The release of 4801 South Indiana Avenue marks guitarist and singer Joanna Connor’s 14th album, but perhaps none have arrived with such fanfare as this Joe Bonamassa-produced blast of raw, powerful blues numbers.
Connor and Bonamassa have stripped everything back to basics to let the songs and the playing take centre stage, and the result is that Connor’s blistering guitar work shines brighter than ever.
She describes the experience of working with Bonamassa as entirely positive: “His musicianship is just at the pinnacle, and then when you add in his experience and his expertise, I just knew it was going to open a lot of doors for me.”
Then there was the rest of the cast: “It was such an all star line-up that excited me a lot: playing with Reese Wynans [keys] and Josh Smith [guitar] and the rhythm section of Calvin Turner [bass] and Lemar Carter [Drums] was just an eye-opening experience, you know, and being in Nashville… plus every record reflects a different point in your life.”
The decision to make what Connor describes as her “first 100 per cent true blues record” was taken in tandem with Bonamassa, and Connor admits it was something she needed to do.
“People kept telling me I needed to make a straight blues record” she tells us, “and I was like, yeah, yeah, I'll get around to it. But this opportunity came out of the blue and everything aligned.”
Part of that stripping back process was Bonamassa’s insistence that all the tracks be cut live, and that the musicians would have three takes to get it right or the song would be thrown away.
“We did everything in two takes or less,” says Connor, “we didn't even make it to number three, so all the cuts made it. Because I'm a live musician mostly, and I play on the blues scene, lot of the things I do I improvise. So that to me isn't really strange, although it's not usual for a record.
“Usually with a record you have a rehearsal, at least one, then the producer might tweak things, but we literally went in with no rehearsal. And I think it really worked, the guys are all so good at what they do and it was one of those situations where it was going to click and be wonderful or it was going to be a mess. And I think it all really clicked.”
Joe and Josh Smith play guitar on every track, but Connor insists that making room for three guitars was never an issue.
“I mean, usually three guitar players can be a real car crash,” she acknowledges. “But when you have players like that, they know exactly what they were doing. Usually when I go in the studio I’ll be the only guitar player but I will play two-to-five different guitar tracks so it sounds full and rich and interesting.
“But with this record, Joe and Josh have played together before, so they would talk to each other, and Joe would suggest Josh play such and such a feel and he'd nail it every time. They laid it all out for me to just solo on top.”
And every one of those striking solos was played off the cuff. “Not one was sketched out,” Connor tells us. “I had to reproduce some of them for the videos and I was thinking, what the heck did I play? So now I would be at a real loss!”
“I nearly always use pedals,” she says, “even if I’m playing a clean guitar sound I’ll still have a delay or chorus on there. So when Joe said we weren’t using pedals I was a little nervous about it, but Joe just tweaked the tone on his vintage 1955 Fender Deluxe, which was the only amp I used.”
Finally, we suggest, a gigging musician such as Connor must be itching to take this new music out on the road as soon as circumstances allow?
“Hopefully it's like riding a bicycle,” she laughs, “and you don't forget. I mean, the last show I did was in October, and for me, that's a long time, like I played every week. So, yeah, I'm itching to do this. My Chicago band and I are starting rehearsing now. I sent them the record a few weeks ago and I'm like, hey, we’ve got to start nailing all these songs. It'll be fun.”
1. Freddie King – Burglar (1974)
“This is probably my all-time favourite modern blues record. The song choices, the arrangements, the searing lead, the wonder that is Freddie’s voice, the players and the producer are just top notch. I recorded two of the songs from this album on my first album.
“One thing I love about the blues is that everyone has their own persona, their own feel, everything, you can identify immediately who it is, especially the founding fathers of electric blues. With Freddie King, I just love the simmering passion in his voice.
“I mean, people don't talk about his voice but I absolutely love it. It's thick, it's rough, but it’s also smooth at the same time. And his guitar playing is just stinging, you know? But what I really loved about this record, and why it was so influential to me, was it was a kind of fusion of funk and RnB and blues, which always spoke to me. The songs and arrangements are unique.
“A lot of the records I’ve chosen are from when I was younger because I spent so much time listening to music then, which I didn't as much as I went along with my own music. I played 200 shows a year a lot, and I listened to nothing!
2. Taj Mahal – Giant Step/De Ole Folks At Home (1969)
“This album is a treasure to me. I listened to it over and over and over as a child. The Ole Folks At Home portion always took me to some place back in time, and the Giant Step record just sizzled with groovy blues. Taj was super cool looking to my young heart. His talent is boundless.
“Although you don't hear it in the music that I play so much, I like a lot of that very, very rootsy rural country blues and the banjo and the harmonica. There is just something about it that brings me a comfort. I gravitate towards a lot of older things in what I read, what I watch.… I love history and there's something about it that speaks to me.
“And that record started my whole love affair with blues; Taj had the urban sound and then the rural sound, and I just thought he was the coolest thing ever, you know, standing on the cover with the rain, he’s got this cowboy thing going on…
“I got to meet him years later and do a show with him in Germany, and I was just like bumbling idiot. But he's a wonderful down earth guy and a real gift to American music, I believe.”
3. Ry Cooder – Boomer’s Story (1972)
“Cooder is a gift to us all. He was to me. My guitar teacher, Ron Johnson, was a scholar of his. I learned all of my slide techniques from Ron and therefore Ry. I've even seen pictures of Cooder’s left hand and it looks just like how I hold my slide.
“Cooder’s intelligence, knowledge, humour and musicianship always brings a smile to my face, especially his deep knowledge of so many styles of music. This album was very important to me then and still is, it’s salt of the earth music.”
