Ilana Katz Katz: Building More Roots in Roots Music
By Susan Frances
The Roots Music Report covers a verdant field of artists who play rhythmic blues, acoustic rock, soul, country, Celtic folk, gypsy Klezmer, and jazz. These artists come from around the world based in countries such as Canada, Australia, England, Poland, Israel, India, and America to name a few. Roots music is a genuine melting pot where vocalist, songwriter and fiddle player Ilana Katz Katz has been carving out a niche herself, prolifically building more roots in the field of roots music.
Katz has been offering audiences recordings since her debut CD I’ve Got Something To Tell You in 2014. Fast forward to 2021, her latest release In My Mind is her fourth outing and contains ten original tracks written by her and one cover.
“I never intended to become a songwriter,” she admits, “which is ironic because my new record is all originals, except for one traditional fiddle tune!”
The CD is dedicated to the memory of her friend and Muddy Waters’ harmonica player, Paul Oscher, and honors the blues lady Joyce “She Wolf” Jones. Produced by Ghost Town Blues Band’s leader Matt Isbell, Katz explains how she met Isbell, “I had been playing in the subway for nine years when I took my first trip to Memphis. A mutual friend told Matt about me and he invited me to sit in with his band on Beale Street, never having heard me. His band, Ghost Town Blues Band, are incredible musicians, songwriters and human beings.”
“Matt and I became friends from then on,” she cherishes warmly. “I had recorded rough rhythm tracks and vocals, but needed a Shepherd to help me shape it and he was the first one I thought of. I was nervous to ask him and he immediately said ‘yes’ and I am so grateful. He’s the salt of the earth, no-nonsense and immensely talented and cool. It was a really fun time recording, mostly finished in Mississippi.”
The smoky and southern textures of Katz’s blues folk blend come pouring out from the first track, the recording’s title track, as her vocals invite the listener to take a stroll with her. The breathy allure in her voicing is reminiscent of Carly Simon, sharing Simon’s earthy appeal in her timbres. The chugging beats of “Bad Child” resound the rhythmic pump of a locomotive as her fiddle dabbles the tune in blazing arches. The heavy tone of “Nine Souls” seethes a rockabilly scuff, while the country shuffle of “Won’t Pass Me By” radiates a lighthearted, honky tonk vibe. “Downtown with The Devil” bolsters the sassy, roguish lilt in her vocals, and brews a festive, Celtic-tinted, square dance stomping through “Hangman’s Reel.”
Katz ensconces herself in the heart of roots music but how she arrived at this destination remains a mystery, even to her. She explores her foray into becoming a solo artist in the roots music milieu.
She recalls, “My early musical experiences were in the orchestra, and we always had music playing at home. My mom loved Theodore Bikel and we also listened to Peter, Paul & Mary and lots of showtunes…and I would dance around the living room from the time I was a kid. I still love to dance whenever I hear music… I dance when I’m listening to music and cooking in the kitchen and nobody is around… I love music and listen to all kinds, but blues is my favorite.”
“When I was 15 years old,” she commences, “I heard John Lee Hooker and immediately thought ‘I want to play what he’s playing… on the violin’… At the time, I was playing in school orchestra. I loved the violin, but never enjoyed classical music. I just wanted to play the blues.”
I ended up learning old-time fiddle,” she advances, “which I also love playing, and the improvisational style of that music allowed me to express myself as a ‘bluesy’ fiddler… and I just listened to more and more blues and roots music and absolutely the old-time jazz musicians are included in that.”
“It’s all a gumbo of music,” she characterizes, “I searched high and low for any non-traditional violin music and used to go to the library – before the internet – and check out any record that had any kind of violin on it that was not classical. I listened to French Canadian fiddlers, Irish music, Old-time Appalachian, which I love, and everything in between.”
Her interest in roots music was fully aroused, and Katz proceeded to check out artists in the field of her choice. “One of the first old blues fiddle records I heard was Howard Armstrong and the Chicago String Band,” she notes, “a record from the 1960’s and I was thrilled to hear it!”
She continues, “I also found some old Big Bill Broonzy recordings of him playing fiddle and I just kept searching. I also really enjoyed Joe Venuti and Stefane Grappelli and had the joy of seeing him live a few times along with meeting the great Claude Williams a few times, too.”
“I also really, really loved Stuff Smith, and Svend Asmussen,” she adds. “I could go on and on… The bottom line is… you love what you love and who knows why? I just know that I know what I love when I hear it…the blues is my mainstay.”
Consigning herself to the blues hues of the roots music spectrum, she shifts to fiddlers that have impacted her, offering details about her findings, “A few of my absolute favorite fiddlers, who are no longer living, are Tommy Jarrell (Appalachian), Sugarcane Harris, Gatemouth Brown, Papa John Creach. As far as fiddlers who are still playing… Bruce Molsky (Appalachian) and Anne Harris and Lionel Young. Each has their own style and are tremendously inspiring to me.”
