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Don't Judge a Book By Its Covers: Joanne Shaw Taylor Returns With a Bluesy Bang

Monday, 01 November 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Christie Goodwin

If you’ve been hesitant about approaching the covers record Joanne Shaw Taylor released earlier this year, leave any reservations behind a heavily bolted door and dive right in. Far from being one of those generic water treading exercises, ‘The Blues Album’ is a feast that swerves done-to-death workouts in favour of reinvigorating lesser known gems. Produced by a certain Joe Bonamassa, its gleeful, effervescent songs are sure to enthral UK audiences when she returns to the stage this month.

Recorded in Nashville with Bonamassa and co-producer Josh Smith, ‘The Blues Album’ finds Taylor kicking off the pandemic cobwebs in style as she and her passionate, chemistry-rich ensemble, which includes legendary keyboard maestro Reese Wynans and a magnificent horn section, put their own stamp on deep cuts by Magic Sam and Little Milton to Albert King and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Aside from cementing Taylor’s credentials as one of Britain’s leading guitarists, the record also acts as a showcase for her most impressive vocal performance to date, while easily dispelling the view that the blues is nothing but downbeat and depressing. We caught up with the dry-witted six string star to discuss making that sublime album, how she survived lockdown and why, if you’re a burglar, it might be best to stay away from chez Bonamassa.   

You have described playing live as the best therapy in the world. So how did you manage to stay sane during the pandemic? 

Thank you for assuming I have stayed sane and haven’t, in fact, gone mad. It’s the longest I went [without touring] in 20 years but, to be honest, I kind of enjoyed it.  Not to say I would have wanted it to happen. It’s been a very bizarre 18 months, but I tried to embrace it. I had a break and didn’t play or do anything for about 10 weeks, which was well overdue, to step away from being ‘Joanne Shaw Taylor’ and catch up on everything I hadn’t had time for because I’d been so busy.  So I made the most of it and then got back to playing. It’s sometimes hard to pick up a guitar without thinking about my career. So it was nice to sit down, put on a BB King DVD, play along and enjoy it for what it is.        

With album sales not being what they were, a musician’s main source of income these days is from playing gigs. How challenging was it to make ends meet during such an inactive period?

I’m lucky that, in the last three years, I was able to make a bit more. Not a ridiculous amount, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to put some savings away, which, of course, have completely gone now. A lot of us are in the same boat. We spent 20 years getting to a point where we were actually earning money and then, unfortunately, it’s been eradicated and we’re back to square one. But I know I have a career waiting for me and think, sadly, there’ll be a lot of people, particularly in the UK because they didn’t get much support, crew guys and stuff, that will find it difficult to come back to the industry. I’ve been a lot luckier than quite a few people. 

Many artists struggled to write songs during the pandemic. Was that also your experience, given you put out a covers album?  

I couldn’t write. There was nothing to write about. I’m not Adele. I don’t go through a break up every album, but I do tend to write about things that have happened to me, or a friend, or something I can relate to. I don’t sing as well unless I have some personal feeling about what I’m singing. And nothing had happened. I literally went to Target, bought a bicycle and watched The Sopranos, which doesn’t make for very interesting songs. So I thought ‘I’ve always wanted to do a blues covers album, my voice is well rested now, and at the point where I could sell it, so let’s do it.’  

‘The Blues Album’ was recorded live and has a powerful, vibrant energy to it. It sounds like the songs exploded out of you as a consequence of not having performed for such a long time.

It was fun to make and I wanted it to be like that. I was pretty burned out. There’d been a conversation with my label about taking this year off, but I didn’t need to in the end. I’d already had forced retirement. So there was the vibe of everyone wanting to get back to it and have fun. Then there was that vibe where, we’re all exceptionally well rested, but also slightly out of shape. There were a lot of long lunch breaks. But we were all very excited. Reese Wynans, all his parts were recorded and we couldn’t stop him. He was like ‘Well, I could re-do this one.’ We were like ‘Reese, go home.’ 

If there’s one part of a song that reflects the album’s live feel it’s your solo on Can’t See What You’re Doing To Me.

That was the second one we did on the first day of recording. By then we’d already done three days pre-production with me, Joe and Josh. I’d been so worried about getting my voice in shape for the album, because I hadn’t been touring, that I’d neglected my fingers and by the time we came to do that solo and those big bends I had blood blisters all over my left hand. I was crying inside. Joe came in and was like ‘Are you all right?’ and I’m like ‘NO!’ That will stick with me more than anything on that song and thankfully Joe gave me the day off playing guitar the next day.  

