Selwyn Birchwood picked up a guitar when he was 13, just like a lot of teens. One day, he heard the music of Jimi Hendrix and it set his creative juices flowing. “He was larger than life,” Birchwood said. “I was so blown away by his creativity and had to know what would possess someone to write like that, he said. “When you look back at his influences, there were lots of blues guys like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Once I heard that, I found the sound and it set me off to play that way. When I realized he was influenced by the blues, I found my path.”
Birchwood, son of a father from Tobago and a British mother, grew up in Orlando. That was to prove important for Birchwood, because Buddy Guy was appearing at the House of Jazz in Orlando and Birchwood went to hear him. “It seems like the very same week I hear about him, he came to play at the House of Jazz. I had no idea what I was in for. I knew that whatever it was that I was witnessing, I wanted to do. I was completely connected with the blues. I knew I had to make this music.”
As the young man’s proficiency grew, he learned about a nearby blues guitarist and band. The guitarist turned out to be legendary blues artist Sonny Rhodes, who was impressed with the 19-year old. Within a month, Rhodes asked Birchwood to join him on the road. The transformational experience went a long way to shaping his view of music and his career. “It was kind of cool to have someone show me the ropes and what it was to be a touring musician and bandleader,” he said. “I’m forever grateful. Sonny always said, ‘Play what’s in your heart.’ I’ve never lost sight of that.”
Birchwood had promised his parents he would go back to school and he returned to earn an MBA from the University of Tampa. In 2010, he created his own eponymous band and in 2013, they won the prestigious International Blues Challenge. Birchwood took home the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award. The wins gave a big boost to his young band. The 2014 release of the album, Don’t Call No Ambulance took the band from playing small clubs to headlining international festivals. The album received the Blues Music Award and the Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album of 2014, and Birchwood won the 2015 Blues Blast Rising Star Award. He wrote and produced all 13 songs on his most recent album, Pick Your Poison, and said that they reflect his life experiences. “I write and sing what I know,” he said. “This album has a broad reach. It’s for young, old and everyone in between.”
Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, signed Birchwood to the label shortly after the Blues Challenge win. He knows both the hard-driving, high octane blues musician and the thoughtful, reflective songwriter. “Selwyn writes, smart, infectious, fresh songs and delivers them with a warm, conversational style and a fun-loving attitude,” he said. He’s a killer guitarist, switching between a regular six-string and lap steel. Live, he’s a ball of energy, interacting with the audience like they were in his living room.”
Reviewing Birchwood’s Pick Your Poison, Blues Blast’s Mark Thompson sees the evolution of an artist and a man. “His first Alligator release left no doubt that Birchwood is a skillful singer, songwriter and guitarist. On his latest, he gives listeners a deeper look at Birchwood, the man, repeatedly sharing his innermost thoughts fears and emotions. The expert backing of his skilled band gives him the confidence to expand his version of the blues beyond the usual staid progressions. Complete with arresting arrangements and thought-provoking lyrics, this one needs to be heard by anyone remotely interested in blues for the modern age.”
The only thing better is hearing him live, as the blues was meant to be.