Mike Nagoda: “We Need To Go Further If We Want To Change Lives”

A few days ago I came across an in many respects outstanding music project on Indiegogo. Toronto-born Blues musician Mike Nagoda collects funds for his upcoming album Outside The Box. We talked about his musical roots, what motivates him to make Blues music with different influences and what he wants to draw attention to with his new album …

50K MM: First please tell us something about you and your music. Where do you come from? Who inspired you? What does music mean to you?
Mike: I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada into a musical family. My parents lead the church choir growing up, and I was surrounded by mostly classical music from a young age and my Mom got me started on classical piano at age six. I was born with Cerebral Palsy, which is a physical disability that affects the nerves, muscles tension and flexibility of my body, so I found that it caused a lot of pain and tension in my hands when I played piano but I began discovering ways around this. When I was in my teenage years in high school I began becoming interested in Rock and Blues music, and I really wanted to be able to play the guitar and shred, but I couldn’t because my disability caused my hands to go into so much pain when I tried to form chord shapes on the fret board.

When I was nineteen I started taking lessons on guitar with a wonderful Canadian blues guitarist by the name of Frank Cosentino. He suggested I try slide guitar, but I soon began to find that one slide or steel bar was too limiting. You have to keep in mind that if you’re tuned to an open major chord it limits you as to the kinds of chords you’re going to be able to get, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t get the sounds I was hearing in my head to come out of the guitar. Just before my twentieth birthday I was talking to someone who told me about a fellow by the name of Brian Cober and said he played with two slides! I convinced my Dad to go with me to Grossman’s Tavern, which is Toronto’s oldest and most venerable blues bar. Brian runs the Sunday night jam there and so I sat down and watched him play.

He had a big slide on his middle finger and a smaller one on his thumb which he used to get all his chords and play all these crazy riffs and licks. Here was this guy who had somehow found a way to get past all the problems I was facing as a slide player and get all those sounds I was hearing in my head but couldn’t get to come out of my hands. I thought, “I have to do this! This is what I want to do with the rest of my life!”. I got up and jammed with Brian that night and he has probably had the single biggest influence on my playing. Throughout the years he has become a really close friend and mentor to me: I would not be able to make music the way I do if it wasn’t for him and his invention of Double Slide Guitar. I eventually got a set of slides made by a friend and took some lessons with Brian, but the most valuable moments have been sharing the stage with him, because I learn so much just by watching him and his hands. I just kept at it and eventually began to write my own material.

I’d say my music is a kind of “Blues Fusion” almost: Blues is at the center, but you have all these other influences from Jazz and Rock and stuff floating around it and interacting with it. On my first record, Parliament, I ended up delving into about three or four different genres within the span of an album. I was heavily influenced by the progressive and hard rock of the 1970s making that record: bands like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple are probably some of my biggest direct influences. The first big slide player I ever got into was Robert Randolph. When I heard him play pedal steel guitar with distortion, it immediately drove me to go for a heavier, louder sound with a big, wide vibrato. That is still my main sound to this day. I’m also influenced by B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Buddy Guy, especially Buddy Guy, because of the way he over exaggerates his bends and gets so much emotion out of his guitar.

As for what music means to me, it’s at the very center of my person and has brought me so much joy. When I get up on stage and play, I feel connected to myself and everyone around me. It’s the best thing in the world to be able to express joy in this way to people and for people to accept it and give it back. I’m just grateful that I get to do what I love for a living.

50K MM: You’re about to record your second album Outside The Box. What can we expect … and what’s the idea behind?
Mike: Something that’s completely different and unique! Throughout my life I’ve always stood apart from other people: being disabled means my body is different from everybody else’s, and that means the way I play guitar is different and unique. My music is the same way: I have never for one second understood why I need to stick to a certain traditional sound for Blues- and it’s funny I say that because there’s going to be some more traditional sounding stuff on the record, but I think it’s very important to innovate and push boundaries with both music and lyrics.

Musically speaking this record will again blur genre lines like I did with my first one, but I’m going further this time and not just mixing my Blues with my Jazz and Rock influences: I’m also throwing in hints of Funk and Latin music as well as mixing Blues and Rap together! This is going to be one of those records that will defy categorization and drive the purists nuts, which is great, because I’ll be moving from a traditional twelve bar shuffle Blues to a Latin inspired piece and then on to something influenced by Heavy Metal! This record is going to be way more upbeat than the last one, that’s for sure!

