Erin McCallum interviews Blackburn’s guitarist Brooke Blackburn about the Blackburn family name, its history, and the newest music from the band who wears its Brotherhood with pride.
An obvious uniqueness that identifies and sets apart the band is that Blackburn is a band of brothers – literally. Duane (lead vocals), Brooke (guitar), Cory (drums) and Robert (who took part on harmony vocals and songwriting on the newest release) all share the Blackburn name; a name that has become truly connected to Toronto music history. Musically, the Blackburn name has been forever imprinted in our ears by Bobby Dean Blackburn, an R&B artist who gained legendary status in the Toronto music scene, performing the city circuit for over 30 years. Beyond the music, other history runs deep too. The Blackburn name is tied to the history of the Underground Railroad, and there is a direct connection to the musical talents that we know and listen to today.
Brooke and Erin opened the conversation by discussing the family history of the Blackburn name. One of the first things that Brooke spoke of was the family’s connection to the Underground Railroad. Clearly educated on his lineage, I get a paraphrased crash course on the last 182 years of history attached to the last name that has become synonymous with the Toronto music scene. He gives me a simple breakdown of how the Blackburn family ended up from slavery in the United States to present day; “My father’s Great Grandfather was Elias Earls. He was born a slave in Kentucky in 1833.” Brooke told the story of how Elias went from Kentucky to the Boston area, met an Owen Sound woman named Sarah, and headed north to Canada. The two ended up in what we know today as Chatsworth, Ontario and had a child, Solomon. Settling in to the Owen Sound area, the town is the most northern terminus (retreat for the Underground Railroad) in Canada to date. From there, Estelle (Grandmother) was born, and then came Bobby Dean Blackburn. As we know, the Blackburn name made its way to Toronto – Bobby Dean Blackburn grew up in the city, and soon became a seminal figure in the Toronto R&B scene. Brooke proudly adds to the conversation; “My Dad is 70 years old, and he’s still on the road playing. He just came back from Mexico.”
This is where some might insert that old cliché “the rest is history”, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Proudly rhyming off his family tree seemed as effortless as playing music for Brooke, however, the legacy is still being written.
The Blackburn brothers have been playing music together for years, and by Brooke’s admission, came together as a band naturally. “We grew up around music. My Dad would bring home rehearsal tapes so we would hear music all the time, and he would bring musicians over all the time. When he wasn’t at home, we knew he was on the road. Of course having a parent that is involved in music influences what you are around, so that’s probably why all of us knew how to play. It was never expected of us though – it’s just what we were around. Coming together as a band was something we started to do organically. My brother (Cory) has a studio (Toronto West Sound)in Toronto, so that’s where we got together.” When asking him if he always knew his path would be in music, Brooke says “When I was about 15, I kind of decided this is what I would do. We didn’t necessarily all sit down and say “this is what we are going to do” though. My brothers and I have educations outside of playing music, so the fact that this happened was just truly a natural process.”
The Blues Community has been sitting on the edge of their seats for the next serving of Blackburn since the release of “Brotherhood” in 2009. That album – and the tour that followed it – garnered the band a Maple Blues Award in 2010, and they have continued to impress, leaving people wanting more ever since. This year, Blackburn has quenched the thirst of Canadian listeners, releasing their newest album “Brothers In This World” last March (2015). Although the band switched labels from Make It Real Records (Brotherhood) to Electro-Fi (Brothers In This World), the fabric of what makes Blackburn a band that captivates remains threaded throughout the entire album.
“Brothers in This World” contains 14 tracks of signature sounds from the band – blending a mix of Blues, R&B, Funk, and of course, Soul. The album features Duane singing lead vocals on most of the tracks. He even plays some soulful B3 in a few places. Expect to hear horns and solid grooves too, as evidenced on the catchy track, “Holla Back”. When asked about his thoughts on the new album, Brooke says “This album is an amalgamation of three years of writing. It’s a really good album. My Brother Robert is on this album too, and he offered up some great songwriting. This album is a collaboration of songwriting with some covers as well. I really like it.” When remarking that Blackburn has an obvious thread of Soul in almost every track the band records, Brooke says “Oh yeah, it’s true. Soul is us. It’s where we live.” The new album is slated to be released in the United states in April 2015.
Keep your eyes open and check show listings for Blackburn this upcoming festival season – you will not be disappointed if you make your way out to a show.
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