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Todd Sharpville

An interview with the blue blooded bluesman Todd Sharpville

Todd Sharpville CD: Porchlight
Record Label: M.I.G. Music
by Tina Hall
November 2010

It isn’t everyday you come across a Blues musician who comes from one of the UK’s oldest aristocrat families(with a history that spans a thousand years), but Todd Sharpville is just that. Nor is it everyday you find one that plays so well they have been asked to open for the likes of BB King and Joe Cocker.

No stranger to the blues himself after his marriage ended, Todd found himself being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and spent 4 years fighting for his children. It was during this hospitalization he was asked by Leo Sayer to make guest appearances on 5 tracks (with Sayer driving 8 hours to negotiate face to face with the hospitals chief consultant to get Sharpville released a week early in order to be flown out to the studio in Denmark..whilst still wearing his pajamas,slippers and a dressing gown!)

With is whiskey soaked voice and music played from the soul he pours all of his past experience into the music in a most intriguing fashion. His latest offering the double album Porchlight(produced by the legendary Duke Robillard, featuring special guests: Joe Louis Walker, Duke Robillard, and Kim Wilson) is due to hit the US in November 2010.

Maximum Ink: Can you tell us a little about your background? What is it like to come from a family which such an extensive history?
Todd Sharpville: Personally, I’ve never known any different so my family history seems totally run of the mill to me. I’m exceptionally privileged to be able to trace my Welsh heritage back beyond William The Conqueror.. My Welsh line is mixed with Hastings lineage (which additionally spans the Plantagenet line, from Henry VI back to the 14th century and Edward III). There have been many great men in my family, along with a fair few total bastards!! One of my favorite’s is relatively recent,Roland Philipps (who was sadly killed in the first world war) was a close friend of Lord Baden-Powell and one of the most formative influences on the birth of the Scout movement. I love the ethos of the Scouts and the positive effect they continue to bestow upon cultures across the globe. I was brought up with a strong sense of responsibility to my family name that’s always been centered around the notion of making a positive contribution to society. The privilege that’s attached to my background is always accompanied by the responsibility of having to improve the world that surrounds me as best as possible. One of the obituaries after my dad’s death stated that he “believed in using his stentorian voice on behalf of those who did not have a voice.” That’s what traditional aristocracy is supposed to entail & I’m determined to do my damnedest to live by my dad’s ethics as best I can.

MI: Do you ever get tired of people mentioning that? Do you think your career would be..easier without the association?
TS: Frankly, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when folks mention it. I’m honored that people show an interest in my roots & I’m blessed to have strong enough roots to beg the discussion in the first place. As for my career, I’m a bluesman. Being a bluesman is never easy, regardless of where you hail from! It’s all about the soulfulness of the playing.. As long as that’s how it should be, it doesn’t make an iota of a difference if you’re black, white, rich or poor; everyone gets the blues! Folks like John Hammond, Bonnie Raitt, Tab Benoit, Mike Bloomfield all came from privileged backgrounds yet their blues credentials speak for themselves.

MI: What led you to become a musician in the first place? Who are some of your influences?
TS: I wasn’t particularly fond of the mainstream musical culture I grew up in so I regressed back to the 1950’s and surrounded myself with “Teddy Boy” culture between the ages of 7-13. The first gigs I sought out as a kid were guys like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis etc. The only current act of the time that I particularly dug was the Stray Cats. It was via my fascination with Buddy Holly that I fell in love with the guitar & via my fascination with early Elvis that I wanted to learn more about the blues. I asked for a blues album for my 12th birthday so my old man took me to a record store and let me pick out whatever I wanted. I knew nothing about the blues at the time so I just went for the album cover that best represented my idea of what I thought a blues guy should look like.. It was a Freddie King album. I had an epiphany halfway through the third track which immediately left me wanting to follow in Freddie’s footsteps.. Up until then, I’d always wanted to be a surgeon. Having spent a veritable fortune on my education, my folks weren’t best pleased!

MI: What was it like to have the chance to open for BB King and Joe Cocker?
TS: Mr. Cocker is a particularly down to earth guy with a great sense of humor. I’m totally convinced that he would be happily working an average wage as a club singer every night if he hadn’t have happened to have been “Joe Cocker the singing legend”! He’s a true muso, through & through. No bullshit, it’s all about the art with him. I’ve learned a huge amount by being able to study him from close up while he works.. For instance, those night’s when he’s ill with a stinking cold, he gives it 1000% extra emotion and nails the gig regardless of whether he’s carrying his range that night. No-one would possibly know there was a problem because his genuine priority is to touch hearts as opposed to relying on some tacky display of vocal pyrotechnics. It’s exactly what Solomon Burke did every time he opened his mouth to sing, Joe’s in the same league. There’s millions of technically great singers out there, yet singers like Joe Cocker are one in a million. My good buddy Mike Finnigan plays Hammond B3 in Joe’s band so I frequently tell him how jealous I am of him for it! I keep asking him when he’s going to “nobble” the guitar player with a freak “accident” so I can step in!

