Tollak Ollestad interview, September 2009

By Georg Forchhammer, September 2009

First of all, congratulations with your new album, ”Across The Rubicon”.

Before we talk about that, I’d like to talk about your career up till now, your inspirational sources, and how a lot of things must have changed since you moved to Holland a few years ago.

You are a well-known harmonica player and have been that for over 20 years. Even though you say that you are very much inspired by Stevie Wonder, I seem to hear other sides of your musical universe on the tracks I have listened to. E.g. on Richard Page’s “Shelter Me” album and on Gino Vannelli’s “Yonder Tree” I hear a more melancholic edge, like Toots Thielmanns. Well actually, I did find Stevie-kind of track on Larry John Mcnally’s album “Fade to Black” album, which of course is quite obvious, since the song is called “The Motown Song”

During the years, you have played with a lot of great artist – just to mention a few: Don Henley, Earth, Wind and Fire, Kenny Loggins and, of course Ambrosia. I guess it must have been quite special playing with artists whose music you practically grew up with.

Well thank you first off for the compliments. As for my sound, there’s no escaping Stevie’s influence, it was just such a revelation to hear his playing and still is. Of course Toots was another revelation and his influence is certainly no small thing, though I just never had the natural ability to play with that kind of technical fluency so I leaned more towards Stevie’s influence. Plus it just felt natural anyway, which is the most important thing. Aside from that, other instrumentalists have influenced me as well, like the great sax players who use that really fat buttery kind of tone, I’ve always liked emulating that, and also I think the way I sing has had a big influence on my phrasing too. BTW, that Larry John McNally album was my first session for a major record, back in I think 87. And that song went on to be covered by Rod Stewart some years later. Larry’s a great writer.

And indeed, it’s been great and even a little surreal at times to play with some of those early heroes of mine, something I dreamt about as a kid, so I never lose appreciation for having those opportunities.

You describe yourself as a late bloomer. When did you start writing music?

I started writing little song ideas before I could play anything, around the time I was 14 or so. I would take two tape recorders and use it as a kind of primitive multitrack to record myself singing a bass line or something and then singing something on top. Pretty funny, but I really had the strong urge to create even back then.

Which songwriters have inspired you?

The list is very long, but some highlights would be everyone from Bach and Beethoven to Gershwin and Ellington, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Sting, and a few modern ones too, like Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and of course some other greats I’m leaving out.

I’d like to look more into your 2 albums. Let’s start with your debut album from 2004, “Walk the Earth”. What expectations did you have for your debut album, and how did your fans react to it?

That record was really just a compilation of things that I had recorded over about a 10 year period. What I considered the best of those recordings and what I felt I needed personally to document for myself if nothing else, so I didn’t really have any particular expectations beyond that. Though I’ve had a lot of very lovely reactions from fans over the years and that means the world to me.

I think Stevie Wonder has also inspired you in your way of singing – especially in the song “Good Love”. One of my first thoughts after having listened to the album was that you are a great storyteller. One seems to be dragged into this mysterious universe that in some ways remind me of Peter Gabriel’s. Can you see my point, or am I to far out?

In that song you certainly hear the Stevie influence in my singing, who was my first big influence as a singer, much more than many of the others, which reflect some other important influences as well. It’s really difficult for me to be objective in commenting about my lyrics, Good love is a kind of story with some true life parts even-“she likes my point of view, but in small doses” someone with whom I finally realized I had too little in common. But I often write lyrics from just the perspective of lines that feel interesting to me on a gut level, and that’s not always a linear story, for better or worse, but it is just what feels natural for me in writing lyrics. And many times they tend to have a kind of mystical atmosphere which Peter Gabriel’s lyrics certainly have at times and no doubt influenced me.

In the song “In my life” you talk about losing your faith, and later on in “Galahad’s Lament” you state that “…The world doesn’t have a place for innocence anymore…” Could you comment on that?

