The archetypal singer-songwriter could play anything as their primary instrument, but if you are Emanuel Casablanca it’s the anthropomorphic, humble guitar that really drives home a story begging to be told. “As a blues guitarist, there is the pressure to work to be a guitar hero and at times I forget that most people don’t actually care,” Casablanca shares with me.
When Casablanca began playing the guitar, he learned a blues-based style. But when he began performing, he was playing in a singer-songwriter/modern folk style. “The very first show that I ever had was a 10-minute gig slot at a bar in Park Slope Brooklyn, that is no longer there, but it was a bar called Bar 4. They gave me the 12:30pm slot and I was so nervous and completely bombed onstage. Luckily there were only about four people there to watch me, so in retrospect it wasn’t that bad. But I remember being in that room and it was all about the story. It wasn’t about the singer; it was about the song and so I have always tried to have that in my back pocket. Most fans just like music and a good song and realistically, so do I. I love to hear guitarists shred as much as the next man, however, there is nothing like sitting at home listening to Billie Holiday talk to you over song on Lady Sings the Blues.”
He considers himself a songwriter more than anything else. “I literally write songs every single day and some weeks I will pump out 20 songs. Out of the 20, 19 of them suck, but it is a way to continue to progress and explore my own creativity. In grad school I had a professor in a creative writing class that would start every single class where we would take 60 seconds and just write the first things to pop in our head. I utilize that exercise quite a bit in an effort to capture thoughts. Taking your thoughts and putting them on paper is one of the most difficult challenges any writer could face.” With his sophomore LP Strung Out On Thrills, two feature films, and an Art Basel Miami show underway, this musician/painter/actor is already working on two more albums. “One of them is an acoustic record with all the songs like this.” But it’s important to note that Casablanca is the rare example of quantity leading to quality.
Of his new album, he’s been quoted as saying, “It is not enough to just keep something alive; we should want it to thrive and to do so we have to think differently and get proactive about it.” When asked how his music is evolving, he says that music in general is constantly evolving. “I listen to various genres of music, and I am really taking a liking to the whole alt country and Outlaw Country movement. I think they are the new rockstars. In hip hop music, it is just generally ever evolving. There is something new or a new trend every time a new rap song comes out. Not sure if that is good or bad, but it does keep the genre fresh. I would add the same thing with pop and electronic variations of music. Again, I think all music is evolving except for the blues. Mainly because the powers that be want to keep it alive, but generally have no interest in allowing it to grow. They want to keep it alive in a small dish so that it stays the same, just like a little plant.”
Casablanca has worked with an array of A-list performers including bassist and producer Bill Laswell, drummer Daxx Nielsen, a prominent member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honorees Cheap Trick, vocalist Bernard Fowler, a touring member of the Rolling Stones, bassist Doug Wimbish of the Grammy winning band Living Colour, guitar greats such as Eric Gales, Paul Gilbert and blues greats including Albert Castiglia, Kat Riggins, Grammy winner Jimmy Carpenter and many others. For Strung Out On Thrills, he enlisted a cast of collaborators that include such notable colleagues as Joanna Connor, Elliot Sharp, and Laurence Henderson. “Everything Joanna Connor touches turns to gold, so I felt that in some point in my music career, I would have to work with her. I just think she is a genius! She has just the right amount of edge and energy that I enjoy. Kelli Baker kicked my ass a few years ago in the Long Island Blues Challenge. I always lived by the motto: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. She and I have some amazing collaborations coming soon!
He enthuses, “Laurence Henderson is a genius! I have been following this guy for a few years and he is truly one of the unspoken talents in the UK. He truly brought the track ‘Visceral’ alive. It wouldn’t be what it is without him. The other collaborations were just an effort to give each track a fresh feel. One of my favorite records of all time is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She released that album over 25-years ago and has toured, performed, and done so much off of that one record (not including her Fugees stuff). But that album is called one of the greatest albums in the history of music and I listened to it when I was 12 and I listen to it now and it is just fresh. Every song sounds different and that comes with a team effort and that is why I enlisted some of the greats for this record.”
Casablanca is confident that this is a strong record, explaining, “I do not like to write and record or even play things that I don’t enjoy. I only want to produce what I enjoy listening to. I am hoping it will be received well. The reception from those who have heard it thus far is that it is a bit edgy. In all honesty, edgy was never and will never be my goal or intentions, but I am who I am and if it comes out that way…”
Premiering exclusively on American Blues Scene today is the video for “The Farm.” With the fluent skills of progenitors before him, he takes up the painful centuries-old story — one of tear-shedding and sharecropping built upon a simple Delta blues riff and a voice that forms graceful arcs around the melody. Slaves were systematically deprived of what was seen as modes of covert communication, and this included instruments. He elaborates, “But immediately during that reformation period is when the blues first started to be translated to vocals and instrumentation – moreso during the sharecropper period. Therefore, a song like this would have been written during that time frame.
“Lyrically, this is the one track on the record where I wanted to tell a bit of a story, specifically two very common stories in the verse lines. One of a man who lost one of his sons as an escaped slave and the second of a slave woman who was raped, and they killed her husband when he found out. In the choruses, I try to highlight the general feeling(s) of the time. I am by no means a political or a message songwriter; however, recently I have heard rumors of issues in the American south regarding what people are calling ‘slavery deniers.’ I suppose they are similar to those who deny or doubt that the holocaust happened. As time goes on people tend to forget the history. I don’t think we can get better as a nation if we forget, only if we are reminded – not in a shameful manner, but in a manner to make us want to work and do better as a country.”
This video was filmed in Columbia County, NY in the towns of Ghent, Claverack, Hudson, Philmont, Hudson and Mellenville. My fiancé and I recently purchased a vacation home in upstate New York. And when we first moved into the house last summer, I immediately started seeing production value everywhere I went. The opening scene is shot in an area of Ghent, NY called Cemetery Road. The areas you see near the Creeks, cornfields, etc, were shot at The High Falls Conservancy, which is basically in my backyard in Hudson. The first verse was about the guy’s son being killed, hence why we shot it in a cemetery. The second and final verse is about the woman being raped by the creek, therefore, I tried to add some symbolism to it by playing down by a creek. All the in-between stuff is just b-roll that I thought would add a high production value.”
As of 2023, Casablanca began filming his first lead role in a feature film, Mookie & Worm. “I actually just got cast as a lead in another film called Subway Son and HBO will be shooting a mini documentary on myself and a blues showcase in an effort to raise money for local NYC nonprofit organizations. I will keep you posted as things transpire.”