As for BB King? What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said by everyone who’s ever met him?! He’s a musical force of nature, a lovely soul, and a real gentleman. A freak of human perfection! His first two Crown albums & “Live At The Regal” were my staple diet for a long, long time as a kid. Opening for him is one of the greatest honors that could ever be bestowed to any guitar player, period!

MI: You also worked with Mick Taylor from the Rolling Stones and the legendary Chuck Berry. What did you learn from those experiences? What are they like as people?
TS: To be honest, I know very little of Chuck Berry the person. I played rhythm guitar for him a few times in my youth & they were relatively pleasant, laid back occasions. I’d love to say that we hung out socially but we never did. I was a hired gun & he’s a very private man.. He came across as friendly (with a fabulously naughty sense of humor!). Very strict though. I idolized him when I was the 50’s throwback retro kid & I guess I still do. He was one of those blessed few who wrote the book of rock n’ roll.. I’m exceptionally proud that my 12 year old daughter is currently one of his biggest fans. She discovered him all by herself too!

Mick is a lovely guy, a very gentle soul. I can apply everything I said about Cocker to Mick also. He’s been through so much in life & yet he’s been permanently branded by his Rolling Stones & his John Mayall history. People rarely consider him in the light of the player he is today & more so choose to focus on the period of his life that marked the beginning of his musical journey. For instance, his awesome contribution to Dylan’s “Infidels” album went largely unnoticed (along with the fact that Mick toured for many years as Dylan’s musical director). There have been a host of glorious eras of Mick’s musical life that people seem to be blissfully unaware of.. He’s a very deep artist & I hold him in high regard. There was once a moment when we were in a dressing room together taking a break between sets when I was stressing.. I wasn’t happy with my performance that night & I went off on a self-depreciatory Woody Allenesque rant about how I was “failing the people”, “failing myself” etc. Mick coolly peered at me from behind his beer bottle, paused and then whispered “it’s ONLY music Todd.. it’s NOT life or death.. it’s ONLY music.” To this day I often think of him, repeating his words in my head whenever I start to stress & need to calm myself down in a hurry. I’ve never told him either. Hey Mick! If you’re reading this, thanks mate!

MI: If you don’t mind my asking, you had a nervous breakdown at one point while dealing with your divorce and loss of your children. Do you have any advice to offer our readers who are dealing with similar family issues? And to those who are dealing with mental troubles? Do you feel treatment is a must? What did you learn from that whole ordeal?
TS: Damn, that’s a lot of questions on a subject I could probably write a lot of books about!! Most guys rarely talk much to one another about the depth of their individual plights.. Men tend to bottle things up until they either seemingly vanish or explode.. My teens prepared me for life’s breakups, but nothing ever prepared me for the notion that I might become forcibly separated from my kids. Also, the last year of my marriage was incredibly stressful so I was emotionally exhausted by the time we actually broke up. I went through a hideous period of mourning.. I grieved the loss of my relationship, the loss of my children, the loss of home as I knew it, the loss of my dreams & aspirations for the future… My wife wanted to establish some control over me & chose to use contact with the kids (either wittingly or unwittingly) as her means to do it. Everyone knows about my heritage on my dad’s side but few people know that my mother is Chilean. I have a lot of Latin blood in me. I’m therefore a typically Latin dad. So yeah, the fight for contact was a tough road. The system is generally prejudiced to dads because it’s seen so many shit ones. It’s therefore set up in a way where there’s an automatic presumption that you’re shit… It’s up to you to prove that you’re a great parent, but it can take time, patience & a lot of money before they start to actually listen to you. A lot of men give up in the process because it either drives them mad, bankrupts them, or both. Personally, I could never envisage a world where I was distant from my childrens’ lives so I simply refused to quit. I’m so glad I stuck it out because to this day, they remain to be the biggest joy in my life.

