Fulfilling your dreams and your career goals is something we all aim to in our lives. We like to dream big and we are all convinced that life is going to be just a huge piece of cake, with plenty of opportunities to show who we are and what we can do.
When this idea applies to music, no one more than a blues or blues/rock artist knows how that path is rather a difficult one, with plenty of hard work, obstacles and sacrifices to be made, in order to be able to reach for the stars, one day. Albert Castiglia, one of the most talented blues musicians of this current generation, certainly earned in the hard way the respect and the popularity from both fellow musicians and fans through a career that has seen the Florida-based artist's music growing bigger and bigger album after album, together with his eclectic and powerful guitar style.
When Bluebird Reviews meets Castiglia, the guitarist and singer/songwriter appears very relaxed, happy and affable as always. One of the many reasons behind the happiness of Albert Castiglia is the success of his latest album Big Dog, a record that sees this extraordinary artist reaching the pinnacle of his career through a wonderful blend of irresistible songs, great guitar parts, inspired songwriting and a voice that gets better and better on each passing album. "It's an amazing story on how we came to do the recording of Big Dog. As you know, I used to play with a gentleman called Junior Wells, who very graciously gave me the opportunity, in 1997, to tour the world with him. He just recorded, at that time, his last studio album at the Dark Side Studios, in Louisiana just before his passing and I remember that he used to tell me how wonderful that studio was and how magical that place was. It's located not very far from Lafayette and I have got to say that it is, indeed, a place with special vibes and the ideal place where to record an album. It's a very quiet renovated barn, with a wonderful sound board and I would have never thought, back 20 years ago, that one day I would have had the pleasure to record one of my albums there. With Mike Zito, who produced Big Dog, the initial plan was to record the album at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, something that I was very excited about because I knew that a lot of incredible music came out from that area. In the end, due to the fact that Muscle Shoals, at the time, was under renovation and there were other logistic issues for Mike as well, it didn't work out for us. We needed a Plan B and that came from Mike, suggesting to go to the Dark Side Studios. Mike did not know at all about me and Junior Wells talking about those studios so much and I took that suggestion from Mike as a divine sign that everything was going to be all right and working well for me. When we got there, the place was exactly as Junior Wells described it to me, full of positive vibes and a fabulous location for making music. When the time came to start recording, myself, Mike and Thomas Ruf at Ruf Records we all had already a pretty good idea about the way the album was going to sound like, a raw blues/rock kind of album. We wanted to capture, on this album, the closest feeling and the energy of my live sets and I am really grateful to Mike Zito for doing such a magnificent work on capturing the right sound on my guitar and by pushing myself vocally to sing beyond my comfort zone. I literally hit the ceiling a lot with my vocals, something that I couldn't believe I was able to do, in a singing capacity. The whole recording experience was truly memorable for me and I felt, somehow, that Junior Well's presence was there with me while Mike and I were working on the album. I like to believe that he was there in spirit, watching over me in the week we spent at the studios and I hope that feeling came out on the record too. I guess I am a bit spiritual, not in a common fashion kinda way and although I couldn't call myself a full catholic person, I believe that the people you loved and that have now passed, they are always there, keeping an eye for you. To work with Mike Zito has been such an incredible experience and I do not think that people give him credit enough as a producer as well, together with being a fantastic artist and sure as hell, I shall work with him again in future on my next records. Big Dog is an album that I am extremely proud of."
Big Dog is not just a wonderful collection of songs and an incredible display of Castiglia's abilities but it's also an album that epitomizes perfectly an artistic and personal friendship between Castiglia and guitarist extraordinaire Mike Zito, here working as a producer on Big Dog. Zito's idea was to get on this record that unique raw sound that Castiglia showcases especially in his live shows, always full of pathos and high energy. " It wasn't very tricky at all to get that type of pure and raw sound, because the band Zito assembled to play with me during the recording were The Wheel, which was Mike's band at the time we were in the studio. They took the same approach that they would normally do while recording with Mike and the chemistry between us was so immediate that we ended up recording each track in one or two takes, no more than that. This was a hundred per cent live album, in every sense of the word. What we were missing was just an audience but the live feeling was all there. They made the whole process of recording Big Dog so much easier for me. When you have a studio savvy band like The Wheel that knows very well how to play live, it's not so hard at all. I like to call those guys "The New Age Wrecking Crew" because they are so good."
