An Interview with..
In 2023, The Hometown Foundation is excited to bring various musical talents to stages around Washington County. We are looking forward to another year of our annual Homegrown Music Festival on July 9 as well as the debuts of two new festivals – the Homegrown Blues Festival on May 21 and the Homegrown Bluegrass Festival September 24. We also will be continuing our Thursday night Regner Rocks Concert Series at Regner Park (West Bend). You will see many talented folks who call Wisconsin home. Joshua M. Miller interviewed one of those artists, Luke Cerny, who will be featured at the Homegrown Blues Festival with his band The Toothpickers.
Josh: You're going to be playing at the Homegrown Blues Festival. What about Blues music interests you so much?
Luke: The origins of where it came from, how it developed in mostly a rural, uneducated setting. And I think for anybody who grows up and is playing music, there’s something about it that just makes you feel things in a different way.
Its influence on modern music is just so profound, you can’t really even imagine what modern music would be like without the Blues. When I was a young musician, it just kind of mystified me. If you grow up with a classical or traditional music education, it’s very academic. But with the blues, it all came from things that real people were feeling. And I think the melodies and rhythm originating in Africa, it’s just a whole different thing altogether than the more traditional academic music. Hearing some of that stuff as a young kid, I can remember specifically watching the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, and there’s a lot of great early American music in that movie ranging from Gospel to Bluegrass. But what really struck me was the character that sort of is like Robert Johnson. There’s the scene where he is playing a Skip James song called “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in the woods in that movie. And I remember just being completely mystified by that song, and that was around the time I was starting to play guitar. So, I kind of just made it my goal to go down this path and figure something out about that music.
So that movie was your first experience hearing the Blues or when it first really connected?
Yeah, I think that’s my first experience hearing…something that was like roots based, that was where the Blues came from, the origins of the Blues. I previously had heard a lot of other music and when I started playing music, I was really interested in bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. But then I realized like their influences were these guys that were among the first world musicians to be recorded. And that’s when I sort of just got a taste for that early American version of the Blues and the sort of unpolished, just straight from the heart stuff that came out of the country at that time.
You've been performing pretty steadily for about nine years now. What was it like quitting your full-time job and focusing primarily on music?
I guess I just realized at some point you get sold an idea. When I was 18, my parents always just kind of expected me to go to college and get a degree, and I really don’t think I was mature enough at that point to know what I wanted to do with myself. And I know I liked music, but a lot of the adults at that time encouraged me to do something else because you can’t make any money playing music. So, I worked in the corporate world for quite a while, mostly ad agencies and stuff like that. And I always just had a craving for having more time to work on music. I’d always have my guitar next to my desk in the office and was working on stuff during my lunch break and before and after work.
And, um, at that point I hadn’t really been performing live. And I met a musician in Milwaukee named Ethan Keller, who started asking me if I wanted to play some gigs. So, he was the first person that kind of helped me book some gigs. And then I started going to Caroline’s Jazz Club at an open Blues jam on Wednesday night and I realized how much I didn’t know. Because at that point I was mostly just a basement living room musician. <laughs>
And when I started playing for people, it just, I kind of just got hooked because you get direct feedback from the audience. It wasn’t easy for me to do that because at that point I was a little bit shy. It just kind of became a challenge for me, something that I could continuously work on and try to get better at.
So, I eventually was able to put my corporate job and do freelance stuff in the same vein as the things I was doing at that agency. And that allowed me to free my schedule up to have more time to do music. So that’s kind of where I’m at now. I don’t play music full-time; I play music part-time. I freelance and try to get myself involved with causes that I really believe in, especially if it’s something that involves music and music education and trying to lift up other local and regional artists that I think deserve to be heard and seen.
What are some of your favorite accomplishments of late?
