Selwyn Birchwood: Singing the blues through a smile
(Welcome to tbt*’s 2015 Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we’re spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Up next: Tampa bluesman Selwyn Birchwood.)
Selwyn Birchwood smiles so much on stage, it’s easy to forget he’s playing the blues.
“When I’m on the stage, that’s where I want to be,” says the 30-year-old singer-guitarist from Tampa. “We’re getting to play our music. It’s not like we have a setlist being forced down our throat. We get to write our own songs, we get to play our own stuff, and we get to perform for people. We just try to translate that we’re happy to be there. I’m ecstatic to be on the stage.”
On and offstage, Birchwood has a lot to smile about. In 2014, he signed to Alligator Records, the famed blues and Americana label that has released works by Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples, among many others. He was featured in the Washington Post as one of the faces of a new, younger American blues movement. And his Alligator debut, Don’t Call No Ambulance, is nominated for Best New Artist Album at the Blues Foundation’s 2015 Blues Music Awards.
His success is no surprise to those who’ve followed him at major events around Florida, including the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival and, most recently, the Gasparilla Music Festival.
Growing up in Orlando, Birchwood first grabbed a guitar in middle school, picking out tunes off the radio. Even though he loved the instrument, after a while, that got old.
“I was going to stop playing, but then I got a Jimi Hendrix album from a buddy of mine. And when I got that stuff, I was just blown away. It wasn’t as much what he was playing, but I wanted to understand where he got the ideas to play that stuff. It was such a bizarre sound to me, such a bizarre way of playing. And when you looked at his bio, all you found was all the old blues guys — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf. Once I heard those guys, I just dug back a little deeper. Once I heard that sound, I was like, 'Yeah, that’s the sound I like.’”
Birchwood began playing with a band at age 17, and had one in Orlando before he moved west to pursue a master’s in business from the University of Tampa. He played as often as his heavy graduate-school workload would allow, and put together a new group — saxophonist Regi Oliver, bassist Donald “Huff” Wright and drummer Curtis Nutall — that brought out his best as a frontman.
“There’s a lot more support for music over here, and just arts in general,” Birchwood said in comparing the Orlando and Tampa Bay scenes. “People show up to shows, and if they like you, man, they tell people about you.”
In 2012, the Selwyn Birchwood Band finished ninth at the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge; the next year, they won it. Those experiences led to a deal with a booking agency and spawned a fan in Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer, who signed Birchwood in early 2014.
Like his friend Damon Fowler, Birchwood has become the face of the Gulf Coast’s thriving blues scene. “Between Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and the entire west coast, there’s a lot of venues and places to play. There’s a lot of musicians down here, tons of talented musicians, who do it. It’s a cool community.”
Though Birchwood is in demand both across the country and internationally, he still performs regularly around Tampa Bay whenever he has the chance. At the Gasparilla Music Festival in March, he won over his hometown crowd with an early afternoon set buoyed by his trademark positivity.
“People get into this stuff for the wrong reasons, and the end up frustrated or disappointed or whatever,” Birchwood said. “But if you’re in it for the right reasons, if you love the music and you think it’s for you and you’re willing to work for it, I feel like there’s hope to do it.
“This is what makes me happy. That’s why I’m doing it.”
Recommended if you like: Buddy Guy, Albert King
See him: May 14 at the Ale and the Witch in St. Petersburg.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*