Well once again, I was writing lines that felt interesting to me or just had some feeling of artistic truth as it relates to myself as a writer, so I didn’t really set out to make a statement, and when those lines kind of landed on me I didn’t really think too much about what exactly they meant. And ultimately I’m fine with people finding their own interpretations and besides it’s flattering that people think about them that much.

A lot of the songs have a live kind of outro, with lots of instrumental and vocal ad libs. I must have been a lot of fun recording the album.

After releasing “Walk the Earth”, did you play any gigs with your own music? And if so, how did the audience respond?

Yeah most of the rhythm tracks were recorded live and it was fun to capture some of that live energy that I had become accustomed to when we played those songs live. As for the live shows, I was playing gigs in LA before the CD came out and I had my small but loyal band of followers who always gave me a lot of great feedback that helped to convince me to make the CD. I moved to Holland immediately after it was finished and did a small amount of shows and again had some lovely reactions from people. But I’m always working on the next thing so I didn’t dwell on it for too long. Then as now I still feel like I’m growing a lot as an artist and haven’t realized my full potential yet.

Talking about loyal musicians, it’s fantastic to listen to Allen Hinds, the guitarist on most of your songs on both your albums. His sound, feeling and laid back style really underlines moods in your songs. Actually, I have just bought his latest album “Falling Up”, which also contains the cover version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” found on your newest album. How did you and Allen Hinds get together?

Yes Allen is a great friend and one of the best guitarists in the biz. We actually met on tour with Bobby Caldwell in Japan back in the early 90’s and have always kept in close touch. And then he started playing with my live band in LA, which was a very natural fit and his playing has only gotten deeper and more expressive with the years, so it’s a great pleasure to have his wonderful sound accentuate my music. And yeah Come together being on his CD came about because we were planning on me singing a cover from Gino Vannelli, who Allen also tours with, “I just wanna stop” as he wanted a vocal track on his CD. But the more he thought about it he finally just said, well I’m so featured on Come together and I like it so much why don’t I just put it on my CD too, to which I replied, yeah, sounds good to me! But aside from his guitar skills I think he’s one of the most gifted guitarist-writers of instrumental music out there.

I found this interview with you on Youtube, where you talk with Ambrosia drummer Burleigh Drummond. Since your first album, a lot of things have happened in your life: You have moved to Holland, quit Ambrosia after 15 years, building new musical relations, and even still playing with bands in America. And on top of that, you have just released your 2nd album, “Across the Rubicon”. How on earth have you managed all that in so few years?

It’s been a wild ride for sure, and actually I do still play with Ambrosia on occasion when schedules align. This summer we played a concert in Cincinnati and also a couple in the Philippines. Always great fun to revisit that special musical brotherhood. But I had no idea how many new roads would branch out from this big move I made to Europe, but then I could say the same about when I moved to LA. I definitely thrive on new challenges so I don’t really think about how difficult the changes may have been just that they felt necessary. As the great aerial acrobat Karl Wallenda once said- “life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting”.

I’d like to move on to your newest album, “Across the Rubicon”. In the interview with Burleigh Drummond, you say, that the title refers to the time, when Caesar prior to being emperor in Rome, crossed the river Rubicon without permission from the emperor, and then became the new emperor. Please tell us why you chose that title for the album.

It’s actually the title of a song of mine, which incidentally Walk the earth is too. The subtext of the story is more or less crossing the point of no return, but in the metaphorical sense of that “place” that is on the other side of the leap of faith. I simply liked the sound of the line at first, but then I really liked that it corresponded with the crossing of my own personal Rubicon when I flew across that huge Rubicon, the Atlantic ocean, to this new life and all of the uncertainties that came with it, and discovered that’s it never too late to take a leap of faith and wash up on the shore of a whole new exciting chapter in your life.

I have often asked American musicians about the difference in performing in the U.S and in Europe, but since you have moved over here, I’d like to know how it is to work with European musicians compared to working with Americans.

