The combination of Paul Simon, Velvet Underground and Blind Willie McTell covers, all on the same album, is something you obviously don't hear every day. But that just means you're not listening to enough G. Love, who over the course of his career has managed to mash Bob Dylan, Delta blues and hip-hop.
Love is nothing if not eclectic, and on his most recent album, Fixin' to Die, he still manages to surprise. For this outing, the Philadelphia-born artist, nee Garrett Dutton, decided to go back to his roots — all the way back to the days before he hooked up with his band, Special Sauce, or did his first recordings for the Okeh label, or landed on pal Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records.
It's also the first album billed only as G. Love, with the musician inviting Americana darlings the Avett Brothers to produce and perform. Fixin' to Die's title tune is by Delta bluesman Bukka White; Love also visits McTell's "You've Got to Die." More unexpected are his reimagined versions of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes."
"We wanted to do things differently on this record in every way," says Love. "I thought it was a good opportunity to go back and put some of my Delta blues stuff on the record. Seth Avett brought to the table this old Blind Willie McTell song. And then I wanted to do a Velvet Underground tune, a kind of down-home version of it."
And the Paul Simon tune?
"My manager was trying to get me to cover that in my live show for years," says Love "He always thought that would be a good one for me, and I always shied away from it," But once we decided we were gonna do that, it was cool, actually. Because you know what? Any time you learn a song, you always learn something new."
Love and death
As for why Love decided to record without Special Sauce, he says, "We wanted to flip the script a little bit and just send me out with my guitar. We felt it could be interesting to go out with some different musicians, and those guys really fit the bill. And their harmonies are super tight, so I knew all the vocals were gonna be amazing.
"I've had a lot of success when I'm doing collaborative efforts," adds Love, who's worked with Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Marc Broussard, Donavon Frankenreiter, Blackalicious, Tristan Prettyman and Dr. John, among others. "I think when musicians get together in a creative environment, nothing but exciting music is gonna happen."
As it happens, the album's original songs span more than 20 years. Two of them, "Get Goin'" and "Walk On," were written when Love was still a student at Germantown Friends School, a Quaker high school in Philly. They showcase his Dylan and Beatles influences, he says.
Between its title track and "You've Got to Die," Fixin' to Die's lyrics do flirt with death from time to time. But the album's main themes are more about the joys of love — for his fiancée ("Milk and Sugar"), his dog ("Katie Miss") and his grandmother ("Ma Mere").
Actually "Milk and Sugar" is also about the joys of coffee. As G. Love fans well know, he's partial to singing about beverages.
"I always like to write about somethin' that people can connect with," he says with a laugh.
Keep it simple
The music Love related to growing up was blues and country folk — or, as he puts it, "just real simple, honest music." It's a minimalist, heartfelt approach he and the Avetts naturally share. "You see a lot of my Bob Dylan influence, a lot of my John Hammond influence," he says. "We wanted everything to be stripped down; the most important thing was capturing the vibe. And I thought we were really able to do that."
Part of what made the album work was the decision to record in the Avetts' home state of North Carolina. "When you're produced by somebody, you choose them because you really respect them and you want them to take you in a certain direction. Sometimes you don't know what that direction is gonna be, but their first direction was, 'Come down to North Carolina.' And it couldn't have been a better choice."
They recorded Fixin' to Die in only nine days, which helped keep everyone focused and prevented a lot of second-guessing. "It was nine days because that was all the free time we could get everybody together for. So we had to commit to things."
Love describes Asheville as a beautiful town in the center of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where music fills the streets and there's lots of "art and creative juices flowin' around."
The studio, in an old church, provided even more inspiration.
"You walk in and it's a big, airy feeling and the light's streaming through the stained glass," he recalls. "When I walked in with my guitar, I really got a sense that, man, something special's gonna happen this week. And it really did."