As for treatment, everyone is different. Out of all the treatments I was exposed to, music proved to be my biggest healer. It reminded me that I had self worth, it catharticly allowed me to exhale the pain, and it re-established my connection with the world around me. It got me interacting with life again after I’d simply shut down & internally gone silent. I was withdrawn and apathetic about everything. I felt like I was a ghost, witnessing the world going by whilst invisibly being unable to influence anyone or anything. I was trapped in a dream like existence that was permanently overcast with the dark shadow of sadness. Like George Harrison so eloquently sang: “Beware Of Darkness.” It can indeed be incredibly damaging. These experiences gave me a small glimpse into the soul of Peter Green and they totally re-affirmed my lifelong admiration for the man & his genius. Anyway, offering advice to anyone suffering from depression as to how to beat it is futile. Anyone suffering who’s reading this will agree with me (though I did manage to make you smile briefly while you acknowledged the fact!). We all get off the merry go round for different reasons & need to heal in our own way & our own time before we find ourselves unwittingly getting back on it again. There’s an individuality to pain that accompanies our individuality as people. The medical community ought to learn to respect that a bit more. I can offer advise as to how to live WITH pain though. Surround yourself with other sufferers. Reminding yourself that you’re one of many is subtly empowering in a strange way. It’s an esteemed club that everyone should be proud to be a part of. After all, pain makes us much deeper individuals. It affords us a far greater understanding & appreciation of our fellow man. It separates us from all that’s superficial. This Nietzsche quote says it all: “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities - I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not - that one endures.

MI: What was it like to be flown out of there still in your pj’s and slippers? Where you relieved to be out and doing what you love?? Do you feel particularly grateful to Leo Sayer?
TS: Sure, Leo busting me out of hospital & sticking me on a flight to Denmark in my PJ’s was something that’s now hilarious in retrospect. At the time though, I was medicated up to my eyeballs & didn’t have a clue as to where I was or what was going on. I’m pretty sure my fellow passengers must have thought I was a bit weird! The residential studio I arrived at was a bit like the hospital though, strangely comforting in its institutional nature. I was led into a quiet control room, politely offered some pot, some bourbon, and a dirty joke. I was then handed a guitar. My moment of reckoning came when Leo pushed record, the song started & I began playing.. Everything suddenly came flooding out. It was the most liberating of experiences; a memory that will remain permanently etched into my skull. Am I grateful to Leo? After he went through all that effort to fix my spirits in the studio (having turned down an offer from Jeff Beck to play on his album in favor of taking a BIG punt on little ol’ me!). He then moved me into his house for a month in order to distance me from the unhealthy environment of living 5 minutes away from my kids whilst being unable to see them at the time. Am I grateful to Leo? Ha! What the hell do you think?!

MI: What is your favorite Blues song of all time?
TS: This is often asked of me along with “who’s your favorite guitar player of all time?” I always answer it with another question. “Of each of your children, who’s your favorite?” When people think hard on that one, most of them get what I’m on about (apart from the poor buggers who’ve been cursed with an Antichrist for a child!). I’d need to compare each of my favorite songs in order to answer the question, but of course, each one is beautifully unique and therefore incomparable. Apples n’ Oranges!

MI: What is one little known thing about you, which no one else knows (that you are at liberty to share)?
TS: My soul searching answer:
Few people know about much of the unnecessary anguish I tend to put myself through when I’m touring. As long as my emotions rest on a knife edge, I’m prone to bear more of myself on stage. I therefore unwittingly wind myself into an emotionally vulnerable state at the beginning of each trip & then keep myself there 24/7 for fear of losing my spiritual mojo each night when I play… A bit like a method actor staying in character for the duration of a movie, even when he’s off set. My main concern before each gig is that the audience gets to connect with the true depths of me, rather than some cynical show of ego or the urge to impress. I’m sure though that I could probably do it in a far healthier, more relaxed way.. Yoga or something like that would probably be the answer but I always manage to choose the hard way instead! It makes my temperament akin to that of a pregnant woman much of the time when I’m offstage. Hot, cold, angry, deliriously happy, freakishly sad, bursting with confidence, racked with self-doubt, all within the same 10 minutes! As you can imagine, my band & tour manager are incredibly patient people. I’ve no idea how they tolerate me.

My superficial answer:
I’ve always believed that everyone has an inner geek, mine happens to be into sharks & poetry in a big way. Sharks n’ Poetry.. Hmmm… Sounds like a Spinal Tap album title! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been enamored by the world of the Isurus Oxyrinchus, the Carcharhinus Leucas, the Somniosus Microcephalus & (of course!) the awe inspiring Carcharodon Carcharias.. I love scuba & the underwater world (one of my homes sits on a marina, right on the ocean). Now, if you can find me a shark who can recite John Donne, Wordsworth, Byron or Tennyson I’ll gladly marry it here & now (although my ex wasn’t much into poetry, she did resemble a shark in a host of ways!).

