Interview: Diane Hubka on why folk and americana should still swing

Credit: Janis Wilkins

There is only good and bad music and all American music shares the same roots.

Diane Hubka’s formative musical memories go back to the west coast folk and country rock of the ‘70s, with a dash of the Allman Brothers Band and the blues, which she enjoyed through listening to the radio and cover bands of the day. By the time she decided to make a life in music, it was jazz that had grabbed her attention, and she made waves in Washington and New York as a vocalist who could comp on jazz guitar, even recording with Lee Konitz. Despite being a jazz singer for all of her career up to that point, the 2016 election prompted Diane Hubka to think of the ‘60s protest movement that had such an influence on the music of the ‘70s she had enjoyed at the time, and she made a creative life-changing decision to become a folk and americana artist. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Diane Hubka at her home in Los Angeles over Zoom to discuss her new album ‘You Never Can Tell’ recorded with The Sun Canyon Band and with a special guest appearance by the UK’s own Albert Lee. She explains that while she may be revisiting music she heard in her formative years, she is performing it with the experience gained as a jazz singer. Finally, she admits to being rather dismissive of Bob Dylan when she heard him in the ‘70s, but she has now come to appreciate that his songs stand shoulder to shoulder with the American standards she sang as a jazz singer, and just in case he reads this interview, she apologises to him.

I had a look at your Wikipedia entry and there is a lovely piece about this jazz guitarist and vocalist which seemed to end about ten years ago. How did we get from there to your release of ‘You Never Can Tell’ with its mix of folk, country, blues, country rock, and western swing?

My early roots are with that music, I’m like reliving growing up in the ‘70s, even though I was only three then, I wish, haha. I was very disturbed and moved when Hilary Clinton lost the Presidential election here in 2016, as many women were I think. I like to say people on both sides were very upset for whatever reasons, people have been upset in our country for a while. When the inauguration happened I just wanted to sing protest songs and union songs, and just get back to my politically progressive roots. So it started with that, and then I just fell back in love with this kind of music. So I’m not really singing protest songs because I don’t do that many, but I rediscovered my love of acoustic guitar. I was playing jazz guitar for many years, and now I’m back to simpler harmonies and rhythms, and it is easier, to be frank and I’m really enjoying it.

It sounds like you had a life-changing moment.

Yeah, I put away my high heels and bought a pair of cowboy boots. I was so immersed in jazz, when I found out about jazz I just fell in love with it, I felt I was a jazz singer and didn’t simply choose to be one, and I still bring a lot of jazz to the music I’m doing, but you know what, it is all American music. It is kind of a soup of different styles and I’m not doing bebop you know, but I do take a scat solo once in a while, haha.

What do your years as a jazz player enable you to bring to your more folk-orientated acoustic music?

I’m not sure I’m thinking about it in that way, but after forty years of singing jazz it is just in me, I hear things with a swing, that’s for sure. When I play a rock & roll thing I’m still empathising two and four, kind of. You can’t really, and I don’t know how to explain it, but I hear everything in a three really, I want everything to swing, but not literally like a jazz swing, but to have that lilt, to have that movement and to have some interest to it. That’s what I love about the drummer we have on our CD because he is from New Orleans and he can play anything, and he adds so much variety to the rhythms and drums that he uses, the percussion and everything, that it is just so much more fun to have more colours to play with.

How did you get together with producer and bassist Chad Watson and guitarist Rick Mayock?

Rick Mayock is a long-time friend of mine and I met him because he was in a band with my next-door neighbour for a number of years, and I started playing and singing with them, but they were rock & roll and I was totally jazz at the time so we didn’t really work together that much but we jammed a bit. When I made this conversion to folk he was the perfect person to ask to work with me. So I holed up in a nice little coffee shop in a really cute little beach community at Playa Del Rey, here in Los Angeles, and I played there for two years on a Sunday just learning the songs, and he would sometimes play with me. When the shutdown happened with COVID in 2020 we had just made a plan to get together with another friend of ours, who is a percussionist, singer, and guitarist, and we had to postpone that jam. So, we thought OK we will wait a couple of weeks for things to open back up, haha, and after a couple of months none of us were sick and we were all isolating, so we said we will consider ourselves a pod and we started playing outside, and then we said we are a pod and we started playing in my living room and broadcasting it live on Facebook and YouTube. Our band started then, and when things opened up again, Wendy Sue Rosloff was playing with us then, and she got busy when things opened up, so Rick and I started playing outside at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park.

