Calling from Des Moines, Iowa, G. Love is not fussed about the fact that many audience members that evening will likely be totally unfamiliar with several of the songs he’ll play. This is the case because The Juice, the ninth album he’s done with his band G. Love & Special Sauce, won’t be released until ten days from now, when they’ll be playing the eighth show of this tour.
“It would’ve been great if the release was the same day as the first show, but [when] your fan base is spread out over 25 years, it’s not like everybody is up on new tunes the minute the record drops,” he says, though he adds, “I hope people will start singing along right away. I think we’re making a connection on this record. It feels pretty good out the gate, so it should be fun.”
In truth, fans who have seen the band play over the last four years will probably recognize these new songs, as several of them have appeared in the set list for a while now. This is a deliberate move, because G. Love has found that “road testing” tunes is a good way to figure out which ones are album-worthy. “Songs change in front of people,” he explains. “You can write this great song in the studio or sitting on your porch, but the minute you take it in front of people, you’re going to know, ‘Is it any good? Do I feel comfortable singing it in front of people?’ Or, is it giving me not that feeling? It’s usually a good idea to squash it if it’s not giving you that feeling.” And if a song doesn’t make the cut? “There’s a lot of great songs left to write,” he says, unperturbed.
The Juice displays a distinctive blend of blues, rock, rap, and a certain laid-back swagger that’s utterly unique to G. Love & Special Sauce. This is especially the case with the sunny, soulful first single, “Soul-B-Que.” However, on many tracks, G. Love seeks to send a more serious lyrical message, making this release rather different than its predecessors.
He says he hopes that fans will notice the title track, in particular. “That song, for me right now, is the whole reason to do everything that I am doing. That, to me, is a real protest song in a time where I want to stand up and voice my opinion about the world we’re living in and where I think it should be going. I also want to send a rallying cry to other people that share progressive values, because in the world we’re living in, there’s so much negativity.” To that end, he made that song’s lyrics unequivocally straightforward (“We need positive change/We will not regress/Power to the people/We must progress”).
G. Love’s newly overt activism stems from a pivotal incident a few years ago. “The whole thing started, this time around, because in 2015, when Hillary Clinton announced her run for presidency, I happened to have the news on at home, so I took a picture of, ‘Hillary Clinton Announces Run for Presidency’ [on the TV screen].” He posted the photo on social media, but “I didn’t say whether I was voting for her or whether I liked her or anything.” Then, he says with a laugh, “Shit hit the fan! Our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter [comments] were like, ‘Fuck you, G. Love! I’ve liked you for 20 years, but I’ll never come to your show again!’ I was like ‘Whoa!’
“I lost a lot of fans. And then people started saying to me, ‘You should stick to music, stay out of politics.’ I was like, ‘Goddamn, really?’” Exasperated, G. Love’s easygoing demeanor disappears for a moment. “For one thing, if you’re saying that to me, you haven’t really been listening to anything I’ve been recording for the last 20 years or been to my shows. And the other thing is, I couldn’t give a fuck. The musician’s job is to be the voice of the rally. This is what we live for.” He reels off numerous examples of this, “from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley to KRS-One, people have used music to protest.”
But in the end, even if he’s lost a few fans, G. Love remains confident about his band’s status overall. “We’re still here and we have a really fiercely loyal fan base.” And he’s probably correct, because G. Love & Special Sauce began earning that support in 1994, when they released their self-titled debut album; it earned gold record sales status thanks to the hit single “Cold Beverage.” Since then, they’ve routinely undertaken extensive tours, resulting in unusually dedicated audiences that view G. Love & Special Sauce shows as something of an annual tradition.
Beyond his band’s reliability as a live act, G. Love also believes that he earns fans’ loyalty by deliberately making his songs relatable. “Songwriting is such a personal endeavor, such a solo endeavor of one person telling their story of the world. It can start about a very personal experience or feeling that I’m having,” he says, “[but] in a lot of ways I’m trying to be more empathetic, so it’s a gift to the listener, something they can relate to and say, ‘This happened to me, I also feel like that.’” He emphasizes that he’s “not selling out and not trying to pander, but truly digging deep: what can I say that someone else is feeling? If you’re able to do that, then people will take you into their house and you become part of their daily experience, like your song’s on in the morning while they’re getting their kids ready for school.”
Given how important the message on The Juice is, G. Love says he carefully examined everything he was doing with this album, for which he gives credit to working with producer Keb’ Mo’ this time around. “Working with Keb’ Mo’ was incredibly challenging and rewarding because Keb’ Mo’s older and a master musician, and he challenged every lyric, every way I sang, every phrasing. Even words in songs: should we say ‘but’ or ‘and’ here? Just really being meticulous with every process along the way. The only thing that he would never challenge was when I was rapping and playing harmonica. But everything else, it would be like, ‘Hold on man, that’s not the feel.’ A lot of what I’ve done my whole career is off the cuff and spontaneous, but he was really meticulous.”
G. Love says he did not mind this sometimes difficult process. “I’m here to learn from [Keb’ Mo],” he says firmly. “I’m here to try things out of my comfort zone, and things that could even seem stupid or silly, to try to get me out of my head and into a creative space that’s pure and energized.”
He showed this willingness to learn and adapt, when it comes to his craft, from his very first songwriting efforts while he was still in high school in Philadelphia. “I found myself through writing songs. I had this urge to play them in front of people. And then when I did that, I said [to myself], ‘There are other people who have obviously listened to The Beatles (The White Album) and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, I’m not the only one, I’ve got to do something different.’ I went to the record store and I’m like, ‘Does anybody else play solo acoustic guitar and harmonica on the rack other than Neil Young and Bob Dylan?’ They gave me this John Hammond record. When I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is it! Learn the blues!’ That was a whole journey. That was the thing that pushed me into this weird direction of an 18-year-old white kid from Philadelphia trying to sound like a 60-year-old black man from Mississippi,” he says with a laugh. “At the same time, I started rapping over one of my blues riffs. And then I knew it at that point. I was like, ‘Oh, there it is.’ He had finally found his distinctive sound.
His ensuing success is, he says, beyond anything he’d originally envisioned for himself. “The whole dream, for me, was to make a record and tour coffee shops, like I saw John Hammond doing.” He still vividly remembers the moment when he was offered his first record deal, with Okeh/Epic Records, when he was 20-years-old. “I’ll never forget, I was sitting with my drummer in his studio in Massachusetts. I got the call and just broke down and cried.
“The best thing [about being a professional musician] is being able to see the world and make people happy and get to meet all the other musicians. That’s pretty awesome because I never have given up on being a fan,” he says. He is especially pleased about the fact that he is now good friends with John Hammond, the musician whose work so inspired him and directly set him on the path that led him to such success today.
Now, as he contemplates this latest tour, and whether or not The Juice will enjoy the same level of success as all the other G. Love & Special Sauce albums (or if his protest statements really will impact his career), he is philosophical.
“You have to really be willing to put yourself out there and set yourself up for failure or success. One of the other is going to happen!”
Be sure to catch G. Love & Special Sauce on January 23 at Brooklyn Bowl!