What impresses a long time fan of Castiglia or anybody that has followed his career for a long time is the way that the quality of his voice has improved on Big Dog. Castiglia is unstoppable, his voice able to modulate different tones and pitches with remarkable agility. Back ten or fifteen years ago, many would have easily bet on Castiglia's future as an extraordinary guitarist but not exactly as a confident and strong singer as he is now. "Trust me, my voice it wasn't very good in the beginning. It took a really long time to develop. When you are in your twenties, your voice is almost never going to be very good. I never got really comfortable with my voce until 10-11 years ago, maybe more and I have been doing this since 1988! I guess that my voice is like my guitar playing. With age, the more I matured as an individual, the better my voice got. Some people are naturally gifted, say someone like Susan Tedeschi. She was always a great singer, even in her twenties. For me, it took a little bit longer but thanks to my great love for music, I persisted in my goal to become a better singer and I shall try to be even a better one on my next records".
Contrary to the first immediate impression one may have of Albert Castiglia, with his booming presence and big smiles, the guitarist is rather a reserved person. When writing songs, it must be fairly hard for this talented musician to reveal sides of his personality through his lyrics. "That's a deep question. It's true that I am a pretty private person but I don't have problems sharing things which are part of my life with my audience. I see that as the only way for me to be an effective musician and to be honest with myself and with the fans. Take a song, for example, like What The Hell Was I Thinking. That is a real song about me, reflecting on my career and about wrong decisions taken in certain times of my life and mistakes I made in the past. Because, yes, I am doing pretty well now but, as many other people in the world, I have made mistakes in my life myself too but I ain't got no problems to talk about it. You have to open up and, somehow, to be even a bit vulnerable with your audience, otherwise you won't be able to connect with them, which is something that I have learned from the great Junior Wells. As I said before, if you are not honest with yourself you cannot be honest with your fans and I would never tell bullshit to them, never. They can just understand and respect me and my music just if I am straight with them. Which is what I do every time."
Castiglia often mentions Junior Wells in our conversation, always with high praises to a musician and a friend that has so hugely impacted his career. So much so that, on Big Dog, the guitarist pays an homage to the late great Junior Wells by recording one of his more obscure hits called Where Did I Go Wrong, perhaps not the most obvious choice out of Well's music catalogue. "Well, it came from an album that was called You're Tuff Enough, which I think it was released around 1968. That was a Junior Wells album mainly based on R&B and Soul kind of songs. In that period, Junior went through a creative phase where he became increasingly fascinated with both genres and also with a lot of funk. I remember him being a great James Brown fan, as well as the sounds coming from Motown and Stax. I got so intrigued by You're Tuff Enough because it was so different, musically, from anything else he had been doing previously in his career and he took a lot of criticism by releasing that album, both by the fans and the press. For me, that album became one of my all-times favorite of Junior Wells and the song I chose to cut on Big Dog epitomizes very well who Junior really was. Somebody that was not afraid to play what he wanted to play, something that I tried to accomplish too on Big Dog, about not being afraid of pushing the envelope music wise, not to be stuck in a box. On top of that, because with Mike we were recording in the same studios where Junior had recorded his last two or three records, I felt that it was my duty to pay tribute to his artistry through a song that describes perfectly the artist he was. Subconsciously, that song is a kind of subliminal message from him to me, about playing the music that I want to play, because that was exactly the way he used to do too".
