Everyone has the visual of a man turning 50 years old. You know it, the seemingly normal family man who turns his back on the conventional life in a futile attempt to reap long ago sown seeds of lost youth. You might envision a balding man strutting into a Chevrolet dealership to purchase that Corvette that may have eluded him in earlier years. It might be the guy who suddenly procures a sailboat-with no sailing experience mind you-and embarks on a trip around the world, alone. Maybe it’s just the businessman who trades in a family for a newer model trophy wife. Whatever one’s individual conception of this cliche, we all have one. So now imagine yourself being a guitar playing phenom who has more than 20 solo records to your credit, with the first coming at age 19. Now imagine you’ve also been a member of Poison, Mr. Big and the 2010’s super group The Winery Dogs. What do you do to stave off the chains of middle age? Well, if you’re Richie Kotzen, very simple, you throw yourself into the gargantuan undertaking of self-producing, self-performing (almost exclusively) and engineering a 50 song compilation of new and revisited music to coincide with your personal semi-centennial, resulting in 50 For 50.
People who are just creative by nature appear to be unable to not create. Kotzen is definitely one to whom that statement would apply. In a recent conversation with Mr. Kotzen, he explains how the concept just kind of took on a life of its own, “It was a little bit of a task. You know initially, my plan was to release a typical length record for 2020. And I had what would have been that album ready to go. Some of those songs included Devil’s Hand, Stick The Knife, Nickel Hustler, Dirty Tricks and a few others was the core of what would have been my next release. Then, somewhere along the line, I found a couple of songs that I had completed and for whatever reason had never released. They were already mastered and I didn’t understand why I never put them out.” So having somewhere around 17 songs that were ready for release, and wondering if there were any others that could be added to the collection, he recalls, “Then I started going through the archives (a side note, it’s kind of cool that he has an archive) and I found I had a lot of ideas in development. Some needed a few finishing touches, others needed a lot more attention. So I thought well, I’m gonna try and finish as much as I can and once I get to the point where I have 50 songs, maybe I can look at putting out a 50 song album, and tie it in to my 50th birthday, which was just more of a personal thing to see if I could get there, you know.”
Challenge accepted! If combing through numerous songs on your hard drive isn’t a daunting enough task, something else happened through that process. ” The cool thing is, once I started going at these other songs, I started writing new songs. So in addition to the old ideas, suddenly I had songs like Black Mark which were brand new, Innocuous, Living The Dream. I had these songs just kind of started popping out of nowhere.” (Small editorial detour here, yes, he said that songs started popping out of nowhere. Don’t try this at home kids!) He caps the previous topic by adding, “So the reality is, if I would have kept going, I probably would have had 70 songs.” He adds jokingly, “But by then I would be completely gray haired.”
So to recap, you are going to take on the Herculean task of a triple disc album. You will write, record and engineer the entire album yourself. Oh yeah, and with a few exceptions, you will play every instrument on the record, are you still in? Kotzen is and shares, “I had a couple songs that featured different drummers, three or four, but yeah, the majority of it, all the guitars, actually, there’s two songs I have another friend who plays some guitar, but the majority of the material I’m doing everything.” Aside from his first few records, which employed additional musicians, this has been his process for the most part as it pertains to solo records. It’s not like he locks the doors of the studio and works in secret, “It’s not because I’m trying to keep people out of the room. It’s more about how my process comes together as a writer.”
The different ways of writing are probably as numerous as the number of writers, whether it’s poetry, novels, screenplays or music. Having written music for most of his life, one can imagine that there is a particular method of writing which Kotzen has come to trust and rely on. “A lot of times I’ll get a song idea and I’ll just start up in the studio and begin messing around. I’ll put down a drum track so I have something to work against. And then suddenly I throw a bass down and then before I know it, by the end of the day this thing is sounding pretty much finished and then I move on to the next thing. It’s just kind of a product of how I work, it’s not really intentional, where I’m saying, ‘Oh I’m gonna play everything,’ it just kind of ends up happening.”
Musicians quite routinely write in pairs or as a group. The dynamics generated by having a sounding board often times charge the creative process. In instances when the entire project begins and ends with one person, it could be surmised that the individual tasked with its realization may be a bit too close to it to be objective. “You know it’s kind of funny, it’s something that I used to hear from record companies. People get all kinds of ideas on how they imagine your internal process may or may not work, and what rules may or may not apply. I started having the most personal and financial success when I got complete control over what I was doing.” The music “business” is after all, a business, and business means money. Many musicians talk about the most freeing experience for them creatively was when they stopped relying on other people to front them money to create their art. “That really happened in 2006, I made a record called Into The Black and it was really the first time I decided I was not taking a penny from anyone to make that record. The minute you take money from a record label someone is going to have a say about something they really shouldn’t be talking about, because they have a vested interest in getting their money back.”