You know there was a time when American musicians, at least in LA, would say, yeah there’s some great players from Europe but they don’t have the real authentic feeling that American players have for Soul/Blues/Jazz etc., but I can say without hesitation that if that was ever true it certainly isn’t now. There are some mind blowing players over here who have it all, chops, feel, musicality, and it’s been a great pleasure to meet and work with some of them. The main difference I guess to me is just the cultural difference on a personal level, which I find very interesting. Apart from that, of course musicians all share a pretty similar irreverent sense of humor, but I do notice, and I think this is true of anyone from any country, that you miss joking in your own language with people who grew up in the same culture, because in any culture there are just thousands of references that only someone who grew up there would know. But then I go back to the states often enough to get that fix, and as I l mentioned, I really love the cultural experience here so I wouldn’t change anything.

Logistically, it must have been quite a challenge recording an album with musicians from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean – however, the album seems very harmonious, as if you all were playing live in the same recording studio.

Thanks Georg, that’s good to hear. It was a pretty big logistical feat, carrying files on hard drives and CD’s and DVD’s all over the place, and scheduling of course. But then it wouldn’t be as satisfying if it was too easy, though I wouldn’t complain at all if Peter Gabriel let me camp out in his studio for 6 months to record an album! But then in the end it’s always a challenge to finish an album even for the big names.

I guess I did try and have the same approach to recording all the rhythm sections, whether it was in Vinnie Colaiuta’s garage or in someone else’s studio, and then many of the overdubs were done in the same two studios over here in Holland. But the material is definitely diverse, but that was by design, as I had some pieces that I wanted to try that I felt were new for me and therefore interesting creative challenges.

Have you had the opportunity to make concerts after releasing the new album?

No I really haven’t, aside from playing a few of the songs live in other situations, which went very well. But when it’s come down to throwing my energy into booking a small tour, which even then is a huge and expensive undertaking, or writing and recording more music, the latter just feels so much more important to me now. So I’m steeped once again in that process, which I appreciate more and more as the years go by.

As I recall, your grand father is from Norway, and at least once a year you go there to play in a local music festival. Please tell us the story about that.

Yes, that’s a great story and connection that was just a lovely twist of fate. About 6 months before I moved to Holland I got a call from a guy named Tollak Leidland who lives in the town where my grandfather Tollak was born- Egersund. He’s not related to me, but he found my website and saw the blurb about my grandfather in my bio and decided to contact me and invite me to play at the local festival that summer. Well as I told him, I would be living in Holland by then and I that of course I would love to do it.

We have since become good friends and through him I’ve discovered so much about my family tree and have gotten to know some distant cousins who are sweet folks.

I play the festival pretty much every year as well as some other events now as my network has grown there. It’s also how the recording of the last track “Home” came about in Oslo with the great bassist and songwriter Jørun Bøgegerg and the phenomenal Norwegian guitartist Knut Reiersruud.

What about the future? More tours with Ambrosia – new albums – concerts with your own music….?

Well I am going to LA this month- october, not sure when this interview is out, but I will be doing a concert webcast with Ambrosia in the studio of DW, the drum company October 20th. But I will also be doing a lot of recording for some new songs of mine, which was my main reason for going. My first priority is finishing my long overdue harmonica CD, though I now feel much more ready to make the kind of album I want to make that will hopefully be unlike any harmonica album made before.

And there are more vocal songs, but I am planning on posting those on my newly redesigned website so people can hear and download them as they’re finished.

And lastly my band in Rome “Blue Noise” has just released it’s new CD “Glory days” on Alice records, a subsidiary of Sony. We’ll be doing a two night release party at the classic club “Big mama” in Rome november 12 and 13. It’s a fun project, Soul/Blues with a touch of Jazz, with some great musicians from Rome. Half of the songs are co written by myself and the guitartist Lello Panico and the other half are interesting covers of various Soul/Blues classics.  Also features guest artists Robben Ford, Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante. For those interested you can see all about it here-