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Behind The Curtain: Brandon Isaak

By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Rob Krauzig

For readers who have been listening to actively performing musicians who are part of the Canadian Blues Collective, it’s almost certain you have encountered Brandon Isaak. Also known as “Yukon Slim” (if one looks closely, his alias is even inlayed on the fretboard of his custom one-of-a-kind Redemption guitar), Isaak is a singer, songwriter, and entertainer who has established himself as a full-time Blues artist. To provide a sense of his professional record, Isaak has been recognized for his music with a JUNO Award nomination (Blues Album of the Year) and a Maple Blues Award (Acoustic Act of the Year). He has also received Maple Blues Awards nominations that showcase the versatility of his work – Songwriter of the Year, Guitarist of the Year, Electric Act of the Year, Album of the Year, and Producer of the Year. In live performance settings, the same versatility is evident. Isaak can be seen and heard making music in multiple configurations; with a 5-piece band, a trio, a duo, and even as a one-man-band. In addition to the mosaic of configurations, Isaak is also known to be versatile in his show delivery too – whether an original song is delivered differently in real time, or the audience is engaging in the show with him, it is safe to assume that the live experience will be something unique while Isaak delivers a sound that is identifiably his.

Brandon Isaak’s story is, perhaps, an equal reason to see merit in having a discussion for this column; born into a musical family (his father has been a long reigning actively performing, full time musician, and his parents owned a couple of live music clubs), Isaak has been immersed in and encouraged to follow a creative path in music. Prior to his professional record, it’s fair to say he’s experienced a lifetime of honing his skills and finding the music that best represents his musical intentions, and Brandon Isaak arrived exclusively at the Blues. In this edition of ‘Behind The Curtain’, the discussion goes further than the biography and investigates why Isaak chose the Blues, what he thinks makes for a good Blues song, and where he finds his creative inspiration.

The first topic while in conversation with Isaak was about what led him to gravitate toward being a full-time musician – one who is specifically focused on playing the Blues. He offers readers this:

“I was never a particularly gifted person when it came to subjects like math or science – maybe they were subjects I didn’t apply myself in – but I realized that The Arts were something that came easily to me. So, I followed that direction, and although my parents advised me against it, they gave me their full support. I don’t think I could do what I do without their support. With respect to the Blues – I’ve played a lot of different styles of music, and the Blues is where I find myself. It’s the closest thing to my creative truth. I found the thing I was good at, and the Blues is the thing I can excel at. Blues is the closest thing to my truth – and the simplicity of it keeps me close to that truth.”

Knowing that Isaak has been immersed in Blues music and has been working professionally as a Blues musician since the beginning of his career, it seems fitting to ask him what he thinks the ingredients are to having an impact, and being successful as a Blues artist. His reply:

“My first advice to anyone who is looking to have a full time career as a Blues artist is “Don’t do it”, but if someone is crazy enough to want to do it, and they do it knowing it’s crazy - If they have that passion and it drives them to do it….I don’t know if there is a recipe or certain ingredients, but, you have to be prepared to do it all, and, be relentless.”

When asked what he thinks makes for a good Blues song, Brandon Isaak says:

“A good Blues song has Truth; something people can relate to – humour, sex, spirituality – anything that is close to the human condition. Simplicity. Sometimes it’s just one chord. If it was a recipe, maybe it would be: 2 cups of truth, a dash of simplicity, 1 cup of soul…then, reduce it on a low simmer and bake it for 3-4 hours. Keep checking it, and don’t be afraid to check it often – and don’t be afraid to modify that recipe and add your own flavours either.”

When asked where Isaak finds his creative inspiration as a songwriter, his answer provides readers with an additional sense that his ongoing quest to discover the origins of the music and staying true to his own recipe is the thread in the fabric of that process:

“When you (ver.) get interested in something, you get a heightened awareness of it. I write songs every day, and when you do it, you get really hyped up about it; you flex that muscle. I’m at the point where I can find inspiration in almost anything. It’s all about the human condition, and for me, sometimes that comes in the form of curiosity, or therapy, or spirituality, or anything that is really rooted in that human condition. I’ve been really inspired with Spirituals lately. Spiritual songs are like a step beyond the Blues. What I mean by that is that Blues is an everyday human experience, and spiritual music is what happens after that – you’re tapping into a higher power that is bigger than just your life or your human experience – it’s bigger than just you. When you’re singing the Blues, you’re doing ‘heart therapy’ – when you’re singing a Spiritual, you’re doing ‘soul therapy’. I find that very inspiring, and I get to wake up every day and put those interests and curiosities into songs, which is also a fantastic way to be - and stay - inspired as a writer.”

As is the case with all instalments of this column, there is much more to know about Brandon Isaak that cannot be covered within the confines of this particular forum. The objective in this feature has been to investigate and discover something about Isaak that offers readers insight into the nucleus of his creative process and musical origins. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Christian Kuntz Photography.

Photo Credit: Vince Jones.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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