About Rick Holmstrom

See That Light

Rick Holmstrom in conversation with music writer Jim Washburn

Rick Holmstrom has stories. 32 years of hurtling around the globe in metal tubes will do that. From his early days with blues and soul artists like William Clarke, Johnny Dyer and Booker T. to his 13-year run as gospel/soul/civil rights legend Mavis Staples’ guitarist/bandleader, a conversation with Holmstrom quickly turns to road stories. 

“My first tour, winter of ’89, was LA to Vancouver, 24 hours straight in a rattrap 70’s Dodge van. No heat. Brutal draft blowing through, might as well have been a ragtop. We played strip clubs. A week in each joint. After Vancouver we went up to Calgary and Edmonton, just a bunch of blues nuts wearing every piece of clothing we’d brought. I’m from Alaska, man, I know cold. Those were some of the coldest nights ever, in that van. Three years later, on another Canadian run, different van, this time no rear seats. We brought bean bags and folding lawn chairs to sit in. At the Vancouver gig, top of the second set, the leader started berating the band onstage. Band members started quitting and walking off the stage. Packed house. Saturday night. The sound man got on the PA and said: ‘Well, that’s it for tonight’s entertainment, ladies and gentlemen!’”

That’s entertainment. So what’s the story with this record?

“These songs were written looking out of airplane and bus windows, or in hotel rooms at 2 am. When we returned from Australia in March, 2020, like most musicians, I sat at home stunned. Gigs, tours and sessions were postponed, then cancelled. We had a banner year booked–bus tours with Patty Griffin and Norah Jones, Wrigley Field with Chris Stapleton—poof, gone. So after a couple weeks of family time and de-compression, my livelihood dried up. I got depressed. Unusually depressed. I’m normally a pretty upbeat person. At some point I finally grabbed a guitar. Always the best medicine. Playing really helped me regain purpose. I started digging into those late night rough sketches, a verse here and a chorus there. Found a bunch of 3 a.m. phone demos of melodies and chord progressions I’d forgotten about. That led to more songs, which led to a masked-up session with my Mavis bandmates Steve Mugalian and Gregory Boaz. It was a tough decision to spend money recording while my savings were dwindling. Made absolutely no sense financially, but I went for it. Turned out working and creating just felt so right, musically and emotionally, that we cut 16 songs seemingly overnight. I think we mostly did it for our sanity.”

At some point I finally grabbed a guitar. Always the best medicine.

Is there a through line or thread in this record?

“Yeah, for one thing, there’s just three of us. It’s strictly trio. Bass, drums & guitar. I think Steve, Greg and I have a way of playing together that, while sparse, sounds and feels full. At the sessions, listening to playbacks, there were a few comments along the lines of: ‘…I hear a Wurlitzer on this’ or ‘Should we put horns on that?’ But I resisted. I like how we use space. I like the air in these recordings. The vulnerability of notes that aren’t played. It’s what we do with Mavis, as well as on our trio shows, so I was stubborn about keeping it that way. 

“But the main thread, as I see it, is in the songs, or the stories. We’ve got a person here who’s struggling; who’s afraid to wake up to the truth; afraid they’re losing their shit; can’t find work; looking for love under a freeway overpass in San Bernardino; trying to convince a fair-haired hotel clerk to see the bright lights of Fresno; while anxiously trying to navigate an existential dystopian crisis; feeling like a loser; and an asshole; that the world is passing them by; and that they might be better off calling it quits.

“But in the end, a four year old points her finger up at the night sky and asks: ‘See that light? What’s its name and how do you know?’ It’s the child’s joyful eye that restores this guy’s hope. That part happened to me. That’s why the record is called See That Light.”

See That Light was recorded near Holmstrom’s home in Venice, CA at Kevin Jarvis’ Sonic Boom Room with current Mavis Staples bandmates Steve Mugalian (Lucinda Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, Chuck Prophet) on drums and Gregory Boaz (Dave Alvin, Mick Taylor, John Mayall) on bass. Rob Schnapf (X, Beck, Richard Thompson) mixed the record emphasizing the rawness and sense of space around the trio. 

Holmstrom has released 5 solo records on labels including Black Top, Tone Cool and M.C. Records, but this will be his first self-release, on LuEllie Records.

“It just seems like the right time. I’ve always been on labels, and the business side of music alternately bores me to tears and terrifies me–the whole Hunter Thompson ‘…cruel and shallow money trench’ thing. In today’s market it just seems smart to go DIY. I’m facing a steep learning curve here starting a ‘label’, but I have to keep creating. The songs keep coming and if I don’t record and release them it feels like quitting to me. Like John Lee Hooker used to say: ‘It’s in him and it’s got to come out.’ 

“I might sell 27 copies. Who knows? I mean, we’re all flying blind these days. We’ve got bandanas covering our whole damn heads, we can’t see shit. No rules, no flight plans, no automation. We’re not even sure when we’ll get back to playing live again. Festivals, theaters, clubs? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s a scary time to be a musician, but at the same time, I’m grateful to have a creative outlet. I don’t know what I’d do otherwise. Time and again, the music has saved me.”

One thing with Mavis is that she always finds a way to laugh to keep from crying.

Is it possible that your boss Mavis Staples may’ve instilled some of her spirit in you?

“I certainly hope so. One thing with Mavis is that she always finds a way to laugh to keep from crying. That’s definitely Mavis’ M.O. We can be running ragged, going town to town, airport to airport, or driving all night and I’ll I look over at her and she’ll crack a joke or text me something silly just to lift my spirits. There’s no half-stepping when you’re around Mavis. If she can be this positive at her age, I damn well better try my best to keep up! She’s always fired up and always funny. She’s taught me that you’ve gotta be able to laugh or it’s just a drag. Especially these days.”

—Jim Washburn has written about music and popular culture for the Los Angeles Times, the OC Register and the Boston Globe.