Castiglia's Big Dog shows all about Castiglia's personality. A generous, honest man and musician that can be as spiritual at times as he can be in your face when it's needed. On the latter, the song Get Your Ass In The Van displays Castiglia's sarcastic viewpoint about the way that young artists often underestimate how hard life On The Road can be for a musician. Being Castiglia an achiever that fought hard to reach music stardom throughout the years, Bluebird Reviews is wondering whether the guitarist and singer/songwriter feels that the new generations of blues artists will have a hard time in making a living out of music. "I don't think so. It's always tough in the beginning but if you work hard, you will always succeed. I don't think that all young artists are pampered. The song you mentioned was inspired by posts I saw on social networks made by young artists complaining a bit too much about life On The Road. Fortunately, there are some young guns out there that really get how hard you have got to work to reach your ambitions as a musician. I am thinking of people like Samantha Fish or Laurence Jones, for example, they certainly understand that they have to dig deep to achieve what they want to achieve. Making music for a living it's always gonna be hard, no matter what stage of the history of the world you are in. You can't let anything stop you. You might take a day job in the beginning that allows you to get the funds you need to then hit the road but fundamentally, you have to find the way to make it work on your own. I remember when I started playing. My parents, which have always been very supportive and they still are, in the beginning they had their doubts about what I wanted to do with music. My dad was very much against it. He is a banker and so my mother and many other members of my family have been involved into banking. As you can imagine, the prospect for my parents to have their kid becoming a musician, it really freaked them out. They didn't tell me I couldn't do it but they wanted at the same time to put me on the right path in life, telling me things like: "If you want to become a musician, that's fine, as long as you finish school, get your degree etc. So I did what they told me to do. I went to college and in the evenings I was playing few gigs here and there. Then, once I finished college, I got a day job as a social worker and still kept playing my music at nights, every time I had the chance to do so. That's what I had to do, because with that little I was earning at nights, I couldn't certainly make a living out of it, therefore I had to round things up by having a day job, which was a great training ground for me. When I got the job with Junior Wells, that was my lucky break but I had to wait for almost 10 years for that. Ten years of hard graft, working during the days and playing at nights. Then, when I started touring, I realized that, financially, playing music was going to be enough for me and I didn't need to do the day job anymore. The bottom line of all that I said is that sometimes, in life, you have to do things that you don't want to do, before you are able to achieve your dreams. Maybe it doesn't pay off immediately, but as long as you have love for music, the right mentality and belief in who you are and where you want to be one day, you may get that lucky break like the one I had. There is also the chance that you may never get that lucky break! I know a lot of young artists for which I have got a lot of respect. Samantha Fish, for example, she was managing a pizzeria in Kansas City when she was 18 and she was playing whenever she had the chance to do so, out of her working time. Until the day when, luckily, Ruf Records spotted her so she could dedicate herself totally to music. It's all about the sacrifices you are willing to make in your life. Maybe there are musicians out that made it earlier in their careers than I did but hey, I have no regrets and I would do what I have done to get here over and over again. I wouldn't trade my path for anything in the world".
Albert Castiglia with Johnny Winter (Internet Archive)
Albert Castiglia's relation with spirituality is something that emerges every so often in his songs, especially in a couple of tunes the guitarist wrote in a later stage of his career, like on the Big Dog's predecessor album Solid Ground, through a splendid song called Just Like Jesus or on the latest album, with such a soulful tune like Somehow. "When I was a kid, we went to church every Sunday, up until I was about 18-years old. From that point on, life for my parents became a bit more complicated and as a consequence, we skipped more and more church. My relationship with religion, I guess, it can be described like somebody that loves God but does not necessarily love some of the people that works for him, which is my main issue (chuckles)! To me, religion and spirituality almost walk hand in hand and perhaps I consider myself more a spiritual person, rather than a religious one. The fact that I am not going to church does not make me necessarily, in any case, a bad christian more than other than profess themselves as religious people but, deep inside, they are not actually very nice people. Trust me, I see many of those so called religious people here in the States and I can assure you that they certainly don't walk the walk. Strangely, I have come across to many atheists showing to be closer to God than many other claiming to be religious! When it comes to songwriting and spirituality, in one of the songs that you mentioned, Somehow, I just tweaked some of the original lyrics from Cyril Neville. Those lyrics I changed, they certainly came from the most spiritual part of me, that's for sure".
