I met Billy TK Jnr in early December 2019 some time after seeing his name as an opener for Buddy Guy in January 2020. Legends talent booking agent Mark Maddox is reknown for finding acts to open for Buddy that defy and excite the norm. He’s never satisfied booking the same bands year to year, each artist earns their opening spot for January and Billy TK Jnr is no exception. Billy is an amazing talent, when he plays it’s as if nothing else exists, he strikes to the very heart of music. It’s that heart that has guided him through his life, in music and philanthropy. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the amazingly talented Billy TK.
Don’t miss Billy TK Jnr’s opening set for the last January BUDDY SHOW on January 26th.
Aaron Porter: I always forget you’re ahead of us, not behind us.
Billy TK Jnr: Hello from tomorrow land. (laughs)
AP: When I started researching you for this interview I came across the word “whanau” and it is a word that I think belongs in the blues vernacular. It seems to embody the very soul of the blues.
BTK Jnr: Yes, whanau, well done -it’s our Maori word for family. That’s absolutely right, for me as a Christian musician I see us all as an extended family anyway but the international blues community is bigger than what people would think it is. The very best of the international blues community is like a family and I’ve been able to meet people from Europe, Germany, Poland, Asia, the Pacific, the US and Canada even Brazil; people that play the blues and when you have a global outlook like that you really do realize how much of a family it is and we’re all connected by the bloodline of the blues. It’s a real true experience. When I visited you guys a few weeks ago I felt like family and I had a message from Carlise Guy and she said she’d felt like she’d known me forever. That is the sort of thing that really tells me the community – the international blues community is quite a special family to be a part of.
AP: Absolutely. How do you feel blues music fits into New Zealand culture?
BTK Jnr: When I think of the global picture I see that blues is incredibly entrenched in our culture and in our societies psyche. When I was a young boy growing up in New Zealand blues was everywhere it was massive. You’ll sit down with someone who plays guitar and they’re going to play an Elmore James song for you or they’re going to a Matt “Guitar” Murphy without even knowing it, or they’re going to sing you a Stevie Ray Vauhan song or a Buddy Guy song and it’s everywhere in New Zealand. Here you’re going to find people who know about Buddy Guy, they know about Stevie Ray Vaughan they know about Robert Johnson or Eric Clapton, and right in our culture and I guess the thing that might surprise especially us musicians who come here is how much New Zealand appreciates the blues and how much we know about the blues. There are some incredible blues historians that live here that have been to Clarksdale, Greenville, Mississippi, through Louisiana and they travel to the us every year to blues fixtures. In short, the blues is massive here in New Zealand.
AP: Fantastic. I’ve been told by a few artists who come through our club that audiences in Europe and other countries are a little more reserved and have a greater appreciation for the musical experience, would you say that is true for New Zealand or would you say it tends to be a little more rocus or celebratory like the US?
BTK Jnr: I think it all depends on how much alcohol they’ve had (we laugh). Hate to say it like that but I think it depends. Anywhere in the world where I’ve played the blues, sometimes crowds have a mood and if they’re ready to party then it’s going to be a party, if a crowd is slightly reserved, you have to work much harder to get them into it. I always try to think along the lines of if there is a crowd there in the first place they’re there to listen to the genre, they’re there to listen to the blues and it’s going to come down to the artist and how well they deliver the story to the audience. Normally that will determine if the audience responds in the right way. Having said that you’ll go to some societies where as a culture they are just more reserved in nature and they’re going to respond that way. Many blues practitioners who want to get into the crowd and connect with them see that as a good fun challenge to win them over.
AP: I notice that you’ve been playing with the same band members for a while now. Can you tell us a little about them?
BTK Jnr: I guess members do come and go for me but the longests standing member of my band is Edgar San Gabriel from San Francisco. I met Edgar back in 2006 when I was on tour in San Francisco and we’ve been brothers united in the family of blues ever since. From about 2010 onwards he’s been pretty much my number one guy in the band, we’ve used a couple different musicians on drums and keyboards. I do like to try to keep a stable band, I think that makes for a stable musical family, it helps the whole expression of what you’re trying to say. It makes it a little difficult to bring in ad hoc musicians. What we’re going through at the moment because we just recorded a new album with a full American band, we’re looking to firm up who’s going to be a part of the ongoing band because we have a lot of international bookings coming up, we’ve got all sorts of neat things happening, but there is a demand that you have a firm band that’s well rehearsed and together as a family unit, I’m conscious that it should happen pretty quickly. We’re going through the process of recruiting people for the band. On that note when we played for you guys a few weeks ago we had the wonderful Ronnie Hicks played (keyboard / organ) with us and it was just like, he slid in there like a hand in an old glove. It was wonderful to play with him, it was like he was one of my uncles back here in New Zealand.
