Steve Hill is a guitar virtuoso and one of the top stars on the Canadian blues scene. What makes him unique is his ability to simultaneously sing and play guitar, bass and drums. He is an exceptionally skilled, raw and gritty blues incarnation of the one-man band.
Steve Hill began his one-man odyssey with Solo Recordings Volume 1, which he released in 2012, followed by Volume 2 in 2014. Both were completely self-produced: “I built the studio, I set up the mics, played everything and mixed it myself”, he says. Hill also records the albums live in studio: “I don’t do overdubs; it’s old school”.
On March 3rd, 2016, Solo Recordings Volume 3 will be released on iTunes and in stores the next day. “This is my ninth album and the third solo recording,” Hill explains.
For Solo Recordings Volume 1 & 2, he received many awards and accolades, including a 2015 Juno Award for blues album of the year, as well as three Maple Blues Awards in 2015 for electrical performance of the year, guitarist of the year and artist if the year. In 2014, he won four more Maple Blues Awards, and earned a Juno nomination.
The evolution of Solo Recordings
The Solo Recordings trilogy exhibit a marked evolution in music, technique and style. “They’re all really different,” Hill explains. “When I did Volume 1, I was basically learning how to do everything myself: the footwork, playing and singing. The set-up was much simpler on a lot of the songs: I’m just foot stomping. In some of the songs I have a bass drum. On four songs I use a bass drum and a high hat, but that’s all I had — that and a can with coins inside that I taped to my foot. And then I went on tour for Volume 1; I think I did around 175 shows. I kept getting better at it. When I got to do Volume 2, the set-up had become bigger; I modified my gear. On Volume 2, you can hear a bass. It’s a pick-up that I add to the guitar; I can play bass and guitar at the same time. On Volume 2, I added a snare and a cymbal. On Volume 3, I added another high hat, maracas, harmonica, and I keep adding stuff.”
On Volume 3, Hill’s coordination and his ability to play multiple complex instruments at once has evolved to the point where you can’t really tell it’s one guy. “It’s more intricate than what I used to do on Volume 1, which was really basic,” Hill says. “Now I’m able to stretch out a little bit more.”
Solo Recordings Volume 3 consists of heavy electric blues rock tracks like “Damned”, “Dangerous” and “Rhythm All Over”, to delicate folk ballads, such as the songs “Slowly Slipping Away” and “Troubled Times” — and everything in between. Hill also re-interprets classic blues songs, Still A Fool & A Rollin Stone (Muddy Waters), Rollin & Tumblin (traditional), Stop Breaking Down (Robert Johnson) and Going Down That Road Feeling Bad (traditional). “Songwriting-wise,” he says, “I think Volume 3 probably has the best songs. I’m really happy about the album.”
His songwriting process is never the same: “I usually write songs on the acoustic guitar, fooling around, playing guitar while watching TV, or I may not even have a guitar. I just write the lyrics, and I hear a melody and chords in my head. A lot of the songs are written that way. Or it can start with a riff that I’ll come up with at sound check or wherever. I’ll record a riff on my phone. I always have a bunch of riffs on my phone and sometimes they become songs. And then it’s just a matter of finding the right arrangement, the right way to play it. Then I just play drums to go along with it. It’s always a different process when you write songs, I find. Sometimes, they just show up, you know (laughs). It’s like you’re picking it up: it was there and within 15 minutes you’ve got the lyrics and it’s all there, and sometimes you have to work on it for a year or two.”
Honing his craft
Hill was born in Trois-Rivières and began playing music seriously at around 12-13 years old. He moved to Montreal in 1993, and by the age of 16 was already a professional guitar player.
Music has been his life for over 25 years. “It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he says. “Everything inspires me to do music. I listen to a lot of music, and I find it’s really important to listen to a bunch of different stuff. These days, I’m listening to Miles Davis, which has nothing to do with what I’m doing, but it still influences me and I learn a lot from it.”
Another one of Hill’s influences is Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. “He’s a master guitar player. I’ve really studied it (laughs). I’ve had days where I listen to the Dead, like eight hours a day. You still have to listen to all the greats, go see concerts. I went to see Black Sabbath a few days ago. It was awesome!”
Often practicing 6-8 hours a day, Hill says that it’s all about complete dedication to music and hard work. “It’s just about being focused on music all the time. I’m always listening to music, playing or thinking about it. That’s how you get good at it, you focus on it. The last time I went on vacation was 6 years ago. I’m basically working all the time.”
Hill adds that his guitar playing has evolved dramatically with his journey through the Solo Recordings: “With this project, the fact that I had to play drums and bass, and sing at the same time as I play the guitar, means that I had to adapt my playing to that format. So I’m not playing the same way that I used to play 5 years ago. I think its even more personal. The limitations of having to do everything at the same time helped me to find my own sound.”
“To me playing the guitar has always been around finding one’s true voice. There’s a lot of guitar players that do stuff that I can’t play — but there’s not a lot of people who can make it sound like I do. At least that’s what I’m trying to do.”
To Steve Hill, finding one’s true voice is “about having your ears open to what’s going on, but at the same time listening to what’s going on inside of you and what’s going on in your heart.”
Bringing music to the fans: live shows
Hill also plays a lot of concerts to further hone his craft before and after recording each album. He says that he played around 175 shows for Solo Recordings Volume 1 and 170 shows for Volume 2.
Steve Hill is now embarking in a tour of Quebec and Ontario, and will be playing in Montreal on April 28th at Club Soda. You can expect a different show every night of his tour: “You’ll hear songs from the three volumes of the Solo Recordings. I’ve got a lot of songs to choose from now. I don’t really do the same show twice. Depending on the audience, I can do a more rockin’ performance, or I can play more acoustic stuff, I can go completely electric, I can have an hour acoustic and an hour electric. I have a lot of possibilities”.
He adds, “From my point of view, its about music and fans, and how to get that music to the fans, and that’s by going on the road and doing concerts — and that’s what my life is.”
Solo Recordings Volume 3 will be available on iTunes on March 3 and March 4 in stores. See him live in Montreal on April 28, 2016 at Club Soda, and see his upcoming tour dates here. 7 p.m. Tickets $25.25 and up HERE.