Can you tell us about your first experiences with music and what inspired you to start playing the guitar?
When I was very young my mother sang to me at bedtime and my dad would often play the banjo or fiddle in the evening. I knew music was important and central to everything, most particularly it had a powerful healing value and created a sense of peace and security. This stood out to me as I always felt the world was precarious and dangerous, and music supplied those moments of real peace and safety.
At the age of ten I was suddenly inspired to play guitar, so I picked up my mother's old Galiano and began figuring out "Froggy Went A Courtin'." From that moment on the guitar was virtually welded to me - all I did was play. I have a picture of myself at summer camp whenI was ten years old. My friends were all smiling at the camera, and I was looking down at my guitar.
When I was twelve I began backing up my dad's country fiddle playing, picking the guitar in the old Carter Family style with a lot of running base lines. I discovered that steel strings had more power and versatility than nylon for blues and country styles, and the poor old classical Galiano had to tolerate the excessive tug of metal strings, at which point the neck began to bow. It probably contributed to making my fingers a lot stronger as I had to really fight with the guitar to fret the strings.
Tell us about Greenwhich Village in the 60's and about your dad's Sandal Shop on West 4th Street which became a meeting place for acoustic musicians from all over the city.
In the sixties Greenwhich Village was a neighborhood with a small town atmosphere. Everyone knew everyone. You could count on the same old restaurants, stores, and pizzerias to be there year after year.
The first big music scene started in Washington Square Park somewhere in the sixties. In those days everyone would get together and jam. It was a really fantastic period of time with an incredible amount of musical energy everywhere. That's the period of time when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and so many other great artists were getting established. I came into my dad's store one day and saw a pale, artistic looking man sitting there with a small cap and long fingernails holding a guitar. After he left my dad told me he was a musician and a poet, but that he didn't want any part of the pressures of the business and just wanted to be true to his art and his poetry. It was Bob Dylan. Later my dad told me he had seen a great singer in a small club in the Village who's voice had the power to make you weep. He said, "You watch, this young woman is going to become very famous." It was Joan Baez.
When did you first become aware of blues?
I first heard Stefan Grossman playing ragtime guitar in Washington Square Park in 1964 when I was 14. He gave me a record called "Really The Country Blues" and that was the beginning of my love affair with the music.
It must have been profound meeting and playing music with blues masters such as Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and others. Do you think that led to your lifelong infatuation with country blues?
I was already infatuated with country blues before I met any of the masters, but there's no doubt that meeting in the flesh was an incalculable inspiration and helped to cement my knowledge of and passion for the music.
During this time I was lucky enough to meet Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis and others. Here are a few of my recollections:
Reverend Gary Davis: I met Reverend Gary Davis at his house in the Bronx. Stefan had known him for some time and used to lead him onstage for his performances. The Reverend was a guitar genius who also had a razor sharp and insightful mind. His sense of humor was shattering, and he kept Stefan on his toes with what amounted to a non-stop back and forth roast session. He told Stefan he had robbed the cradle as I was 15 and must have seemed like a complete baby. But keep in mind that Stefan was only 19 himself at the time. It was over my head and I just sat there watching him play. His teaching style never involved taking apart licks or explaining anything, he just played at you and you had to run like the wind to follow along. He also visited our apartment in the city, and I had the occasion to draw him as he sat with his characteristic slump and his cigar burning slowly down. Stefan's hand was always outstretched catching the ashes.
Skip James: Stefan and I visited Skip James in the hospital when he had cancer, and I never saw a greater manifestation of quiet sorrow. I got chills in his presence as his mood and personality matched the raw emotion in his music. Reverend Gary Davis' old version of "Death Don't Have No Mercy" came to mind.
Mississippi John Hurt: We stopped in on Mississippi John Hurt at his home in Washington, DC, where he welcomed us with typical Southern hospitality. His demeanor was incredibly shy and sweet and he was in every way a gentleman. When we played "Frankie & Albert" together I was blown away by the strong, simple beauty of his playing - my dad always said music was not about speed and flash but about feeling and the power of the individual notes - and Mississippi John embodied this lesson as he rocked back and forth, moving his shoulders from left to right with the rhythm. He also had a sly sense of humor and was always offering us Maxwell House coffee. He'd say "Good to the last drop!" with a mischevious smile.
