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Out Of The Shade: Doyle Bramhall II Steps Into The Limelight

Thursday, 11 October 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

There won’t be many musicians with an address book as impressive as Doyle Bramhall II’s. From Elton John and Roger Waters to Sheryl Crow and Alain Toussaint, not to mention his position as Eric Clapton’s right-hand man for nearly two decades, the Texan born singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer has often been the go-to collaborator for some of the greatest names in the business. Such a role inevitably meant putting his own career on hold, but with the release of ‘Shades’ – his second solo album in two years - he’s finally taking centre stage.

A naturally gifted virtuoso, Bramhall II was surrounded by so much talent during his formative years that it’s little wonder he developed an instinctive and natural ability to bond with other musicians.  His father, the first Doyle Bramhall, was a renowned drummer who played with Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and heroic Texan guitarists Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of whom became close family friends. The former even invited 18 year old Doyle to tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, his critically acclaimed blues outfit.

Following a spell with short-lived rock combo Arc Angels in the early ‘90s, the guitarist embarked on a solo career that birthed three albums and brought him to the attention of Waters and, more importantly, Clapton. After working with Slowhand and BB King on 2000s ‘Riding With The King’ he not only joined the former Cream man’s band as his smoking-hot onstage foil, but became an invaluable studio collaborator, writing songs for the iconic axe man’s albums. He even co-produced his 2010 self-titled release and its curiously named follow-up, ‘Old Sock’.

During that tenure Bramhall II also worked with other top-notch musicians and compiled the kind of CV that suggested he definitely shouldn’t be playing second fiddle. But he enjoyed that backseat role and diligently appropriated every experience into a rapidly expanding aesthetic that was significantly shaped by a profound spiritual awakening.

Reborn as a much more interesting and unique artist who was happy to step into the spotlight, ‘Shades’ – which features contributions from Norah Jones, Texan garage rockers Greyhounds, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Clapton himself - is a genre busting effort that almost posits him as something of a musical painter. Spicing Jimi Hendrix-esque blues-rock with copious flavours of soul, funk, jazz, R&B, grunge and exotic world music, he skilfully utilises a smorgasbord of evocative colours to create imagery-soaked songs full of textural wonder and spiritual depth.

We caught up with Bramhall II to discuss ‘Shades’, why it’s taken him so long to resume his solo career and how he felt the day a certain phone call changed his life forever.  

You said that you were reconciling one particular set of feelings on 2016’s ‘Rich Man’ and now you’re in a different place, both personally and emotionally. Can you expand on that and how it presents itself on ‘Shades’?

It’s almost like ‘Rich Man’ was peeling back the surface and letting all the deeper things bubble up inside me to then release. I want to get to a place where I’m in a constant state of creating, recording, putting out records and touring. I have been on tour consistently for five years and, with this record, I wanted to get in the flow of capturing this quality of being in the zone musically, tapping into things in the present moment and documenting that as I go along.  

That’s what Jimi Hendrix did. If he wasn’t onstage he was in the studio and that’s why they’re still uncovering music he recorded.  That’s all he did, that’s all he immersed himself in and I just want to get to that place. It’s funny to start doing it at 50 years old and be like ‘okay, I’m starting my career now.’ If I live to be a centenarian then I’m not even halfway there. If I live to be 120 then I really am just getting started.

You may start rivalling Joe Bonamassa’s output if you keep up that pace.

I would like to put out a record per year, or a year and a half if possible, just because I would love to create a body of work that I’m really proud of and fans can draw from. But quality is a big thing for me too because I don’t just want to put out stuff for the sake of it. I want to put out stuff that is deep and meaningful. Things that I can listen to. I used to put out music just to put it out, but I didn’t necessarily connect that deeply to it.  I wouldn’t want to listen to it more than four times. Now, I can say with the last two records I made, every time they come on I actually want to listen to them. That feels really good.  

'Rich Man' was critically well received, so did that give you the confidence to spread your wings and make an album as ambitious, expansive and dynamic as ‘Shades’?

It comes with being a producer myself and a more confident artist. The older you get, and the more experience you have, the less you care about failing with your own thing. I was very self-assured and just followed the sounds that resonate inside me for each song. That’s part of the reason I named the record ‘Shades’, because I was not only thinking about shade in imagery or visual terms, but also sonically. To me, there are shades of sound. I don’t necessarily think of genres, or even a sonic thing I want the entire thing to sound like, I just take each piece of music as a movement of a whole.

When you’re making a record like that how do you make it flow cohesively without causing listeners too much stylistic whiplash?

When you listen to Stevie Wonder, he had so many elements he drew from and spanned many genres, but it was all Stevie Wonder music.  The Beatles had influences from Italian folk music to classical music to rock n’ roll to soul and it all sounded like the Beatles. Sly Stone the same thing. If I’m being authentic, if I’m doing what comes out of me naturally and organically, that keeps it cohesive to me.

Why did you choose to open the record with Love And Pain and finish on a cover of Bob Dylan’s Going, Going, Gone?

Going Going Gone was an easy choice because of the sentiment. It was sort of a tribute to Greg Allman and felt like it should end there because there isn’t anything more you can say on an album after that. The first song was a little more difficult. I actually sequenced the record exactly how it’s sequenced, except I had to play with the first and second song a little bit. I moved Hammer Ring to second just to keep pace.

Nowadays, you have to think about things that are, in my mind, a little trivial. You front load an album because you figure people’s attention spans aren’t that long any more. They don’t listen to records the same way they used to and you want the first four or five songs, or the ‘singles’, to be what hit people first and suck them in. Whereas older albums…track 2 and 7 and 10 were the big songs. It was all over the place. If you’re just listening to singles then it doesn’t matter, but I’m coming from an analogue world and like to listen to albums as a whole, so I like the sequencing and pace of things.

