On The Back Porch With Joanne Shaw Taylor

Joanne Shaw Taylor (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Stringer)
Joanne Shaw Taylor (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Stringer)

Mentored by Dave Stewart and now on her second tour with Ruf Records’ Blues Caravan, Joanne Shaw Taylor has made a name for herself in her native England. Now that she has relocated to Detroit, she will likely soon become a household name in U.S. blues circles as well. American Blues Scene caught up with her on July 4th at the Spirit of Kansas Blues Festival to find out more about her and why she chose the blues.

Stacy Jeffress for American Blues Scene: Tell me about growing up in England and learning about the blues.

Joanne Shaw Taylor: My dad was a guitar player. Before I was born, that’s what he did. He played acoustic and harmonica and was very much into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, more country-style blues. When my brother and I came along, he got a real job, then when I was young, he got re-interested in it. My brother played; he was Mr. Shred Metal. My dad played Gary Moore, classic rock. I wanted to play electric guitar; I’d been playing classical at school and for the Birmingham youth ensemble. I started going through Dad’s CD collection. At the time, he’d just discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan; that was the impetus for me to go down the blues route.

When did you discover this marvelous voice you have?

That was a longer process. I started singing when I was 15, ‘cause I wanted to have more control over the set list. It’s a big thing to have to sing. There are still some videos of me on YouTube when I was 20, and it’s still not the voice I have now. It’s a lot more English and very soft. That was a work in process; going out and hitting the road. It was more of a confidence issue. I never doubted that I could play guitar, ‘cause that’s what my family did. Some people go hunting and fishing; we play guitar. The singing took a few more years to figure out.

Did you have any rebellious years when you rejected the things your dad loved and went your own way?

A little bit. Me and my dad have a lot of heated debates – who’s the greatest guitar player of all time? We’re very opinionated people. I think half the time he picks an opinion opposite of mine so that we have something to debate about.

As you went through his CD collection, was there any particular artist who touched you more than others?

The main one was Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was really wanting to know everything about Stevie and his playing. I traced his steps and how he got to where he was. The next one for me was Albert Collins. I loved B.B., Freddie King, but for some reason Albert Collins at that point. I was a big Jonny Lang fan at the time as well. I was gravitating toward the Telecaster, so that hit home with me.

Were you exposed to live music then?

Yeah, we were really lucky. I grew up in the Solihull area near Birmingham. It’s like the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was the Black Country area I grew up in. They had one of the best blues clubs that I still think England’s ever had; it was called The Robin. It’s closed down now and moved; they have the Robin 2. It was an off-the-beaten-path juke joint. You used to stick to the floor, ‘cause there was so much beer spilled over it. My dad would drive me over there every Friday and Saturday. I saw everyone from John Hammond, Jr., to Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, The Paladins. That was my whole world. I thought that was what the blues was. One of my first gigs I got to open for Eugene. I was really lucky to have that kind of church. We had a load of people come through. Every Friday and Saturday night there’d be an international touring band or a local classic rock band that we’d go see.

At some point did you become aware of the importance of the British Invasion here that brought blues artists back to our attention?

I think I was aware of it, but going back to your previous question about did I rebel against anything – my dad was really into Clapton, Cream, Gary Moore, all the British guys. I wanted nothing to do with that: “I’m moving to Texas as soon as I’m old enough, I’m getting me a cowboy hat and some boots.” I’d grown up listening to Eric Clapton in the car, “Layla,” “You Look Wonderful Tonight” – that’s not blues. In recent years, I went back, and it was like, all right, Gary Moore’s awesome, I listened to Eric Clapton’s early stuff, Rory Gallagher a bit more of the UK scene. It took a little while with that one.

How did you come to be associated with Ruf Records and the Blues Caravan? Is this the second time?

Yeah, I did the Blues Caravan in 2009. Thomas Ruf, the head of the label, flew over to see me play at The Robin when I was about 15 or 16. We were thinking of working together, but at the same time I got offered a deal with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics. It was an interesting prospect. I decided to chance it and do that, which worked in my favor as I got a lot of touring experience out of it. After that thing imploded, the Artist Network, I wanted to put out my own album for awhile and there were a few offers, but I was very nervous about putting out an album at 17, 18, 19, and being “good for my age” or “good for a girl.” I think I built up a bit of a complex about, it truth be told. I stayed home and wrote and got really into that. My aspect was that if I did a debut album, I wanted it to be just a good album and not good because I was young. Eventually I had a chat with my dad you’ve got to call time on this thing or do it. I looked at what I had and I think it’s a good album so I approached Thomas and fortunately he was interested. Six weeks later I was down at Jim Gaines’ [near Nashville] recording White Sugar.