Son House: Sitting in the same room with Son House was deeply moving and inspiring. He was the most influential blues master to me. I would say I learned more about delivery and how to express passion from Son House than anyone else. He did not have Reverend Gary Davis's humor and was a far more serious presence. To know I was sitting in a room with a man who hung out with Robert Johnson, that was goose pimple material. I played Willie Brown's "Future Blues" for him and he kept asking where I had learned to play like that.
Fred McDowell: I spent a fair amount of time with Fred McDowell when he stayed at our house in Berkeley, California. He was a real character and seemed quite a bit younger than Son, The Reverend, Mississippi John and Skip. We performed together one night at an open mike gathering, and that's when someone jumped up and shouted, "She plays like a man!" I was dumbfounded.. what did they mean? Why were women not expected to play this way? I didn't get it.
Bukka White: I met Bukka White at a little jazz club in New York. He was broad and powerful and really slammed the guitar. Oddly enough I didn't fully appreciate his style until recently, when I was listening to an old compilation CD and mistook him for Blind Willie Johnson. Suddenly I noticed his powerful growl and incredible slide playing. He was the master of playing, singing and talking all at the same time.
People have repeatedly asked you the same question: "Why did a young white girl from New York City play 1930's era black blues from the rural South?" and you have answered "It's not your skin, it's your soul." But I still have to point out that most girls your age were listening to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not crackly old 78's of Willie Brown. What do you think drew you to the music?
I always make an analogy to falling in love. It's a mystery. Who knows why we are drawn to things or why they resonate with us? That's the mystery of why we are who we are. I can only say that it sounded like the most hauntingly beautiful music I had ever heard and that it spoke to what was in my heart. I could list off various life events and experiences I have had in an effort to convince you that I have "the right to sing the blues," but in the end that explains nothing. It's a deeper matter, and it does come down to the soul. We are all one seed, and inspiration is not limited by skin color.
We also need to consider that as a young person, I was exposed to and surrounded by roots music. I met the blues masters in person and learned directly from them. I think that is how any kind of art and inspiration is passed on from person to person.
What are your musical influences and who has been the greatest inspiration?
There are many influences in my music, not only blues. R&B, Motown, gospel, old timey, jazz, even classical are all part of what I do. I started with classical, then country, then blues, and after that I started listening heavily to Motown and gospel. My earliest efforts as a songwriter were soul. Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, James Brown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Fontella Bass are just a few of the names that come to mind as the God's of soul and Motown.
Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, Son House and others come to mind as blues Gods. The great majority of my influences have been from soul, blues and gospel, and as far as I'm concerned some of the world's greatest singing exists in those three magnificent styles.
I have also been greatly influenced by superb country singers like Roscoe Holcomb, and also the great bluegrass singing stylists. Early country music was rich with soul and feeling and vocals were embellished with great skill and dexterity. Allison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs come to mind as people who obviously worshipped these sources.
I have read that you would tell audiences that a "blues revival" was coming even before you had any evidence of it because you "believed in the power of ideas". What kind of role do you feel you have played in bringing blues into the public consciousness?
Having started my career amidst cries of "You'll never make it doing blues! You'll never make it doing blues!" I really buckled down for a lifetime of obscurity. Eventually I began to feel disgusted with the way blues was always marginalized, and I literally decided to get out there every night and give 200% of love and passion to my music and make it be important. So years ago it became my goal, (facing sometimes a near empty house in God knows where on the road), to shake up the five or six people who came out in the ice and snow til they forgot the outward indication of "commercial" success or failure and went home and said, "Man, you don't know what you missed last night!" I thought that had to add up to something sooner or later. I decided to carry myself with dignity. I decided to bow and stretch out my arms and act triumphant. It was almost a war for me. If people put me down, if no one came out, I fought back by giving something extra. I thought the word would eventually get out. And you know it did. About 10 years ago I suddenly realized that I was filling theaters, that it was no longer a coincidence. And who knows what part I played by saying, over and over again, year after year, "Blues
is experiencing a major revival" even when I had no proof. I like to think I played a part in it, but it was really a joint effort amongst the world's hardest working blues artists. If I mentioned any of their names here, I would end up leaving out someone crucial, so it's best to give the credit to all of us, known and unknown.
You have received rave reviews for your live shows and many people say you are better in person than on record. What is it about performing live that inspires you?
I get massive amounts of energy from the audience, and no matter what mood I may be in, I always connect with them within a song or two and from there the sense of being among friends actually overtakes me and I open up. I never have a set list and each show is as different as it can be as a result. There is a sense of suspense, of the unknown. I use the audience as a guide, I feel their mood and take the cues. This is one reason why I hate playing in one place for two nights, because it robs me of this particular need for spontaneity. I become really stale if I know what to expect.
You talk about your fans like they are your dearest friends. What do you mean by this?
I will always give the credit to the audience - without them there is no career. Record companies can do nothing for you without the kind cooperation of people who lay out their hard earned money to buy your records and hear you perform. I am also blessed in that my audiences are incredibly wonderful people. Almost every night I go out to the product table and talk to people while I sign CDs, and I am always amazed by the openness in people, their graciousness, their honesty and vulnerability. To say I have been uplifted and given a reason to have a career is not strong enough. People say that a certain song helped them stop drinking, another says a certain song saved their life, another cries and says that a certain song is "their" song, people tell me I speak for what is in their hearts, people say they understand their partners better because of my songs, people bring me gifts, people give me hugs, people confide in me and tell me their personal tragedies. I never quite understand how I deserve their enthusiasm, but I have come to feel that this is the reason I am here: to do something good for just one person each night. The audiences have given me the gift of feeling valued, and for someone who never felt valuable, that's a priceless gift.
Can you describe how being a woman has affected you in the music business? Do you think you have been treated differently and faced different challenges?
In the beginning of my career and until fairly recently it was a distinct disadvantage to be a woman. No one thought you had the ability to produce yourself or make any logical choices. I had the worst experiences in the studio trying to run my own show. Women were always getting pigeonholed as "difficult" and I eventually realized, after hearing my favorite female stars badmouthed repeatedly, that it wasn't the woman they were criticizing, it was her ability to be independent and strong which grated. I think a woman with a guitar makes a very strong statement of power and equality, and it took a while for that to become acceptable.
In those days you were treated as a sex object. Today women are clearly still sex objects, but I would say that it is by choice now and not by force. There are women out there who do nothing whatever to play into the sex game, and frankly, they make the strongest statement to me. Music is about talent, genius, art and skill, and not about sex. It may be sexy, and also sexual, but in my opinion sex has nothing to do with the person's art. I love music for it's emotion and beauty. I don't need the element of sexual theatrics around it to like it. In fact that turns me off, it's like being raped in a way. But clearly I am in a minority in this opinion as the video market will attest.
It's no longer a minus being a woman guitar player - I might even say it has become a plus. People used to assume that if you were a woman you would automatically play in a delicate, fluttery folk style, and they were somewhat shocked by the aggressive blues style I played. But that has changed, and now people seem to be really ready for it.
I enjoy being able to blast people's stereotypes, to completely derail their preconceived notions. But at no time in the past did I ever think: "Now I'm going to play like a man." It was just my style from the beginning. Frequently women come up to me and say they are inspired by the way I play, that they love to see a woman play so powerfully.
What kind of guitar do you play?
Now I have a wonderful guitar that I got from Martin. I endorse their strings and putting the new Martin gold strings on a Martin guitar feels mighty nice. But if you can believe this, for years I had no guitar at all and used to borrow one from John Sebastian every time I made a record. I eventually used a battered old instrument for touring but it wasn't good enough to record on. Later I got a Schoenberg. That was my first really good guitar. I also have a Yamaha, a Gibson, an Alvarez, a Tokai, and several others, most of them given to me by the companies, and I still have my very first guitar, a Galiano.
You are renowned for your powerful pounding, percussive style of guitar playing. I think it is fair to say it is your signature and you are considered to be at the top of your field in both female and male categories. How did you develop this particular style of playing?
I have never considered being a woman a limitation. I started out playing as much like Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, and Charlie Patton as I possibly could. They were my mentors. It never occurred to me to consider that style of playing "male", so I just went for it. It is obviously also in my nature to put aggressive energy into my instrument, as I have always loved dynamic sounds and strong rhythms.
The two blues men who come to mind immediately in regards to thumbing and snapping are Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. Charlie's sound was very percussive, but Willie's was all out high powered snapping. To play that way you have to actually get your thumb deep under the string, grab it and yank it as if you're trying to break it. Sometimes in fact you do break it, and for years I broke strings every night. It happens rarely now, but not because I play more gently, as I definitely do not. If anything I continue to develop a more and more percussive style. I think that there must be a slightly different way in which I manipulate the strings which allows me to get away with the all-out attack style without losing all the strings.
