Keb’ Mo’ has a new album, Oklahoma, which features appearances by Rosanne Cash, Robert Randolph, and Taj Mahal and more. The album is full of both serious and lighthearted lyrical topics, and meets all the highest musical expectations too. When we caught up with him by phone, it was two days after he had received an honorary degree from Williams College as well.
AH: Congratulations on your honorary degree from Williams’ College! What was that experience like?
Keb’ Mo’: It was cosmic. They are such fine people and it’s such a great school. I was really honored and taken aback. There is something special about that place, that community, it is a magical place. It’s more than just a school. It really is magical. I am still processing it.
AH: Your new album is “Oklahoma” it’s full of emotionally direct lyrics and messages, and the music is just very catchy and groovy. The first song, “I Remember You,” starts off creating this fun nostalgia.
KM: That song is like a little movie, with all these characters. The narrator is “Junior” and there is this woman who comes to the bar, nobody knows why she is there. We really don’t know anything, who she is, what happened. We could write a little miniseries about it. All we know is that Junior had a night he would never forget. Maybe she had a one-night stand with him, a dirty little one-night stand and then she went back to her ‘high class’ place. You have to fill in your own details.
AH: The next song is really uplifting, again, with groovy music, and Robert Randolph appears on this one. It’s the title track: “Oklahoma.” How did the state of Oklahoma capture your attention?
KM: It just came into my space, I was working on that piece of music and I was singing and it just appeared. I was like: “what the f-ck is that?” But I just delved into it and my co-writer happened to be from Oklahoma but that was coincidence. That song just came in and announced itself, and it even said “oh and by the way I might even be your title cut, so just let it flow and we’ll talk later.” (laughs)
AH: Is that how songs come to you? Sort of flowing from your subconscious?
KM: Some do. Some are intentional, but some come from a subconscious kind of place. And that song “Oklahoma” was definitely from a subconscious kind of place.
AH: It’s such a fascinating process to consider, that for some people, songs just come to them.
KM: But, you know, those are just my thoughts. I put my thoughts into songs. But thoughts come to each of us. We get thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. We get a feeling and then we can choose to go into a place where we explore it, until we really understand and know what it is. Those feelings, those vibrations, are important and real. Everybody has them. I have learned a little bit to trust that when they come to me, I trust that if it has come to me, there might be something to it. I try to listen as opposed to dismissing them as random thoughts.
AH: Maybe people push valuable thoughts away sometimes.
KM: Yes, when you think things like “I’ll get that thought out of my head,” you might be repressing something important. Instead of doing that, I try to stay open to consider that maybe they are trying to tell me something.
AH: You also have these songs that are more political, at least three of them, on this album. They have direct messages over irresistible rootsy music. Do you think that songs can help reach people and help bring about change?
KM: For me it’s about connectedness. There are a lot of people holding back secrets and things they aren’t talking about. Maybe a song can spark something so that people will start talking about those things. If I’m writing about something and I am really feeling it, I figure: how many feelings can there be out there? There aren’t that many: there’s love, fear, hope, there’s optimism. We all feel these same basic feelings. That’s what I’m banking on, that when I’m feeling something or when I’m going through something that’s something other people are going through it too. And that’s really all.
AH: You released “Put a Woman in Charge” ahead of the album, and that song features Rosanne Cash. But you also discuss “walls” in that song.
KM: There are so many walls, and borders and walls have been an issue for ages. And this tension over what’s yours and mine and don’t cross that line, you stay on your side I’ll stay on mine. Immigration is about walls, and “Woman in Charge” is a statement on the fact that we need new ideas. Let’s get some new ideas. Men and women may tend to process things a little differently, and in term of making decisions and leadership, a woman is just as likely as a man to make a good decision, or a bad decision. But the feminine energy, and having equality as a balance of the masculine and feminine energy, corroborating in life, is what it’s more about.
AH: I also had seen that you played at the White House in 2015, did you meet President Obama?
KM: Yes that was fantastic, and I met Michelle too. And Obama is a charismatic amazing leader, but Michelle is the real deal. No disrespect to him, but she is that “woman behind the man.” To accomplish what he accomplished, he needed a support system that is equal or greater to what he was doing. And Michelle is that.
AH: “Don’t Throw It Away,” with Taj Mahal, is an anthem for the environment.
KM: I wrote that for www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org. I am a part of that organization. That is one of the causes that is near and dear to me. That song talks about plastics, so the first line is: “Leo B had a big idea.” Leo Baekeland invented plastic in Belgium. He had a big idea to invent something that wouldn’t disappear. “You just can’t beat it until it gets to the ocean and the fish start to eat it.” Our environment has so many facets that need our attention and the plastic problem is only one aspect, there’s the rainforest and issues of fresh water, there are a lot of vital issues. And they deserve our attention.
AH: “This is My Home” is a very gentle but it’s also a very stirring, powerful song. It has a character from Mexico and one from Pakistan and they fall in love and end up married.
KM: It’s disarming but it is telling a story. They became a truly American family, with roots. Then there is a character from Africa, and that part of the story has bite.
AH: There’s such a family feel to that song, and that feeling recurs through the album, and it got me wondering to what extent is family and fatherhood a transformative element for you, and how does it influence you and deepen your sense of connection.
KM: Fatherhood is a big deal. I have two sons, a 12 year old, and a 31 year old. And the 12 year old, he is right at the “dude” phase. The “dude” is starting to come out, the “dude” is almost there. (laughs) But you know, I’m also still raising the 31 year old. He will still call me to talk about things, he’ll want to talk about his girlfriend, and I’ll say: “Are you trying to fix everything?” and he’ll say “yeah.” And I’ll say, “Well that’s your problem right there. Stop trying to fix it all, just nod, listen very carefully, and ask questions.” (laughs) Family is very important. And I have two marriages that didn’t last, and I don’t like to think of them as failing, those relationships still last, you know? The relationships are what they are, and there’s parenthood, and there’s family, and sometimes there’ll be an event and the whole blended family is there, with my wife and the kids and my ex wives all in the same room.
AH: The song “The Way I” is solo acoustic, it a more introspective, personal song
KM: That song is about depression. It takes him until the end before he says it’s about “The Way I” love you. Up until then, it just kind of hangs there, he has trouble saying it, it’s like a little “choke up” and he can’t quite say it. And then in the end he has to say it, so he says it.
AH: “I Should Have” then is a playful mockery of the idea that the grass is always greener.
KM: It’s a fun argument, you and your old boyfriends, and I should have stayed with that show girl. (She was actually a stripper, you thought she was overweight). (laughs)
AH: The album covers such a range of human experiences and emotions.
KM: It was really cool that you got into it, in this day and age it’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to the album. I hope people will pay attention to it.
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
KM: We will have a Christmas album this year, so stay tuned for that. I have been working on so many projects the past few months, and they are all finished. We’ve been working on the Christmas project and producing other records, and now I am finished with that studio work, the studio is a junk pile right now. I’ve produced albums recently for Ana Popovic, G. Love, Jontavious Willis, and Rebecca Correia. And now those things are finished for now, I’m heading out on tour.
Upcoming shows and tours including European dates, check here: https://kebmo.com For our review of the album, look here: REVIEW: Keb’ Mo’s “Oklahoma” is Ignited Yet Organic Like Smooth Pine