Happy Hour Harmonica Podcast

Mike Stevens interview

July 05, 2023 Neil Warren Season 1 Episode 89
Happy Hour Harmonica Podcast
Mike Stevens interview
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Mike Stevens joins me on episode 89.

Mike is a Canadian who made his name playing Bluegrass harmonica, performing with some of the biggest names in Bluegrass and playing at The Grand Old Opry over 300 times. Mike toured with Bluegrass legends, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and recently played two songs on harmonica at Jesse’s funeral. Mike won the Canadian Bluegrass artist of the year for five consecutive years, and released a Bluegrass book with Hal Leonard.

But Bluegrass isn’t his only genre, also playing Americana, Blues, solo looping, soundscapes and even ballet and West African music.

Mike also tells us about synesthesia, a condition which means he sees music in colours and shapes, and how this has impacted his music. 

On top of all this, Mike has been a leading figure in bringing music to indigenous communities in Canada, distributing some fifty thousands harmonicas to young people.  

Mike’s website:

Artscan Circle:

A Walk In My Dream documentary:


Playing at the Grand Old Opry with Jim & Jesse:

Playing at Jesse McReynold’s funeral:

Playing with Matt Andersen:

TED talk on Artscan Circle: bringing music to indigenous communities:

Blue Sky music festival presentation:

Podcast website:

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Spotify Playlist:
Also check out the Spotify Playlist, which contains most of the songs discussed in the podcast:

Podcast sponsors:
This podcast is sponsored by SEYDEL harmonicas - visit the oldest harmonica factory in the world at www.seydel1847.com  or on Facebook or Instagram at SEYDEL HARMONICAS

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Mike is from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada
Drew on the music of nearby Detroit in his youth
Father had a harmonica lying around and Mike picked it up and really connected with it
Played a tremolo at first, before moving on to a Marine Band diatonic
Didn’t play the tremolo seriously, was just making noises
Mike has a condition called synesthesia, where he shapes shapes and colour when he hears music
Synesthesia is like a “superpower for music”, providing a very visual way that Mike perceives music
How Mike knew he had synesthesia
Loved black string band music early on
Didn’t learn any other instruments when young but maybe aspired to be a drummer
Mike was first drawn to pre-war harmonica, with DeFord Bailey an influence
Mike got into playing Bluegrass music when he answered an advertisement in the local paper
Only got to play three songs in the first Bluegrass band he joined as they were embarrassed to have a harmonica player
Joined another band who won awards, with Mike writing songs and leading the band
How did the harmonica fit into the strings-heavy Bluegrass music
Met the Lewis family Bluegrass band at a music festival, which led to Mike touring with that band without pay (but got lots in tips)
How Mike started playing with Jim & Jesse McReynolds, a famous Bluegrass act
Jesse told Mike he needed to play at the Grand Old Opry, the home of Country (and Bluegrass) music
Mike’s first time playing the Grand Old Opry, having now played over 300 times there
Mike’s gratitude to Jim & Jesse for giving him the opportunities they did
DeFord Bailey was (probably) the first harmonica player to perform at the Grand Old Opry, and Mike’s respect for him
DeFord Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Mike was recently the only musician to play at Jesse McReynolds’s funeral, which Jesse originally requested 34 years ago
The song Mike played at the funeral was ‘Jesse’s Request’
Tips for playing Bluegrass music on the harmonica
The rhythm is the critical part of Bluegrass, more so than just learning the melodies
Mike may well have been one of the first serious Bluegrass players on harmonica
Admires PT Gazell’s approach to playing Bluegrass
Mike’s first album released under his own name in 1990: Harmonica, won the Canadian Bluegrass Record of the Year
Blowin’ Up A Storm album from 1992: a change of direction as not entirely Bluegrass
Mandolin cross-picking technique played on the harmonica
Started the Mike Steven’s project in 1998, releasing the album Normally Anomaly
Mike has long produced looping and soundscape material, including art exhibitions with Larry Towell
Solo performances include looping
The World Is Only Air: an album of original and Canadian fiddle tunes
2005 Old Time Mojo album with Raymond McLain
Recorded two more blues-based albums with Matt Andersen
Album with African percussionist Okaidja Afroso
Gospel album called Life’s Road To Heaven
Latest album, from 2021: Breathe In The World…Breathe Out The Music
Has played with the Atlantic Ballet, composing a song which was choreographed for a ballet performance
Name of ballet piece (36 Hours) came from a meeting a indigenous person in the Arctic Circle
Founded Artscan Circle, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth indigenous communities in Canada, and has distributed fifty thousand harmonicas to these people
Documentary made about Mike, called ‘Harmonica Crossing’ about his time playing at The Grand Old Opry
Written a book: ‘Bluegrass Harmonica’, published by Hal Leonard, written from the car while touring
Has won many awards, including Canadian Bluegrass artist of the year for five consecutive years
10 minute question
Played Richter tuning for a long time and recently started playing Brendan Power’s Powerbender tuning
Played Joe Filisko custom harps, then Joe Spiers
Powerbender tuning made Mike approach playing the harmonica in a new way and adding overblows allows lots of different notes and chords
Doesn’t just use Powerbender. Uses whatever gets the job done
How Mike adapts to different tunings
Doesn’t favour any particular harmonica manufacturer
Lee Oskar harps are the only ones that function in the freezing temperatures of the Arctic
Likes to play natural minor tuned harmonicas for the chords
Does play overblows
Doesn’t play chromatic, but wants a robust one that would suit his needs
Recorded singing for first time on latest album
Embouchre: uses both
Amps: Schertler for acoustic, and different vintage amps
Modelling amps
Mics: Beyer M88, Shure KSM8
Mike is having a documentary made about him next week
Upcoming gigs and expeditions!