Copenhagen Jazzhouse, March 22nd 1999
by Frank Achmann
Copyright © 1999 Frank Achmann, All Rights Reserved.
You launched this tour in Sweden and you just came over from playing a couple of gigs in the Fasching Club in Stockholm, and yesterday in Lund. How has it been thus far?
Oh, magic (laughs). Yeah, magic. It’s a reunion for us with Per Lindvall and Lars Danielsson.
Some of the old guys.
So the audience have responded quite well to the fresh cuts as well?
Oh yeah, they’re great.
OK. And now we’re here in Copenhagen Jazzhouse. Actually this is your second time here, isn’t it?
This is my first time at the Jazzhouse, I think.
Really? I actually thought that the live album was recorded here.
No, it was recorded at Easy Sound, recording studio, which I don’t think is there anymore.
The “Feels Good” album?
Yeah. And we’ve been wanting to play here for a long time – for years – but we never quite got it together. We’ve been playing at Pumpehuset instead.
For the past 10 years or so you’ve been concentrating on the Scandinavian countries. You do have some success in the States, however, with quite a few contributions to some of the big artists over there, but in fact only your first album – “Once In A Lifetime” – and “Speaking In Melodies” were released in the US…
Why is that? Is the American audience all that different?
No, I just haven’t had a record deal to get my records out in the States. I’ve always just done small, private, you know… territory by territory…
How did you get attached to Scandinavia in the first place?
Aaah, I don’t know. I was touring over here with Chaka, and I met these guys – Per and Lars and Nils Landgren, and the sound man Jan Ugand. So we’ve been friends for years and we started playing. I think the first gig – solo gig in Sweden – was in Nefertiti in Gothenburg, and Ricky Lawson played drums, and there were some musicians from Gothenburg on that gig.
So, it’s not the climate? (laughs)
It’s not the climate, no, but I do have a lot of friends here, so that makes a difference. When you have friends, you tend to come back. And the audience, man, they’re great!
Actually, you live in Hawaii, right?
I live in Hawaii. Same climate as Sweden (laughs).
So I guess you spend a lot of time away from home?
No, I don’t. Actually, I’m mostly at home.
How does your wife feel about all this? Do you bring her along on tour?
Uhm, we travel, yeah. I’m just recently married, actually, so… happily married.
And you have a kid?
Yeah, gosh, I have 3 kids now…!
Yeah. But recently married, so usually I’m home. Especially during the school year when the kids are in school. And I go to L.A. every other month maybe, to play in L.A.
Yeah, I see you’re playing at the La Ve Lee club.
Yeah, that’s where I usually play. Sometimes The Baked Potato. And I go to Nashville to write every once in a while. But I try to come to Europe in the summer – just for a month. That’s the regular schedule.
Michael, you’re extremely popular in Sweden, whereas in Denmark it seems more like you have a core of loyal fans. I don’t think it’s that we don’t recognize your talent, I think it’s the mere fact that people in general don’t know that much about you. But your songs do have a lot of impact on the audience, and I’m sure it must be uplifting. You’re that kind of musician that one loves to discover and introduce to one’s friends, and a friend of mine use to kid by saying that the minute your mother gave birth to you, she must have gone: “Wow – would you look at this! It’s Michael Ruff!” (laughs). Are you surprised as to how passionate your fans are?
(laughs) Your mother always feels that way about you, you know, no matter who you are! Everyone’s a Jesus in your mother’s eyes, right? Uhm… I’m very happy. I feel very successful in that the fans are touched by the music, and it’s a very personal thing. So I do feel like I make a good connection with the fans and the musicians, so that’s a very special thing. I think if you’re a musician living in the world, if you can have that – play the music you love and do it from your heart – then you’re very lucky. ‘Cause most people have to play for other people for money, doing things that they’re not so passionate about. But we just play for fun, you know, we love what we do, so it’s a gift.
I have a feeling that your personality reflects that you like settling with a smaller community of true fans rather than playing the big, crowdy venues. Is that right?
