The list of musicians who have stepped up to play alongside bluesman Peter Karp is a long one — from old school blues icons like Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker to contemporary ones like Don Henley, Ric Ocasik and Jackson Browne.Karp, however, is seldom starstruck, so even when a guy like Mick Taylor, formerly of the Rolling Stones, calls him up for a collaboration, Karp sees it as validation for the work he’s doing.
“If you have a good song, you attract people,” Karp told The Daily Times this week. “I’ve always attracted people because of the strength of the songs. Good people know good songs, and good musicians know good songs and want to be a part of them. I think every musician wants to care about and take ownership of a good song, even if they didn’t write it — they just want to take a piece of that song and combine it with their own originality. It’s a communal thing, and it really starts with that. If you don’t have a good song, you can try all you want, but nobody’s gonna work with you.”
Karp, whose roots rock style started out in the New York punk scene when he was a teen, will offer up his latest collection of tunes on Feb. 2, when his new album, “Blue Flame,” will be released. It’s a cacophony of freight-train grooves, wailing harmonica, barrelhouse piano and Karp’s seasoned vocals, which go down with the sumptuous burn of top-shelf liquor. The title, he said, comes from a conversation with Dixon about songwriting.
“He said that when you really tell the truth, you strike a spark, and it turns into a blue flame — the hottest part of the flame,” Karp said. “It’s all about being honest and then connecting that honesty to other people. We all have the same experiences in life. Everybody suffers through life’s tragedies. What you do is try to bring that out and make it connect with people, and when you’re honest, that’s the whole thing. It’s about being yourself, and I am so myself these days.”
It’s been a roller coaster ride ever since those days in the NYC punk scene, during which he grew disillusioned with the business, married his band’s singer and stepped away to focus on family and a film career. He also began to dig deeper into his family background — his stepmother, Ruth Turner, was a black woman from the South Carolina Lowcountry, and over time, Karp immersed himself in the culture and music of the Gullah people of the South Carolina Sea Islands. He returned to music in 1998, and five years later, a mutual acquaintance passed along some of Karp’s demos to Taylor.
“We were like two teenagers in a garage,” Karp joked. “Like anything else in life, the really great people are all about the work, and it’s always about the work for me. I’m like Hitchcock making movies — I kind of construct something and hand it out, and everybody works to make it happen. Then it takes on a life of its own, and it’s usually great. And if it’s not great, you don’t do it again.”
And sometimes, greatness is developed through tragedy. After releasing his Blind Pig debut, “Shadows and Cracks,” in 2007, Karp’s wife was diagnosed with cancer; he quit the road to spend the last months of her life with her and their kids, and it would be three years before he emerged with a record made with fellow artist Sue Foley; he’s released two other albums since, and with “Blue Flame,” he said, he feels as if he’s gotten his groove back. Or maybe, he added, he’s found one that resonates on a more spiritual level, one that’s reflected in the searingly honest 13 tracks of “Blue Flame.”
“I’ve never been in more control of what I do and been stronger as a writer, and I think that’s sort of a culmination of a lot of things,” he said. “The death of my wife nine years ago was a very profound experience, and I’m probably just now getting it — ‘Oh, OK, so this is what it’s about. This is who I am. Everybody’s got their own voice and their own thing, and you’ve just got to tap into it and put it out there nice and strong. I think that’s what ‘Blue Flame’ is — it’s that record.”