4. Bonnie Raitt – Give It Up (1972)
“I was maybe 10 years old when this came out and I remember I sang every song, so vocally she was one of the people I admired, along with Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday… the list goes on and on. I was singing before I ever played the guitar, and playing the pots and pans according to my mother. I used to want to be a drummer.
"But I just love her selection of music, though, she's another one with a whole lot of honesty and soulfulness, in a quieter way than me, but yeah, I know every note on that record.
“Also she was a trailblazer. I always kind of knew what I wanted to do was a ‘man's thing’. And I was always like, well, if the men can do it, why can't I? You know, I was always rebellious. So I felt like guys got to have all the fun, and women were supposed to be in the background and polite and dainty. And I was like, well, I'm none of those things.”
5. The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
“My musical upbringing was all over the place, listening wise, even though I definitely had things I gravitated towards. But the Beatles, I mean, I was young, but my mom used to bring home those records and order them in the mail.
“And it was a big treat when they would come, and it’s hard to pick one Beatles record but this one was just a sonic adventure, you know? I mean, everything on that record, it still is. I listen to it and then I'm like, they did that with four tracks, are you kidding me?
“A lot of these choices are from my childhood, but I think I've listened to The Beatles more recently than some of the others. You know, the way they wrote songs was just unbelievable to me. I mean, their melodic structure and the adventures that they took in music and their vocal harmonies, I mean, you could just go on and on.
“Guitar-wise, George Harrison was a wonderful, lyrical, melodic player. And he was one of those players, like Keith Richards, even though they're completely different, where everything they did was brilliant, everything had its place, everything had a function.
“I mean, you couldn't have any of that music without George or without peace. They were all so talented, but I think they influenced me more as songwriters and arrangers than anything.”
6. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1959)
“My mom loved jazz, my aunt loved jazz, and I went to see the Newport Jazz Festival every year from about seven. So I saw a lot of these people, but I didn't quite get jazz. It was a little too cerebral for me, but I kept listening and I kept listening.
“I played saxophone growing up and when I got to 16, it all started to make sense to me and my ears started to be able to understand it. So I was a little bit older when this record became really important to me, compared to the others.
“As an improviser, the older I get the more I feel closer to jazz. I'm not of that jazz level playing-wise, but my philosophy towards music and playing is very similar to jazz people. You know, living in the moment and creating art in the moment with with others that are around you.
“That's what I love about about this record, too, the way they all played off each other and brought the compositions or the sketches to life, you know? And that’s every song, there's so much depth of emotion in them and sonically, I don't know, it's just something I put on and instantly I'm not on the planet anymore. It’s pure, unadulterated genius, a landmark recording and the Everest of improvisation!”
7. Buddy Guy – Stone Crazy! (1979)
“Fire and brimstone! Talk about summoning your demons, this is a modern blues scorcher that I put this on whenever I need a shot of adrenaline. Buddy Guy was always so forceful, you know, but his singing is absolutely soulful. He's been a big influence on my guitar playing and my approach to blues because, you know, he doesn't give a shit.
“A couple of years before I went and moved to Chicago I used to play this record over and over, it has so much passion and energy and it grooves. It was just classic modern Chicago blues to me. Then a few years later I was in his club, in the house band, and he's calling me up to do guitar battles.
“The first time that happened, I thought I was going to pass out from the nerves, but it was like a dream come true, you know? And Buddy and I – up until this past year, you know – we still talk and he’ll say, you and me, we're the only ones left from the old Chequerboard. So he became someone that was very important in my life, which I would have never imagined.”
8. Isaac Hayes – Shaft
“I was about nine and my mom brought this home. My mom was just this petite lady but she loved black music and this was just such an iconic 1970s soundtrack record. I mean, Isaac Hayes and Barry White, those deep baritone voices… This was another one I played over and over and over and it taught me a lot.
“Rhythm-wise, I was really into that funky old James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Stax sound, all that stuff. I liked it more than Motown. I love Motown, but my thing was more that Southern soul, you know?
“It was just the pinnacle of that 1970s black power soul-type stuff that I just loved as a young girl, which years later when I was in Chicago people would say, oh, you know about this stuff?, I’d say, yeah, I grew up listening to this, my mom bought this stuff!”
Aretha Franklin – Greatest Hits (1998)
“There are so many fabulous female singers of all genres, and even today there are some amazing singers, but when I hear Aretha, well, she's the queen. The tone of her voice throughout the years, the velocity of it, but also the control of it, everything about her voice to me is just perfection. And, of course, the gospel influence.
“I was really lucky in that I played in a couple of gospel bands in the black churches on the South Side, and those singers are the best singers I've ever heard. That was her school, and she brought it to the world.
“I was lucky enough that my son surprised me with some tickets to see her not too long before she died, because I'd never seen her, and the power and the range were a little bit gone, but she still had it even in her waning years. I was in tears. What a gift she was, a gift to the planet.”
10. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1968)
“This album woke me up every morning for a few years, after my parents’ divorce when I was living with my dad and he was gone at 4:00 in the morning, so I would wake up and put on this record on and blast it. My little baby brother would be like, Joanna, why every day?
“But I love everything about that record, the iconic guitar riffs, the singing, the mash up of blues and Celtic and whatever else… I put Jimmy Page in my top three guitar heroes and this is probably one of the biggest musical influences on my guitar playing. I absolutely love everything he brought, not just some of the greatest riffs and hooks of all time, but he can play too.
“Some people say he’s sloppy but I think he's a great soloist. I love the whole band; John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page. I mean, wow, how could you ever duplicate that? I don't think we ever will.
“I love the blues, but as much as I love Bonnie Raitt and that softer, gentler stuff, it's the power of Zeppelin that really spoke to me more than anything.”
- Joanna Connor’s new album 4801 South Indiana Avenue is out now. Visit Joe Bonamassa to buy.