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Ash Grunwald crushes the blues, his own way

Bluesman returns to Whistler next Thursday



Ash Grunwald will readily admit it: it's a bit weird for an Australian man his age to be playing the blues.

Take, for instance, some popular under-40 musicians from Melbourne, Grunwald's hometown: the electro-pop of Cut Copy, the ska-jazz fusion of The Cat Empire, the psychedelic exuberance of Tame Impala. The influences of Melbourne's most popular bands run the gamut from every genre except the blues, it seems.

And yet, there was something about the blues that just sang to Grunwald. There is a small, tight-knit blues scene in Melbourne that, while largely insulated from what was going on elsewhere in music, Grunwald just couldn't ignore.

"I love the feel of it. I love the soulfulness of it. I still do. I love that kind of singing and that kind of guitar playing. I've never encountered that same kind of feel (elsewhere)," he says.

He points to the old American blues masters — Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lonnie Johnson — as the men who captured the blues in its purest form. They captured a feeling so raw and so powerful as yet to be unmatched today. It reeled him in. He's spent the last decade bleeding his blues to a much wider demographic.

"But I don't play to a blues audience, really," he says. "I just play to general people."

His music is a modern take on the blues format, filtering the 12-bar standard through layers of distortion and fuzz. Imagine the White Stripes if they'd spent their life gazing out at the Indian Ocean from Byron Bay. He's been nominated for five ARIA Music Awards (basically Australia's version of the Grammy's) for Best Blues & Roots Album. In 2010, he won an APRA Award for his single "Breakout" and was nominated again last year for his fuzz-blues stomper "Walking."

But unlike the bands listed above, Grunwald has yet to make any waves across the ocean.

"It's tough," he says. "When you walk up as somebody who has profile in their own country and you play a festival, that's fantastic. But when you try to do it on a venue level and you try to do it a café somewhere, having to win over people like you did when you started in your home country, it can be tough."

But he's quick to add that playing to crowds of people who've never heard the music can keep the ego in check, which he says is important for anybody who finds some measure of success in their line of work.

"Anything in life that humbles you is good, really, as long as there's a balance there. You don't want to be humbled constantly or you just get despondent," he says. "It puts other achievements into context."

Grunwald's putting the finishing touches on the follow-up to Hot Mama Vibes, which he's been working on for much of 2011 and hopes to release by "the Canadian summer." He says the album will further explore the blend of modern beats and bluesy instrumentation that he's been working on for the past few albums.

Lyrically, the album will be far more introspective. Previous albums found Grunwald concerned about writing "cool songs," where now he's far more concerned about the troubled world around him.

"I found myself grappling with questions of society," he says.

Environmental issues in Australia have been of particular concern, not just for Grunwald, but also for Australian society as a whole. He was involved in some protests while writing the new album, which inspired him to sing more honestly about the issues he finds important.

"I've always been too self-conscious to write anything that questions the government. For some reason I always thought that it works for other people, but it will just be cheesy for me," he says. "But with this one I thought I'd be a bit more honest."