Jon Cleary Debuts New Version of '21st Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man': Premiere

Jon Cleary
Danielle Moir

Jon Cleary

Jon Cleary is still "21st Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man" more than two decades later.

The New Orleans-based artist has a version of the song -- premiering exclusively below -- on his upcoming album Dyna-Mite, returning to a track he wrote and recorded with Taj Mahal for the latter's Senor Blues album in 1997. "We never played that song on the gigs" supporting Senor Blues, Cleary tells Billboard. "I wanted to start doing it with my band and we started messing with it, and that's how we put it on (Dyna-Mite)."

"21st Century..." was a kind of happenstance track for Senor Blues -- whose producer, John Porter, also helmed Cleary's Dyna-Mite -- in the first place. Cleary was inspired by a guitar riff he heard Mahal playing during rehearsals for that album, which Cleary says "put me in touch with the doo-wop era of Curtis Mayfield and that kind of thing." After leaving briefly to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he began sketching out the full song on the flight back to Los Angeles, penning "a song to my girlfriend at the time" about the wayward life of a traveling musician.

"I love Taj's songs, how sometimes they have these long titles," Cleary says. "I got this song written as I was stumbling out, bleary-eyed with my guitar and suitcase at 5 o'clock in the morning, in a taxi going back to the airport, thinking about this idea of how musicians were minstrels, like 21st century wandering minstrels, and trying to describe that feeling." Back at the Senor Blues sessions, Cleary played it for Mahal. "He dug it," Cleary remembers. "He sat there with his eyes closed and nodded his head and said, 'Good work. Let's try to cut it'."

Due out July 13, Dyna-Mite comes with the weight of expectation as the follow-up to 2016's GoGo Juice, which won a Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Music Album. But Cleary insists that didn't put any undue pressure on the new project. "It's better to get one than not get one, obviously, but I didn't really think about the Grammy while I was making the record -- or any record, really," he says. "I don't carry that onto the next record at all. The songs dictate what will be on the record and hope people like it. It's not like my happiness or my thoughts about the music hinge on me getting another Grammy."

Cleary has been playing some of the songs from Dyna-Mite on what he calls his "never-ending tour" -- some of them for years, in fact. He's happy to finally be committing those to recorded versions, but he's also looking forward to what will happen with the newer songs when he and his band take them on the road. "You start playing a song live and things happen to them -- someone has a new idea one night that you like and keep in it, maybe, and they grow and change," he says. "After two years a song is arguably much better than it was when you went in the studio to record it the first time. I would love dearly to have the time and luxury of going back and remaking all my records, or of playing every song for two years on the road before you take them in the studio. That's not realistic, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?"


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