I think I’m a little bit more goal-oriented with just trying to prove to myself that I’m worthy in a way to be able to go and play paying gig. In 2020, I was lucky enough to be able to get sponsored by Paramount Music Association to go play in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge. So, I went down there as a solo act and made it to the semi-finals. So that was a pretty big accomplishment for me. Especially considering one of the artists in the same venue I was playing is the grandson of one of my heroes, Junior Kimbrough. So, I got to hang out with Cam Kimbrough, and he’s in a group called Memphissippi Sounds. So, that was really cool to be able to sit and talk to him about his grandpa’s music.
And, before that, in 2019, I put out my first self-named EP release, which is a seven-track EP. That’s given me the confidence to continue with songwriting, so I have some more releases planned. But I think the thing I’m most proud about is just feeling like I’m continuing to develop as a musician and a songwriter. And getting into some new genres and stuff like the past year or so. I’ve been playing bluegrass. So, um, started up playing bluegrass flatpicking on guitar and singing and joined a group last year called The Heartland Howlers. It’s fun to learn new things and just kind of get back into that student mindset.
How would you describe your sound and songwriting style?
When I’m writing songs, I try to go in with an open mind and see what comes up versus when I first started writing songs I used to try to write songs about something specific. I would pick something in my life maybe that I had experienced or something that had happened to me, and then try to write about that specifically. But, as I’ve gotten older, I realized sometimes I’ve had ideas that I didn’t really know where they came from, but it seemed like I connected with them, and the audience connected with them. So, at this point, I really just try to have an open mind and see what comes out. And I think with my songs, I think they’re kind of up for audiences to, uh, to interpret. I have my own interpretation of them, but I try to write them in a way where it can be a story that people interpret for themselves and have meaning for themselves. And I’m very much a melody forward writer, meaning typically I’m writing the music first and I’m seeing what comes to me later and I’ll write a chord progression and get a melody in my head first, and then the words will come later. It’s an evolving thing for me.
What song of yours has evolved the most since you first wrote it?
That’s a good question because I don’t really know how it works sometimes. I have a lot of songs that I’ve written that I wrote in about 10 minutes that just sounds like they came out right the first time. And I really haven’t made any changes to them. And that’s what they are. And then I have other songs that just seem to keep wanting to evolve, songs I’ve performed and thought were done and then added stuff to later. Then there’s a whole other category of stuff that’s songs that I’ve written that have been around for 15 years, but I still don’t feel like they’re done. They still haven’t felt like I’ve had the right inspiration to complete. So, I think the ones that have changed the most fall into that third category, stuff that hasn’t been released.
But I do have one song specifically that I performed now that probably was a little bit different when I first started performing it. There’s a song called “Highway 32 Blues” that started off as just kind of a non-specific Blues song. And then, um, it ended up evolving after hearing a story that my father told me. And I realized the songs fit really closely with the story that my father had told me about the town that I grew up in. So that song has changed a bit, and I played it a little bit different every time I play it.
I would also say that that song kind of falls into like that country blues mindset where there’s maybe not really a specific meter that goes with it, you know, in general, like it isn’t 4/4 time, but I may add these measures and do things to it a little bit. So, I think the stuff that ends up coming out differently a lot of times is songs that have been written with the country blues in mind, where it’s more about self-expression in the moment than about playing something exactly how it was written.
What are some of your favorite gigs that you've played?
I really love some of the gigs that’s played at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. I think Jim has done an amazing job of just cultivating a really positive space for all kinds of different music to happen. So that’s always been one of my favorite places to play in Milwaukee.
And there’s places like Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co or the Backroom of Colectivo for various events. I guess it depends on what I’m playing. If I’m playing with the band, the venue or gig probably is going to be a bit different. There’s a few stuff that I really enjoy playing. Jam for Jamaica, which has been going on for I think 15 or more years. I’ve played there a handful of times and really liked the cause and the people involved with that festival. Wise Fest, which is run by a couple out of Lake Geneva, I like similar things about them.