AP: I understand, Ronnie is definitely a face we love seeing at Legends. He’s a fantastic, nice guy. You mentioned earlier that you’re Christian in faith, how has that influenced your music?
BTK Jnr: To be very honest, not a great deal. It’s more about how I like to treat people and how I like to do business with people, on the basis of honesty and upfrontness, with great care for everyone. If you look at back in the day they said that the blues was the devil’s music but in truth blues practitioners would play blues one minute and then get to church and play gospels the next minute. I think the lord has always been in the blues somewhat and the musicians that play it and I don’t think I’m any different. In fact there was a famous Mississippi blues guitar player who was pastor as well, he’d come out and play in juke joints in Mississippi and then on Sunday preach, his name escapes me, so I guess indirectly not to the music itself but more the way I treat people.
AP: You’ve done a few shows benefiting the Maori…Ma or ri?
AP: I tried really hard on that one.
BTK Jnr: You did well. (we both laugh)
AP: And your family has been active in supporting the homeless in New Zealand, what inspired you and your family to embrace that sort of contribution aside from just faith?
BTK Jnr: It comes down to seeing the plight of our fellow human that who through mental illness or circumstance have felt the need to disengage from everyday life and from the places they live in and they just basically vanish, and in doing that they end up living on the streets, and I can not ignore that when I’m driving my car, with money in my pocket and with a full stomach and I’m looking out the window and I see people living in a cardboard box, I can’t ignore that. Even if I weren’t a Christian I couldn’t ignore that. It’s very important to my wife and I that we make a contribution to society by helping those people, by feeding them, giving them blankets and clothes and most importantly speaking with them and listening to them so that they know people care about them, and sharing with them god’s love is part of that too. It should be a basic human feeling to want to help people in the streets or in need. That’s where it really emanates from, just wanting to help our human family.
AP: We have a not dissimilar situation in the city of Chicago. It can sometimes be hard to know where to begin or how to help, when I see and hear stories about artists big and small making these contributions it’s important to share that.
BTK Jnr: And that’s true Aaron, there are so many people who want to help but just don’t know how to help, or how to engage to help, so what we did for the blues for homelessness gig that we did recently was to provide a platform for people who were coming by to buy a ticket for the show know that they were helping and that made people feel really positive about their own contribution. The principle being that if everyone puts in a little bit each the sum adds up to something really significant.
AP: I read that you will every once in a while take a break from music to take a steady job, is that true? If so, what keeps you coming back to music?
BTK Jnr: First and foremost, there was never an economic reason to walk away, it was more about my sanity and having to do with a period where I was flying out every month out of New Zealand and I was spending a lot of time away from my beautiful wife and family and then the lifestyle itself, the rock and roll lifestyle. Unless you’re some sort of robot it does wear you down. It got to a couple of points in my life where as a musician a guitar player of some standing in my country, I had some companies that were paying me to be a brand ambassador. I said to myself a few times, I’m pretty well shredded right now from touring and playing that I need a break. I’d be really fortunate to call up these companies that I was brand ambassador for and say, “Hey guy’s can you use me on more of a full time basis?” And every time I was blessed that these companies would say, “Hell yeah, we’ll take you on.” So I found myself with a good salary and taking a break. Every time the blues just pulls me back in, and it’s not very long before I’m back on stage again doing a scorching guitar solo.
AP: I understand completely as a designer and illustrator, there are sometimes months where I don’t have the creative energy. Burnout is a thing. You have a fairly distinct rock influence to you music. What drew you to that rock blues blend?
BTK Jnr: That’s a great question. I’m the son of a legendary NZ guitarist Billy TK and my dad was never a bluesman as such, he was more a product of the day, a guitarist who played Jimmi Hendrix and Creme, Zeplin and all that, and of course that was a big influence on me but, I was hugely influenced by Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and toward the rock side, Zeplin and ZZ Top. I guess I’m kind of a product of my heritage really, having a strong rock background, but where I sort of deviated from my father was that I became very entrenched in the blues. Some of that was in part because I went to Mississippi when I was twenty years old.
AP: I read in an interview that you play by feeling, after all these years does that remain true, or do you have to find ways of refilling that tank?