Parliament was a much darker concept album that I think not a lot of folks either got or understood what I was going for, so I wanted to write about themes in my lyrics that dealt with issues people could relate to more easily, primarily about music and relationships. However, this is me we’re talking about so of course I couldn’t do what people would expect of any old Blues record. I had to do me, and that meant if I was going to sing about love and relationships, it was going to be from my perspective as a Gay man.

When I came out publicly last year, it was a huge relief because I could finally start writing about Gay experiences and relationships in my music. In Blues that’s something that’s not often sung about: it was done way back in the day by Lesbian and Bisexual women Blues artists like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, but that was in the 20s and 30s and not much has been done since. In particular, hardly any Blues music has been written by and for Gay and Bisexual men. There are hardly any positive portrayals of same sex male relationships in Blues: even in Bessie Smith’s lyrics there are homophobic portrayals and stereotypes of Gay men being portrayed as “sissy men” or as men who steal husbands away from their wives. I always struggled to find myself represented positively in the music I loved so much, to find songs I could relate to, and I always came up short. The only other openly Queer male artist I can think of in the modern Blues scene today is Jason Ricci, who’s a brilliant harmonica player, and he came out back in the 90s. But aside from him, to my knowledge I’m the only other openly Queer male Blues artist in today’s scene. If I’m wrong and there are others that I’m just not aware of, I would love to find out more!

So I guess my mission for this record is to begin to create space for Gay and Bi men in Blues, I think Jason Ricci started to do this with his records already, but it was important to me to continue that and create songs that celebrate both the triumphs and struggles of Queer male relationships, so hopefully once it’s done this record will encourage other Queer Blues artists to do the same. Blues is a genre of music that has historically dealt with themes of struggle and oppression, and those are themes that I think the LGBT community can definitely relate to and can speak to first hand: it always made sense in my head that Queerness and Blues should go together. So this record is going to be different and proud of it, no apologies! That’s why it’s called Outside The Box, because that’s who I am as a person and an artist. it’s going to celebrate diversity and inclusion and hopefully will help to change the musical landscape for Blues.

50K MM: Who are you going to work with for the album?
Mike: Where do I start? I have been really fortunate, even at the start of my career right now to work with some fantastically talented musicians. In particular, the three guys who make up my backing band the Spectrum Blues Band, Peter Johnston, Jeremy Ronson and D’Arcy Cain, are really amazing to work with. There’s just this chemistry that happens between the four of us and everything sounds really tight. I can’t wait for when we go into the studio to make the record, because damn is it ever gonna cook!!

I’m also really excited to be working with a bunch of great local Toronto guest artists as well as returning artists who worked with me on Parliament such as my mentor Brian Cober on Double Slide Guitar and Liam Ward, who is an exceptional, award winning harmonica player from the UK who I met when he was living in Canada for a year. I’m also really excited to be working with a young, talented pianist by the name of Anthony D’Alessandro, who is incredibly gifted and who I think is well on his way to impressing the Jazz world with his chops.

I’ve also got my original guitar teacher Frank Cosentino guesting with me on a track, as well as Robb Cappelletto who is an insanely gifted Jazz Fusion guitarist from right here in Toronto. I think the most unique collaboration is going to be with The Mighty Rhino. He’s a local Toronto rapper who’s been making waves in the underground rap scene here, so I’m very excited for the verse he’s going to be contributing to the record! So far with all the talent I’ve gathered in one place I can only dream of how awesome this is going to turn out, but I know we’re all going to get together to make something really special.

And then, there’s my Co-Producer for this record who’s helming this thing with me. His name’s Chris Birkett and he’s worked with a ton of really great artists such as Sinead O’Connor and Buffy Sainte-Marie and has won Grammy and Junos (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys) for his work. I can’t even believe I’m working with someone of his caliber, and our meeting was so random, it happened purely by chance!

I was doing a gig and the promoter had brought him out. He heard me play some B.B. King during sound check and approached me after, he was so impressed with my playing that he asked if I wanted to do some recording with him before I even started playing my set. He’s a fantastic, kind hearted and knowledgeable person who’s made the production of this album so easy going so far, I’m just really fortunate that we get to produce this record together. I think it’s going to sound fantastic when it’s done!

