"Humble" is probably the last word that comes to mind when describing a musician who has shared the stage with John Lee Hooker, spent a month studying under Johnny Cash at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., and was both signed and heavily promoted by "24" star Kiefer Sutherland, but the word is a good fit for Rocco DeLuca.
"I'm just surprised when anybody even buys my record or goes to shows, to be honest with you," the singer/Dobro player mused. "It blows my mind."
That DeLuca grew up to become a talented musician should come as no surprise, though. His father was the guitarist for legendary blues/rock artist Bo Diddley, a relationship the younger DeLuca cites as being integral to his interest in music.
Times Free Press lifestyle reporter Brittney McKenna spoke recently with California singer/dobro player Rocco DeLuca.
BM: You grew up in a musical family. How has that affected you as a musician?
RD:Well, just watching people play music and watching their lifestyle and the things that they were drawn to-- I was a curious kid. When you see adults passionate about something you get kind of curious about what the mystery is going on. So that's always kind of stuck with me, that curiousity and interest in the form of music.
BM: Did you ever have a moment where you realized your interest was more than a hobby and maybe something you'd want to do as a career?
RD:I think mostly I just believed that music would be a constant curiosity and form to play with, but I never really thought much about career or attempting to do it for a living. I just thought of it as something I could experiment with.
BM: What made you decide to pick up the dobro?
RD:Dobro was, to me, such an interesting tool because I had listened to a lot of records as a kid and I remember thinking that people like Fred McDowell and Son House and Robert Johnson kind of knew something, that they were onto something really great. They all seemed to be playing slide guitar and I just loved the folk elements and the rawness of the instrument. I loved how it sounded coming off the record and it just seemed to take the pretension and slickness out of the guitar. I was drawn to that.
BM: So do you consider some of those early blues artists to be your biggest influences?
RD:Yeah. For the resonator guitar, definitely. People like Bukka White and all of these people who were, to me, the great American artists. But yeah, as far as singing it was mostly female, like Nina Simone, mostly women that held these kind of instruments. So between the two, I was drawn to that kind of music.
BM: You opened for some pretty big artists, like John Mayall and John Lee Hooker. What did you learn from them?
RD:I was just hustling around. I was opening up for different people because I would get lucky or get word of mouth. I would show up with just my resonator guitar and sing some songs. I'd get asked to do another show with another artist. I was always just pretty easy-- I think that's why they had me open up for them, I'm not too much of a fuss. I just show up and play. I think that was pretty convenient for everybody. That probably had more to do with it than anything (laughs).
BM: Well I'm sure talent had a little to do with it, too.
RD:I was hoping that would be the case but I wasn't ever really sure.
BM: I read that you spent a month with Johnny Cash, is that right?
RD:Yeah, again it was one of those things where I started playing with his family a little bit and ended up over in Hendersonville, Tenn. for a while, and that was really nice. We got to play some music, hang out and learn from the master himself.
BM: I bet that was a really cool experience.
RD:Yeah it was kind of wild, actually. I felt like I was in some kind of parallel universe or something. It was cool.
BM: You were signed by ("24" star) Kiefer Sutherland to his Ironworks label a few years back. How did you get hooked up with him?
RD:That was through music again. I was doing this residency here in southern California. They had heard word about me through someone in their department and I put together a little demo tape, just a little recording I didn't really spend that much time with. They got a hold of the song and started to come and watch me play and we decided to just make a record and see what happens. Everything just started to snowball a bit after that, you know, and it's like, "Okay, now we've made an album. We should put it out." So we put it out. Then it was, "Let's serve it to radio and see what they think." One thing after another, and the next thing I know I'm on a three and a half year promotional tour for the record. It's kind of just silly, the whole thing, really. But that's how it happened.
BM: How do you think your career would be different if you hadn't signed with Ironworks (which Sutherland shares with producer Jude Cole)?
RD:I don't know. I remember at the time, there was so much going on for me. In my mind I was ready to do three or four different things at once but I just couldn't decide which they were. One was that I was going to move to Paris, and hang out with a friend over there and play some music. Another was that I was going to move to Iceland and grow my beard as long as I could and make experimental folk records over there. Another one was just stay put and do my residency where everything was kind of safe and I didn't have to put myself out there too much. Then the other thing was to try to do a record that had some kind of commercial value to it. They convinced me to do that (laughs). So I don't know, who knows. I would probably be serving you a hamburger or something (laughs).
BM: You got good press with your debut album "I Trust You to Kill Me" (2006), and your single "Colorful" seemed to do really well. Did you expect that going in or was it more of a whirlwind?
RD: I'm just surprised when anybody even buys my record or goes to shows, to be honest with you. It blows my mind. I always think that when you make music for yourself you don't really expect anyone to get into it, truly. Then when they do, it's a really cool thing because it reminds me that we all kind of share similar feelings and we've gone through similar things and all of the sudden there's a connection being made. A connection is such an overwhelming thing to have with somebody and if music is the medium that brings something like that around, it's kind of mind-blowing for me. But yeah, any time I even go to the show and there are people there, I'm like, "Really?" It's amazing.
BM: What made you decided to accompany your debut album with a documentary?
RD:I don't know. Things were moving so fast. I think the BBC came down to the studio and really dug the record. Then people at the label started brainstorming. But the truth is, there was a director named Manu Boyer from France. He was kind of friends but really just super interested in the whole process of what it's about. I remember we were just out drinking and he was hanging out with us just wondering, "How does this process work? You put a record out, no one knows who you are and you go tour on it? What is that about?" I think he just wanted to capture a little bit of that and it turned into this thing. I pretty much got back from another tour and they were putting it together from about two weeks of footage they had taken of us in Europe, embarrassing ourselves on a nightly basis. Can you imagine if someone did that to you? (laughs)
BM: I don't think I'd do too well, I'm gonna be honest. I'm a little camera shy.