“I never intended to sing,” she proclaims, “I still consider myself a new singer… I began to sing with the fiddle because I was playing in the subway and sometimes played with others but found myself alone a lot and I knew that singing with the fiddle was important because just playing the fiddle wasn’t as interesting. It opened me up to so many possibilities to vary my music – which is not only important for being an interesting performer for an audience, but it is also important and interesting to me.”
She revealed to American Blues Scene online in an essay she wrote, found here: about what motived her to perform live in the subway. She penned, “From the moment I played my first note busking in Boston’s subway in 2008, I knew I was meant to be there. I love giving people a mini live concert – as a surprise – amidst the frenzy of public transportation.”
The commercial hub of the subway became one of Katz’s first live stages where she witnessed how her music affected listeners. She pointed out two memorable experiences to American Blues Scene online that made a lasting impression on her, narrating, “The spectrum of moments are book-ended by these two memories: A just-married couple stepping into the subway in wedding garb from City Hall waited for the train – all smiles. I broke into a waltz and they had their first dance as a married couple, around the subway platform.”
The second indelible memory, she cites as, “The most haunting memory I have is a homeless man who told me he was drawn down the stairs from the sound of my playing and he wanted to tell me how it brightened his day. He came directly from a homeless shelter after leaving his lover who beat him. He said the shelter was a worse experience than being ‘home’ and he was thinking of going back. We talked for a while. He was penniless, but refused my offers of money or help. Instead, he insisted on giving something to me as he felt I helped him so much. He gave me his necklace, which now lives wrapped around my fiddle case handle. I hope he is okay.”
Katz’s subway shows unveiled to her one segment of the population that are attracted to roots music. They are the segment of the populace who encouraged Katz to continue making and playing music. The experience also earmarks when she realized she wanted to be a solo artist.
“As you’ll see from my essay (at American Blues Scene online) about playing in the subway,” she refers to, “I ended up going down there and it’s not as if I thought ‘now I’m going to be a solo artist’… I just found myself there playing solo.”
“The thing about being a solo artist,” she discovered, “is that you hear all your flaws, which was really challenging. I am glad for the opportunity because it inspired me to be a much better musician. I truly loved playing in the subway, but began to get invited to perform with others and ‘above ground’ – as I say. I love everything I get to do! I often perform solo, as a side musician in a band and also as a guest artist – more and more – on other people’s records.”
She discerns, “Singing is far more challenging than playing the violin.. and playing and singing at the same time is even more challenging. Now I love it! I feel like I am just scratching the surface as far as what I will do as a singer/fiddler/songwriter.”
Her debut effort as a solo artist in 2014 was her CD I’ve Got Something To Tell You, which she remembers fondly as she chronicles, “I had been wanting to record a few songs – just for friends and family – as a holiday gift since so many people told me they wanted to hear me, but not everyone was able to come hear me play in the subway.”
“Literally,” she remembers, “the night before I was doing my first recording session, Ronnie Earl – who I had met serendipitously a couple of months before – told me he wanted to be on my record… It was an incredibly special experience and there is no question that I would not be where I am today without the encouragement and support from Ronnie Earl.”
Ronnie Earl played guitar and Jesse Williams played bass on Katz’s debut. The release also features vocalists Diane Blue and Marylou Ferrante, and Dotty Moore on fiddle harmonizing with Katz.
“There are so many stories that pop to mind,” she professes as she rehashes the time she spent making her debut release. “I will say that the record, and each musician on it, organically ended up connecting with me in the most wonderful ways, and I am truly grateful to each person who joined me and helped me make my debut record.”
She broaches, “The reason I called it I’ve Got Something to Tell You is that I realized that I had something – musically – to ‘say.'”
“Prior to recording the record,” she asserts, “I thought of myself as an interpreter of other people’s songs. During this recording process, I started to find my ‘voice’ and am forever grateful to all the musicians on this record. It makes my heart feel so happy to even see this question and think back to that very special time. That record was entirely recorded in my house. Many friendships blossomed from those recording sessions.”
Katz’s sophomore offering Movin’ On steered her further into honing her blend of roots music as she recounts how the album came together, “I picked songs that I loved and I thought would be cool to record with each set of musicians. On top of that, I ended up – again serendipitously – meeting Barry Levenson and recording two songs with him: Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Sweet to Mama’ and one of my originals ‘You Crush My Soul’ and it all unfolded into this record.”
“I called it Movin’ On,” she examines, “because I felt that I was really moving on from being an interpreter of other people’s songs and into being a singer-songwriter. I was a very new singer and during the week I spent in Louisiana recording the bulk of the record, I had a bad cold. For this reason, I don’t love my vocals on that record, but it is a record of that moment in time and I enjoyed that very much.”
