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A Curious Calling: Ian Siegal, Blues Musician

Xanthi Barker discovers everyone gets the blues

Written by . Published on August 30th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Ian Siegal, Blues Musician

WHEN you begin by singing for your supper on the chaotic streets of a newly wall-less Berlin, it may not seem like you will end up professional and residing in the leafy streets of Crouch End. But perhaps, in the words of Jackson C. Frank: 

Try another city, baby,
Another town,
Wherever I have gone,
Wherever I've been and gone,
Wherever I have gone
The blues come following down.

Or perhaps, in the sand-paper growl of Mr. Siegal himself:

There must be a reason
I always fall
Butter side up

From his art-school-escapee beginnings under the thumb of the Polish busking mafia, Ian has become a hero of the British blues scene – and definitely not in the endless solo, ‘guitar hero’ sense of the word. Winning the British Blues Band category of the 2010 British Blues Awards and MOJO’s Best Blues Album in 2009, his form of blues has its howling tongue stuck firmly in its cheek and its stamping feet stuck firmly on the ground.

It was just after the wall came down so the vibe was amazing – twenty-four hour party. I would be staggering home from a night out and be dragged into a bar full of locals and forced to play German songs ’til morning. 

I just noticed your gold tooth – where did that come from?
A friend of mine is a dentist. I played his wedding and we were not quite sober, let’s say. I mentioned I’d like a gold tooth and he said he’d do it for me for nothing. We didn’t discuss it again but I went to see him a couple of weeks later and he pulled my perfectly healthy, nothing-wrong-with-it tooth out and went, “oh, is £200 all right? Half price!” Too late now. I had to have a false one fitted while the gold one was being made. I think other people regret it more than I do. I don’t have to look at it.

Ian Siegal09 73A bit like having a tattoo then...
I’ve got plenty of those. Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters...

Are they your musical Holy Trinity?

Well, I could’ve got so many others. But the other choices were still alive and I thought that was tempting fate. Like Little Richard. He’s my number one, my pin-up. I still get excited by him. Like a teenager! But he’s getting on and I thought if I tattoo him, that’ll seal his fate. So Johnny Cash was next.

He was my first proper music love too.
He sings anything and it sounds good – it’s like the voice of God. I’ve started doing this thing at gigs where I try to pick the least cool song possible and do it as Johnny Cash. I did ‘Summer of ’69’ by Bryan Adams and it sounds like the coolest song you’ve ever heard – with really deep meaning in the lyrics. And I always loved ‘One’ by U2, but Cash’s version just has that extra gravitas.

What was it like busking in Berlin? Were you living on the streets?
I didn’t have to, I chose to. I was living a bit of a fantasy. But I was living hand to mouth so I had to learn to get good very quickly. It was just after the wall came down so the vibe was amazing – twenty-four hour party. I would be staggering home from a night out and be dragged into a bar full of locals and forced to play German songs ’til morning.

Did you make a lot of money?
No, I made so little! There was this busking mafia operating. Every Friday morning you had to get your license for a specific train station. The busking mafia, mostly Polish guys, would cue up in rota from Thursday night to Friday morning. They’d get the equivalent of Leicester Square, Covent Garden. They would beat you up if you tried to hustle in on their game. You’d be left with the London equivalent of Hanger Lane, playing to nobody. I had to play eight hours a day just to make rent. I ended up knowing a hell of a lot of songs.

Ian Siegal%28By Roy Cano%29

How did you get to have more stable working conditions?
I moved back to England, went up to Nottingham and put a band together. That’s where the name Siegal came from – we called the band ‘Mr. Siegal’ after a Tom Waits song and people just started calling me Ian Siegal. We were playing five or six nights a week, and getting paid. There was a circuit then. It’s all disappeared now with pubs shutting down and people not affording music licenses. When I arrived in London there was a real blues buzz. There were a lot of now pretty famous blues musicians around, who were just getting their stuff together at the time.

Do you get the blues?

I think everyone does in some way or another. It’s a pure form of human experience – everyone suffers heartbreak and loss. But blues can be party music too.

What do you write songs about?
Usually a phrase comes up, or I’ll read something or hear something and it sets something off. I was watching this movie Kalifornia with Brad Pitt, about this character called Early Grace and I liked the name. It’s about a serial killer, who comes out with all these biblical quotes. I wrote a song about him. Another time I was struggling to write this new album and someone suggested I wrote a song as if it was a soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino film. Quentin Tarantino in my head morphed into ‘Quarantine’. I thought it would be funny if ‘Quarantine’ was the name of a woman, a bad woman – she’s dangerous, she’ll get you in trouble.

What’s your favourite song of all time?

That is impossible!

Of the moment?

There are so many. There’s one, as a real standard – Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’. I love Sam Cooke.


To read about more curious callings, please click here

Find out about Ian’s upcoming shows at www.iansiegal.com

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