I don’t know, I love to play big venues, I think it would be just as personal. But it doesn’t begin that way. This one begins from the ground.
If we turn back a bit, you’ve been busy. You started playing already at the age of 3. When did you start composing?
When I was a teenager. Yeah. I was in High School playing in bands – blues bands – and then started writing songs. Because just as a piano player, I couldn’t really compete with the guitar player, so I started singing. And kind of liked the sound of my voice, you know, imitating Stevie Wonder…
So you’ve been used to playing and singing at the same time, throughout the years?
Yeah, it’s automatic. It’s automatic.
And after a while you started to get acquainted with some of the great performers in the States as well?
Yeah, just listening to the radio when I was a kid. Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack – big influences. Stevie Wonder, of course, Billy Joel… and a guy named James Taylor, who’s a beautiful songwriter… Carol King – d’you know Carol King? – great songwriter and piano player. People like that, those were my first influences.
Then you were introduced to Tommy LiPuma at one point in your early 20’s. Was that your big break?
That was kind of a break, yeah, you could consider that a break. Brenda Russell introduced me to Tommy LiPuma at a club where I was performing with Maxayn, actually the singer that’s with us now – that’s how long we’ve known each other! – and Brenda Russell and I have an amazing connection; I’ve introduced her to a lot of people that she works with and she’s introduced me to some very special people in my life, including these Swedish musicians – she did a record with the same guys. So this is an amazing connection. And the band I had with Maxayn was left-overs of Rufus. It was Andre Fischer on drums, Bobby Watson on bass, Tony Maiden on guitar, Tony Patler on guitar and keyboards, a singer named Warren L. Jones, Michael Paulo was playing saxophone, Gerald Albright, saxophone. We had a slammin’ band, we played every Tuesday.
You called yourselves Rufus?
No-no-no, Rufus was a band that Chaka was in at the time, though. But those players were in Rufus. And that’s where I met Maxayn. And I wrote a lot of tunes for that band, ’cause it was so funky, you wanted to come in every week with a new song.
Great. So you met with Tommy LiPuma, and that resulted in your first album, “Once In A Lifetime”. I’m not sure if it sold well?
Narh, maybe a total of 40.000 copies or something… worldwide (laughing). it didn’t do very well.
OK. But then you refined your writing, and I must say that I sometimes find myself thinking: “Wow, I actually feel these chords”, your thoughts, the words. It’s like leveling with your music so to speak. Songs like “Seeing For The Very First Time” and “Watching Like Angels”, they have that subtle, evocative atmosphere around them…
Mh-hmh. Yeah, well, they come from the heart. The good ones are just gifts, so they’re not really mine, they belong to everyone.
They just drop down?
Most if not all of your records range as hard-to-find. Also “Speaking In Melodies”.
It’s more or less self-explanatory that that record is one-of-a-kind and sold in big numbers, and I should think that it must’ve been a truly inspiring challenge as a musician to get to record at Sheffield’s Lab?
That was very special, because they were only concerned with making it sound great. They weren’t telling me what kind of songs to play, right. They said: “You go make music and we’ll make it sound good”. So we all had fun, and that’s the best way to make music – is just to make music!
And you did it live-to-two-track?
We did it live-to-two-track at Oceanway in L.A. – great studio – with George Massenburg, an amazing engineer. And one of the best things about it was that I got to bring over these guys, this Scandinavian band to play – Per and Lars and Henrik Janson – and they blew everybody away in L.A., ’cause nobody had heard them play before. And also, originally we were gonna have Jeff Porcaro play on some tunes, and this was a week or two after he passed away, so a lot of folks were in the studio, listening, and there was this huge emptiness left when Jeff died, ’cause there was only one of him; there’s no drummer that plays like him. And then here’s all these guys from L.A., and they’re in the studio and they’re listening to Per play, and it was like, not like a ghost, but it was like Per filled in this hole, this one-of-a-kind drummer hole. That was definitely evident. And people were in tears, man, listening to him play, they were going: “This is uncanny, this guy from Sweden we’ve never heard of comes and plays like…”
Kind of the same way that Simon Phillips now fills up the void?