Did the birthplace of the blues matter to you? Was it important to you to make a pilgrimage to the Delta, or that was not on your agenda?

In a sense; not so much a pilgrimage. Once we got down there, I extended the trip. I’d never been to the Deep South. We took a little trip down to Clarksdale. That was an interesting trip; the vibe down there. It made me appreciate what it meant to be an authentic blues artist. You can really flash back to the 1930s thinking of pure poverty: growing up picking cotton.

How do you decide which brand or brands of guitar that you’re going to play?

I think the guitar makes that decision for you, particularly me having such small girly hands. I’m kind of limited in some aspects. Of late I’ve been known now for playing the Les Paul, ‘cause I used one for the recent album and fell in love with that particular guitar. I’ve been doing a lot of practicing trying to improve my right-hand picking and tidy up a bit. I find that guitar helped. At the same time, I sure love my Telecasters. I like to switch it up between those two.

Are you recognized more in England than you are here?

I think so. We’ve been building in the UK for a little while now. Then I just did the Diamond Jubilee with Annie Lennox. Not many blues fans watching that, so I think I crossed over a little bit. I haven’t been focusing too much on touring in the States for personal reasons. My mom passed away of ovarian cancer in March, so I’d been travelling back a lot to spend time with her. We’re doing a tour now in November and get back to the States a bit and this part of the world.

What keeps you in the blues?

I just do what I love to do. I don’t really know any better. My theory’s always been that if I do what I want to do and do it to the best of my ability – really believe in it, and put out albums that I would to buy, then hopefully other people will feel that same way. I focus on writing the best songs I can and singing the best and playing good solos. At the end of the day if this whole thing explodes in my face, I can sit back, “I did my best. I thought it was good.”

You had integrity in keeping with what you wanted to do.

I listen to good music, and I certainly am not going to put something out that I don’t believe in. I’m the one that’s got to stand up there on stage and sing it every night. If it’s something I don’t enjoy doing; life’s too short.

Are you familiar with [Candye Kane guitarist] Laura Chavez?

Yes, she’s one of my best friends, and I love her. She’s awesome.

People say she plays good for a girl.

Me and Laura have had lots of chats about that.

I bet you have. Candye Kane always says, “She doesn’t play with her girly parts. She plays with her hands like everybody else.”

Only Candye could phrase it like that. We’ve toured together. I think one of the reasons we bonded so quick and get on so well is we never realized we were “good for a girl.” We were always the tomboy kids. I was good at soccer. I was good at beating up my brother better than he was beating up me. I was just good at the boys’ stuff. Me and Laura have had chats, “I don’t want to be good for a girl.” You get to an age where, ehhh, I’ll take it. Female drummers still have it worse than female guitar players.

Are there people who have mentored you besides your father along the way?

I’ve been really fortunate. The first big one was Ian Parker, a British blues artist on Ruf. He’s from my hometown, and I opened up for him at The Robin. That would have been 14. He was the first who really tried to help me sing. I was a huge fan of him. I’d seen him play The Robin, so I thought he was huge. We’d sit around his house, and he’d show me records I hadn’t heard of. It was huge to think someone respected me and thought I had a future. I guess the main one was Dave Stewart who encouraged me to write and be more than a guitar solo. And then Joe Bonamassa has been awesome.

What else do you want people to know about you?

I don’t play like a girl. I hit it hard, and I hope for the best. I always say that there’s going to be that female artist that comes through, and she’s going to be so much better than every boy combined. She’s going to be the next Clapton or Stevie or Hendrix so that people are going to have to stop and listen. Whoever that chick is I think she’s going to be absolutely huge. It would be nice to think that I was part of the young females that could play an African-American music and were female.

You’ve got to have youngsters or teenagers come up to you.

Yeah, that’s nice to start seeing. We get some chicks come up and say, “My dad says I can’t play drums.” I say, “Well tell your dad I say otherwise. Send your dad over. I’ll have a word with him.”