Interviews & Features

Keb’ Mo’ Taj-es It All Together

Blues and roots veteran teams with hero for new album

By Gary Graff
June 2, 2016

It’s hard to put a firm finger on exactly what Kevin Moore — better-known as Keb’ Mo’ — is, musically. He’s stirred his blend of various forms of blues, folk, country and other Americana roots styles over the course of more than a dozen studio albums and countless collaborations. He’s won three Grammy awards in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category and has been nominated for several others — including one for Best Children’s Album. Mo’ has recorded and worked with a variety of other artists as well, including his latest project — TajMo, a pairing with forebear and personal hero Taj Mahal. The duo’s 11-song album, which features some intriguing guests and cover songs, came out in early May, and they’ll be touring together into the fall, and it certainly gives Mo’ something exciting to talk about…

FGPO: So how did TajMo happen?

Keb’ Mo’: It started I guess about three years ago now, two or three years ago. Taj asked me about doing some recording together when we were in Atlanta doing the Gregg Allman tribute, so I said “yeah” and then we just made a plan. He came over a few months later and started the record, and two months later we had a record. There was a lot of traveling, a lot of working in-between tours, and the touring got in the way of making the record. But we got it done.

FGPO: Where all did you work on it?

Keb’ Mo’: He lives in Berkeley, California, and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. It was primarily done at my house and a bit at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Some overdubs were flown in by Sheila E. and other people, so those were the three main ways we did it.

FGPO: What makes you and Taj such a good fit?

Keb’ Mo’: I think when I first started the project I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what working with him in the studio would be like, so I started out very carefully, making sure I didn’t cross any lines. But as we started working, I found out there was a lot of trust between us in terms of what we were doing, and once that was established it became very easy to work and the whole record became pretty seamless to put together. It was fun. The album almost made itself; we worked our asses off, but neither of us noticed it.

FGPO: It sounds like it was important to you that TajMo, as collaboration or “group,” have its own kind of sound distinct from what you do on your own.

Keb’ Mo’: Yeah, for sure. It’s not just an ego collaboration between the two of us to see what we can do together. I think it has relevance in a big way in terms of its blues. There’s a hard-core blues thing in it, a world music, pop culture vibe to it. If you followed Taj’s career he’s always been that kind of artist, broad. I’ve tried to pattern myself after him, trying to be a broad artist, broad musically. That has its price sometimes, too; when you’re too broad people can’t really nail you down or define you, so you have fun doing it but you confuse the audience a little. I don’t mind confusing the audience, though. [laughs]

FGPO: You’ve won a few awards, including Grammys, in blues category. Is that as comfortable to you as folk or roots or Americana?

Keb’ Mo’: Yeah, I’m even more comfortable with that…Maybe not more comfortable, but I understand it better and know what it means. B.B. King did different things, but B.B. King is the blues, and when I get down and play the blues, that’s really kind of where I feel most at home, anyway. It’s OK to do something else, but you’re still gonna be considered the blues.

FGPO: So you never think: “What am I doing in THIS category?” Or anything?

Keb’ Mo’: Nah. I mean, I know people voted for me for the Grammys not even hearing the record. [laughs] People don’t have time to listen; that’s very clear. So that to me signifies it’s a popularity party, but people trust me after all this time, so it’s a compliment.

FGPO: You have some interesting guests on here. Joe Walsh plays on a few songs, including a cover of the Who’s “Squeeze Box.” How did he get there?

Keb’ Mo’: Joe was in town, in Nashville. I forgot who told me he was in town, but he called up and said: “Man, I wanna come by! I wanna come by!” So he came by; I thought he was going to come visit, but he walked in with his little Telecaster and little amp, ready to go. He ended up playing on “Om Sweet Om” and “Shake Me In Your Arms” and then “Squeeze Box.”

FGPO: You and Taj both have histories with Bonnie Raitt, who’s on “Waiting For The World To Change.”

Keb’ Mo’: We were in Berkeley working on the record, not far from San Francisco, where she lives. We just called her. She was rehearsing with her band for her tour, and she dropped by the studio just to hang out and listened to the record. When “Waiting On The World To Change” came around we said: “Want to sing a little background?” “Sure.” It’s a tasteful guest spot, not an in-your-face Bonnie Raitt guest spot. You hear it and you know it’s her, but it could take a second if you’re not listening.

FGPO: How did you pick the covers for the album?

Keb’ Mo’: I thought it would be great to have some covers that everybody knows so they could kind of bring it together. There’s Taj’s thing, there’s my thing; they’re not exactly the same, but people think of us the same. But I still wanted to have a song on the record that would scoop up time. I thought “Squeeze Box” has that feel to it; everyone’s heard it, it’s fun. The treatment we did on it was a whole lot of fun to do. And “Waiting For The World To Change,” I thought that was bringing in something from a contemporary artist [John Mayer] who was respected and a song that really means something. I thought it was an important song for all generations.

FGPO: Neither you nor Taj are strangers to topical songs. Did the tenor of the times have much impact on this album?

Keb’ Mo’: It’s funny; This record had nothing to do with the current political climate. We recorded it before the campaign, so it was just songs that we thought were cool. Then when “All Around The World” came in and “Soul” and “Waiting On The World To Change,” all of a sudden the timing of the record started to take on its own significance. It wasn’t by design, but now it really has great purpose.

FGPO: You and Taj are both word-of-mouth kind of artists. Does today’s technology help get that word out?

Keb’ Mo’: Y’know, I’m not necessarily a very aggressive marketing guy. [laughs] I think going back to the old model is the way to go. I like for the music to go out there and find its way; it’s more fun if it’s not shoved down people’s throats, if people hear it or someone says: “That’s what I’ve been looking for right there!” without the push. Look at the way we used to get music, like in the ‘50s and ‘60s when there weren’t that many record stores. We got music in barber shops and little stores, or at the place where you bought your record players. Now it’s off the Internet and at gigs and places like that. So these are cool times. If you’re smart you can make a good record and market it on your own and get that word-of-mouth going. I think it’s great.