Monday, February 25, 2013

Pure Inspiration: An Interview with Adam Rafferty

Photo credit: Mary Cummings

Adam Rafferty stood on the sidewalk outside Casa Loco (where he was a guest) last Sunday, watching the reflection of his hands in his rental car’s side window. His nimble fingers attended to each string on his guitar as I watched him from my own side window and parked my car.

It was a little too cold to chat outside, so we made our way into the colorful, fun house known as Whimzey. Adam removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on bright patterned, vividly colored couch cushions. The previous night, he and Shaun Hopper had played to an audience under the gazebo, amongst the ambiance of the bowling balls, metal yard art, and plastic flowers of a very fun Christmas past. For those not familiar with this magical place, it’s an art house, color everywhere, and surrounded by bowling balls. When the setting and the music collide (like it did for those of us who watched Adam Rafferty and Shaun Hopper the night before), it feels like you’re experiencing a sort of magic.

I sat across on my own space of color and started from the beginning. The old, Where were you born and raised question. Turns out, Adam Rafferty grew up near Harlem. “It was different back then,” he said. “When I was there – which was sort of scary -- there was also this scene of music. Now it’s gentrified. Harlem now is brushed steel and glass.”

Photo credit: Holly Apperson
But besides being in an area of New York rich with the sounds of some heavy hitters in the music scene, Adam’s dad had his own dreams of making music. “He had this big boomingly-loud Martin guitar―a D-28. Being three and hearing somebody play guitar and sing … well, there are certain things that hit us―they filter through us and go right into the subconscious,” Adam explained. “That hardwired me for music. I was pretty lucky.”

Adam credits his first teacher, Woody Mann, with much of his development. “Now with what I do … there’s such a heavy influence from him.” Mann’s lessons began when Adam was only five years-old. He learned the basics, and later, classical and jazz. “I still love classical music but was never a stone cold classical musician,” he said.  “Sure, I studied it―listened to some Bach. Did it for a year in college, but I found it limiting, discouraging and competitive. Some people triumph, but I couldn’t withstand the politics or pressure of that world.  Then I became interested in jazz.

“I was always busy as a working guitar player,” he continued. “I did my first pro gig when I was sixteen. I was dabbling in jazz and then I found my most important guitar teacher. He’s actually from Ft. Lauderdale: Mike Longo. From ‘64 to ‘71 Longo was Dizzy Gillespie’s pianist. He’s not a household name, but he’s a household name with jazz musicians.” 

Longo became Adam’s mentor. He taught Adam a lot about harmony and rhythm, arranging, and composition. “From age nineteen to about thirty-six, I did whatever he told me.”

He paused, then nodded as he remembered a turning point in his life. “I had actually started getting some gigs with some well-known band players―a few with the organ player Dr. Lonnie Smith, who played in early George Benson records.”

Photo credit: Holly Apperson
Adam Rafferty sees himself as someone who fits in a group of a multi-cultural sort. The group of musicians who have their heads on tight and want the audience to have a good time. “A healthy mix of people,” he added.  

From 1998 to 2005 he was doing two to three week trips to Europe every year. “That was before YouTube, before you could send anything online,” he said. “There was no social media. I had to go to stand alone websites, go to the Post Office to mail demo CDs. I filled out a million forms. I had to be such a proactive squeaky wheel. It was really a lot of work.”

Credit: Mary Cummings. (Shaun Hopper & Adam Rafferty)
He barely broke even and he knew he had to take action to survive as a working musician. “In Europe it’s cool to be a jazz musician, but financially it’s hard. You have to pay for  each band member’s hotel room, train and plane tickets, meals. I started to notice that wow―singers and pop artists can really draw a crowd but instrumental jazz is a slow build. Even for really well-known people. My last touring experience with a band was exceptionally stressful. I knew I had to rethink what I was doing.

“A friend of mine asked ‘Did you ever hear this guy Tommy Emmanuel?’ We popped a DVD in and for the first time I saw somebody playing solo guitar. In about first fifteen to thirty seconds I knew I could do that, but with different tunes. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew I’d go about it somehow.”

Photo credit: Mary Cummings
With a new plan, an old guitar, a few songs and lots of inspiration, Rafferty took a year off.  “I had never practiced so much in my life.  I popped out my first CD. Bought a couple mics and recorded the songs myself. There were all kinds of sound problems, but there was a vibe. You could hear how much I loved it.  I can’t say that about all my CDs, but I was coming alive.” 