Castiglia has been living almost for all his life in Florida but his roots go back all the way to New York, where he was born and lived for very few years of his life before he moved. When we asked him whether he remembered anything about The Big Apple or whether he missed the city, the guitarist brushes off the question with one of his trademark big smiles. "We moved to Florida when I was 4-5 years old so I didn't lose anything from living in New York, truth to be told. When I was a child, I really liked New York and you may wonder how could I remember that! I do because, when we moved, we had a lot of family there that we left behind, lots of cousins of my age that I missed a lot. But moving to Florida had a great impact on my music education. Growing up in the 80's in Florida, there was a lot of great music coming especially from the south, such as the Miami-based band Iko Iko. That band with few others had a great impact on me and I guess on my songwriting style too. With Graham Drout, Iko Iko's main man, we still are great friends and we often collaborate, like we did when we co-wrote When The Devil Makes His Deals, on my new album. Another fine musician that inspired me a lot was Pat DeLeon, a fantastic guitarist that taught me one of the most important lessons in playing guitar, which is that Vibrato is the most important thing in playing blues. If you don't have a good Vibrato, then you're gonna have a hard time to make a living out of playing blues music. That has been one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned as a musician, because it gave me the opportunity to be chosen, in years to come, by Junior Wells. He certainly liked my Vibrato a lot. So, meeting those incredible musicians and learning those lessons served me really well and prepared me to take my music to another level, when I started to be a touring musician. Florida is a great part of the world for many things, including music. You get to listen here to a lot of different artists playing a lot of different music genres like R&B, Funk, Rap. The Blues had a great spell between the 80's and mid 90's, then its popularity stepped back considerably around the end of the 90's, until it made a great comeback around 2002, with a great resurgence of the genre, especially in South Florida. Now we get a great driving scene down here with fabulous artists like JP Soars & The Red Hots, Joey Gilmore or David Shelley, who sadly passed away in 2015, on top of my head. We have got a real driving scene down here in Florida. You've got the Jacksonville scene, for example, with artists like JJ Grey & Mofro and Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi or the Tampa scene in the West Coast of Florida, with such great artists like Damon Fowler, Selwyn Birchwood, Sean Chambers. The author himself of Let The Big Dog Eat, on my new album, is Bill Wharton, again from Florida and one of his albums was one of the very first blues album that I have ever bought in my life! The Florida influence is always with me and I think that gets deeply in every song and in every records of mine, because it's a big part of who I am".
Les Paul is, notoriously, Castiglia's signature guitar and often artists tend to stick to their favorite instruments because they know what they can get out of them. But does Albert Castiglia constantly use his beloved Les Paul all the time, studio and live or does he instead use different guitars, especially when it comes the time to record a new album? "I always use different ones. I generally bring one or two guitars at recording sessions but sometimes a producer or a sound engineer may come up with different ideas and get different type of guitars involved in the recording process. I remember once when I was involved as a sideman on one of John Ginty's records. John is the keyboard player for the Dixie Chicks and he was also in the original line-up of the Robert Randolph & Family band and when I went to record with him in New Jersey, I showed up with my Les Paul. Due to the fact that John knew a local guitar dealer in New Jersey, this dealer came in with a couple of vintage Les Paul Juniors and a Melody Maker from the 60's and I found myself doing most of the recording with those guitars on John's album rather than using mine. A similar thing happened when I recorded Big Dog with Mike Zito and that is one of the things that I love the most about working with Mike. He brought in any piece of equipment imaginable that he owns, at Big Dog's recording sessions. He showed up with his trailer attached to the van with every guitar he owns, every amplifier he owns and I have gotta say I must have used about ten of his guitars at the sessions. All in all, on Big Dog we used some of Mike's Delaney Guitars, my Les Paul plus maybe another different Les Paul. The funniest part was when I called him before we met at the studios. Without knowing that he was taking all his gear with him in the studio, I called him and asked "How many guitars shall I take with me?" and he candidly said "Just take one with you" (chuckles). I learned, through Mike, that by using different guitars on a record and mixing up things, that factor keeps the recording fresh, which is always a great quality on a record".
It's time to part company with this very talented artist and fine gentleman but we couldn't say goodbye without asking Castiglia something related to back when he started playing and where he is now, artistically.
When you look back at a earlier stage of your music career, say, for example at the time that your debut album Burn was released, how much has today's Albert Castiglia, paraphrasing one of your albums, has indeed "Lived The Dream"? "I really loved making that first album, I thought it was great and I am very proud of it. But I think also that I have come a long way since that record. I think that a lot of aspects have improved of my music, like my songwriting style, my vocals and my playing style too. There must always be a starting point in someone's career and Burn was mine. From that point on, you just move on, evolve and grow up and your music evolves and grows up with you. One of my favorite quotes coming from a music artist came from Prince. Somebody asked him one day "What do you think is your best ever record?" and he answered "The next one I'm gonna make". His mindset was always forward thinking and that is a great quality to have. Prince's answer made perfect sense to me because I like working on my music in that way. I am very grateful to be with my label Ruf Records, because they have given to me that creative freedom I need to make music, something that for me is necessary like the air that I breathe. They never held me back on my music vision. They were able to maximize my full potentials and for that, I am very thankful. I am sure that my next record will take me to another level and it will allow me to discover another aspect of my music that I do not know yet. Thankfully, I have to confess that I am in a very happy stage of my life. I am 47 and, for some reasons, I have developed lately a great desire on improving even further my guitar style and I feel that in the last 3-4 years, I have certainly achieved that. In answer to your question, I feel I am indeed "Living The Dream"!