Interview: Joanne Shaw Taylor on Recording With Joe Bonamassa

Joanne Shaw Taylor. Photo by Christie Goodwin. Used with permission from the artist.

"I didn’t realize I was taking early retirement for close to two years," says Joanne Shaw Taylor. "I just tried to make the best of it." At home in Michigan, the British vocalist and guitarist has faced the challenge familiar to every touring musician since early 2020, finding herself forced off the road by the pandemic.

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Joanne Shaw Taylor

"We were on tour in the UK and halfway through got shut down. We were on the last flight out of London that they allowed US resident non-citizens on, so I just made it back by the skin of my teeth," she says. Apart from taking the chance to relax and watch The Sopranos from start to finish, Taylor used the time to realize her long-held ambition of recording an album of songs from the blues canon.

Simply titled The Blues Album, the record sees Taylor working with her friend Joe Bonamassa, who serves as producer alongside Josh Smith. Recorded at Ocean Way in Nashville and Bonamassa’s Nerdville West, The Blues Album marks Shaw Taylor’s first release for KBTA (Keeping The Blues Alive), the record label run by Bonamassa and his manager Roy Wiseman.

"I was previously with Sony," says Shaw Taylor. "I never saw myself signing to a major label, but it fell in my lap, and it was the right timing. Everyone there was awesome, but when Joe and Roy suggested we put it out with them, it just made too much sense for me to pass up working with my two best friends."

Where did the idea come from to make The Blues Album?

It was something I always wanted to do, to be honest. I’ve always considered myself a blues guitarist and maybe more of a blues/soul singer, but I’ve always been very honest about the fact that I don’t think I can write blues songs. I don’t think any of my material, although influenced by blues, would be considered a blues song. It’s really hard to do, particularly if you look at that more traditional stuff—"Stormy Monday," "Smokestack Lightning." It’s about finding a really clever hook and a good groove and going with it, and I’ve never been very good at that.

I always had the idea of doing a blues cover album, then tie that in with Covid—one thing I wasn’t able to do in this time off was write. I tried, but I just couldn’t come up with anything that I particularly thought was interesting, I think partially because I wasn’t doing anything. It’s really hard to write a song about life when your life is revolving around staying indoors and not shaking anybody’s hands.

It was interesting, but it doesn’t make for good music, so hence it became obvious: Why don’t I do this blues covers album that I’ve always wanted to do? The thing that put me off in the past was I didn’t think my voice was up to scratch for it, but after touring for as long as I have, my voice is in about as good a shape as it's going to be in, so I thought the timing was perfect.

Joanne Shaw Taylor - "If That Ain't A Reason" - Official Music Video

Joe Bonamassa has said he wanted to push you as a singer with this album?

I think we both had that in mind. People sometimes overlook how important the vocals are in blues music. If you look at all the greats—BB King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf—[they're all] amazing guitar players, and we tend to focus on that. But if BB King had never played guitar, he could have had a career as a blues vocalist. He was an exceptional singer, and I think we take it for granted because we focus so much on the guitar playing.

Particularly because the music is so soulful, it really is the lyric and the singer that sells me the song. It’s got to have a great guitar tone, but if the singing is not up to scratch, the song is no good. That was always in the back of my mind—I think Joe probably agrees with that. I mean, obviously he likes my guitar playing, or so he says, but I think he thinks my strength is really in my voice, so he wanted to explore that more.

Were you nervous that making an album with a friend like Joe might spoil the friendship?

Yes, that had crossed my mind. I was nervous. You’re always a bit nervous going into a studio, particularly with a producer that you haven’t worked with before. With Joe, we have been such good friends for such a long time that there were definitely some nerves. And to be honest, I’m always a bit nervous performing around Joe. I don’t like performing in front of friends and family—if anything makes me nervous, that does.

Then, add in the fact that he’s probably the most famous and accomplished guitar player on the planet at this moment in time, it’s an extra little bit terrifying. It was certainly on my mind, but after a couple of days relaxing around him in the pre-production, it has actually made us better friends.

Joanne Shaw Taylor - "Let Me Down Easy" - Official Music Video

How did Joe work with you on your vocals?

The main thing was the song selection. I had an idea of four or five songs when I started talking to him about producing. The songs he and Josh picked were certainly songs I wouldn’t have picked and songs I wouldn’t have had the balls, frankly, to try and tackle. For instance, "If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody."

He sent me the Aretha [Franklin] version and the Bonnie Raitt version—two women who will go down in history as some of the greatest singers that have ever lived. You’ve got to have a certain pedigree to even take that on. That was certainly pushing me outside of my comfort zone.

