‘One night, one shot, no safety net’, such was the background to Joanne Shaw Taylor’s eagerly anticipated live album and DVD.
Surprisingly perhaps, it’s her first live album in a career built on the back of incendiary live shows that have captured the imagination of her growing legion of rock blues fans.
‘Songs From The Road’ take its title from the series of live releases on Ruf Records and captures the essential raw spark and oeuvre of a rock-blues artist with an unprecedented transatlantic success story.
Joanne’s career has grown exponentially since her 2009 debut release ‘White Sugar’, bringing her a Best Female Vocalist award, while her last two studio albums hit the US Billboard top ten Blues chart. 2012’s ‘Almost Always Never’ was more adventurous and confirmed a fast maturing song writing ability. It also provides the backbone to this live new set.
Pete Feenstra talks to Joanne about the new live album, her approach to song writing and her career so far
As you say on your introduction on the album, this live set has been 17 years in the making. That’s a long time for someone known for her exciting live shows?
When you put it like that yes… But really my recording career has only been 4 years up until this point. I waited until we had 3 studio albums under my belt to release a live album for 2 reasons, Firstly I’ve completed the contracted amount of studio albums so basically it seemed like a nice way of tying together all those releases and most importantly because I had a really good amount of original material to use for the live set and it enabled me to do a “best of” if you will.
I don’t think you came into this live recording with that many shows with your current line-up, was that a concern?
Yes obviously it weighed on my mind a little as it was a gamble for sure. That said, I’ve always said I work best under pressure and I think being in the position that I really couldn’t control how it sounded to a certain degree meant I worried less about it on the night, as really all I could do was relax, play and have fun with it.
Did you feel elated after coming off stage, or were you more concerned about how the recording had come out?
I was pretty elated. It was a great show for me. It had been a pretty tough few weeks leading up to the night personally and professionally and I thought I hadn’t heard anything back. I thought it had sounded pretty good so I was relieved, excited and pleased.
‘Songs From The Road’ certainly lives up to its name as a live album, did the great audience reaction on the night boost the band?
Definitely. The audience was great. They seemed to be pretty excited and pleased to be a part of it so that was a huge help.
On the production side of things; did you have to work out which parts of the songs the cameras would focus on, or did you just play and try to forget about them?
I didn’t really get to liaise with the film company. Though I’d had a lot of input with the audio, with our live sound engineer and with our producer Jim Gaines, so I was pretty confident we we’re all on the same page in that aspect.
You’ve said: ‘I tend to lose all sense of control once I get on stage’, does that mean you had to hold back on the night with the recording in mind?
I guess to a certain extent. I had to try to calm down sometimes and make sure my playing wasn’t getting messy as it sometimes does. I still think that’s one of my biggest weaknesses, the fact that when I’m trying to push for something different I can get sloppy, but I’m aware of it and try to work on it.
Did you want the live album to be a summary of how you have progressed as both a song writer and guitarist?
I hope so. I mean as I said previously for me personally, I see this album as a nice summary of my recording career up until this point, so I’d like it to show some progression. Most importantly I just want it to be a good live album and show the energy and excitement I hope I approach my live shows with.
Do you have an American rhythm section because you live and tour over there now?
Yes. I’ve been based out of Detroit for 5 years now and we tour far more in the US than we do here at this point.
Is Jools Grudgings on keyboards just for the tour?
Jools has been our European keyboard player for a couple of years now. I think me and the guys see him as a full time member of the band, but at this point we still tour the US as a three piece. I suspect that will change in the next year though.
Did you have to make any specific adjustments to play songs like ‘Soul Station’ live, as they come from an intricately produced album?
I think the songs have just progressed naturally as we’ve been touring. I hadn’t played any of those songs from ‘Almost Always Never’ live before we recorded them. The dynamic live is different to the studio dynamic so I think the songs have adapted to that setting naturally.
Your guitar sounds on this album have a dirt in the tracks almost grungy feel?
I’m still playing around with my live rig to a certain extent, but I do like more of a rock sound if you will. I think moving to the Les Paul for the bulk of the show and Marshall suits me and the material a lot more.
Some of the songs you played on the night such as ‘You Should Stay & I Should Go’, Almost Always Never, ‘Time Has Come’ and ‘Lose Myself To Loving You’ don’t appear on the CD. Didn’t they make the cut, or was it to do with the amount of tracks on the album?
Yeah, it was purely down to timing. Between the CD and the DVD everything we played on the night is on there. It was just given the time restrictions of the CD I just picked the tracks that flowed best and we had a good mixture of songs from all 3 albums.
Are there any other songs from your back catalogue (or live set) that you considered including on the album, like ‘Bones’ for example?
Not really for this project. I really wanted to draw from the most recent Live set list we’ve been running with. I think it was a good collection from all albums. Maybe I’d have put more tracks in from ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’ if anything.
