California-based troubadour Aireene Espiritu has been a favorite on the folk circuit for some years, releasing several acclaimed CDs of her own original music and touring extensively throughout the US and in Europe. Now she’s putting her mark on the blues, having been tapped by Jim Pugh, founder of Little Village Foundation, a non-profit producer and record label that discovers and produces American roots artists, for a tribute to the music of another Filipino-American artist, Sugar Pie DeSanto. LVF is releasing Espiritu’s tribute Back Where I Belong, which is already garnering favorable reviews, on July 15, 2016. As LVF readied for a celebratory show at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, CA, on June 19, featuring Espiritu and the rest of LVF’s 2016 artists, Espiritu discussed Little Village and immersing herself in DeSanto’s music.

Q: Tell us a bit about your introduction to Little Village and the genesis of your tribute to Sugar Pie DeSanto’s music.

Aireene Espiritu: Jim Pugh heard me play at a folk conference in Oakland in 2014, at Folk Alliance Region West, in one of the hotel room private showcases, of just me and my uke. He came up with the idea of me recording Sugar Pie DeSanto songs, R&B tunes from the 50s and 60s, and a year later contacted me via a mutual friend, Maurice Tani. I first heard Sugar Pie live many years ago at a blues festival in Ashland, OR, and was blown away by her spunk and spirit! Love her!

Q: How did you choose the songs for the CD? Has immersing yourself in another artist’s work changed your approach to your own writing?

AE: Jim and I both searched for Sugar Pie songs that were not necessarily the most popular ones, but ones that I could imagine myself singing. That was the start. Then it organically developed into something more. We were taking a break from one of the sessions and I had Jim listen to one of my uncle’s recordings from my phone, singing a Filipino folk song. He thought it would be a great idea to record me and my uncles doing a Filipino song, and also me on ukulele. And so when all was said and done, it became an album of songs of my roots and influences, a mix of the Filipino and American folk and some rhythm and blues.

Listening to another artist’s work got me listening to the blues again. A lot of my songs are blues influenced, but it’s cool to go back and maybe find ideas to bring it more in the forefront when writing new songs.

Q: What can audiences expect at the show at the Freight, and beyond, with this new addition to your catalog?

AE: I’ll be playing songs from the new album, Back Where I Belong, mostly Sugar Pie tunes, backed by some incredible musicians from the Bay Area assembled by LVF. There are three other artists with new releases this year under LVF: John Blues Boyd, a retired roofer from Mississippi now living in the South Bay; Aki Kumar, a harmonica player who mixes Bollywood music with the blues — as in Muddy meets Mumbai; and a mixed gender Mariachi youth orchestra from Delano, Mariachi Mesitizo. We’ll have local favorites, Maurice Tani, Victor Krummenacher and more special guests to perform as well.

The official album release is July 15th but we’ll have them available at The Freight. Then we’ll be playing at Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, OR, on July 4, San Jose Jazz Fest on August 13 and more to be announced. – By Deborah Crooks

June 15, 2016