Misha Siegfried went to college, but he maintains that the only thing he was ever really good at was music. And that's nothing to shake a stick at – the guy practically has a Ph.D. in the blues.
To interview him is to get a crash course in the philosophy of the genre and to walk away with a comprehensive understanding of its fans’ dichotomous schools of thought.
"There’s the side that says ‘This is how we’ve been doing it for 60 years. It’ll never change. This is the blues, and nothing else is.’ They want to hear Muddy Waters music exactly the way Muddy played it, even though he’s been dead for 30 years," he says.
And the opposite point of view? "It’s the idea that blues is constantly evolving and that in times like now where the blues is not as culturally relevant as it used to be, it has to continue to grow, evolve and change in order to still be able to contribute to the cultural conversation."
So, to which school of thought does Siegfried, who is arguably one of Milwaukee’s favorite blues musicians, belong?
"As a band leader and in terms of the music I’m interested in making and why I ended up becoming a musician, it was the latter that appealed to me the most," he admits. "Take the germ of the idea, put your own spin on it and push the boundary out."
Siegfried has been pushing that boundary for years, since his parents bought him a guitar for his 16th birthday (they were going to buy him a cello, but he begged them not to).
Later this month, he and his band will release their second CD, an as-yet-untitled work (the working title "Makin' Wookie" was unfortunately nixed). The album will be the product of heavy collaboration within the group and a profoundly laissez-faire approach to recording which has made Siegfried stand out among other musicians.
The band includes Siegfried on guitar and vocals, Dan Budziszewski on keyboard and vocals, Ross Catterton on saxophone and vocals, Zach Steiner on bass and Brandon Anthony on drums. The group met at the Up and Under Pub and were all hired by Siegfried to do last year’s record, "Blues For Joy" (though Anthony did not perform on the album).
"I didn’t know what was going to happen exactly, working with these guys," says Siegfried. "And actually everybody really enjoyed doing the sessions. We really seemed to have some chemistry."
As a bandleader, he prefers to let loose the talents of his band mates - to, in effect, stay out of their way.
"When we’re recording, I walk in with an idea: ‘Here’s the head, here’s the jam. I don’t care what you do, just make it sound cool,’" he said. "That’s my mantra with the guys. And I just let them go."
A few songs on the record have more of a pop feel than Siegfried’s previous work, but he assures his fans that he’s not recording "rejected Backstreet Boys songs."
"They’re more pop-oriented," he said. "The sound of the band has evolved. I cannot ignore the sound of the voices around me."
His father passed away a few years ago. The loss brought Siegfried to a crossroads, both personally and artistically. He struggled with how to handle the future without the man who had always reminded him that "no one is going to take care of you. You have to take care of yourself.
"Losing a parent, it really wreaks havoc on your family," he recalls. "And I was trying to find an outlet for all this crap. And I finally realized ... one day I’m sitting on the couch, and I was like, ‘What would Dad tell me to do right now?’ Well, first of all he’d tell me ‘ Get off your ass and do something. Anything. Doesn’t matter what. Just do something.’ And the more I thought about it, I just thought, ‘F*** it. I’m done. I’m just going to do my own thing. I’m tired of other people telling me how to do my job."
At the time, Siegfried had been a side man on the Milwaukee music scene for a decade after relocating here at the age of 20. He had played with names like Reverend Raven and the Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys and the Charles Walker Band, as well as Fire on Your Sleeve, his own rock group.
But after 10 years of playing someone else’s tunes, he said he felt "disposable." He wanted to try things his own way. He started his own band and didn’t look back.
"I decided that maybe being an artist wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe to really make a difference, you have to stick to your guns."
That means that he doesn’t want to write songs anymore. He just wants to make music.
And if you don’t’ like it? You don’t have to listen.
"I’m sick and tired of writing songs," he said. "Everywhere you go, there’s songs. And songs are boring. There’s only so much you can do with three chords and the truth, you know what I mean? I’m a composer at this point.
"I like the improvisational stuff because I feel like, when I play with the band, when we connect the most with the audience – that feeling happens when you play honest music. When you just let it happen."
It’s a technique heavily influenced by the philosophy of his mentor, St. Paul blues musician Moses Oakland, whom Siegfried met as a teenager.
"To this day, Moses is one of my most profound influences in terms of why I’m a musician," he said. "Not in terms of, like, ‘This is how you hold a guitar, and this is a D chord.’ Moses preaches a philosophy of making music. It’s like being a samurai, or a Jedi."
It’s part of a spiritual connection with the genre that Siegfried says attracts all kinds of fans. "What’s great about blues is that it crosses cultural barriers, crosses socioeconomic barriers. It’s a really universal sort of thing. If you could put it in a bottle it would probably be illegal."
Siegfried and his band can usually be found on Monday nights at the Up and Under Pub, 1216 E. Brady St., where he runs one of the most enduring open mic nights in the city. For other appearances, check their Reverbnation page – they’re about to get seriously busy promoting their new album.
The jam, he says, "was my chance to contribute to the legacy of the Up and Under, because there have been some great, great blues musicians who have played that place," he said. "Someday there will be some guy saying, when I’m old and grey and I can barely walk, they’ll be like ‘I remember Misha Siegfried at the Up and Under, back before the arthritis got him,' or whatever."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.