Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Peter Karp
Peter Karp is known for many things. An assertive singer, a skilled guitarist and a passionate performer, he’s also an individual who writes songs that frequently reflect tales told as part of life’s journey, spawned by passion and personal experience.
Consequently he’s not easily confined to any singular genre. Blues, Americana and rock and roll reverence all find common ground within his visceral template. He taps tradition and yet also maintains contemporary credence. As his friend and collaborator, Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor once noted, “Guys like Peter Karp, James Taylor and Bob Dylan embody Americana Blues, and us English guys are inspired by it.”
That’s never been more evident than on Karp’s striking new album, Magnificent Heart. A stirring collection of songs and observations, it bends the boundaries from blues to ballads, all conveyed with the insight and authority for which Karp’s come to be known. Whether it’s the gritty defiance inherent in such songs as “Sitting on Top of the World” and “The Letter,” the assured swagger of “This World,” the stoic determination inherent in “The Grave,” or the softer sentiments conveyed through “The World,” “Scared,” “The Last Heartbeat,” and “Face the Wind,” Karp conveys a knowing perspective that resonates through common cause.
The dozen songs that make up Magnificent Heart were written over the course of the past few years while Karp was touring both domestically and abroad. They were intended, he insists, for those he describes as either “doomed or redeemed.” They’re stories about people he met along the way and the experiences he encountered along the way. He describes it as a reflection of “the triumphs and tragedies that you leave behind and await you as you move ahead. Only love, faith and a magnificent heart will see you through.”
Karp has always taken his task seriously, one reason he’s able to convey his music with such passion and purpose. “For me, writing and performing has always been about making a connection…maybe even a difference,” he declares. “This record reflects where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced through growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, love, loss, and mortality. Is it a bit heavy? Sure! It better be…if you want to dance with me.”
That said, individual offerings burrow deeper into the psyche. He says “Sitting On The Edge Of The World” was inspired by a book called “The Road.” “I read it while I lived for a few days in the Reeperbahn in Hamburg Germany. The rain soaked lights in the red light district, the perfume of the street walkers, the ghosts of the young Beatles and ‘The Road’ delivered me this post apocalyptic love song.” Likewise, “Face The Wind” was written while living in a little village in Turkey. “The isolation, the calls to prayer and walking 2,000 year old streets inspired this idea. “
On the other hand, Karp suggests that “The Letter” could be construed as autobiographical, although, he says, “everyone carries the letter.” Likewise, “She Breaks Her Own Heart” relates the story of a not so bitter break-up. “When people break up they blame each other,” he reflects. “Not so in this case. I don’t kiss and tell. I write songs. Pure fiction. Ugh.”
Other tracks had more complicated backstories. “One day I received a call from another artist asking me to write something for his new record,” Karp recalls. “I was not in good shape. It was the dead of winter and I had writer’s block. I wasn’t very nice to him but I wrote and wrote and wrote. ‘This World’ was my favorite, and so I kept it for myself. I’ll be nicer next time. ‘Scared’ originally started as a poem by my late great wife and poet Mary Lou Bonney Karp,” Karp explains. “I took it and re-wrote it as a ballad while trying to keep the woman’s perspective intact. Over the years it’s been recorded by different artists. This is the definitive version. My son James plays the solo. The circle is complete.”
He explains that “Compassion,” is about narcissism, self empowerment and egotism, and how they often live in the shadows of empathy, understanding and compassion. “At least that’s what I hope,” he adds.
Written and produced by Karp, Magnificent Heart features Karp on slide guitar, solo guitar, guitar, piano and vocals, along with Kim Wilson (harmonica), Jason Ricci (harmonica), John Ginty (B3 organ), Jim Eingher (piano and keyboard), Paul Carbonara (guitar and solo guitar on “The Letter,” “This World”), James Otis Karp (solo guitar on “Scared”), Niles Terrat (bass), Edward Williams (bass), Michael Catapano (drums/percussion), Cold City Horns (Jacob Wynne, trumpet and David Kasper, tenor sax), and Eyrn O’ree (background vocals).