Hammer Ring really grooves on the chorus with a great call and response vocal. What can you say about that track?

That was a song I recorded as a demo for this album I wanted to make about 10 years ago, which was an album of work songs and spiritual songs. These particular albums were considered prison albums, chain gang songs, and were recorded during the 40s and 50s. I wanted to take these chants and work songs and adapt them to music. Especially guitar and blues music. When I was making this record, because I didn’t have any fully Delta type blues songs, I wanted something that could represent that side of me. It actually sounds a bit more African or from Mali or something, the guitar line, but it originally started as a blues work song.

Parvanah is really dark, epic and exotic. How did that song come together?

That’s a lyric that came from my friend. Her name is Elizabeth Ziman and she’s a songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. I asked her if she could write lyrics, she wrote those and said ‘this is a very special lyric for a very special friend of mine that committed suicide.’ She wanted it to have a good home so I thought it fit the emotional depth the song had instrumentally. The only change we made came after she said ‘it should be from your perspective, so instead of being a man it could be a female name.’  I said ‘it would be great if it was something Persian’ and she said ‘how about Parvanah?’ She had watched this Iranian movie about a woman who had lived through this war time thing and it was a beautiful story. The name of the movie - and the name of this girl - was Parvanah, which means sweet butterfly.

How difficult is it to incorporate sounds from some of the exotic places you’ve visited, like India and Morocco, into western music?

I’m just taking bits and pieces and inspiration from different types of music, the way it hits and resonates in me in a different way. I then add that element to my music to create different moods. I take lessons in middle eastern music from this Israeli oud player, which is an ancient instrument, in Los Angeles. He studied with the Bedouins and learned middle eastern, Turkish and Northern African music. I’m fascinated with that kind of thing so whatever I learn or feel from this music I let flow through me and filter out the way it comes out. It’s all about trying to create moods based on sounds and sonic aspects.

Eric Clapton guests on Everything You Need. Why did you choose that one for him to appear on?

I was listening back to it and was like ‘I think Eric would really like this song.’ I called him up and said ‘hey, would you like to play on this?’ because I thought it would be cool if we went back and forth soloing. If you can get Eric Clapton to solo with you, and go back and forth with him, why wouldn’t you ask him to do that if you could? So, I took the song to him, he really liked it, and we just had a good time.

When Clapton first phoned you and said he wanted to work with you, what went through your mind?

It was a series of events that all happened so quickly. He’d received my album from my old manager while touring in Japan. He asked for my number, called me up out of the blue and said who he was, and that he was a huge fan of my album ‘Jellycream’, and there were two songs he wanted to do covers of on the record he was making with BB King. He was living in Los Angeles and asked me when I got back off the road if I could come and meet him.

A week later we met for coffee and then went back to his place. He asked how to play the songs on the guitar and when I was showing him, because I play left handed upside down, he couldn’t tell what I was doing. He got sort of frustrated and said ‘why don’t you just come and play your parts on the record with me and BB and my band.’ And I was like…. ‘okay.’

When they were in the studio, I showed up, walked into the control room and BB and Eric were learning my song. Eric saw me and was like ‘hey BB, Doyle’s here. Come out on the floor, grab a guitar and show us how to play your song.’ It was all pretty surreal and literally a dream come true.

Having collaborated with him for so long, what lessons have you taken from that time and applied to your solo career?

I’ve watched him and the way he is with his music and career and it’s really straight up. It rubbed off that it can be as simple as you make it and, if you believe in yourself and your music, that’s what matters more than anything. He is who he is. There are no other faces of Eric Clapton. When he’s playing his music, he’s pure music. He’s a music historian and that’s what he lives for.  That’s what he loves. He just does what he wants and is totally true to himself and that makes him authentic. I think that’s why he has sustained his career this long and been relevant in every year he’s been on the music scene, because he follows his heart.

You’ve said “The new record finally feels like I’m comfortable in my own skin, like I don’t have anything to prove.” Why did it take you so long to feel that way when you have a CV that speaks for itself?

It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my skin and that came from being spiritually grounded, if you will, and knowing more about who I am and being confident in myself. I used to be really shy. I didn’t like doing interviews or talking because I didn’t want anybody to judge me on any level. I wanted to be aloof and keep my world to myself.

Is that why being a sideman suited you, because you weren’t in the limelight?

Yeah, definitely. I enjoyed the backing role but didn’t necessarily like being a band leader. I didn’t like to be the one responsible for making decisions because I didn’t want to ever make a wrong decision. But I had a shift in my life where I was able to be okay with all of that and become really confident as a performer, the lead person in a band, and a band leader. I was able to not care anymore because [I realised] it was about making a decision based on the greater good of the music and doing it for all the right reasons, rather than being judged. I didn’t need that in my life.

What can you say about that shift, which you’ve previously described as a ‘spiritual metamorphosis’, and how it’s affected both your creativity and subsequent career path?

It was this advaitic moment, which is an Indian word. It means a non-duality shift. I had this occur about seven years ago and, from what I’ve read, it’s not something you can actually control. It happened in sort of a white light moment, where everything shifted in me and I was able to understand things and the way the universe worked. Everything just started to make sense to me, like an ‘ah ha – I get it’ moment.

It did change me completely as a performer and an artist. I was then able to have experiences live that I never had before because I was letting the audience in and actually wanted them to be inside my music and to get to know me as an artist. That’s a part of the process to me now. I really love music, I love so many different forms of music and sharing with people what I do and feeling an energy coming back from fans. It’s something I feed off of.

'Shades' is out now through Provogue Records

 





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