Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ celebrated 20 years of success this year with the release of his new album, “BluesAmericana,” and the anniversary of his breakthrough 1994 self-titled album.
But Mo’ (aka Kevin Moore) was a working musician long before being dubbed the second coming of Robert Johnson – albeit a more pop-friendly one. Mo’, 62, spoke to the Observer recently about the new album, being an older “new” artist, and finding his voice in the blues.
Q. This year marks the anniversary of “Keb’ Mo’” and the release of “BluesAmeriana.” Did you feel like those records were connected?
A. I felt like I hit a milestone and I looked back at 20 years. It seemed like it was not that long ago. All that time before I was struggling. Now I’ve got 20 years of doing OK. I’m really grateful that I was able to hold up for 20 years and still be able to do this and people come to the shows.
Q. You’re known as a blues artist now, but you didn’t start out that way. What did finding the blues mean for you?
A. After a long career of playing music and being a chameleon and not having an identity, I just liked to play in bands. Being an artist wasn’t something I had my focus on, even when I did my first solo record in 1980. ... Listening to music that was rooted in American history and that wasn’t made to be a slick pop hit – it filled my soul with purpose. In those moments, I realized why we have music. Even though people think I’m an expert on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters – and I did study it – what that stuff did for me was centered and healed me.
Q. Music can be such a youth-oriented industry, and you didn’t hit until you were in your 40s. Did it help that you weren’t pursuing pop?
A. In the pop music business, it’s expected to happen quickly or you get too old. In other genres – like classical, jazz and blues, and the songwriting world – you’re expected to get better with time. You’re expected to reach a certain point of maturity.
Q. Was it important to have that time to form who you were as a musician?
A. It was fantastic that it didn’t happen sooner. I can only say that with hindsight. I’m so glad. In my late 30s and early 40s, I was thinking, ‘I’m washed up.’ I realized that was the beginning. The maturity I had at 40 carried me to now. I didn’t do stupid things and let it go to my head and get entitled. I feel for Justin Bieber. That could’ve been me. He doesn’t have the life skills to support what’s being thrown at him. I’m glad I didn’t get recognized until I was older. I mean that. I was crazy in my 20s.
Q. Why did you abandon the idea of an acoustic record in favor of an ensemble with “BluesAmericana”?
A. The record wanted more. Solo acoustic is great, but I don’t think it beats good ensemble playing. Good solo is very intimate, but it can be redundant on a whole record. At a show, you can change instruments and get banter going. It can be fantastic.
Q. It’s rare to hear a song as honest as “For Better or Worse.” Was it from your life or someone else’s?
A. That came from going through a rough time with my wife. We’re past it now. I like to think everything I’ve ever done is real stuff. This one is one of the more powerful subjects. People have heard it. It kinds of gets in there. Digs in there. People are going through that stuff all the time.