This was 2021 and we weren’t really comfortable going back indoors yet, and people were so appreciative of it and we were appreciative of it, and it is the most gorgeous location on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and it is a really nice area. We are still doing that, actually, and we are still doing the online stuff, and in the meantime, we recorded an album, haha. Chad is a really well-known musician in Los Angeles and he is just a phenomenal player and a really nice person, and our paths crossed more as I got into this kind of music. I went to a couple of his gigs, and I did some voice lessons with his wife during the shutdown, and he was someone who would maybe recommend some people as we put the band together. When I told him about the idea, he said he would love to do that, and he’s been incredibly helpful, he got the drummer and helped with the arrangements when we had several rehearsals, and we tracked it really quickly. We had sixteen songs and I realised that was too much for one album, so we released eleven of them and still have five. He also called me up and said he was thinking about asking Albert Lee to play on my recording and he wondered if it would be alright. I was like THE Albert Lee, and I knew all the recordings he’s played on, and I’d been watching early Emmylou Harris videos when he was in her band.

You play guitar, Rick plays lead guitar, and you have the great Albert Lee on guitar and mandolin, how did you manage not to get in the way of each other?

I just play rhythm, Rick played lead and rhythm, and we’d laid down the rhythm tracks with the band and Albert came back to lay down his lead. So, a lot of it was just co-ordinating it in the studio, and they are just tasteful musicians and they know how to do it, how to fill in and keep out of the way of the vocals. It is really nice to play with musicians who appreciate vocal music and know how to support a vocalist. I think it is a really good album, if I say so myself, I’m really proud of it. Joe plays a slew of instruments, banjo, mandolin as well as guitar, so he came to the sessions with Albert Lee because he just wanted to meet him. The only people adding stuff that day were Joe who added banjo to ‘Shady Grove’ and he played a couple more bass charts, Chad played mandolin, and Albert played mandolin as well as guitar. So we got to meet him when he was doing his parts, and he is so incredibly nice, and we’ve gone out to see him a couple of times since. I hadn’t fully appreciated what an incredible musician he actually is.

Albert may not be a jazz player but he can improvise.

That’s what I love about my exploration of this music, I really think you can see there is only good music and bad music. OK, there are specific styles and I really want to learn how to be a straight-ahead jazz singer as a specific style, but now I just want to mix it up like a gumbo. Young people are doing that, to them, it is just music, they will throw everything together, it is interesting, you know.

How did you decide on the songs for the album?

They were mostly songs we were already doing, and we recorded three of Rick’s tunes, and he is a really good songwriter, but we only used two of them on this version, but there will be another one. Like my jazz songs, I didn’t pick the most well-known standards because I like to try and find more unusual and not overdone songs, so I just pick things that I like. I like representing Bob Dylan, Guy Clark who is such an amazing songwriter, and I took a few voice lessons during lockdown on Zoom and ‘Albuquerque’ came from Suzie Glaze, a really great singer and voice teacher I used. She told me I could use ‘Albuquerque’ a song she does so I borrowed it, haha. ‘Blues Is My Business’ is something I used to do in the jazz set, I just heard Severin Browne’s and Bonnie Raitt’s bassist Freebo’s versions of ‘To The Light’ which he wrote with a group of songwriters and I thought that is so pretty I’ve got to do that, and I think that song is jazzier than the others. I had Chad play bass on that, and though it was a fretted bass it sounds like a fretless bass and is just so gorgeous, a little different to the other folk and americana.

You’ve mentioned ‘70s songs, did you consciously think of the ‘70s when selecting the songs?

I started playing folk music on guitar when I was eleven and I was learning Peter, Paul and Mary, and stuff like the Allman Brothers Band when I was in high school, and Joni Mitchell but I didn’t get to her altered tunings until fairly recently. I started out with songs I had played in college, and then I learnt songs I had liked. I’ve just learnt ‘Aime’  by Pure Prairie League, which was a big hit on the radio and I had the album and I used to sing harmonies to that, so I must have sung that song thousands of times, but now I’m actually doing it.  It is fun music, I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m not taking myself so seriously, haha. They say playing music even though it is hard work, I think if you work on what you love, you get energy from it.

Jazz isn’t so far away from roots music, just look at Charlie Haden’s bluegrass album a few years ago, and Bill Frisell can’t leave americana alone.

Definitely, it all has the same roots, I’ve listened to Bela Fleck and I’ve always liked old-timey jazz and I loved Bob Dorough who I guess got famous for doing the music for ‘Schoolhouse Rock’, ‘Three Is The Magic Number’, and I’ve always liked his style of jazz singing and songs because they were kind of folksy, but also close to bebop, Charlie Parker and all that stuff.

What are your plans for touring?

