||When were you born?
November 6th, 1949.
Where were you born?
Princeton, New Jersey.
Where did you grow up?
For the first year of my life I lived in a tiny shack on a hillside in Neshanic, New Jersey. It was pretty crude, no plumbing, a well outside in the grass, an outhouse and all that. My parents were probably the world's first "hippies." I have tender memories of that house as we went back many times in later years and it looked tinier and tinier each time, the driveway more endless and overgrown, the woods denser and more remote.
When I was a toddler we moved to New York City to a neighborhood known as "little Italy." Back then it was almost like a small European city. Now the area is known as Soho, but in those days we didn't have boutiques, fancy restaurants and stars walking the streets. Mostly kids on bicycles and nannies pushing strollers. There were men's social clubs, Italian bakeries and ma and pa grocery stores.
Where do you live now?
Early on I knew I had to get out of the City. I had a three year old and felt I needed space and light and greenery to raise him. We moved to Upstate New York and have been there ever since.
At first it was hard to adjust to the change in energy, the calm, the quiet, the lack of twenty four hour food stores. There was a period where I went back and forth on a regular basis.. I used to call it "charging my batteries." But now it seems I have come home to a place where I really belong. It turns out that my mother's family, who I never knew, lived in this very area. Years after my mother's death I have met a number of her cousins and have discovered my own family ties to this area that go way back.
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 when I 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 chef at the local breakfast place knew how you liked your eggs and coffee.. stuff like that. But of course it has changed and it is much more anonymous and crowded, just like everywhere.
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.
My dad would bring his fiddle to work and every day he'd put down his leather tools and start to play. Needless to say the sound of Appalachian fiddle music wafting into the streets on West 4th and Jones drew interest from people strolling down the street, and before long the word was out to bring your instrument and come on down. Saturday afternoon was the big day for gathering musicians, and there were frequently crowds jammed well out into the streets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of some of the finest live music you could hear anywhere for free. These were serious, real players. David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, Frank Wakefield, Eric Weissberg, Roger Sprung, John Herald, Jodie Stecker and many others were frequently present. I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time and I got in there with the others and wailed away on my guitar. My dad was often asked if he had to force me to practice. "How did she get so good?" he would be asked. But no one ever told me to practice, I just lived and breathed the guitar. I did most of my learning at this time and I have never equaled the intensity and focus of that period at any other time in my life.
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.
At the time I was friends with a group of musicians and scholars who were involved in "rediscovering" the old blues masters, going door to door asking for any word of their whereabouts. In this way, quite a few of the old players were found and brought up North for concerts. 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.
I don't think these older bluesmen who had lived with the worst kind of racism and separatism all their lives could really understand why white people were all of a sudden interested in their music. I always felt that Son, Mississippi John, and Skip James were somewhat shell shocked by the whole thing, like they'd pinch themselves and wake up.
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.
I should not forget to add that I also was in fact a Beatles fan and a Rolling Stones fan. When I heard The Stones singing "Just'a walkin' the dog!" I was totally impressed. These were obviously musicians who loved blues.
How much did your father's interest in music play a role in getting you started?
My dad was certainly a very strong part of my introduction to music. I guess I felt I was following in the family tradition. It felt really natural to be a musician as it seemed like everyone around me was too. He used to play records of the great old timey artists like Roscoe Holcomb, Gid Tanner, Charlie Poole and others, and that's the music I actually started with, other than classical guitar which I studied between eight and ten years of age.
My mother was a great singer. She also had some old records around the house, specifically Leadbelly and McKinley Morganfield, (early Muddy Waters), and that was probably my first memory of hearing blues. I always wondered where I got certain vocal abilities, and then years after I had been recording blues, r&b and soul music, I came across an ancient recording my mother made when she was 15. It was a walk-in-studio-sing-directly-to-disc situation, and she was wailing an old blues song - it blew me away totally - I thought I was listening to myself.
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.
How many tour dates do you play a year?
Let me start by saying that I was actually dragged kicking and screaming to the car on my first tour.. I was told, "You have to get in, the tour is booked and it's time to go." I cried all day long the first day. I never like to start out, it's always a trauma to me. Having said that, I should point out that somewhere over the years I have grown to love the shows. I went from being a serious stick-in-the-mud to a regular road soldier. For almost ten years I toured so heavily that it seemed like I was never home. One year I did 250 dates with only a week or so at home before leaving again. After getting really sick a couple of times I realized it was killing me and decided to cut way down. I took about eight months off but then felt refreshed and wanted to get back on the road. If everything is right, the venues, the routing, the crew and so on, I genuinely love touring because I enjoy the shows so much. The amount I'm actually on the road varies greatly from year to year based on numerous factors. Now, if you don't see me out there, it's because I decided to stay home. My record company said to me about a year ago, "You know, you're so well established that you could take a year off and it wouldn't put a dent in your career." That felt really nice, it removed the pressure I used to feel. I know I've paid some serious dues, and now I have to make sure I don't destroy myself too.