BTK Jnr: I’m very blessed, it’s the only way I play, I can’t map out guitar solos, I can’t read music, I wasn’t able to do guitar lessons, everything I’ve learned in how to play has been by listening and really by just repeating what I’ve heard by feel on the guitar and if I can’t repeat what I’ve heard note for note, I play with my heart to the point of view that I catch the spirit of what I heard. I’ve been blessed with what feels like a never ending heart for it, I don’t seem to run out of things to say, though I usually try not to say too much for the sake of saying it. If I do say something while I’m playing it needs to be a statement, it needs to be real. I think that’s one of the ways I’m able to connect with people is because I am able to play like that. People feel it when it’s from the heart, people feel it when you’re reaching out from your heart to theirs and it affects people in a really deep way. They can feel the sincerity of what your playing and if you don’t play from the heart it all becomes an intellectual exercise and it’s only going connect so far, but if it’s from the heart and always from the heart then it’ll take people on a much longer and much deeper journey.
AP: It becomes something much more personal.
BTK Jnr: Absolutely and it is very personal to them, which is why so many musicians drink alcohol and do drugs. You reveal so much about yourself that you feel vulnerable and exposed, and sometimes the only way they can deal with it is for them to take some strong nips of something to help reconcile the feeling of being so exposed. I was at a show not so long ago where one of the support acts musicians got absolutely trashed just to deal with the nervousness. That’s why i felt so blessed coming to Buddy Guy’s Legends and being welcomed so warmly as part of the Legends family. There wasn’t any case of feeling exposed or vulnerable it was just a wonderful feeling. Because of that I was able to connect with the audience that we had, we sold a few cd’s and made some new friends. The people I was able to connect with were just wonderful.
AP: The blues community is a pretty loving community. I’ve seen some of the biggest acts of kindness in the 13 years I’ve been working here, and it inspires.
BTK Jnr: I was really sad to have missed the kids toy drive in December.
AP: Anicia really puts a lot of heart and effort into making sure the kids from the hospitals have a happy Christmas. She always knocks it out of the park. You’ve said that keeping a work life balance is important to you, now that your kids are getting older and grandkids are a part of the picture, do you find that easier or harder to accomplish?
BTK Jnr: That’s a great question. I’m a reasonably young grandfather, I’m only 47 but it is getting harder at the moment because I recently took a few years off from music. I got back into the game only a few months ago, but we’ve been attracting a lot of international attention recently so that means a heck of a lot of international travel this year and so what I always try to do is to take my family on the road with me, for example I have 5 or 6 shows this week in New Zealand and I’ve got my wife and kids on tour with me at the moment. I always try to do that whenever I can, my wife is a lot tougher than me now she’s used to me hitting the road now, I’m the one who cries at the airport (we laugh).
AP: I know what you mean.
BTK Jnr: Yeah, I’m the guy who cries at the airport and she doesn’t but she eventually has a cry with me on the phone a week later (laughs). For me it’s necessary to have the balance in order to go out and give a great performance. Making sure you’re unpacked at home in your personal life so that you don’t end up a tragic story. The thing we all look for is success as a musician and sometimes with the success comes fame and really in my view you’ve got to be in a position that you can cope and deal with it so that you don’t lose your marriage, you’re not gonna make mistakes and end up in trouble. That’s one of the ways I’m very blessed to have the stability in my life so I can focus on that great performance.
AP: You’re an ambassador for the blues and music in general, can you elaborate on what that means to you and what you’re hoping to accomplish in that role?
BTK Jnr: Absolutely, number one I think the world is full of blues ambassadors, I’m certainly not the only one. People have different skill sets, abilities, capabilities and I think I have the experience and ability to create platforms for artists from other countries, Europe, the US or wherever, to perform and be introduced to New Zealand in a safe way, or Australia as well. What I’m excited about is building a network of similar ambassadors where by we can work together as a part of the blues family and connect to each other by a global network that we can tour Europe one year, or Australia. We are trying to create that now so I’m working closely with Carlise and NuBlu and Mark (Maddox) to bring them down to New Zealand for a week and a half tour. It’s a great opportunity to bring Carlise (Guy) and NuBlu to New Zealand audiences. From there we’re hoping to bring them to the European blues family that I have that came to work with me, so I’m keen to introduce them. Conversely, I’ve been given the opportunity to come back in January to open up for one of my heroes and your boss Buddy Guy. That’s part of the blues exchange, having said that it is based upon a very strong commitment and understanding there must be quality there, it’s something that has to be understood, so that the blues can be inspiring and an aspiring presentation, because no one wants to see someone who doesn’t play well. The world now is full of virtuosity, and the level of expectation on people that play is quite high now, though having said that and this is why playing with heart is so incredibly important because virtuosity is nothing without heart. With the international blues network that I’m building there is an understanding that the people who are a part of it can really play and inspire people to love the blues and learn more about it. Similarly to the way we were impacted. I want to help develop blues tourism in chicago – the world right now needs a happy and good story and the blues can provide that. I’m keen to see that come about and if people can discover my musical voice, my story and my ability, then that’s even more of a bonus.