Yeah, kind of, but Simon doesn’t have anywhere near the subtlety that Jeff had…
I guess that’s true.
… and Per is a very unique artist as far as I’m concerned – in these guys own category. So that was an amazing experience.
How do you feel about recording that way? Do you prefer recording live as opposed to recording in layers?
It is what it is. I think if I record live I’d rather make it a little more wild. That was too controlled for a live atmosphere. So it doesn’t matter – it is what it is. I’m actually more comfortable in the studio now than I used to be. I used to get caught between those two things. I never had the time or the budget to do it in the proper studio way, so we’d do it mostly live, but then it wasn’t really all the way live, so it didn’t feel as good as live.
The way you all swing on stage really adds an extra dimension to the music. It seems like you put a lot of effort into it and it always has “fun” written all over it in a laid-back kind of way, I think. You’re so much at ease on stage, and I think that’s something you just don’t see very often nowadays. Do you consider that an important thing?
Hm, yeah, very much! I’m very at home on stage and playing. I mean, that’s where I have the most fun, you know. Especially when you get great musicians and give them a lot of room. And there’s no rules up there; there’s just a song – “Here’s a song, let’s play!”. Like a big play-pan, a big sand-box (laughs). So that’s the idea.
The concert we just talked about last year with the Straitjackets, you noticed the front audience as being hooked on “the old Michael Ruff school”, I don’t know if you recall that?
And I’ll never forget the feeling of that encore, where the crowd kept singing “I’d Still Be Loving You”…
Oh, man, they sang for 20 minutes!
Yeah! And now that I see the line-up is comprised of some of the old gang of studio musicians that you’ve been using as backing group earlier on – Lars Danielsson and Per Lindvall. I can’t help thinking: Could we expect a flashback to some of the old spirit?
Yeah, definitely. This show is great, it’s a total mix of new songs; I have some brand new songs which are one the new album, and they sound great with these guys. And then they know all the old ones, so the other night we played “Dedication”, and it depends what mood we’re in, really, but we played “Dedication” from the first album, “I Will Find You There” from “Speaking In Melodies” and “Come Together”, and a bunch of songs that we usually don’t play; “Any Less Than This”, “Once In A Lifetime”… those songs I didn’t play with Straitjacket.
It’s kind of a past to present to future?
Yeah (laughs), whatever (laughs)
You also have Marty Walsh. He’s from Supertramp, isn’t he?
Uh-huh, outstanding guitar player. Yeah. And a great guy and a good friend, and we just have a ball.
How about the choice of background singers? Your wife, Nadia, she has such a beautiful voice I think. Will we be seeing more of her?
Not with me! (laughs)
Not with you? (laughs)
She’s my ex-wife. Yeah, we haven’t been married for 4 years.
Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize…
Oh, no, no!
But how come you choose different players. Do you feel that you benefit from working with different musicians?
No, it’s pretty much whoever is available (laughs). And the past couple of years I’ve been playing with the Straitjacket guys, almost exclusively…
Marco Mendoza and…
Yeah, and sometimes Marco’s not around, so usually Joey makes the gigs. Occasionally he doesn’t, then I’ll use this guy Matt Log I’ve been playing with, who’s a really good drummer – rock drummer – and another bass player named Andrew Gouche, who I met with The Winans years ago. And those other guys. Marty lives on the east coast, and sometimes he flies out to L.A. to play with us. He flew out to do this new album.
I’m curious, did you ever get an offer to form part of an established band – in the sense that you’ve always been a solo performer?
No-eh, I haven’t. Uh-uhh. Not really…
You didn’t? Hm… but then again, you never really put an effort into trying, what should I say… to find…
No, but I never got an offer to join a band. It’s been a couple of times where I was thinking there could be a good band. Like with Richard Page. I could have a great band with them. ‘Cause we’re both writers and both singers, but you never know. That was just one of the first times I heard their group, I thought: “Yeah, ok, they put a good band together”. They split up after a while, didn’t they?