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.
Some people think a performer's life is all glamour: you travel to beautiful cities, see the sights, get adored by fans... yet many performers have written about the loneliness of the road, the disillusionment after the show is over. How do you make it work for you?
If I could give you a brief overview it would be to say that comfort and health are paramount. I've spent years trying to perfect survival on the road. Being able to control the unknown factors has done miracles for me personally, things like having my own bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and closet. This is why I bought a tour bus. But before I had these things I had the system down to a science. I had a bed in the back of my car. I had a cooler with food and did all my shopping at health food stores. I had a little hot water boiler which plugged into the cigarette lighter and used to make miso soup while rolling down the road. I had a box of dishes which I carried into the hotel room, I'd plug in a hot plate and make rice and vegetables for dinner. Then we also had the baseballs and bags of mitts. Whoever was driving for me needed to like baseball because we'd get out at the rest areas and wing the softball around until we were sweaty. Someday I could probably write a book with all my pointers.
When I'm on tour I absolutely never get a chance to sightsee - I am too exhausted and there are never enough hours in the day. You go from the vehicle to the hotel, hotel to sound check and show. That's it, it's not a vacation.
I like to think of my performing, touring and recording as "going to the office." I don't think I deserve any more credit for doing what I do than anyone else who has a job, and of course I have the same woes and problems as everyone else who trudges off to work. Some days you'd rather stay home with your feet up, some days you have a headache, other days you're sick as a dog. But there are perks... if I could explain the power the audience gives me I could convince you that I have been healed of every manner of complaint - illness, weakness and pain - on stage. There is something about the kindness of the audiences and the realization that the sea of people in front of me are there because they love my music that fills me with a sense of energy and joy... and that sort of feeling is good for your cells. People always say I look younger than I am, which shouldn't be the case. I really do nothing to work at it. But I think performing creates new cells nightly, I really do. It keeps the cobwebs out of my brain, it refreshes my spirit, and that's the key.
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.
How much do you think the audiences affect the kinds of concerts you do or even the records you make?
My audiences have given me "permission" to make artistically free records. I know that whether or not I create a "radio friendly" or "commercial" album, that I have a really strong fan base that appreciates the eclectic nature of what I do. The record company knows that too, and they never pressure me to do anything other than what my heart tells me to do. They once said, "Don't change what you are doing, the charts are coming to you," and I thought that was a fascinating view of changing trends that were now encompassing my eclectic styles.
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.
You are known for writing extremely personal songs, songs about death, alcoholism, violence to women, loss of body image... not exactly easy topics. Why do you think you have developed this particular style of writing and where do you get the strength to open these parts of yourself?
I've been writing deeply personal, confessional songs for most of my career. At first I tried to edit the personal stuff out of my songs thinking it would be too embarrassing, even boring to other people, but over the years fans have repeatedly told me that this is really the most important thing I do.
I always seem to write songs about unglamorous, uncomfortable issues that people tend not to talk about openly. I think that is probably what strikes a chord for my audiences; something I wrote about made them realize they were not alone, not the only one with that same thought or experience. People frequently tell me "this song" saved their life, and "that song" helped them through a terrible time. If I had to choose a "mission", a reason to be here, I think this is it.
Tell us something about your process of writing songs.
I used to start with a catchy line, whack out some chords, and fill in with various cliches which I thought sounded comfortable in certain spots. Over the years I dropped that style of writing as it was not my goal to write formula songs. I wanted something more and began using actual letters and other scribblings as words. That led to using dreams, poems, and freer forms of writing. It was at this point that I really found my voice as a songwriter and began writing songs that had deeper meaning to me and almost without fail, deeper meaning to other people as well. At first this came as a shock to me as I was sure that my most personal songs would be the most meaningless to others. But again and again I was proven wrong, and it is precisely these "embarrassing" songs, these "uncomfortable" songs which people seem to appreciate the most. I eventually realized I had nothing to hide or be ashamed of as we're all in this human experience together. The things I go through are things other people go through, and vice versa. So I write about it.
It wasn't until I dropped all attempts at commercial format and just told the story from the heart that I suddenly had commercial success. When I wrote "Lovin' Whiskey" (taken from a real letter I had written to someone) it immediately became a gold record in Europe. It is still like an anthem over there, people start singing the words along with me. Before I went over the first time I was asked to fax the words... people really cared about what I was saying. That changed me totally as a songwriter.
I decided that the words had to stand on their own without the music, they had to read like a poem all on their own or they weren't good enough. When you take the music away, is it beautiful? That's when my songs began to have greater lyrical content.