AP: You mentioned that Buddy Guy is a hero of yours, what’s it like to have the opportunity to open for him this January at Legends?
BTK Jnr: It feels incredible to be opening up for buddy. I was very lucky as a young man of 21 I toured New Zealand with Junior Wells and I got to spend time with Junior and came back to Chicago with the band and hearing the stories of Buddy and listening to his performances, they were a huge influence on me and the way I play. Having the opportunity now to open up for Buddy at his world famous elite blues club is really like a coming home for me. I consider it a great honor, I’ll be turning up with my best effort and ready to be different. I won’t be leaving anything at the door, I’m going to give it all. I feel very, very blessed to warm up the stage for him.
AP: Sometimes being so far separated from other countries it is easy for us to dismiss or not recognize that we’re connected in very similar ways. I know I sometimes fall into that trap on a one on one basis. Saying that I have a question that’s a little sensative because I think there’s a good way to ask it except to ask it. What do you feel New Zealand artists bring to blues music, a music that is typically considered from the US?
BTK Jnr: That’s a really wonderful question Aaron – Jeepers, it’s a really big and pertinent question, so you’ll get my thoughts on that because it is important. I think for a start if you look at – my dad is Maori-Polonesian and my mom is of French and Irish descent and the Polonesian people of our country here the Maori have gone through our own version of racial segregation, our own version of cultural genocide and our own version of slavery. We’ve been through all of that and the way that our families are structured and the way that they feel, are very similar to the black community that I’ve lived, stayed and interacted with. The thing that New Zealand has about racial segregation is mirrored in what African Americans went through. We weren’t allowed in alcohol houses at all, up until late the late fifties allowed into (alcohol) bars. People have somewhat forgotten that history here in New Zealand but it was very much segregated out. So I think that the blues as an outlet for pain, for joy, it’s an outlet for excitement, observation and i think that when the Maori people first came across the blues we just gravitated toward it. There is a really rich history of blues music with the Maori people here, I’ve got an auntie who sings the blues like Etta James, you know and she’s a big blues momma and she’s wonderful, and she’s as rich in her singing as I’ve seen internationally. It’s because of the history that we have a natural love and feel of the genre and we’ve been able to make it our own. We’ve been able to add our own flavor you know, I had a number of people speak to me at Legends the other week and hearing an American rhythm section and hearing the wonderful Ronnie Hicks on organ, and hearing all the guitar licks I was doing, you were hearing Buddy Guy, you were hearing Freddy King, it was played in a way you could recognize but Ii believe I’ve got a different voice and the licks are the same but the delivery and the flavor is slightly different. That’s why I don’t want to turn up and play like anyone else, because that thing that makes me sound like me is the thing that’ll make me different, which I think has as much validity as a guitar player from Louisiana or Mississippi. The other thing is with us Kiwis (New Zealanders), what you see is what you get from us and if you come across somebody from New Zealand eight and a half times out of ten they’re going to be honest and upfront about what they think and feel and I think the blues really appeals to that type of sincerity. When I come to the states myself I think that’s what people pick up on, the heart, sincerity, and the time I’ve put in to learn about the blues. Like I said earlier I left New Zealand at a young age and I stayed with my black family in Greenville, Mississippi – I took this experience with me but I took the time to learn about the genre.
AP: Last few questions and we’ll let you get back to starting your day. What are your top 5 favorite cities to play in?
BTK Jnr: Austin TX, Chicago, San Francisco, Melbourne AU, and Tokyo. How about that?
AP: That’s a great list. I saw you play a Fender, aside from that is there a dream guitar or piece of gear you’d love to have?
BTK Jnr: A Buddy Guy’s signature Strat would be nice (we laugh) I’m one of those guitar players that have tried to play other guitars like a Les Paul or Gibson and I was even endorsed by a major major company that I won’t name but I just couldn’t play anything other than a Fender Strat, I’m not too bad on a Telecaster but I’m a Fender Strat man through and through. My ideal equipment would be to have Fender twins, you name it, Fender Bassman, a room full of those amps I’d be stoked, but I just have one twin at the moment (laughs).
AP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Billy, is there anything you’d like to add about upcoming projects or events for you?
BTK Jnr: My pleasure Aaron – its been wonderful to talk with you and meet you recently. I have exciting times ahead – I have just recorded a new album that we are presenting to record labels around the world and I have bookings coming in from all around the world. From Europe, Australia, the US and of course the show opening up for Buddy on Jan 26. Which is a great thing to look forward to.
I will continue to build the international blues ambassador network and I will be in New Zealand ready and waiting to welcome Carlise Guy and NuBlu to New Zealand and many others that I will bring to New Zealand to play the blues.
I look forward as I always do to meeting and making new friends.
Check out more about Billy at