What was your criteria for selecting the material?

I was looking at songs that I thought I could sing well and those with lyrics that really meant something to me. "Stop Messin’ Around," which is mostly because it’s fun to sing and I wanted an uptempo shuffle to kick the album off with.

"Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me" and "Keep On Lovin’ Me" were two very early blues songs I absolutely loved, and they were actually in my set list when I was fourteen, fifteen. It was nice to play them now that I felt like I wasn’t singing like a fourteen-year-old school girl anymore and maybe I could sing them legitimately.

The big one for me I absolutely wanted on the album was the Little Richard ballad, "I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me," which is one of my favorite Little Richard songs.

Little Richard - "I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me"

I’m a massive fan; he didn’t do too many ballads, and I just think his vocal performance on that is absolutely incredible, and I love the subject matter. It’s rare to have a ballad about loving someone that you’re not particularly attracted to and you don’t particularly like them. I think we’ve all been in that position.

You’ve got a horn section this time. Were you involved in those arrangements? Would you like to tour with horns?

Me and Joe didn’t really discuss it, but we both love that style of blues. Albert King, Albert Collins—a lot of those classic artists used horns a lot, so it’s something I definitely wanted on this album. In terms of getting involved in the arrangements: no. I wanted to make life as easy for myself as possible, and I was more than happy to go to the pub while Josh charted out arrangements. That’s not my job and it’s not something I’m good at, so I leave that to the professionals.

In terms of going out on the road, yeah, definitely. There’s lots of things you could do. I could go out and do a three-piece for an hour, and then bring in the horns and do a full blues evening, so it’s definitely on the cards. I like to mix it up as much as possible. For the foreseeable future, just trying to get out on the road is the objective and dealing with the logistics that Covid is going to throw at us now that live music is opening up more. Let’s get through the rest of the year and then figure out what’s next!

How did you track, and did you play any rhythm guitar?

It was predominantly done live. I didn’t play any rhythm, really, on this album. There is a little bit here and there where I’m singing and I join in because it’s fun, but I pretty much told Josh and Joe from the get-go that they are far more capable guitar players than me, so I don’t see the need for a third person to be playing on it, frankly.

joanne shaw taylor profile

I’d be in the live room—drums, bass, Reese, me, Josh on rhythm in the live room, Joe on rhythm in the control room, and I would be in there for two or three takes to sing through and put the guitar solos down. But once we got the guitar solos, then I would go into the control room to do a proper vocal take.

How do you approach soloing in the studio? Do you like to map out your ideas beforehand or just take a run at it?

I generally like to take a run at it. I think the only one I really figured out was "Stop Messin’ Around." You want to have fun with it, really. To be honest, I was focussing so much on getting the vocals right, I just thought Well, the guitars will take care of themselves. It’s a blues album, we’re playing it live with the band, you do want it to be organic. I’ve been touring 20 years—if I can’t put down a solo live right now, I’ve got no business recording with these people.

Were there any songs where you weren’t sure what approach to take?

"If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody," one of the big ballads. I spent a lot of prep time on that at Rust Belt Studios here in Detroit and had Al Sutton [producer of 2019’s Reckless Heart]—who’s a lovely friend, bless him—come in and I’d sing it to him in three different keys and ask which one he preferred. Turns out I was madly overthinking it, and when I got in with Joe he was like, "It’s in F, it’s fine." That was a tough one, but I think that was more anxiety about doing a good job than anything.

The only one we really had trouble with—we did a Bobby Bland track called "Watch Your Step," and none of us could figure out how to do it well, so it ended up not going on the album. We happened to jam something one day while we were trying to figure out an arrangement for it, which ended up being "Scraps Vignette," the instrumental break. I was glad that it wasn't just me that couldn’t figure it out, it was everybody. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.

James Ray - If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody

Who are your biggest influences and inspirations as a singer?

It’s mostly soul stuff. Most of the singers I still love now are the ones I was listening to very early on: Aretha, Tina, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Rosie Gaines. I’m a mad Ella Fitzgerald fan, although I appreciate that I do not sound like Ella at all and haven't tried to sound like her because it would be useless.

I think that comes from when I got really into playing guitar, they were all male influences. The guitar is a very gender-neutral instrument, there’s no reason why I can’t pull off a vibrato like Albert Collins, but it’s a lot harder for me to make my voice sound like Albert Collins. The vocal cords are a bit more gender-specific, so I had to look for female singers and there weren’t that many in the blues. I get compared a lot to Janis [Joplin], and I don’t get it. I’ve never been a big Janis fan. That was never my bag. I love Bonnie Raitt.