We are going to do our first gig in a club at the beginning of March as the guest of Chad Watson. He does a country jam once a month out in the valley, Maui Sugar Mill Saloon. And then I hope to do several CD release parties back in LA., and sort of start from there. We are going to The Folk Alliance International Conference so hopefully, we will meet some people and get some ideas about putting a tour together. I think it is time to get back into life, probably because of the sheltered life I lead I never got COVID, and I’m grateful. I took my shots and wore a mask and did everything you were supposed to do, and I didn’t go out much. I feel if it is not going to kill me I will go out again and play in clubs, I miss people.

Once you start playing clubs again is there a chance Albert Lee might drop in on a few gigs?

That would be a dream come true, haha. I was hoping if he is in this town because he has lived here for some time, that we will get to work with him again, you don’t get if you don’t ask, haha. I’ve wondered if he would be around for a CD release party, but he travels so much, it is amazing how much he travels and plays. Mine you, I don’t know any musicians who have retired and stopped playing, unless it has been because of a physical handicap or something. In the jazz world my idols were playing guitar in their eighties, you don’t retire if you love what you are doing you just keep doing it.

Is it too early to talk about you coming to the UK and Europe?

I would love to play over there, I just need contacts to help set it up. I know Rick and I are up for it, and I think Joe would come. We don’t have a regular drummer at the moment, but Glyn the drummer on the album is our first choice if he is available, but he tours a lot as well, haha. But it would be great to get over there.

You certainly seem to be enjoying your new musical direction.

Yeah, I’ve completely reinvented my creative life, and I guess every artist may need to do that, maybe I did that when I became a jazz singer, and then all of a sudden I’m done with this I want something new, haha. I guess as I get older I’m just doing what I want to do, without trying to prove something, and I think the music is better because I’m not trying to be good, I’m not trying for that flatted fifth, and I admire anyone who can play jazz guitar well, I can do a good job comping and I can play seven strings, and I can comp for myself well. It is complicated, and I’m glad for my musical background and theory that has enabled me to learn these tunes, and the internet, oh my God, you can learn anything, it is like what do you want to learn? If you want to learn an intro to a song there is a video out there with someone showing you how to do it, and all the wonderful archives of concerts you can watch of people doing the originals of these songs. All that is very different to when I was learning jazz.

The way you are talking you seem to be very song focused, is that true?

Yes but I like to resist the temptation to do it exactly like the original artist, now my band members play in lots of different bands and are used to doing songs the way they are done, Tom Petty did it this way, that’s the way the song is done. With me, I like you have a blueprint, and then you make it your own, so there is a little bit of back and forth with that. If there is a good piece like a good lick or a good part that made the song what it is you want to keep that, but my nature is to put myself into it and try and sing it and working with the singers I have been over the last two years really focusing on telling a good story and trying to convey, like an actress would, a character.

Who are your real goto influences?

I was a huge fan of Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, and now Emmylou Harris. I knew of Emmylou and I actually went to one of her concerts one time and I liked her a lot, but since I’ve been playing this music and really listening more closely I just love her voice, and I feel a kinship because she is not a big belter, I mean I don’t sound like Linda Rondstadt but I still love her, but with Emmylou, I think we are soulmates because we have pretty voices but we don’t have huge voices. I don’t sound like her, but I really admire how she does her singing, and she has such a gorgeous voice. I’ve learnt a lot of songs she does because I just love her. But I love The Allman Brothers and I love the blues, Neil Young of course, and David Crosby who we have just lost. We are going to learn ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel, a really gorgeous song. Bob Dylan, now I didn’t think much of bob Dylan when I was listening to him in the ‘70s on the radio, now I was out in the middle of nowhere back then in Western Maryland so my access to this music was through the local top 40 rock bands or the radio. I just didn’t like his voice, and I didn’t know what a brilliant songwriter he was until now when I got back into this music, I just love him now and I got to see him this summer. I get the Nobel Prize For Literature and I really got it when I learned the song ‘Forever Young’ and had to sing it myself, I was like this is just brilliant, it is as good as or better than all these standards I’ve been singing all these years. I didn’t know, I’m sorry Bob, haha, but now I know, I really know, haha.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m getting into Hank Williams because I’m playing a bit on the ukulele and his stuff works really well. There is this cool tune I’d never heard before, ‘Setting The Woods On Fire’ by Hank Williams, it is so fun. Also Hank’s ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ and ‘Hey Good Lookin’’. The Pure Prairie League who were a big influence on me. I love Tom Petty, and I really love the Traveling Wilburys. I got their album in the ‘80s and I thought it was fun, I mean Roy Orbison is so great, and we do ‘End of the Line’ and ‘Handle With Care’.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I’m just so glad to share this music and my music with everybody, I hope people enjoy it,  and thanks for talking to me.

Diane Hubka & The Sun Canyon Band’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ is out now as an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 402 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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