But generally, as a solo performer, I really like the small listening rooms. If I can have intimate space to play songs to people, that always feels better than playing in the corner of some sports bar and just doing more cover songs and stuff like that. Which can be fun, but it just, it doesn’t feel as meaningful as a group of friends and fans listening to maybe the new music that you wrote.
Luke Cerny, Live at Interstate Music Fest 2021
How have the places you've lived in in Wisconsin most influenced you as a musician?
I think there’s two things to be said here. The first is I grew up in Oconto in a town called Lakewood, Wisconsin, and there really wasn’t what I would call a music scene there at all. I got into playing guitar when I was about 14 years old because I went to summer camp and there were a couple guys that were playing guitar there. And at the time, I had taken some music lessons and had been playing piano and trumpet, but realized the guitar is something that you can take anywhere and play. And my mom had a friend who was in a bunch of folk bluegrass bands back in like the sixties and seventies. She gave me a couple of lessons. And that’s, that’s when I got hooked on that. So, my experience early on was that I didn’t really know anybody else around me that was playing.
I was just kind of doing it because I liked to do it, and it made me feel special, like, this is the one thing that, that I can do that nobody else in my school was doing. And it started off as just a labor of love and not really realizing work could be taken. So fast forward 10 years from then, I went to college at Carroll University in Waukesha, so moved down there and started to experience more live music and realized that there’s actually people my age playing in all kinds of different bands and lots of different events happening. And started to meet some of those people and really just getting inspired by them. And once I moved to Milwaukee and started to go see my friends, I just realized how positive of a music environment it was. So, I think early on I kind of had this drive to be self-taught and learn as much as I can with what I had. And then later I realized that there’s a lot of other people doing this. You don’t have to be in a vacuum, and it actually helps your musicianship to mix with other people that are, that are doing the same thing.
What's your most surprising hobby outside of music?
I don’t know if it is surprising to anybody that knows me, but I don’t know if this is necessarily a common hobby. But in the last few years I’ve really gotten interested in forging, specifically mushroom foraging and hunting. I started to cultivate my own culinary mushrooms and also really into gardening. So, I started to get more into that and realized that perhaps in another life, maybe I would’ve been a farmer. <laughs>
Why is the Hometown Foundation's mission to help local artists important to you?
I just love everything that they’re about because I think it’s one thing to support live music. There’s plenty of festivals, like Summerfest and [Cedarburg’s] Country in the Burg that more about bringing in music for the city. And that’s all good and fine, but I think on another level, we have so much talent here and there’s a lot of people here who are world class musicians and songwriters, and I know how difficult it is to try to make a living in that. It’s one of the things where you, you put in so many hours to get good at it, and…it’s not really something that’s easy to make a living off unless you’re playing gigs every day. I think any event and organizations that are taking local musicians and really finding the ones that not only are super dedicated to their craft but are original and involved in maybe different musical acts, I think all those organizations are doing a really great thing for music in the area. Because those are the types of musical acts that really inspired me and made me realize like, that I could actually do this when I was 20, 22 years old.
What are you looking forward to most with the Blues Fest?
I really think it’s a killer lineup, first of all. Um, it would be really cool to be able to see all those bands in one day. And I’m also really excited to unveil my band, which is basically a Blues duo. I play a lot of what you could categorize as like Delta Blues, Hill Country Blues, Piedmont Blues and Ragtime, which is kind of uncommon. I think a lot of Midwestern blues acts kind of lean more towards being, I guess what you would call Chicago electric blues. I love all that stuff, but I’m really all about the more of the roots. I also volunteer with Paramount Music Association, and I’m super interested in the history of Paramount Records, who recorded some of the most important blues acts in the 1920s and 1930s. They even had a recording studio here in Grafton from 1928 through 1933. So, some of my biggest inspirations as far as early blues artists that were recorded, were recorded on that label. And it’s pretty cool to be able to follow the lineage of some of those songs all the way through rock and roll and, and beyond. And you can clearly see those influences.
So that’s what I’m about, is trying to remind people of the roots of that music as well.