Guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Richie Kotzen has just released his 22nd solo CD entitled, “50 for 50” on February 3rd via Headroom-Inc. It’s a three-disc collection of 50 never before heard songs with some dating back as far as two decades. What started as a 14 track CD release, blossomed into a career-spanning collection of songs. It’s an eclectic mix of old songs, new songs, and songs created on the spot. The initial idea was to pull together, complete, and release 50 songs on his 50th birthday for the fans!
The three discs showcase Richie‘s passion for his roots in R&B, soul, and classic rock and as expected, his scorching guitar solos and soaring vocals. Richie takes fans on an expressive journey while bending sound and the listeners’ minds.
Contributor Robert Cavuoto had the opportunity to speak with Richie about the making of this epic release and what the future holds for The Winery Dogs. Read their conversation below!
This 50 song collection is quite an impressive birthday present to your fans?
Yeah, I didn’t know if it was even going to be possible to do! I worked at my own pace, and when I felt I was at a place where I was really going to get it done, I started telling people about it. It started out as a normal record of 14 songs which was originally going to be my 2020 release. While I was on the road, I started going through my hard drive and realized I had all this material that was in various forms of completion; from needing a lot of work to almost completed. Once I got home, I started going through them to see how many I could finish. The thought process was, if I combine them with the 14 completed songs, maybe I can get to 50 and put it out as a 50 song album on my 50th birthday. I thought that was a nice tie in. I completed about 27 or 28 songs then had to take a few days off before getting back at it [laughing]. I ultimately got there!
How long did the process take as it sounds like a massive undertaking?
It’s hard to define. I was in the studio working for about two months. Once I realized I want to take this on, I started working on lyrics. One of the coolest things that happened, while finishing the older songs from years ago; I started writing brand new songs on the spot! I would be working on an older song hit a snag, take a break, and then suddenly had an idea for a new one. There are a bunch of songs that are only a couple of months old, along with some songs that were completed in 2000.
In a previous interview, you told me there is always one song on your CD that is the key song or moment which defines the complete work. Out of the 50 songs, can you pick that key song?
It’s a little different for this CD by the nature of the ground it covers and the time frame it spans. There are several that stick with me and stand out like “Devils Hand.” It’s an important track as it’s the first single and has a video. One of the hardest things I had to do was figure out which song I’m going to use to lead off this record. What song was going to be the first song people would hear and have a visual to go along with it? “Stick the Knife,” “Nickel Hustler,” and “Dogs” are also in my top ten. I’m curious to see how I’m going to figure out what the next video will be?
How do you recommend fans best listen to this collection of songs?
The sequencing was another thing that I had to spend time with. A song like “Stick the Knife” opens the record up nicely because of the blazing guitar introduction and power chords. I was trying to do the sequencing while I was writing but kept flipping things around. At one point, I thought it was going to be impossible, so I won’t bother to sequence it at all. In the end, after messing around with it, I think I came up with a sequence that makes sense. Regarding on how to best listen to it, I would suggest listening to it the way it is sequenced because that was how I perceived the journey.
You mentioned to me once that you hear 99% of a song completed in your head, was that the case with these songs?
Not all at the same time as I can only do one thing at a time [laughing]. I might have an idea for a song and once it starts to develop, I will hear what it is going to be and how I need to get it there. For example, if I had the vocal melodies and vocal rhythm, I automatically knew what the drumbeat was going to be. With the type of music I play, they are directly related and connected. From there, it all falls into place. I think most writers who are going into the studio and do recording on their own they will hear it that way. You have to have that intuition otherwise you will go in circles
Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
I don’t subscribe to the concept of writer’s block. My feeling is that when something is there worth writing about, it’s going to happen. Writer’s block happens when you deliberately say, “I want to write a song today!” Then you sit down, and you are not channeling anything, you are trying to force creativity. If you force creativity, you are going to experience some resistance. The caveat to that is when you have an idea; it’s just a matter of focusing on finishing it. For example, I have a song on the record called “Mountains,” the melody and concept of the lyrics has been with me for years. Every now and then, it comes to mind and I would listen to the demo then walk away from it. One day I pulled it up and decided to sit with it. I listened to it calmly and suddenly I started getting ideas, and it all came together. That was an instance when I put myself in a position where I allowed ideas to come. I believe the idea of writer’s block means that you are doing something wrong. You are trying to force something that isn’t there, and you are better off waiting for it to arrive.
Is there one song layered with the most guitars?
