Bad Shit Is Good For You
An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt. 2)
Words: Vincent Abbate / PHOTO: Jennifer Noble
In the first part of my interview with Todd Sharpville, the veteran British bluesman spoke about the many artists who have inspired him and his unique strategy for staying busy when live gigs dried up during the COVID pandemic. Part two of our conversation is about his recent performance on Germany’s legendary Rockpalast program and how the personal challenges of the past have made him a more resilient and happier man today.
Who Is Blues: For my money, your album Medication Time is one of the best blues albums of recent years. When did you record it and what led to the release on the French label DixieFrog?
Todd Sharpville: I recorded it in Rhode Island, where the producer Duke Robillard is based, and planned to release it prior to the lockdown. The Covid era changed everything. I touched base with Dixiefrog after the third lockdown and thankfully, they loved the tracks.
WIB: The release of Medication Time seems to have led to your invitation to perform on Rockpalast, Germany’s longest-running live music program. A career-changing event possibly?
Todd Sharpville: As I said earlier, so much of the grassroots landscape has been torn apart by the crisis, so I was hoping the album would somehow help me get things back on track. My lockdown project left me with a huge amount of personal debt, so I kept my fingers crossed when Medication Time was finally unveiled. The album received so many lovely reviews from around the world, which prompted the German TV company WDR to contact me. They kindly offered me the Rockpalast gig which was a personal honor to do. I’ve recently concluded a record deal for the recording which will be released as a live double album/DVD boxset this year. I’ve taken on a new booking agent because of it and will be touring heavily for most of next year. So yes, Rockpalast has helped to unlock a new door to my future as an artist.
WIB: It’s perhaps unfair to single out individual players in the band you put together for that evening, but I was struck in particular by the excellence of the rhythm section with Steve Rushton on drums and Matt Round on bass. Tell me a bit about each of them, any shared musical history, and why you called upon them for this performance.
Todd Sharpville: The musicians from the Rockpalast show are my regular touring band. Matt Round has worked with me now for approximately ten years, replacing my previous bassist Yolanda Charles. He also works regularly with soul/pop artist James Morrison. He’s become a much-loved friend over time as well as being my right-hand man in the band.
Steve Rushton and I have been working together for the last five years. He was introduced to me by my old buddy Wayne Baker Brooks, a phenomenal Chicago bluesman. Steve is a ballsy powerhouse of a drummer, yet he also possesses so much delicate musical sensitivity. Prior to me, he spent many years working with wonderfully deep artists like Imelda May and Jeff Beck. I love the respectful way he handles my songs. He’s a real artist in every sense, always seeing the underlying picture as to how to best represent each song with the utmost of class and integrity. Our friendship has truly flourished over this time which means the world to me.
My keyboard player is the youngest in the band, Joe Mac. We came to know each other incredibly well because he was in my lockdown band. When you spend six months living with a musician, you’re either gonna hate ’em or love ’em! We’ve seen the best and the worst of each other behind closed doors, and I feel so honored that Joe continues to be my friend, because I’m not easy to live with! I adore him. He’s a warm-hearted, funny guy and an incredibly profound musical virtuoso. Pianos and Hammond organs are such intrinsically different instruments, they require totally different approaches. Despite his relative youth, Joe is truly a master of both. Like Steve and Matt, Joe also has incredibly eclectic musical tastes, so he has a huge amount of inspiration to draw upon whilst dissecting the material at the front end. I’m truly blessed to be working with these guys. Without wanting to appear boastful, I honestly believe they comprise one of the classiest bands on the international circuit. I can’t wait to hit the road properly next year in order to assert that fact in person.
WIB: On the Rockpalast show, you played your song “Medication Time” on one of B.B. King’s own “Lucille” model Gibsons loaned to you by a friend. You seemed to take to her very quickly. How did it feel to hold Lucille in your arms?