She regards, “Movin’ On had a number of original songs I wrote, and I was nervous that they weren’t very good, but I recorded most of it with my dear, extremely talented friend Cedric Watson. He was so wonderful and supportive and allowed me to feel comfortable sharing my songs. I spent a magical music week with him at his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. We would record and take breaks and he’d cook and it was a really fun time. The rest of the record was recorded in Brooklyn with another very dear friend, Bobby Radcliff, who I met through Ronnie Earl.”
Katz’s third release Subway Stories is a homage to her years busking in Boston’s underground metro. For the recording, she worked once again with Barry Levenson, whom she prides, “We had a lot of fun! I went out to Los Angeles and spent some time with Barry and I have really fond memories of that time. We wrote some songs together and it was a more polished sound than my previous records, even though it’s still a pretty pared down record in a lot of ways. I loved working with Barry and having a chance to give a nod to being a subway performer.”
Subway Stories is dedicated to the Killer Blues Headstone Project, which provides headstones for blues musicians lying in unmarked graves. It’s a cause that Katz had donated many of her busking dollars and coins to over the years.
She recollects about the charity, “I think I saw something about it on Facebook, but as soon as I did, I really resonated with the honor that this organization gave to so many, musicians who were extremely important musicians – from my vantage.”
“They are pioneers of the music that inspired me and so many others,” she remarks about the charity’s beneficiaries. “Their lives were very challenging and many didn’t even have headstones to mark their graves. I knew I wanted to be a part of helping to remedy that, and I have been involved with them for a long time, sending them my busking dollars and-then-some to help honor musicians long gone.”
“I became friends with all the board members who are really, really cool people,” she relishes, “and so I wanted to dedicate that record to them to further shine a light on the work they continue to do.”
Over the years, canvassing her debut CD to her present endeavor, In My Mind, Katz has enjoyed performing live not only in subway stations but also at jazz and blues festivals, small clubs and parties. She beams, “There is nothing like live music. Energy is real and when you are in a physical space with other people, it is an entirely unique experience to that moment, and to the energy of each person. It does not compare to anything else.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” she clarifies, “I LOVE youtube, love that there is ‘Zoom’ and that people can play live on the Internet. Those are all amazingly wonderful experiences and resources to connect, but it is simply not the same as being with other human beings, whether it’s in the subway or on a festival main stage.”
She highlights, “I also love the spontaneous back and forth experience of playing live with others. I can’t say I love ‘big festivals’ more than ‘small clubs.’ I love it all, but I do feel like my home stage will always be the subway. I am so so, so lucky and look forward to many more cool experiences from the subway to small festivals and the festival main stage.”
In hindsight, she considers, “I never intended to be a professional musician. I was writing novels, trying to get published and went down to the subway because it made me feel happy. I didn’t think I was very good – musically. I continued to write novels and have one novel out, several others that are complete and I just haven’t had a chance to publish them but they are coming!”
“I also write screenplays,” she provides, “and I just wrote my first children’s book last year. Again, I haven’t had a chance to launch them as that takes time, but one by one, everything is getting out there.”
“I am also a visual artist,” she champions. “I sell my paintings and – in fact – my latest record has my original art on the front and back cover… I also create wearable art – from painted boots to decorated hats that I wear when I perform.”
“So I do a LOT of other things,” she sustains, “I also like to cook and bake and often bring home baked cookies to my gigs… I really am busy all the time and also exploring creatively. What else can I make? I see the world as my visual and auditory canvas,” she smiles.
From her professional endeavors to her extracurricular activities, Katz realizes, “As I had no intention of becoming a solo artist ‘or’ a singer, I have really come a long way, but still have a very long way to go. But that is okay!,” she twinkles.
“Life is about learning and I enjoy the exploration of both singing and songwriting,” she imparts. “I find lyrics flow to me all the time, and I have been focusing on both the messages and ‘stories’ of the songs I sing and my delivery of the lyrics.”
“I think about how my performances can be better and better,” she reflects, “and that is a joyful experience as well. I feel it’s a great privilege and joy to be a musician and am grateful that others enjoy what I do, especially as I am a little unusual as a solo blues fiddler, singer, songwriter.”
She ascertains, “The more I practice, the more I learn and I believe that I have more to offer others – energetically – through my music. But as I said, I still have a lot to learn, and I enjoy the entire process.”
The relationship Ilana Katz Katz has with her audience is completely reciprocal. She enjoys spending time with them, and they enjoy listening to her stories and hearing her perform. She has carved out a niche herself, prolifically building more roots in the field of roots music, while also remembering those luminaries who came before her. The roots her predecessors made did not die with them but continue to sprout. Katz is proof that more roots can be made and thrive in modern times.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.