“I am music and it is me. We arrived here together.”
So reads part of the conclusion of Steve Bassett’s 2013 autobiography, Sing Loud. It contains the earned wisdom of a singer-songwriter and master of the Hammond B-3 organ who has truly been there and back. Bassett’s career has taken him from his native Richmond to the soul mecca of Muscle Shoals, Alabama; from session work to singing jingles; from Carnegie Hall to Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion, where a song he co-wrote, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” was celebrated in 2015 as the commonwealth’s new official popular state song.
His latest album, Tres Leches, offers a fresh celebration of Richmond’s exceptional place in music’s geography, layering Bassett’s firm grasp of the foundational sounds of rock, soul and R&B with the ascendant talents of drummer Dusty Ray Simmons (Cris Jacobs Band, Fear of Music and The Gold Sauce) and accomplished young studio co-owner Adrian Olsen (Matthew E. White, Bedouine, Foxygen and Butcher Brown).
Bassett and I spoke recently on a beautiful early-spring afternoon, just outside his pre- and post-production space on the grounds of Richmond’s storied Montrose recording facility.
How did you come to collaborate with Dusty Ray Simmons and Adrian Olsen?
I had gotten to know Adrian here, and Dusty and I were on a session together here when I met him, and I had hired him to play with me a couple times since then… Adrian and Dusty called me and said, “We want to bring you to the dark side.” That’s the words they used to pull me back from the safe R&B and blues thing that I’d been doing more towards the rock and roll that I started playing in the 60s and 70s… Dusty, Bob Rupe, Russell Lacy, Corey Wells, Daniel Clarke and I gathered over there at the studio and jammed for a couple days. A couple of them had songs that they brought with them, but for the most part we just jammed, and we created these pieces of music…
Everybody was busy doing other things, but Dusty and I were in touch a lot, so for the next several years, around his performance schedule and touring schedule, he and I would schedule sessions here. And Dusty Ray and I pulled nine or 10 of the songs out of that catalogue.
Your vocals on the album are especially compelling.
I had Dusty produce me singing. Left to just singing, I sing in certain ways, I guess. Directed, I can go different places in terms of character, and that’s what I used. It’s kind of a theatrical approach that I would use back in the jingle days. There’d be times when they’d want it clear, and there’d be times when they’d want to get down into the Louis Armstrong kind of thing, and Dusty liked me down in that register and in that modality, so he tended to produce me there. And some feedback I’ve gotten from the record from friends of mine, they like hearing me do that.
What was the lyrical process like?
We sat around and told stories about music and touring and philosophized on the state of the music business, or a life in music, and Dusty would sit down and write a little bit, and I would. We ended up writing the material that way, with the exception of two songs that made it to the record: “Freedom” and “That’s What Love Gave Me,” which were written by Bruce Olsen – Adrian’s father, who was around at the time.
There’s a lot of reckoning on the album, and looking back, but there’s also a certain hope for the future.
That sounds like a balance of Dusty and me. He’s in the thick of it now. So is Adrian. These kids are busy. The sun is shining and they’re making hay. And I’m still optimistic, because I keep learning, and I keep getting better. I’m singing better than I ever have. It was supposed to be over by now. I would have thought when I was 28 that 40 years later, I’d probably have done what I could do. I’d be on the down side of it. But in terms of the things that most interest me — which is creating music, writing songs, producing records — it’s constantly invigorating, because if you keep applying yourself to it and doing it from your heart, then you continue to access creative things, which is a big turn-on for me.
What kind of shows have you been enjoying playing? Something like the annual LIVE ART performance at the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, or more intimate gigs like the County Seat in Powhatan?
That LIVE ART show is one of the most exciting shows for me, because it allows me to reenter that world I came up in of preparing for a musical stage production… that camaraderie backstage. Of course, in that situation, there’s 250 of us. There’s the kids —there’s a couple hundred kids — and then there’s all the musicians and all of the artists and their support teams that are on the show. The rehearsals are a gas, and of course, the show is a gas, but the show goes by like that. Boom, it’s over…
To have 100 people in front of you having dinner and cocktails, and dancing, having the time of their lives to the great soul songs is a different kind of fun on a different frequency. Pulling up to a piano in the corner of the country club ballroom during a fundraiser cocktail party, where nobody is paying any attention to you at all — they’re all having their exchange and doing their thing, but you’re over there in the corner playing and singing some music, and you see a foot tapping here, or see a mouth moving to a lyric, or a head swaying, or something like that — just as much fun, but on a different frequency… Being able to go into a room and dial into what’s going on in a room, and then fit what you do in there with it — it’s a similar approach to being a session musician, where you’ve got an artist that comes into a studio, and there’s five or six of you there, and you’ve got a choice to play everything you know and shine, or find a thing that you can do that fits in with the other cats but does nothing more than embrace this artist to allow them to be the original part of it and to have the hot licks. It’s similar to playing a cocktail party in a way, if you can dig it that way. I love it all.
You can catch Steve Bassett performing with the Mystic Soul Bubbas June 1st at Westchester Commons; June 3rd at SPARC’s annual LIVE ART show (sold out); and June 7th at Cul’s Courthouse Grille in Charles City.