A lot of time that comes into play when people play a part, double it, then pan hard left and hard right. You would then play it again, using the same approach but with a different microphone to create a wall of sound. In terms of the electric guitar, that is more common in the metal world or something people did in the 80s. I don’t do much of that. I will double things to make it sound more powerful. For example, on “Stick the Knife,” I thickened up the guitars. My approach is more about propelling the song. I didn’t do much of the wall of sounds thing on this record. There are elements of it on “Wide Open,” which has a lot of layering as it was recorded 20 years ago but was never released. Other than that, I don’t think I did anything retro-like layering the guitars that thick.
When I saw you play twice with the Winery Dogs, you didn’t use a guitar pick. Do you use a pick when recording?
Oh yeah, absolutely! So many of these songs have drum performances that are 15 years old and have guitar solos that are only a few months old. There are plenty of songs that I’m using a guitar pick on. Even in today’s times, when I record new music, I’ll use a pick because it sounds different. Not using a pick live evolved from the convenience of me not wanting to carry guitar picks on the road as well as to challenge myself. In Brazil, over ten years ago, I wasn’t happy with the way I played one night. I wondered what I could do the following night differently. I got on stage for a few songs without a pick. In the past I’ve jammed without a guitar pick, and many of my friends don’t use a pick as well. Somehow when I did, it became a conversation. Many guitarists play finger style, just not many in the heavier rock scene, and that is why I think it became a talking point. I still go back and forth, but when I go on tour, its one less thing to account for when I’m packing [laughing].
I really liked the song “Mad Bizarre,” can you share some insights about its creation?
That’s one of my favorites too, and love the way it came out. I had a couple of different versions of that song on my hard drive, so the first thing I had to do was decide which version I was going to pull and complete. I had most of the lyrics done but ended up re-singing the entire song, as the concept was there. I had to focus on production. The bridge was missing, so that is brand new too. I did something interesting with the rhythm that I often like to do; I had the drumbeat program recorded and then I played live drums over it. I had some creative fun manipulating them by turn things on and off. It helped propel the track differently and added a different flavor rather than having a straight drum machine or a straight drum performance.
Do you ever borrow musical ideas from yourself?
The last thing I like to do is put up roadblocks. I’ve worked with people who I call “creativity killers” because when you have an idea, and instead of letting that idea flow, they will start singing another song that was famous 30 years ago. “I’m like who cares? Let’s stay the course.” If we plagiarized something, we can somehow deal with it. As a writer and creator, you are influenced by everything you have ever heard your entire life. I don’t think at this stage in the game there is anyone on the planet from any style of music that hasn’t touched on it before. They may have a different spin, a different sound; someone may have a different voice or a unique style of playing. We are talking about structured verse, chorus, pre-chorus, solo, and interlude. In the end, no one is reinventing the wheel. For me, I can go back to any artist I love and point to multiple instances where they repeated themselves. It could be a chord progression, beat, tempo, lyrical theme, or a production style. There is no need to name names as I’m talking superstars. That’s normal. I look at that as someone’s style, imprint, and identity which makes their music sound a certain way. I don’t get involved in that type of judgment. I create music and move on. If you start looking at everything under a microscope, you will dissect things to the point you have nothing!
Hence writer’s block!
That goes beyond writer’s block. It’s like, f**k it; I’ll go to law school and get a degree!
The Winery Dogs CD, Hot Streak, was voted guitar album of the decade. That’s quite an accomplishment. Is there any level of pressure that you have to outdo it on the next CD?
No, because I already did that CD and look what it did! You know what is really funny and I hope it doesn’t read the wrong way, the beauty of this stuff is that it happened and it exists. The Winery Dog made the first CD, and people responded nicely. Hot Streak exists, and people celebrated it with the award you mentioned. So it already happened, I’m not going to live in the past and try to recreate that. It would be insane. I’m moving on and forward. As it relates to my solo career, I have been making records since 1989; this is technically by 22nd solo record, but there are ten others with The Winery Dogs, Wilson Hawk, Forty-Deuce, Greg Howe, and many others. I have made a lot of records and put a lot of music out. Having done this CD, “50 for 50”, I don’t need to run back into the studio any time to soon to worry about making music. If I have an idea for a song and I’m sure I will, I’ll record it and proudly share it with people. To answer your question, I don’t feel any pressure to win any competitions on the guitar.
There should be no shortage of song ideas for a new Winery Dogs CD.
We did a North American tour last year and had a great time. While on tour, we talked about getting together periodically in 2020 at each other’s homes and throw some ideas around; to see what we walk out of there with. Once we know we have some interesting ideas which are above and beyond the last two records, then we can talk timing and put something out. Assuming all of that comes together, it’s possible that in 2021 we can see some new music coming from the band.