Yeah, that was in 1990.
You always have A class contributors on your albums. With all those affiliations in the music business you also do contribute to a vast list of other artist’s recordings, and that’s where a lot of people get to know you, indirectly, I think. Where do you feel most comfortable: In a band or doing in-demand session jobs?
I’m not a session player. I’m not in-demand at all. It’s just only if maybe they’re recording a song that I wrote. Or if I’m in town, I stop by and play an organ part or something. But I’m not what you’d call an in-demand session player – too much personality (laughs)
You’ve worked for a lot of people, though, both as a songwriter and director, and also on tour, with Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan…
Yeah, that was the 80’s for me. That was being a musical director and touring and making money and playing live with great artists. So that’s what it was. And a lot of the reason that I’m not more successful as a solo artist is because I spent so much time playing with these other artists, making money and touring. If I’d been home making records and working on my career, I would have been out there as a solo artist.
“Shake A Little”, that’s on Bonnie Raitt’s new album, isn’t it?
It’s on her last live album, yeah. She did nice, too.
That’s doing quite well…
Yeah, “Shake A Little”. And she recorded “Cry On My Shoulder” on her “Nick Of Time” album which sold 7-8 million, I think.
The new album “Lovesongs & Lullabies”, I haven’t had the chance to hear it yet, but it seems like a very versatile and appetizing collection of soft tunes.
There’s some really old ones; “More Than You’ll Ever Know” is probably the oldest one on there. That one is this time a guitar/vocal version, there’s no keyboard on it. And Marty played the guitars, beautiful acoustic guitars. There’s no electric guitar on the album, it’s all acoustic. There’s a couple of tracks – programmed tracks – and…
Is it kind of a one-off project making it that way?
This one just had to happen. These are the songs that the fans like the most and that bring the most meaning to the shows and to my songwriting. They say the most about what it is that I do. I really like the new album. We were gonna do it last summer – I was gonna do it in England, and it didn’t happen – and I had promised the Swedish fans that next time I came I would have a new album, and I just finished it in less than two weeks in L.A. – I picked up the CD’s on the way to the airport to come here. I mean, that’s how fast it was done, so…
It’s like the fastest album you ever did?
Yeah, but I mean, it’s 20 years of songwriting, right?… overall. But a lot of them are new, but it doesn’t have any ego to it – it’s just the love songs, it’s the stuff that when you sit at the piano and the guitar, it’s like you just sit down and play from your heart, right? So it’s all that. And then it’s great, Marty did a beautiful job, played beautiful guitars on it. I’m really happy.
So is it kind of an unplugged version of…?
No, it’s not, it’s… “Lovesongs & Lullabies”. You know, some really deep love songs and some really sweet little lullabies, and I also recorded this really romantic stuff on it, so I like it. I think it’s great. I think it came out just great.
You wrote an emotional tune “Wonderful Life” in memory of Nicolette Larson who passed away early last year…
Yeah, amazing story behind that one.
You also performed that one in California last year at the tribute.
Could you tell a bit about that? That song?
Yeah, the song was an amazing gift. I wrote most of it in the morning and then, that afternoon was when I heard the news that Nicolette was sick, so later on I realized where this song was coming from. I didn’t know what it was about – I had no idea what it was about – I just started writing it, and then I read the lyrics and I went: “Oh my God, this is what it’s about!”, and…
You suddenly felt like there was a link?
Oh, yeah, it was totally a gift, you know, really a gift. And I played it for Russ [Russell Kunkel] and for the crowd. We all just cried for hours. And then I was very, very fortunate to be able to perform that song at the benefit concert – just solo piano – and they’re gonna use it on the record, too. It’s a nice version.
When writing songs, how does it usually happen? Do you do that the way you just described?
Well, the best ones they just show up.
And you accompany yourself with a piano and…
… jut it down on note paper?
