Connie's Insider (June 26 - July 11, 1971)

Leo Kottke

an interview by Tim Murtha

Uncredited Photo
Uncredited Photo

      Few Minneapolis musicians have won the respect and popularity presently accorded guitarist Leo Kottke.  Beginning in the relative obscurity of often sparsely attended gigs at the West Bank's old Scholar Coffeehouse, his unusually polished guitar picking, prolific composing and deep-throated raspy singing has earned him a local following which rarely fails to fill any house he appears in.  The past year has also brought him comparable popularity on the West Coast, garnering him favorable reviews in national music magazines.  The INSIDER interviewed Kottke on the eve of the release of his fourth LP [Mudlark], his first on Capitol.

TM:  How did you happen to end up in Minneapolis after your many travels?

KOTTKE:  I was going to the University of Missouri, and I quit there after majoring in economics, geography and English.  I would change my major every couple of days.   Then I served out a couple of months of my time in the Navy before I was discharged.  I couldn't get into another school because I had gotten into trouble over ROTC at Missouri, and I had a crummy record.  I got into St. Cloud State because I had relatives there.  While I was there I started playing at the Scholar when it was still open.  since that time I've stayed here because it was the smallest city I could find to live in.

TM:  At what point did you first pick up the guitar?

KOTTKE:  I started playing the guitar when I had mononucleosis in Oklahoma.  I was sick in bed for six weeks.  My folks, seeing that I liked to sing along with the radio, brought home one of those little guitars with the cowboy on it.  It lasted two weeks before the bridge came off.  I listened to Burl Ives.  That was about eleven years ago [1960].

      I got a twelve string in Washington seven years ago [1964].   After that, my grandmother bought me the guitar that's on the Takoma record.  That one was stolen in Portland, along with the six string my wife bought me.

TM:  Was the Scholar your first public appearance?

KOTTKE:  No, I worked before that in Washington in about 1962.  I didn't get paid then.  I never have gotten to play where I really want to play.  I've always wanted to play at these country festivals in Virginia.  They have these terrific debauches that go on for two or three days at a stretch.  Somehow, I've never gotten to play at them, and now it looks like I never will.

TM:  What sort of music were you playing [in] the early sixties when you started out?

KOTTKE:  Mostly bad music.  I began writing instrumentals almost as soon as I started out.  I don't know how anybody could stand to listen to them.  I don't even think much of tapes of me when I first started playing at the Scholar.

      I did a lot of stuff by Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, and that didn't sound too bad.  I never had to play more than a half an hour, so it was all pretty limited.  I didn't even know if I wanted to play guitar or banjo.

      I think I really got interested in playing guitar seriously the first time I heard Basho in Maryland.  Strangely enough, he claims not to have been there at the time I must have seen him.  From talking to him on the phone, he seems to be entirely different in every way from what he was like then.

      He wasn't doing the raga thing then.  He was doing all traditional guitar and vocal stuff then. I've never seen him perform since then.

TM:  I understand your producer John Fahey isn't too much in love with your voice.

KOTTKE:  He liked it a lot less when I first started out on Takoma.  If I sing a little easier, it's all right with him.  He's no fan of my throat, though.  Neither is my other producer.  I don't know what to do about it, because I like to sing.

      I've decided to give up trying to learn to sing really well.  If I really work at it, it takes the fun away.

TM:  What do you consider good singing?

KOTTKE:  I think I sound a little like Maurice Chevalier, at least for an abstraction.  I like to listen to Sarah Vaughn, Roberta Flack and Morgana King, people like that.  Of course, they are great singers, but if they were to sing something that I sing, it would sound kind of funny, because they are so much better than I am.  In the same way, I sound kind of strange.  Somehow, it seems to me, my voice doesn't seem to fit with any of the songs I sing.

      I have a ball when I'm singing, but somehow, when it gets on tape or out on a record, it never sounds the way I heard it.

TM:  Then would you rather be a polished singer, as opposed to being closer to the roots, for example, country blues?

KOTTKE:  Well, I'd rather be either one, really.  Right now I'm in between; in other words, nowhere.  I'm no blues singer, and I'm certainly not a good singer.  I'm happy with my guitar playing, but I'm just not sure what mode of expression I want to embrace vocally.  I don't know if I want to become [more] polished, or nastier, or what.

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