Toronzo Cannon: “Life and living a little bit is a big influence.”

Toronzo Cannon in a black hat and round, white-rimmed sunglasses.
Toronzo Cannon: Chicago\u2019s coolest.

Toronzo Cannon has issued four albums: My Woman with the Cannonball Express in 2007, 2011’s Leaving Mood, 2013’s John The Conquer Root for Delmark and this year’s The Chicago Way, his excellent debut for the Alligator label. With 10 songs including shuffles, ballads and social commentary, it captures the singer and guitarist at the top of his game.

How has Chicago shaped your sound?

I’ve got heroes here that are giants in the blues – Muddy, Buddy, Elmore, Otis, Wolf, Hound Dog, Son Seals. Listening to their sounds and how they approached the music has shaped my sound. But it is also shaped by the music I grew up listening to, like Rufus and Chaka Khan, Earth Wind And Fire, John Cougar. It’s not a conscious decision to pattern my music after any of these musicians, I just write what I feel and put some chords together that sound good.

You’ve got a talent for observational writing. How did you approach writing the songs on The Chicago Way?

I try to write like I’ve been eavesdropping on someone’s life. Some subjects I get from my personal experience, but mostly I like to put myself in the shoes of the subject in the song. I also try to get my point across by not using so many words to set up the scene or the visual in the song. With few words I can get the beginning of the story and ending without boring the listener, unless I want to delay the conclusion of
the story for effect.

What do you remember of headlining 2015’s Chicago Blues Festival?

That was the fastest 45 minutes of my life. I’ve never played in front of a crowd that large before. At a certain point the people looked like flowers blowing in the wind on the horizon. It was humbling, inspirational, beautiful, nerve-racking and relaxing.

How did you first discover the blues?

My grandparents raised me, they played blues. As I got older, I developed a better appreciation for the music and the genre because of the history. I felt proud being a black American, that black Americans had created a music that directly or indirectly influenced American music as we know it.

Who are your chief influences and how do they feed into your own music?

I guess it’s cliché, but life and living a little bit is a big influence, and also trying to be an open soul when you’re writing. Also Bobby Womack, Bob Marley, Robert Cray, Chris Cain… you can see what they are writing, it’s so visual, and in some cases, you can almost smell what they are writing too.

The Chicago Way is out now on Alligator.