You went into this recording essentially without a safety net, did that mean having concentrate harder at the expense of some spontaneous moments? Your guitar work on ‘Beautifully Broken’, ‘Watch ‘Em Burn’ and ‘Going Home’ suggests otherwise?
Not really. That’s just not the way I play, I’ve always relied heavily on improvisation, and, if anything, I was weary of straying too far away from what I usually do live.
Do the solos on songs like ‘Beautifully Broken’ and ‘Watch ‘Em Burn’ change at all when you take them on the road?
Yes definitely. Watch ‘Em Burn’ in particular has been a staple of the set since 2009 so I think that track has constantly been tweaked just to keep it fresh really. There’s other songs that have also developed for the best I think, such as ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’, which has come into its own more since we recorded the studio version.
The set really appears to catch fire on ‘Watch ‘Em Burn’. Are there moments like that in a show when you think, wow it’s really cooking?
You know it’s funny. There’s times when you feel you’re just playing by numbers so to speak and then you hear it back and it’s far better than you’ve performed before, sometimes the opposite. It really is hard to tell when you’re on stage. One of the earliest pieces of advice someone gave me was: ‘a show never goes as well or as bad as you think it went’. Which I think is pretty true.
I remember on the night that you got a big cheer for doing a Hendrix song (‘Manic Depression’), suggesting a lot of your fans are guitar heads?
Ha! I would think so… I mean I think that goes hand in hand with the blues-rock genre. Obviously my live show is very guitar dominated so I would like to think we draw on the guitar audience.
Do you think you have to drag your fans over to the more intricate soulful material on ‘Almost Always Never’.
I don’t know. I would hope not. I think from my point of view I’m one of the biggest guitar nerds on the planet. In the course of a 2 hour show you can start to feel like you’re being beaten around the head with it.
I think it’s important to break the show up and offer some variety or at least a break from 12 minute solos. Perhaps my audience wouldn’t want to hear an entire set of that genre of material but I think in the context of the show it’s a nice pace changer.
How long did it take to routine the new material before you hit the road?
We’d been touring pretty consistently with it since the album release last year, obviously some of the earlier material we’ve been playing live for several years. so it was a mix, 4 years to 5 months.
You’ve said you never really wrote songs until you were 21 and yet you seem well versed in writing relationship songs like ‘Tied & Bound’, ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’ and themes that people can relate too?
Yeah, I try to write about what I know. I think that’s the best way of getting a song that people can relate to as opposed to writing about a subject in which you have no experience. Also not to sound too melodramatic but I think as artists, i.e. musicians, writers etc., we’re attracted to do this in the first place because of some need to express ourselves. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the need to write songs about certain things I’ve been through, and to be able to move on from those situations, but some songs are fictional and are simply just songs I enjoyed to write.
Frankie Miller’s ‘Jealousy’ fits in with your material too. What drew you to that song?
Honestly, I wanted a good minor key blues for this album and that song I discovered shortly before we started recording. I just knew I couldn’t write one better and I really related to the vocal.
Are the songs from ‘Almost Always Never’ things that you might not have been able to write a few years ago?
I think so, I think both the guitar parts and lyrically. I think it’s a combination of being a little bit more of an experienced musician, Also being a little bit older and having lived a little more and thirdly having been exposed to more music and a lot more diverse styles of music over the past few years.
Has being in The States sharpened your professionalism and if so how?
I don’t think being in the States so much as just the work I’ve put in over the past 5 years. Managing myself and being fortunate enough to work with the team that I do whether that be my PR team, my promoters or my accountant. It’s certainly been a really interesting work experience and learning curve. There’s a lot of different elements to being in the “music industry” and nowadays more than ever I think a musician has a lot more hats they have to wear.
You are known for playing different guitars, do the resulting different tones lead you to different feel and moods on a song?
Yes definitely, But I always favour certain guitars and usually for the way they feel. As I’ve mentioned before being female and obviously having smaller hands play a large role in that. I think I’m influenced by guitar tones more when it comes to rhythm guitar parts. For example, I think the Les Paul guitar tends to lend itself better to rock and likewise I find the Strat really suits some of the more softer, melodic songs such as ‘Almost Always Never’ or ‘Lose Myself To Loving You’.
Interview © September 2013 Pete Feenstra
Photos © Will Ireland (first pic)
Photos © Lee Millward
Joanne Shaw Taylor releases her new live album “Songs From The Road” on CD/DVD on November 4th via Ruf Records.
UK tour starts November 28th with special guests King King. Dates include London o2 Shepherd’s Bush (Nov 28), Birmingham Town Hall (Nov 29), Holmfirth Picturedrome (Nov 30) and Sage Gateshead (Dec 1). Tickets: www.thegigcartel.com 0844 478 0898.
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