MI: Do you have any amusing stories to share with our readers?
TS: Too many, most of them are unrepeatable in public. I recently went through a slightly eccentric phase whilst doing the Pink & the Joe Cocker supports.. I wrote & directed a mini movie that involved Leo Sayer dressed up as Queen Elisabeth II. She’s playing poker with me at Buckingham Palace over a bottle of JD on a beautiful antique card table, sharing a joint whilst we play. We’re in a resplendent room surrounded by silver-wear & portraits, with a guards officer standing to attention in the background in full regimental uniform (including the bearskin). It’s a little comedy short that we’d show the crowd on the big plasma screens at the start of each of the gigs… I’d walk on stage having seemingly rushed there from the Queen, still wearing what I had on in the movie. We had the stages all dressed in red velvet, my guitars sitting on thrones instead of guitar stands, etc. The middle of each show would feature a segment where I’d go lie down on a chaise lounge that sits on top of a riser and I’d play a teasing solo while I’m fed grapes by a couple of naked women.. The shows would end with someone dressed up as the Queen riding on stage on chrome plated Harley Davidson. I’d jump on the back and she’d whisk me away while the band plays me out. Pink thought I was totally crazy but seemed happy to tolerate her weird opening act’s antics. She was very pleasant & funny to boot. The first night, she picked up a tee shirt that had been thrown at her by a fan, took off her top in front of 10,000 people to reveal nothing underneath, then loudly proclaimed while swinging her boobs about & swapping shirts that if that “Sharpville guy’s gonna have naked tits on my stage then so am I!” Cocker on the other hand would look on as though what I was doing was the most normal thing in the world. Mad dogs & Englishmen. I think we’re a similar kind of crazy!

MI: How would you describe your music?
TS: I’ve no idea. I suddenly feel like Nigel Tufnel or David St Hubbins in the garden, talking about “flower people” and “bizarre gardening accidents”!  I guess I play contemporary blues. My grooves absorb a lot of influences from around the USA.. A bit of Texas, a bit of New Orleans, a bit of West Coast, a touch of Chicago, a smidgeon of Delta, a fair amount of gospel. My main focus is that everything has to center around the song. The song is king to me, so everything else is put there to compliment it. I also really get off on great lyrics, so aside from all my blues favorites, I’m equally inspired by Dylan, John Prine, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, guys like that. I’m always keen to ensure that I don’t record much in the way of fillers, so the majority of what I write is therefore wholly song orientated. I’ll do occasional cheeky witticisms but I also offer a good line in sad! To be frank, I suck at describing my music so I’m gonna leave it to your readers to figure out!

MI: Can you tell us about the new album Porchlight? What can our reader expect from it?
TS: I guess it says a lot about the last 5 years of my life. It touches on many of my emotions, my perceptions, my sense of humor, and my philosophy. Perhaps that’s why it’s a double album. I’ve always got far too much to say in far too little time! Of course, the entire recording process was colored by my father’s death, so it was pretty intense & emotional (though I mean that in an upbeat, positive kind of way). All the great musicians involved managed to individually guarantee that there was a fair amount magic in the air while we were recording, and I’m pretty convinced we managed to capture much of it on the record. The sessions swiftly became joyful occasions for all of us while at the same time providing us plenty of juicy challenges. New England has become a home from home for me because of it.. I don’t have a local bar back in the UK, but I do in Rhode Island. The songs touch on a variety of issues. Fathers rights, man against nature, plus size women, heroin, God, family & the afterlife, some comedy. There’s a fair bit there to chew on. I hope it turns out to be different to whatever people expect it to be. I’d like Porchlight to be able to knock down any misconceptions of what I’m all about.

MI: Do you plan to tour the US in support of your latest work?
TS: Absolutely! Plans and strategies are in the process of being drawn up and the powers that be are currently negotiating dates with all the local bandits. I plan to spend a fair amount of time traversing the length & breadth of the USA next year.

MI: What projects are you looking forward to bringing to the people next?
TS: At some point or another, I’m going to have to revisit “Diary Of A Drowning Man”, do some remixes and finally release it. It was far too intense a journey to leave in a draw collecting dust. I’d also love to do another record with Duke & the guys, I’m already missing them all! Strangely enough, I’d love to one day do a covers album of standards, but where I get to turn each song upside down & totally bluesify it. Anthems of different genres that mark their individual eras. Show everyone that although everything comes from the blues, it can in turn easily go back to it.

MI: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
TS: Only that I’m grateful to your readers for getting through the entire interview and managing to reach this bit with their sanity intact. You’ve made it all the way to the end & now you may rest. Go and make yourself a cup of tea. Roll yourself a smoke. You’ve damn well earned it!

Purchase Porchlight on Amazon.com
Download Porchlight on Amazon.com

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