Todd Sharpville: B.B. King was a God in my eyes, a true titan. Not just musically but also spiritually. He was abused and exploited throughout his childhood, teens and early adulthood. Despite this, he never had a bad word to say about anyone. B.B. was always kind, patient and gregarious, everywhere he ever went, throughout the entirety of his career. I was lucky enough to open up for him on the last European date of his farewell tour. I asked him how he’d managed to remain so kind and saintly through life despite the difficulties that people often threw his way. The maestro replied, “Todd, you can think it, but there’s rarely any need to say it.”
Playing his guitar at Rockpalast was a beautiful surprise that evening. It’s still fully ingrained with B.B.’s mojo. And tonally, it’s a corker! I hope I can continue to draw on his inspiration through life in order to be a better person and a better musician.
WIB: Any artist is bound to find flaws in his or her own work, but when you watch the Rockpalast show now, a few months down the road, are you satisfied you were able to put your best foot forward?
Todd Sharpville: Hahaha! I’ve long learned to never be retrospectively happy with my work. The only way we can consistently improve at anything is by focusing on our weak points and our failings. We always have the power to address the things we dislike. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of my strengths. But I choose to put them in a drawer, close it and ignore them. After all, they take care of themselves. If I focus on my strengths, they can end up being so annoyingly distracting. Whereas my weaknesses are always tangibly improvable. I’m therefore incapable of seeing much more than what’s wrong with me. The moment I review a recording or a mix, I become my own worst critic. I’m cool with that. It helps me up my game as the years fly by.
WIB: What’s next for Todd Sharpville?
Todd Sharpville: I’m in the process of concluding the record deal for the Rockpalast show. As I mentioned, it should be released as a double live album/DVD boxset later this year. Prior to that release, I’m also helping my label structure the re-release of Medication Time in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Some technical issues dampened the original promo campaign in the Germanic territories. I’ve also recently started working with a new European booking agent who’s busy filling the diary with dates for 2024. And after the live album comes out, I have a lot more material lined up and waiting to be publicly unveiled. The next two years are set to be extremely busy.
On the personal front, my eldest daughter Amber recently got engaged to her wonderful fella Sebastian. The wedding is scheduled for next year in the south of France. So in the midst of a busy period for me career-wise, I’m also internalizing my best Steve Martin impression from the “Father of the Bride” movie.
WIB: One final question. While introducing “Medication Time” on Rockpalast, you remarked that “the great thing about bad shit is that it teaches us stuff.” What has your bad shit taught you?
Todd Sharpville: This is probably one of the deepest questions I’ve ever been asked by an interviewer. People are often surprised by the amount of humor and optimism ingrained in the Medication Time album. After all, it’s dedicated to one of the worst eras of my life. In essence, my breakdown and mental hospital period provided me the ability to rebuild a better, more resilient version of myself from the ashes. As I said onstage at the show, when we fall to pieces – which happens to most of us at some point or another in life – it provides us the opportunity of consciously and objectively rebuilding a somewhat better version of ourselves. My mental hospital experience ended up being the boot camp that helped prepare me for the hardships and obstacles that were waiting for me round the corner. The first thing we can do when we view ourselves in pieces on the floor is to ascertain what elements of ourselves should be left on the floor. Having personally benefited from doing just that, I feel it’s important to shout my story from the rooftops because the ethos it instilled in me most definitely helps others who feel trapped in the midst of their own form of boot camp.
My “Medication Time” journey ended up improving me and helped me develop some much-needed self-esteem in an incredibly healthy way. So, the older I get, the more I learn to appreciate that life isn’t really about the winning but more so about how we choose to play the game. Winning, losing, and fighting our personal battles with humility, grace – and hopefully a dash of panache – is what defines us as individuals and affords us the ability to be happy regardless of the difficulties we face.
WIB: Anything else you want to leave us with?
Todd Sharpville: There’s a Nietzsche quote from his book The Will To Power that heavily resonates with me with regard to what I was just speaking about. It’s helped me through the bad times and continues to assist me on my journey. I hope it can provide some assistance to any of your readers who might be in need of answers:
“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.”
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In case you missed it, here’s Todd Sharpville’s stunning performance on Rockpalast: