“Many of our best ideas are hybrids with roots in several different cultures,” explained guitarist Ottmar Liebert, whose instrumental music can best be described as a fusion of Spanish, Mexican, and world styles and features robust melodies tinged with melancholy yet complemented with upbeat rhythms. The five-time Grammy-nominated artist has received around 40 gold and platinum certifications since the release of his 1990 debut album, Nouveau Flamenco.
Born in Cologne, Germany, Liebert has called Santa Fe, New Mexico, home for the last several decades, drawing creative influence from its landscape and artistic ambience. During a recent correspondence with the Santa Barbara Independent, the renowned guitarist discussed the inspiration for his latest album, slow; the guitarists who influenced him; Prince’s passing; and the relationship between music and photography.
Your album slow contains songs featuring elements of bossa nova, rumba, waltz, flamenco, and Arabic scale. How did you decide on the album’s title and soothing theme? I want to point out that slow is not strictly an album of solo guitar performances like [2006’s] One Guitar, because I did quite a bit of overdubbing on slow, meaning that some pieces contain multiple guitar performances. After finishing [2015’s] Waiting n Swan, I just felt the need to work on something that was more introspective. In my experience it is actually quite difficult to create something that’s soothing but not boring. A certain amount of tension has to be gently injected into the melody and chords. It’s really a very fine line. When that tension is totally missing, it becomes a turn off for me. I decided on the title, because it states a fact and describes the music.
“Elegy” was written as a tribute to Prince. What was his music’s influence on you? In addition to being a great songwriter, singer, dancer, performer, and producer, Prince was also one of the finest guitar players. How could one not be influenced by him!
Can you comment about your use of wordplay for some song titles? “Lalo” is a Spanish nickname for Eduardo. “Cura” means “cure.” But when one changes it from “Lalo Cura” to “La Locura,” the meaning becomes “The Madness.” Same exact letters, different word break. Such a fine line between the madness and the cure!
“End Less” is a wordplay on “endless,” of course, but I was also thinking about how men always look to the finish line. In daily life as well as in philosophy, the question seems to always be how do I get over there? Over there is where I need to be, whether over there is enlightenment or heaven or just a specific car model or a certain amount of money in the bank. So “End Less” is advice to myself — to stop looking at the goal line and to simply be.
“Butterfly Dream” was written in reference to the classic story by Chuang Tzu, wondering if he is a man dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. To what extent has Taoist thought influenced your music? Taoism was a major influence on Chan, which came to be known as Zen in Japan. I read a translation of Chuang Tzu by Burton Watson in my early twenties and loved the wisdom contained in it. I also own five different translations of the Tao Te Ching.
You began playing guitar at the age of 11. In addition to Prince, who were your early guitar influences? My very first guitar hero was Carlos Santana. The first concert I attended, as a 16-year-old in 1975, was Santana with opening act Earth, Wind & Fire! For Christmas that year, I received Santana’s triple LP Lotus, recorded live in Japan … When we toured with Santana in 1996, I asked Carlos to autograph the Lotus cover for me.
As an avid photographer, what do you see as the connection between photography and music and how did you choose that great image of the snail that appears on the cover of slow? Whether we look at a painting or a photograph, or listen to music, many of the basic elements are the same. Line and color, melody and chord, flavor and texture, and patterns that repeat and create a visual or aural rhythm. I tend to see patterns in everything, often annoyingly so.
I was having a hard time figuring out the cover imagery for slow. One morning I was walking home from a coffee shop in Santa Fe. The ground was still damp from an overnight rainstorm, and snails were crossing the concrete pedestrian path. I looked at the snails’s trails with interest because they were dots, not the steady line I had imagined. Then I realized that a snail would make the perfect visual for slow. I snapped the photo with my phone because that’s all I had with me — the best camera is the one you actually carry!
How does living in Santa Fe tie in to both your visual and aural creative processes? When I first arrived in Santa Fe in 1986, I was shocked by the look of the high desert. From a mountain, I could I see 100 miles into the distance. Because of the adobe style houses, the color palette was limited. Santa Fe seemed to be a visual and physical space where I could let my imagination roam free. Santa Fe has always attracted a lot of artists, and a lot of culture mixing has been going on there for a long time.
Over the years you have taken quite an experimental approach to your albums — bringing in elements as eclectic as tango, reggae, and Japanese koto, etc. Is there music from any cultures that you haven’t explored yet that you would like to use in the future? Any artists you’d enjoy collaborating with? We just returned from playing seven shows in Hawai‘i, and I would like to hear how flamenco guitar might fit with Hawaiian music and singing. I would also love to collaborate with Ryuichi Sakamoto or Toumani Diabaté … but it’s a long list, really. I wanted to collaborate with a few singers for a vocal version of the album Waiting n Swan, but it didn’t come to pass. I imagined that Ziggy Marley or Jack Johnson,or the Spanish singer Buika would have sounded great on some of the music.
Ottmar Liebert and his band, Luna Negra, play Sunday, September 3, 6 p.m., at the Libbey Bowl (210 S. Signal St., Ojai). Call (888) 645-5006 or visit libbeybowl.org.