Rafferty sent a CD to Tommy Emmanuel―just to say thank you. “I wrote a note, telling him he changed my life.  On the last line I wrote ‘Watch out. I’m coming.’” Adam stopped at the memory to laugh. “Yeah, Tommy wrote back. He said, ‘by the way, I can practice more than you can.’ And he’d drawn a little smiley face.

“You know … when I think about it … he doesn’t realize that by him putting in all the dues, him putting in all those hours, the incredible Pandora’s box he opened for everybody else.”  

Now, due to the amazing support Adam Rafferty offers musicians through his YouTube videos and his instructional support available through his website, people are saying the same thing about him.

Photo credit: Mary Cummings
Adam remembers when he first put his fingerstyle guitar video on YouTube. “People went nuts,” he said. “But it was timing and I was lucky. I did a tune everybody dug. I showed up and hopefully played okay.” He started talking with a few fans who would later become friends. They encouraged him to head to Nashville. “Somebody said that I should go down to The Chet Atkins Society,” Adam said. “When I got there, I was shocked―people knew me.”

Then he was invited to perform with Tommy Emmanuel. “When I finally met Tommy for the first time, I said, ‘You changed everything.’ Now he’s my mentor. He sees what I’m doing and he helps me tighten a few screws here and there,” Adam said. “This summer I sent him Imagine – the video. He told me to look down the neck of my guitar and smile. He said, ‘You’re there, Adam. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ That guy changed my life.”

Rafferty understands what his audience wants. Some will listen to original music and will appreciate it, while others want music they know. He knew that there was already a Stevie Wonder tribute CD, plenty of Beatles tributes, but no one had done a tribute CD to the music of Michael Jackson. People know Michael Jackson’s music, and Adam realized that they likely didn’t necessarily know of him.  “It was like doing a term paper,” he told me. “I needed about fifteen tunes. I found the ones that felt like pure inspiration and then there were the ones that were pure perspiration.

Photo credit: Holly Apperson
“Cover tunes help to hold people. That’s a big cue that I took from Tommy. And he got it from Chet Atkins. “

Adam Rafferty will once again soon tour throughout Europe. “I know what it’s like to live out of a suitcase 120 days a year. There’s a price to be paid.”

His advice? “If you have something you can sell, don’t count on it being a CD these days. The gig is one thing you can sell but you have to be creative and always find something else too.”

Photo credit: Holly Apperson

Thanks, Adam! Travel safe, and we—your Safety Harbor fans―will look forward to more of your music, lessons, and great YouTube videos.

A special Thank You to Holly Apperson and Mary Cummings for the use of their beautiful photographs!


Anonymous said...

Nice interview, well done, Adam rafferty is an amazing guitar player.
Cheers from Clinton Hill.

Anonymous said...

Loved the show and a great follow up interview and story . Thanks to everyone who made the show and story possible.

bigdood said...

I was one of those original fans who saw Adam on YouTube. I had a web page where I featured acoustic guitar players, When I saw Adams very first video, I knew he was something special. At that point in his life he was REALLY agonizing about making the switch from jazz to fingerstyle guitar. His main concern was for his jazz fans... He didn't want them to feel as if he was deserting them. We emailed back and forth a bunch... Which culminated in me giving him the best advice I could... I told him to go with his heart, to go with his soul. And... if his jazz fans were REALLY his fans, that they would understand. We both were in complete awe of Tommy Emmanuel (and still are). I got to finally meet him in person in 2008 in Nashville, and he said, "I am going to play a private concert... just for you..." and he sat down and played for a solid hour, and never hit a sour note. I told him then, and I still beleive its true, that he is the SECOND best fingerstyle guitarist in the world. We both know who STILL is number one. Adam and I remain friends, and I have NEVER met a performer who is more congenial, more willing to reach out to his fans, and more in-tune with his place in music and the world. I am indeed proud that Adam still says I was his very first You Tube fan... And, better than that I am proud to call him my friend. He is a one of a kind musician and person, and I can attest that this interview is absolutely as it happened for Adam... Now that his success is growing exponentially, he truly deserves all the accolades he is receiving. If you get a chance to see Adam in concert, don't miss him. You will see a man who performs from his heart, plays from his soul, and will bring you along on a wonderful music journey!