There was a lot of talk about bringing your singing to the fore this time out. How did you approach recording your vocals for the record?

It was just stretching the keys and picking songs that were ‘singer songs’, as opposed to ‘guitar player songs’. If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, you wouldn’t necessarily pick that if you were just a guitar player.  Keep On Lovin Me and Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me were songs I performed in my set when I was 14, 15 and just starting to sing. I always loved them but wanted to go back to them and address them now that I don’t sing like a schoolgirl.  

Joe, particularly, wanted to push me as a vocalist. That was important for him. I was on board with that because it’s always surprised me that we talk so much about how great a guitar player BB King was, but BB could have just been a singer if he didn’t play guitar. His voice was astounding. Most of those guys' voices were.  People don’t think about how important it is to be a good singer in blues and sell this emotion.      

You were initially worried that working together might put a strain on your friendship with Joe. How did it pan out between the two of you?

He said that at some point we were probably gonna fall out, and he was gonna push me a lot, but it is what it is and we’ll leave it in the studio, because I was staying with him at his house and we’d go home and pretend it didn’t happen. I was nervous about that, but one thing Joe didn’t realise was that I’m the queen of pushing myself. So, if anything, we were quite balanced in our goal of knowing when I can do better and wanting to reach it.

No fallings out then?

None that I can think of. No more than usual.  

So you didn’t steal any of his Diet Coke while he wasn’t looking?

He has cameras in his house watching everything and I didn’t realise they were motion sensored. He’d go into the studio early and be like ‘you come in at 12,’ because I’m not gonna sing before midday, my voice is shot. And then I’d get text messages from him, ‘You do know you’ve set off the motion sensor for the fridge and I can see you drinking all my Diet Coke and eating all the food?’ I’m like, ‘fuck.’    

You’re a very experienced performer at this point. That said, when you’re in the studio and are knocking out a solo, how do you feel having two guitarists like Joe and Josh focusing intently on you and your playing?

If I get nervous with anything, it’s performing in front of people I know. Friends and family, I find that intimidating. Especially Joe. When you’re such good friends you want to make them proud and there’s extra pressure there. But it did me a lot of good to work with him. When you’re playing with someone 10 hours a day they’re going to see you perform badly and they’re going to see you perform well. You tend to relax.  

I think I was probably more scared about Reese. The reason I play guitar was because I watched a Stevie Ray Vaughan DVD that he was on. The fact I was sitting there and he was next to me was pretty awesome. We were listening back to the Little Richard ballad when we were charting it out and he went ‘How did you pick this one? I worked with Little Richard and I never heard him do a ballad.’ I was like, ‘I really wish you hadn’t told me that Reese!’

It was an unusual choice, but you really made it your own.    

That is one of my favourites. It’s such an amazing performance he gives. As far as heartbroken ballads go, it’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all, at some point, been in love with that person who, frankly, we don’t know why we find them attractive and don’t particularly like. But for some reason it’s ‘I don’t know what you’ve got, but it’s got me.’ So I thought the lyric was really honest and cool.  

The last time we spoke, I asked you about the possibility of getting on Jools Holland’s show and you said you’d love to.  Congratulations are in order, because you’ve since achieved that. What was the experience like?

Awesome. Terrifying, but awesome. Jools was absolutely brilliant. I’d never met him before but he kept coming over to me on the night and having a good chat.  Obviously we’ve got a lot in common, in terms of taste in music. On a personal level, when I was learning to play guitar we didn’t have the internet, so watching Jools Holland introduced me to Bonnie Raitt and it was the first time I saw BB King on TV. My mum was adamant that ‘one day you’ll be on Jools Holland.’ Unfortunately she passed away eight years ago, so for me and my dad we were really pleased we got to do it. We were sad she couldn’t be there but it was a nice tribute to her.

Joanne Shaw Taylor Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue November 02 2021 - GLASGOW St Luke's
Wed November 03 2021 - EDINBURGH Liquid Rooms
Fri November 05 2021 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Riverside
Sat November 06 2021 - KENDAL Brewery Arts Centre
Sun November 07 2021 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy 3
Tue November 09 2021 - LIVERPOOL Arts Club
Wed November 10 2021 - LEEDS Warehouse
Fri November 12 2021 - OXFORD O2 Academy2 Oxford
Sun November 14 2021 - LONDON Lafayette
Tue November 16 2021 - BRISTOL Fleece
Wed November 17 2021 - NOTTINGHAM Glee Club
Thu November 18 2021 - BIRMINGHAM Mill
Fri November 19 2021 - SWANSEA Sin City

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