What guitars did you use for the album? Did you take Junior [Taylor’s ’66 Esquire]?

I used Junior for all of it. I think there was one Tele of Joe’s we used on the Albert King number, "Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me." I didn’t take anything down there, because I drove down to Nashville. I didn’t want to risk catching something on a flight and derailing the session, particularly when a lot of us weren’t vaccinated by then.

I phoned Joe and was like, "You do know that I’m not bringing shit to this thing. You’re Joe Bonamassa, it’s Nerdville [Bonamassa’s studio and guitar collection], I’m bringing Junior and that’s it.’

Welcome To Nerdville: Inside Joe Bonamassa's Museum and Vintage Guitar Collection

He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ So, he had a load of his guitars in the studio, and as it transpired, his set-up is so different to mine that I just couldn’t physically play them. His action is way higher than mine, his strings are heavier, he tunes to E, I’m in E Flat. So it was a little demoralizing to realise I do have tiny, chubby little fingers that can’t play any of Joe’s guitars.

Have you never been bitten by the collector’s bug?

No, it never did. There are more guitars I’d like. I’d love a really nice Thinline, there are a few more acoustics I’d like, I don’t have a nice E35, but I just don’t like guitars not being played. Junior has a personality, I like him being with me all the time. If I like playing him and it works, I’m not really the sort of person that wants to stop after two numbers and change guitar, and then change guitar again. It feels like it breaks up the gig for me. If I had millions to spend, I’d probably just retire, have a massive holiday, and buy a really cool car. I wouldn’t buy guitars.

You use a Tube Screamer, is that from the Stevie Ray Vaughan influence?

Definitely. It was the one pedal Stevie always used, so it’s just always been in my arsenal. I’m also not a very big pedals fan. I’ve just done my board for the upcoming tour and it’s a Tube Screamer, a reverb pedal, and a tuner, and if I use all three in the gig it will be a miracle. I’m just not that big a pedal fan, but it is nice to have that Tube Screamer there.

Just a tip to guys starting out: You can’t drive your amp to 10, you’re just going to piss off the sound guy. If you do have a Fender amp and it’s on 3, you’re not going to get it overdriven, so add a Tube Screamer, your night will go a lot smoother for everybody involved. Coming up from small gigs to bigger gigs, it’s been a necessity.

How do you stay inspired and creative as a guitarist?

For me, the most important thing is I just love playing guitar. I had this conversation with Joe, I’ve never aspired to be the level of guitar player he is. I just enjoy playing it and I want to be good, but I’ve got no aspirations to be the greatest guitar player of my generation or anything, which also makes it more fun because there’s less pressure.

I can easily sit for three hours and noodle away and sometimes it’s fun to spend an hour and try to learn something different just to keep it fresh for yourself. That’s always been the most important thing for me. That was what was helpful for me with Covid, because I was pretty burned out on the road. I’ve been 13 years absolutely non-stop, and my label has had a conversation with me saying, "We think you need time off, we think you’re burned out," so I was actually going to take six months off this year, but obviously it was forced upon me.

Joanne Shaw Taylor on Her Influences, Guitars & Pedal Board

It was nice to have that break and get back to it because at the end of the day I decided to do this for a living because I wanted to do something I love for a living. If I wanted to be miserable, I would have taken a job that actually paid me and didn’t drive me insane and have ridiculous touring and travelling associated with it. You’ve got to keep reminding yourself why you do this and I’ve always had the belief that if I’m not enjoying myself onstage, I don’t think the audience will. I’m not the sort of entertainer that’s there to fake my way through a two-hour evening and pretend I’m a certain personality. I’m there to enjoy what I’m doing and hopefully they’ll feed off that.

If Joe Bonamassa didn’t think you’re a great player, he wouldn’t produce your album?

Yeah, I think I’m a good guitar player, but it’s always been in my mind from a very early age with Dave Stewart and Joe mentoring me—I’ve always seen myself more as a package artist. If I was just a guitar player, I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere. It’s the fact that I’m a guitar player who writes songs and sings well.

I’ve always been a bit more of a well-rounded artist than, say, Jeff Beck. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest guitar player who has ever lived, he’s untouchable, but he’s never had to sing because he’s Jeff fucking Beck. I’m not Jeff Beck, I had to learn to sing. I’m good but I think even Joe would agree: The strength, for me, is the voice, the songwriting, the package.

Joanne Shaw Taylor’s The Blues Album will be out everywhere on September 24. You can preorder it here.

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