Phillips chats to Luka Bloom about his new album Dreams in America
Despite Luka Bloom’s new album Dreams In America containing personally selected tracks from various stages of his two decade long career, it’s important to note that this is not a ‘best of’ album. The songs are not merely reproductions, but rather reinterpretations. Tunes given a second life in a new way. Nor is it a direct tribute to the USA, the place which turned Bloom into an international recording and touring artist. I qualify this point right from the beginning because I think Luka would want me to do so. In the course of our half hour interview, he made me feel like I had a responsibility to get the story right. He seems the type of guy who doesn’t suffer fools easily and speaks with a sense of purpose. But equally, Bloom is quite open to others expressing their own opinions and interpreting his music in whichever way they want. He just might not agree with you.
In one sense it can be said that Luka Bloom, who has made a living out of travelling the world playing music for the last twenty years, has come a long way. Yet as the crow flies, it’s only five miles. He was born in Newbridge County, Kildare, Ireland and has now built a home only a few miles from his birthplace. It’s a place where he finds great contentment and is currently rebuilding his songwriting room because “The room isn’t working properly,” he tells me with a glint in his voice. “And I am annoyed with it and it needs to be done now at this precise moment because I have got some serious writing to get stuck into.”
I guess that’s what happens after you’ve spent a whole album cycle re-jigging older material. You’re champing at the bit to write and record the new stuff again. But for now Luka is doing the promo trail for Dreams In America. So if it isn’t an ode to America, and not a best of, then what exactly is it?
“The reason for the title of the record is not really to celebrate America,” explains Bloom. “It’s to celebrate a particular moment in my life, that happened to be in America, where things kind of took off for me and where dreams did come true and I never really wanted to make a record celebrating my life in America. There are quite a few songs on this album which were recorded and written here in Ireland. But there are a few well known songs of mine like ‘It Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time’ and ‘Exploring The Blue’, ‘City of Chicagoﾕ that didn’t go on the record because I never wanted it to be anything like a ﾔbest of’. Some of the those are already pretty well covered. I wanted this to be about taking songs I had previously recorded and freshening them up. Maybe there were songs that were hidden away on records, that people wouldn’t be too familiar with, that I felt justified that they should be given a second opportunity to shine.”
For an artist considered to be a genuine troubadour and whose songs have touched people’s hearts in all corners of the world, I wondered if a place rather than state of mind could really provide inspiration.
“Completely and totally,” is his immediate answer. “There were changes that took place to my songwriting as a direct result of going to America. I would never have thought in my wildest dreams that I would incorporate a form of rap into my arsenal of songwriting until I found myself in New York with rap everywhere. When I decided to have a crack at LL Cool J’s ‘I Need Love’, it just brought a whole new dimension of songwriting which has stayed with me on and off. Then when I am at home I tend to be influenced somewhat lyrically and musically by the traditional music I hear in Ireland. So I like to think that everywhere I go, something happens to me that finds its way into my music.”
Dreams in America begins with a deep, rich guitar strum produced by a beautiful acoustic/electric Taylor guitar amplified gloriously with the help of UK company Ashdown’s wonderful sub bass technology. The idea of amping his acoustic guitar through a bass amp came about when he was playing clubs earlier in his career. At the time, he couldn’t get the depth and warmth of sound that he was hearing in his head in. Bloom expands.
“Well I suppose one of the things that has set me apart as a solo artist over the years, has been the way I work with sound. That has always been part of the beauty of this job that I have … trying to evoke a feeling or an image just through sound with the guitar. It’s really not that complicated. It’s the relationship that I have developed with both my live sound engineer and my studio engineer, who somehow understand the way I speak about sound and over the years they have come to hear what I hear in my head, and help me arrive at it. I use things like bass amps and sub bass pedals just to get that deep bottom end sound from the guitar. I use certain microphones to help me get a nice, bright ambient live sound from the room. Even though this was an album with basically two guitars, a nylon for some and steel for others. What kind of makes it more complex is the positioning of microphones and the age of those microphones. I guess I like the contrast of the warm deep tones of the bottom end of the guitar and then this almost mandolin-like simmering brightness at the top end of the instrument. I love to play with that. I love the physical act of playing the guitar in this way because it’s almost like playing two instruments.”
For Bloom, who is looking forward to touring Australia in March next year, there isn’t too much he hasn’t achieved in his musical career but the passion to create still remains. “I think there is always a desire within a songwriter to write the perfect song, and it probably doesn’t exist. I think any ambitions I have are all in the area of writing.” His catalogue of songs is now so vast that the alphabetical listing of tracks on his website covers all letters bar three, Q, X and Z. I pointed this out to him and he laughed. “I think you have just set me a challenge! I feel a zoological song coming on!” On that note I left Bloom to return to the task at hand of building a songwriting room which might work properly for him. I’m sure the old one was just fine.