INTERVIEW: Harry Manx - Mysticippi blues man comes to town
If you’ve ever wanted to hear soulful music based in the blues with Indian influences all throughout it, Harry Manx is your man. The long time musician and only more recently in the last decade or more a solo artist has been inspiring audiences with his deep storytelling lyrical content and worldly grooves. In a few weeks, on December 11th, he’ll be coming back to Rossland to grace the Miners’ Hall with his unique sounds.
This week the Telegraph caught up with the travelling troubadour over the phone from his home on Saltspring island.
Let’s go right back to the beginning. Where did it all get started for you? Tell us a little about your introduction to music and how you ended up choosing that as your career.
In my house we never played any instruments; we played hockey. I grew up in Southern Ontario after coming from England. There was no music around my house, and I was burning to play an instrument. When I finally left my home at fifteen I had moved in with a rock band and picked up a guitar so I got in head first really early. I actually became a roadie after that and worked for some good bands in Canada, toured Rossland a lot of years ago with bands like Rush, Crowbar another big band from the 70s. I worked at a blues club In Toronto. I was the sound man. They had some great acts come through there, Muddy Waters and all of these great Chicago guys. I mixed the sound for them. That was where I fell in love with the feeling of the blues and the groove.
You’ve been described as a critical link between the music of the east and the music of the west. How did your Indian experience come about and work its way into your sound?
I first went to India in 1979 , I was sort of interested in the place and meditation and things like that. I fell in love with India. I played the sitar a little bit at the time ad I thought, ‘I’m going to go back and spend some time there’ so I went back in 86 and stayed until 98. I learned to play the sitar and then eventually the mohan veena.
Tell us a little more about the mohan veena and how you work that into the blues sound?
It’s a 20 stringed instrument and the thing really is kind of a mixture of a guitar and a sitar. In some ways if you understand Indian music and western music, it’s possible to play both on that instrument. That’s sort of what I do. I play some Indian things and then I move into the blues and it grooved well with that instrument. I played for five years with the guy that created it (Vishwa Mohan). He got me in to playing it and learning what it can do.
It sounds like much of your writing inspiration comes out of the instruments and the culture itself? What starts you off? What motivates you to write music?
I was a very late bloomer. I put out my first album at 46. I played on a lot of records before that but now I’m on my own. I wasn’t much of a songwriter until that first album came around. After that I was more inspired to write more. When I write I try to bring some of my experiences, my life experiences not as much my musical experiences into play. So I share a little bit of who I am and where I’ve been. People can hear that and they seem to like that, they like to know the artist. If there is anything I’m trying to do with my music it’s inspire people. It’s not just technique. If have any technique I use that to inspire my listeners.
In much the same way that your music is a hybrid of east and west, your songwriting seems to also be hybrid, bringing story telling lyrical content with a background in the blues where it’s more about the groove.
People can relate to that. If you put Indian music into that context you’ll start to hear that some Indian music does sound very bluesy. I love that. A lot of Indian classical music now is about speed. I’m not really into speed. That’s part of it I haven’ t approached too much. What I like is the depth of the tone and the way they bend the notes and the fantastic voicings.
You talk about your live show as a two way street and that what you really love is the energy interchange between performer and musician. How do you take that energy, that inspired feeling into your recordings? How does that effort translate?
That’s really the biggest challenge: trying to get that inspired energy into the song and to get people to hear that. It’s a challenge. I listen to my records and certain times I’m worried that I don’t feel the energy there that you get in live shows. It’s also a tighter song on the record. In the live version you’ll speed up the tempo or slow it down or improvise and solo. They are really two different arts, recording and playing live. I try and do my best at both but I know the records will always sound a little different than what I do on stage.
Have there been any particularly exceptional shows through your career that stand out as really having that energy building back and forth from performer to performer and audience to performer?
I was playing in New York City once and I had Bruce Springsteen sitting in the front row. I remember that night very well. He came back stage and shook my hand and told me he learned something new watching me play. There have been a few shows like that but I have to say that I enjoy all of my shows.
In recording you don’t have the audience to play off of but you’ve got the musicians your collaborating with to bounce energy off, have there been any particular musicians you’ve jammed with that have really added to what you do or rubbed off on you in any way?
I just finished a recording last week in Toronto with a guy I often collaborate with: Kevin Bright. We just made our third recording together and he’s a musician who has played with Norah Jones, Sandra Wilson and a number of well know acts. He’s a great musician and a great inspiration in his guitar playing. It’s the type of people that I feel I have to work hard to keep up to that I enjoy playing with.
Now that you’ve firmly established yourself on the music scene, what does it take to keep challenging yourself to get better, or is that even a conscious effort?
I played constantly . You really have to dedicate yourself to an instrument to truly get good at it. I listen to my recording now and I feel they are much stronger now than my earlier work . You have to keep going and stay inspired. I’m constantly inspired , when I finish one record I start working on the next record.
We can hear the Indian influence in the music, can we hear now a Saltspring Island influence in your music as well?
It’s been ten years since I left India so I’ve got into a lot more western music . I listen to a lot of jazz and rock. I listen to a wider range of music now. India will always be in my music in some form but it’s perhaps now more of a background sound. As time goes on my influences change to my surrounding environment. I spent twelve years in India so that was a major influence. I guess you could say now that I’ve been living on Saltspring some of that life experience is getting worked in too.
Tell us a little about your most recent studio album Bread and Buddha and how that came together?
I spent a few years on that, and I had quite a few musicians work with me on it. That album I really felt like I took a lot more time with it. I made my first album on Saltspring island in Randy Bachman’s studio in eleven hours. This one took me like two years, so I changed my style a lot. It’s got more production on it than my previous efforts where I’d pick up a guitar and hammer it out. It’s got more of a full band sound on it. It was a really cool effort. I’m still playing mostly as a one man band or one or two people but I really like the sound of this full band album.
Your most recent release, Isle of Manx, seems to be a greatest hits album of sorts. It must have been a different experience choosing songs for an album than writing a new album. Is there a certain lyric or certain groove that you hear during the writing process and say “That’ll be a good song?”
Oh yeah, every song has that feeling at some point and if it doesn’t I don’t continue with the song. I come to the studio full of fire. You never know though. Sometimes I’ll be into one song that I think everybody is going to love and I record it say and oh by the way here’s a few others I recorded and sometime people go after the “few more” and not always the song I thought everyone would love.
You’ll be in Rossland on December 11th for a show at the Miners’ Hall. What can people expect to hear?
Well I’ll be accompanied by guitar player Brent Schindell. He’s quite a good electric guitar player. He’ll be filling in the gaps but I’m still doing the one man band thing basically. I’m playing drums with my feet, guitar, harmonica, banjo, mohan veena and they tell me I can sing a bit too so I’ll throw some lyrics in, whattya say? It’ll be a good show and should be a lot of fun.
With a number of successful albums, experiences and tours behind you, what’s next? Are there any other styles you want to get into or people you want to play with in the future?
I’m going to be doing a tour next year with a fellow named David Lindley. He’s the guy who plays with Jackson Brown. He’s a wonderful guitar player, I’m really looking forward to that. The journey through life and music, you know, just keeps going on and on every weekend, every month, every year. I’ll grow into whatever it is I’m becoming with the center goal of inspiring people. If I can do that, whatever form that comes in I’ll be happy.
I’ll particularly be looking forward to getting back to Rossland. That’s a little town I love up there in the hills.