Anyone familiar with Kotzen’s music and who follows his career will know that this decision panned out pretty well for him. In fact he continues by explaining, “It turns out that You Can’t Save Me, the lead track from Into The Black, is to this day my most played song in my entire catalog. That was the first time I went into the studio and said ‘O.K., I’m not going to have to listen to anyone and I’m going to do exactly what I want without any outside influences and let’s see what happens.’ So I don’t second guess things and I don’t get that involved in analyzing things mentally. It’s a very simple variable that I use when I’m recording. Ultimately I get to the point where I’m playing the song over and over an over and I’m grooving on it like a fan, and it’s all very subtle the way it gets to that point. Once I’m at the point where I have that feeling, I know I’m finished and I move on.” If you are wondering what the archives consist of, Kotzen goes on, “If I never get to that point, usually I abandon the idea and it sits on the hard drives for many years until I come back to it and I realize now I know where this song should go.”
Writers tend to write from their experiences. Sometimes they have an idea for which their experience level does not match up. Kotzen shares a heartwarming story back to the beginning when he was just a budding songwriter, a story about his mother, “When I was very, very young, in the very beginning as a little boy, I wanted to write songs. I’ll never forget having a guitar idea and I was very young and I played a little riff and I’d run to my mom, and say ‘help me write words.’ I was a little boy and I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t understand how to tie it together. I eventually abandoned that desire and got obsessed with the instrument and I threw myself into learning the guitar in a specific style that excited me.” Fast forward a few years, after becoming a junior master of his instrument, his desire to write words reignited, “Right after I made that first record I realized, this is fun, but I don’t want to make music without singing. All the music that I loved, my whole life, had singing. So I went back to that desire to write songs.” Pressing that double arrow button one more time to the present day, ” The story is where you have the song. I don’t believe you’ve written a song unless you’re writing instrumental music, until the lyric is finished and the story is relatable, so that’s the key for me.”
Going back to the archives, Kotzen had mentioned that sometimes he doesn’t know where to go with an idea until many years later in some instances. It’s not polite to ask an artist which is their favorite song. As Paul McCartney once responded when asked that question, something to the effect of songs are kind of like your children and you don’t really have a favorite. Once an idea has been shelved for a while and the writer has gained the experience necessary to complete a particular song, it can be dusted off and completed, “One of the songs that has been floating around in my head for many years is the song Mad Bazaar and finally, thankfully I was able to pull it together. This is a track about people selling some version of themselves because they are not sure who they really are. He continues, “It really took me a long time to figure out where to go with that. I had a version that was just a drum loop and one that was a live drum set playing. I finally got inside of it and the vocal was pretty much there. I had to go in and change a few lines that I didn’t make sense lyrically and then I tied it all together and it’s one of my favorite songs on the record.”
Most music fans probably think that playing live is the end all, be all for a rock musician. Kotzen actually had a very different perspective, “Now, at 50 years old, is kind of like the whole purpose of me and and music is to write music. That’s what I love more than anything is the creative process. If somebody said you’re never gonna get on the stage again, I could probably accept that. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but life goes on. If someone said you’re never gonna be able to write a new song, that would be devastating for me.”
If 50 new songs were not enough for you in which to sink your teeth, Kotzen will be touring and presumably playing a few choice numbers from his new record. The tour will begin in Mid-June (if permitted) in New Hampshire and will work its way across the states and ending up somewhere in California. As for his backing band, long time road bassist Dylan Wilson will be along for the ride. Tal Bergman will be accompanying the other two behind the drums this time around. “Tal is a fantastic musician who I have been playing with off and on since I was 26 years old, if you can imagine that. Ever since I had the privilege for opening up for The Rolling Stones in 2006, I did not have a band together at the time. I got the offer and Tal was the first guy I called. So I’m very excited that he’s back on board and I think we’ll have a great run of dates.”
It looks like 2020 is going to be a big year for Richie Kotzen. At a time when most people would be re-evaluating their decisions with regret, Kotzen is upping the ante and going all in with what may be the most ambitious project a solo artist has ever attempted. Don’t look for him to suffer a mid-life crisis, he’s been doing what he loves all his life, and creatively, life looks good!