Q & A: Karl Denson Talks Tai-Chi, Lyrics, and Stones.
Karl Denson has a jazz mind and a funk soul. From his first three solo albums, through his work with The Greyboy Allstars, and into Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, he has woven a thread to tie everything together. And that thread is dripping with flavor.
His work has mostly been instrumental compositions, and that is the language he is most comfortable speaking in. But his March 2019 release, Gnomes & Badgers, shows Denson has been honing his lyrical craftsmanship.
Aside from his own projects, Denson has also toured with Leny Kravitz, Slightly Stoopid, The Rolling Stones, and others.
We recently caught up with Karl Denson, where we talked about him touring with The Rolling Stones, why songwriting challenges him, and how he stays in shape on the road.
BT: What are the main differences when you step on an arena stage with The Rolling Stones vs. stepping on a smaller club stage with your own project?
KD: This is my life. That's their life. I’m definitely a side-man in their life. I have more responsibility in my own world. Because it’s my vision. I like being a side-man. It’s very simple. I just warm up my saxophone and go play.
BT: What about your latest album, Gnomes and Badgers, pleases you most?
KD: I feel like I have made a big step up as far as lyric writing. It’s kind of a hard thing for me, since I come from an instrumental background. But we made some strides this record.
BT: What is most challenging about songwriting for you?
KD: The hardest part is not being corny. I listen to really good music. And when I hear my own, I want it to stand up to what I am listening to. And I think that is the biggest challenge. I don't want my stuff to sound sophomoric. When I listen to favorites like The Band, Joni Mitchell, or Bob Dylan, I wonder how I am ever going to write something half as good as that.
BT: You are so steeped in jazz, I can see how transitioning to songwriting could be changeling.
KD: By the time I was 13 years old, my main interest was in instrumental music. So, I spent 20-25 years immersed in that and writing jazz tunes. The last 20 years I have tried to keep a balance of vocals vs. instrumentals with Tiny Universe.
BT: Your catalog is extremely diverse. What is the link between your fort jazz albums and Gnomes and Badgers?
KD: I’m just trying to make good music that stands the test of time. If someone listens to all my material, they will see I am pretty diverse, but also, that there is a common thread.
BT: In your eyes, what is that thread?
KD: Well, I’ve always tried to listen to the funkiest music, and make funky music. Not funk as a genre, but funk as a feeling. I mean, Johnny Cash is just as funky as Parliament-Funkadelic sometimes. So, that’s where I hang my hat. I try and understand what gives those flavors and makes those songs good. And that's what I am trying to incorporate into my music.
BT: Your tour schedules are pretty demanding, and have been for decades. How do you stay so fit and healthy?
KD: I have been doing Tai Chi since I was 18 or 19. So I’ve been doing it for 40 years now. I am also very food-conscious and try and eat healthily. Between those two things, I can keep my energy up, and not feel run down. And it helps that I don't party heavily. I am on the road to make music and I take care of myself so I can do just that.
BT: Some of the lyrical content of Gnomes & Badgers addresses the current state of world affairs. As a parting thought, what is the most troubling issue in your eyes at the moment?
KD: The tribalism has gotten way out of hand. There is this need to be right. As opposed to correct. A lot of people are woefully uninformed and spend way too little time trying to disprove their own theories. That's really what this record is about. And compassion. I think we are losing compassion for each other. And that's gonna be a problem.
Catch Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe here in North Carolina:
Saturday, October 5
The Orange Peel
Wednesday, October 9