Yeah, or sometimes I’ll just sing the song and I’ll start singing it, and the lyrics, and then I’ll go learn it. It’s more like I’m learning it than writing it – the good ones. And then I work on the lyrics a little bit and read it back, and… yeah.
There’s always been a very dynamic, musical growth within yourself from past to present. Especially in these days where the music industry being so big, do you feel it’s important to always grow musically and be willing to explore new paths? … as a means to keep appealing to the audience?
Uhm, yeah! I think, life is an inspiration, and we’re all human beings, you know. So an artist is just gonna paint what’s in his heart, and wherever his heart is, that’s what it is.
Just after the “Michael Ruff Band” album you seemed to embark on a whole new sound. It’s sort of a rock/jazz/soul-fusion happening there…
… and I think that it proves that you’ve always been growing. How do you relate to current music in general as opposed to yours?
Meaning that my music isn’t current? (laughs)
No, not that. But modern music, 90’s music as such?
Yeah, I don’t know what that is, because music is music, it just depends which tools you use. If you use a drum machine or sampler or an acoustic guitar and a vocal, or violin and some tap shoes – it doesn’t make a difference, it’s still music, so…
It’s just that I think that it’s quite disturbing to see how a lot of melodic/classic rock acts seem to fade away or flee to Japan or have a hard time getting through this avalanche of rap and stuff.
Well, this is just what’s on the radio. But there’s some really talented people; really great singers and nice melodies. If anything there’s educating young people and to their older R&B groups… ’cause a lot of these rappers are really hip.
So you don’t feel like a lot of people tend to focus on impersonal things such as choreography and looks and charts?
There’s room for everything, you know. There’s always melodic, lyrical music. And then there’s always pop music, which doesn’t have as much substance, but it’s got cool, little sounds and catchy beats. That is what it is – there’s room for everybody.
Do you think there’s a future for artists like yourself?
Uhm, yeah! If I wake up tomorrow and I’m still breathing, that’s my future (laughs).
Do you see the World Wide Web having a role there?
Oh, I think it’ll be great, yeah! ‘Cause if people can be exposed to you, and now anybody can find it, so if I advertise, you know… if people are curious and they wanna hear the music, they can find it from anywhere in the world.
… direct to the fans.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s great for me! Because I’m not having a major record deal, a major distribution.
… and don’t have to worry about getting distributed and stuff like that?
Yeah! I think there’s a misconception that one of the reasons that I’m not popular or played on the radio is because the music is not defined, or it’s not treated like current sounds or pop music, but that’s not really the case. The case is that I don’t spend my time trying to get a record deal, or trying to get somebody to promote my music. I mean, I just spend my time living my life and writing songs and playing with people I love to play with. That’s a smaller career, but a much more satisfying one! And I think, if I were to go on David Letterman show and play a ballad, I’d sell 10.000 records the next day, ’cause people would go: “Oh, that’s beautiful, I wanna have a copy of that”. So it’s more about exposure than anything else.
And it’s a commitment for life?
Yeah! Yeah, I think so.
When you are through over here, what’s next?
Uhm, I don’t know what’s next. I’m gonna go home.
You go to play a few L.A. clubs?
I play in L.A. in April, and I’m gonna work on getting some of my older records for sale on this internet site, which is michaelruff.com, and trying to get the rights to “Once In A Lifetime”, too, which would be cool. Right now I have the rights to “Speaking In Melodies” and “Girl Like You”.
So what’s in stake for us?
I’d like to make another album – an R&B album.
Yeah, definitely. I’m writing with this guy, Martin Terefe. He’s Swedish, actually, but he lives in London. He’s been producing quite a lot of people – he’s doing really well these days – and we have a song on this new Glenn Scott record coming out on Sony. Really cool artist; kind of like “Cat Stevens meets Prince”. Really cool. So we we wrote this single together for that. I hope it does well.
We’re looking very much forward to this evening!
Yeah, me too, I’ve wanted to play here for years!
Thanks so much for your time!
Cool, man. Thanks! Great questions!
Michael told me to bring on a BIG HELLO to all the Blue Desert visitors!