The album follows on the heels of last year’s critically acclaimed Blue Flame, another triumph that marked Karp’s artistic progression over the course of the past 20 years. Born in the tiny hamlet of Leonia New Jersey, just over the Hudson River from New York City, Karp was introduced to music at an early age by his mother and sister who would take him to shows featuring the stars of the nascent English Invasion, Murray the K’s freewheeling road shows and the soul artists emerging from Motown with the beckoning of Top 40 radio.
That instinctive love of music was accelerated when he went to live with his dad in a trailer park, in rural Enterprise, Alabama. It was there that he became aware of the musicians that laid the seeds for the seminal sounds of the Blues, revered pioneers like Sun House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. He also began exploring the artists that picked up that gauntlet early on, original American masters like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Having been bitten by the bug, Karp embarked on his own musical journey, picking up the accordion at age seven and then making a segue way to guitar and piano in his mid-teens.
He formed his first band, They Came From Houses, which quickly became a staple of New York’s nascent underground scene, as represented by such iconic clubs as CBGBs, Folk City and the Mudd Club. The band shared stages with the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Mink Deville, the Stray Cats, John Hammond Jr., George Thorogood and David Johansen, among the many, but eventually Karp became disillusioned with the music scene and walked away, preferring to spend his time caring for a new family instead of finding himself always out on the road.
He went to work for his family, but still kept his connections to music. He frequently sought out other songwriters and performers to perform with and seek advice to help him further his songwriting skill, gleaning thoughts from such artists as Willie Dixon, Robert Lockwood Jr., Sammy Cahn, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Richie Havens and Ric Ocasek. He also took some time to travel, expanding his interest in African American culture and the indigenous music of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
Revitalized after his hiatus, Karp eventually returned to performing, writing songs that reflected his accumulated life experiences. That core commitment led to his first independent release, 1998’s Live at the Americana Roadhouse, a poorly recorded but well received collection of original songs captured in concert. It was also the record that brought him to Taylor’s attention after hearing some of its rough recordings. Taylor subsequently flew to the States to play on Karp’s next effort, The Turning Point, and shortly thereafter the two embarked up a tour together.
As a result Karp continued to accumulate a national following, and in 2007, he released a follow up, Shadows and Cracks, his first record for the respected blues label Blind Pig. He Said — She Said, which found him partnering with Canadian singer/songwriter Sue Foley, was released in 2010 and quickly made it into Billboard’s Top Five as well. The duo’s follow up, Beyond the Crossroads, came soon after and was subsequently cited by Alternate Roots Magazine as the #1 CD of the Year for 2012. In 2016, Karp released The Arson’s Match, a series of recordings made with Mick Taylor at New York’s Bottom Line. Funds from the project go towards a charity Karp started in his wife’s memory.
In the meantime, the accolades have kept accumulating. Blues Blast Magazine described him simply as “One of the most well-respected songwriters in America.” AllMusic.com noted, “Karp is his own man, an artist who blends roots music styles into something that transcends blues, country, R&B and swamp, John Prine’s wordplay, Joe Ely’s rocking instincts, Billy Joe Shaver’s fatalistic outlook.” Goldmine declared “Peter Karp is a star. From his muscular slide guitar soloing to his observational and oh-so-true songwriting and, most of all, that soulful expressive voice of his, dripping with innuendo. Dude’s entertaining as hell,” while USA Today described him as “a great writer and performer whose songs are driven by verbal word play and insights into the human experience. Like James Taylor and Bob Dylan, Karp embodies Americana music.”
“What turns me on is absolute honesty,” Karp confesses. “You have to take it seriously to stay committed to who you are and where you’re coming from. That’s the way I connect to my audience. You can’t BS people. It’s always about honesty.”