RD:Right, you'd be horrified, wouldn't you? That's how it was. And that's me personally, too. But Manu Boyer is an amazing person. He was putting all of this together so quickly. He's just a passionate person, and everyone at the label is so passionate. I just love them to death. They're amazing. But for someone who hadn't even taken many photos as a child to all of the sudden be in a film, you just want to jump in a river or something.
BM: Go hide somewhere?
RD:Yeah, you just want to hide.
BM: Well I've seen the documentary and in a way, it's a really good commentary on the state of the music industry in terms of how it affects small artists.
RD:Yeah, that's a nice thing to say. If it made any kind of contribution, I would be happy. We were in Europe in December, which is never really a great idea if you're planning to tour unpromoted shows. You're definitely setting yourself up to film something kind of bizarre.
BM: You just released "Mercy" back in March. Did you take a different approach on this one than you did "I Trust You to Kill Me?"
RD:Absolutely. This was kind of a record that I always wanted to make. Over the time of touring on this other record, I had kind of stored away in my little box tons of words and music that I was excited to try to document. I just wanted to make, for me, just the purest thing I could possibly make. So I got very fortunate in getting a chance to work with one of my heroes, Daniel Lanois (famous for producing U2, Bob Dylan, many others), and he kind of helped us bring that out and that was the experience of a lifetime for me. We were really proud of how we did this. We did 18 nights and we did a song a night. And that was it. So it wasn't belabored in any way, or it wasn't stressful in any way. As far as the artistic thing goes, we were on the same page and it was rough and ready. We put everything that we had that evening into the songs. So that's what you have. You have a little documentation or a snapshot of those 18 nights.
BM: You collaborated with (UK band) Keane on the title track. How did that come about?
RD:Yeah. We toured with Keane for a while. I was just kind of moved by them. First of all, they're just a class act. They're these incredibly thoughtful and kind people, you know? Like I was a fan, but I think just listening to these beautiful melodies every night, they start to hook you in. I really just became a fan of their use of strong melody and the way they presented it. When I was writing "Mercy," I just thought it would be nice to have a little bit of all that beautiful energy that they have been putting out for the (2006) "Under the Iron Sea" tour on the record. So I went over there to the UK and made a recording with them. Then I came back here and finished it with Dan.
BM: A lot of your songs are personal, like they're addressing a specific person or experience. Where do you get the inspiration for your songs?
RD:Nothing in particular. I'm sure something hits you sometimes and you have to go do this and you just have to write it down. It can be anything. It can be something someone says in passing that sounds kind of like they're throwing a word away but in truth it was a pretty heavy line to me. Or it could be just going to see something that inspires me, like someone being fearless or a pure moment where someone's not really too self-aware and being very human. That's the one thing about the record that I noticed after I finished, looking back at the lyric and the mood of it, it felt very human to me. It's like the vulnerability in people that I think can be a really nice jewel. That's the thing that gets me most interested are the places we go. We'll find weird ways to get through things and we'll find dark doors, you know what I mean? It's just that we're really human when it comes down to it. I guess I kind of shined a light on that side of our person.
BM: I saw you in Nashville back in the Spring, and there was a group of fans who had met up from all over the world to see the show-- there was even a woman who had traveled all the way from Wales. What's it like having fans that dedicated?
RD:It's just mind-blowing to me that people get into something that you've done. But the truth is it's such a flattering thing that people travel so far. That will remind me right away if I'm being moody or if I'm tired or anything to just suck it up (laughs) and make sure that I'm always giving them everything I have because to think of another person that cares that much and is making that much of an effort to show you that they care is a pretty powerful thing. So I don't even have words for someone who would travel all of the way from Wales. I'd buy their ticket if I could afford it.
BM: It looks like you put so much energy into your live shows, it's almost exhausting just watching. What's your favorite part about performing live?
RD:I think just the act of performing is an art in itself. I think it's one of the last great American art forms, because again it happens that night, and that's it. I mean there are bands that play the same set every single night and they have a locked program, and you're going to hear the same speech and you're going to hear the same show. But there are performers out there who live by the room and live by the gods and just kind of go with whatever is going on. And kind of putting themselves out there, it's a little more dangerous and there's chances of failure and sometimes there is failure. But there's always this amazing thing that happens in the room when someone really puts it out there and goes for it and, even if the whole show is not working and they tried something, there's usually a moment that makes up for everything, a moment of redemption during the set that you went for something and you found something absolutely new that people will only be able to embrace at this moment at this very time. It's a rare beauty, and that's the magic of performance, I think.
BM: Do you have any big projects coming up?
RD:My big project is just to share "Mercy" right now with as many people as are interested. I'm going to just continue to tour, travel a bit and tour. Yeah, just share the record until it is time to go in and make a new one.
"When you see adults passionate about something, you get kind of curious about what the mystery is going on," DeLuca said. "So that's always kind of stuck with me, that curiosity and interest in the form of music."
DeLuca's curiosity has developed into a successful career, earning him the attention of Sutherland and a spot on his record label with producer Jude Cole, Ironworks.
"Everyone at the label is so passionate," DeLuca said of Ironworks. "They're amazing."
His latest album, "Mercy," produced by Daniel Lanois (who has produced for such acts as U2 and Bob Dylan), features a collaboration with UK rock band Keane and peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart.
When speaking of his music, though, DeLuca had more to say of his artistic intentions than his accomplishments.
"One thing about the record that I noticed after I finished, looking back at the lyrics and the mood of it, is it felt very human to me," DeLuca said of "Mercy."
DeLuca takes the Nightfall stage tonight at 8.