50K MM: Why did you choose crowdfunding to finance the album?
Mike: A few reasons. I actually tried to start with getting funding from grants, and applied for several of them and got turned down: grants in Canada are very hard to get, and the fact of the matter is that record labels can’t put money into their artists anymore with the way the global economy is at the moment. The label I’m on, Ropeadope Records, is a small, independent Jazz label that simply can’t back each and every one of its artists due to its size and the way the economy is. Crowdfunding made the most sense as a means to help raise at least part of the funds needed to make this record because I knew I had enough fans, family and friends who would be willing to support me and get me at least part of the way to making this album happen. I also thought it would be a good way to bring extra exposure to the project and make people aware of what I’m setting out to do, especially the LGBT communities.

50K MM: … and are you happy with the results so far?
Mike: Well, it’s been just over a week and we’re already almost sixty percent of the way there! It’s a good start, but things have begun to slow down. I think most of my initial fan base have contributed as much as they can, so I’m now looking to expand my reach and bring new backers on board. Because my goal is very small given that I have a small fan base, only $2,000.00, my concern is growing the funds beyond that to help reach my total budget, which is closer to $29,000.00.

I didn’t want to make my goal too big and have people think I couldn’t reach it, but the real challenge and concern is going to be not only meeting my goal and expanding my backers, but going beyond it. I’m very happy with the close to sixty percent of the funds we’ve raised so far, but just over a $1,000.00 is not enough to make a record happen. I’m worried that if the momentum for the campaign doesn’t start building and taking off that it’s going to be very difficult to get such an amazing project off the ground and running. And that would be real shame given how unique and special it’s turning out to be!

50K MM: What comes next for you after reaching your goal on Indiegogo?
Mike: As reaching my initial goal of $2,000.00 is only the very start of funding this record, the immediate concern will be to reach the goal early on in the campaign and grow from there so we can raise as many funds as possible to make the record happen. After we raise the funds, the top priority is to get the record made, obviously! After that happens, however long it takes, I’ll be hiring a top notch publicist to help spread the word about this project once it’s released. I really, really want to make the LGBT and Blues communities aware of what I’m doing, and of course the disability communities as well! My hope is to tour North America once this record is released and bring inclusivity and diversity to various Blues communities across the continent, especially on the festival circuit.

To have an openly Gay Bluesman on stage at a festival singing about his love and relationships and what that looks like is so important, because not only does it help increase visibility of LGBT people in Blues music, it also lets other LGBT people in the Blues scene know that there’s a place for them here too and that they’re welcome and that they can be proud of who they are and not have to hide it. If anything, given the rising acceptance of LGBT relationships in the world today, it’s important for LGBT artists in the music industry to come out and be proud and visible, now more than ever, especially in the Blues scene where we are barely present. So getting this record out and touring in support of it is a definite must!

50K MM: And last one – anything else you want your backers and fans to know?
Mike: You know I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from folks of all walks of life with various disabilities asking me how Double Slide Guitar works and if it could work for them, so the more people we reach with this project I think the more opportunities we have to change people’s lives. It’s not every day that a record has the opportunity to unite three different communities that don’t talk with each other and usually don’t have anything to do with each other, at least far as the Blues and LGBT communities go, so the more backers we bring on board to this, the better. To everyone who’s supported this project so far, and to all my fans who continue to support my music and what I’m doing, I want to say THANK YOU! You are literally helping me to change the game in a genre that has been less than accepting of LGBT people.

But we need to go further if we want to change lives and begin making space for folks who don’t necessarily have one right now: it is so important that we reach new backers for this project, otherwise we won’t meet our goal and go beyond it to get the funding we really need. This project is so unique in so many different ways, everything from the style of guitar I’m playing to the musical genre bending to the lyrics, that I don’t think there’s another record out there quite like it, and I’m so proud of that fact! So please, if you can contribute, please do so, because it’s the only way we’re going to bring such a special, vibrant and positive record to the world. Talk to your friends and share the project on social media as well, because the more people we tell about this, the more will want to back this project.

Either way, I’m trusting the record is going to get made, I mean it has to! I guess I just want to say thank you again to everyone who has and will support this project and that together we have the opportunity to change lives with this record. Please know that you’re taking part in something special, and that I’m grateful for any and all support you can give. In the end, I think this record is going to prove one very important thing, and that’s that love always wins and that there’s a place for everyone in it, no matter who you are.

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