On numerous occasions your fingers have actually bled during a performance. How do you deal with this and how do you prepare your hands for a tour?
I would have to say that this is probably the biggest problem for me on the road.. preparing my hands for the rigors of nightly shows. I play so much when I'm out there, the focus is so intense, that when I'm home I don't even want to look at the guitar. I have also found that despite my best efforts, nothing reproduces the power and intensity of a show. I can think I am preparing my hands by playing one hour per night the week preceding a tour, but even that doesn't do it. Sound checks are not the real thing either... it's not possible for me to equal the drive of a show until it is the show, and that's when my hands get hit hard. The heat, the sweat, especially in summer, create conditions which soften the finger tips and the strings can become like egg slicers as you slide up the neck. I also slam down on the strings with my right hand and the worst nightmare of all is when I hit a string hard with my middle finger and the flesh is separated from the nail. The string goes up into the cut and that's when it starts to bleed. I was on stage once in France when I felt this weird, sticky feeling between my fingers and I looked down to see drops of blood on my strings and splattered across the guitar. I didn't even realize it had happened. The audience seemed to appreciate that I had worked hard for this and began to cheer. When this happens I am too numb to care, but the next night it becomes excruciating. I have tried taping the end of my finger, gluing fake nails on with superglue, you name it, but tapes get tangled in the strings and come off by the middle of the first song and fake nails come off in a few songs too, taking the top layer of the nail with them. So I have finally come up with a kind of formula which sometimes works: two nights on, (fingers get really sore), one night of rest, (fingers seem to build up a layer), two nights on, (fingers are ready to fall off), and then, TWO NIGHTS OFF. This actually works, and then I'm good to go for the rest of the tour. By the end my fingers are like steel and nothing can stop them, but then it's back to the dishes and the bubble baths, and in about two weeks the callouses are softened again. I can't win with it. I bought a dishwasher to keep my hands out of the sink, I rest my hands on the ledge in the tub so my fingers stay above water. I think about it all the time, but nothing works!
You have now won three WC Handy Awards and are currently nominated for two more. You have also won two NAIRD/INDIE Awards as well as "Blues Guitarist of the Year" in France in 1998. Are you skeptical about the real value of winning Awards or do you see them as a meaningful gauge?
Believe me, the music business is sadly very much about competition and awards are just a part of that. However, I don't see the harm in the joy one gets from winning one as it really takes you by the hand and says, "Hey, you did it kid! Your work is being appreciated!" I think it's important not to be obsessed with competition, but in a way awards are the smallest part of that. It's talk of record sales that is probably the most irrelevant indicator of worth or lack of worth. Every artist has to find their own way to preserve their integrity in a business that stacks us up like bank accounts side by side. For me the real indication of success is personal joy and the joy you give others. If a song I wrote gives someone hope, makes someone cry, makes someone feel like they're not alone, that's success.
What advice do you have for aspiring young/new musicians?
I don't envy anyone starting out today as the business is severely overcrowded and competitive and it's a real battle if you want to get there by your talent alone. The business abounds with gimmicks and outward distractions which really are all about theater and not at all about music. My advice would be to bypass the expectations, limitations and concerns placed upon you by others and absolutely do your own thing blindly, relentlessly, and precociously. Do it because you love it, first and foremost for yourself, next because you need to give your art to other people. Don't listen to "constructive criticism", as frankly I don't think there is such a thing, and believe in yourself, believe in yourself, believe in yourself! And of course, be there, be there, be there! One time I was at SPAC in Saratoga and Bonnie asked me to join her on stage.
She said, "Do you know 'such and such' a song?" and I mumbled, "No, but I'll follow along!" I went out there, and she ended up doing one of her most masterful, complex, signature pieces (which of all of the great Raitt material I had hummed in my sleep for years, I coincidentally didn't know), and I ended up literally searching for a harmony point and finally singing not a word. I am not one of those people who wishes to contribute unless I know it will be spot on, so I simply walked around the stage feeling like a complete jerk. Later, when I apologized profusely, she looked at me kindly and said, "Well at least you got out there!" I am not suggesting making a fool of yourself like I did, but there's also real truth in the power of simply "getting out there." And amazingly enough, someone came up to me in the supermarket the next day and said, " I heard you with Bonnie last night... you sounded great!"