I also find that driving along with a cassette of the music allows me to write good words. Only don't do what I do and scribble things down on the sides of tissue boxes and toll receipts. Carry a mini-cassette and record the words without swerving all over the road. I also recommend getting up early in the morning and letting your mind flow freely - it's a super-creative time and leaving a recorder by the bed or pencil and paper if that's your thing can yield the most amazing words.
Some performers ask for other people's opinions of their work where others shun criticism and seem to wall themselves off, never reading reviews and so on. Where do you fit in?
Until very recently I was as insecure as a person could be. When you start out it's everyone's favorite pastime to criticize you, and at that time you are of course the most vulnerable. How did I react to criticism at that time? I was crushed. The message I kept getting was that it was absolutely not OK to be doing what I was doing. I eventually decided to stop taking it all in... not to become arrogant, but to go inward and remain in the safety of what my heart felt was right for me. I try to stay there still, but by some stroke of fortune I get a lot more support these days. People tell me it is my time.
I tell other artists not to listen to too much "constructive criticism" as it is usually only going to make you feel awful about yourself. You're already your own worst critic, why should you need an army of others to help you? You've got to hold onto the glimmer of hope that you are worthwhile and build from there.
You have often credited your record company with giving you complete artistic freedom. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it has helped you in your artistic journey?
It wasn't until I linked up with Rounder Records that I felt free to do what I wanted to do. Much has been written, often rather unkindly, about my early experiences when I had no artistic freedom. I've been there, and it's a real problem when the record company says, "It's our way or no record." When you're young and hungry and your life depends on making a record, this puts you in the most desperate of circumstances. In the aftermath of that experience I looked back and vowed "Never again." When I first got together with Rounder they shocked me by telling me not to worry about being commercial. They said, "Just give us an album you think is beautiful." I was overjoyed.. it was too good to be true. It was so freeing to me, I can't tell you. And that was when my career started to take off, oddly enough. I would never give up my artistic freedom again for anything.
Despite what you say about Rounder not pressuring you to be "commercial" you have in fact released a number of very commercial sounding records, most particularly Tornado and Angel of Mercy. How does this fit in for you?
Certainly it has been frustrating to me that in the past Rounder wasn't a large enough label to compete in the megamarket. My "commercial" sounding material never had the financial backing to get on top 40 radio. Whether you can see the dollars or not, dollars are what it's still about. People really don't understand that it costs an amazing amount of money to get a record on the air (as well as the sweat and blood of some of the hardest working radio promotion people on earth), but that's a whole other story, and one I'm not qualified to explain. So for years I have known out front that I was releasing product that did not have the opportunity to compete on top 40 radio. From the outside, people speculate and say all kinds of things, most frequently they think this means that you are somehow an inferior artist discarded by a discerning public, that it is a statement of people's taste. Flat out, it is not. It is something much simpler, and that simple reason still is promotion dollars. But at the same time it has been incredibly freeing. When I make a "commercial" sounding production, I do it on my own terms. I don't have to worry about the pressures and limitations of format, length, content and even EQ. I don't have to worry about the latest hot trend on the charts and whether or not I fit in. I don't have to master the record with that extra "high-end sizzle" that goes on top of most pop records. I can mix the vocal up loud so people can hear the words and not worry about writing about unglamorous subjects, such as feeling dumpy, having a miscarriage, talking to a homeless woman, or using a letter to an alcoholic as a song. The record company gives me the budget money and I give them a finished album without any interference whatever. The good news is that even without mega-promotion dollars behind me I have established myself extremely solidly and even without a hit single have won the NAIRD award for "Adult Contemporary Album of the Year" twice. Being as well known as I am without a hit adds up to a kind of longevity which can't always be attained by an individual hit. Of course the power of having mega success cannot be underestimated and nothing I am saying minimizes that, it's just that there are many ways to make the journey. Rounder has also grown recently and they may soon become major contenders. I'm all for that!
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.
One night TJ Thompson came to one of my shows in Boston to see me debut the guitar he had made for me. Visibly shaken at the end of the show, he anxiously examined the bracing to see if anything had come loose. It hadn't. None the less he seemed to think he better add some support to the inside. I used to joke that no one in their right mind would want to lend me their guitar, (with the notable exception of my venerable friend John Sebastian, who knows as much about the old styles as anyone and probably agrees with me that the need to play it like you feel it ends up improving the instrument even if it breaks a strut).
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!
There are scars I could show you and other injuries as well, but I'll spare you. The most frequent request from fans after the shows other than "How old is she?" (they ask the crew), is: "Can I please see your hands?" People grab my right hand and inspect it while murmuring in amazement... but there's not much to see. They think they'll be finding some kind of claw no doubt.
What about using finger picks to protect your fingers?
Unfortunately, finger picks are not a solution for me because of the way I strum. I pull up across the strings but I also slam down with my fingers. If you have picks on, you can't go down with your fingers or the picks will catch on the strings- you can only go down with your thumb and this would totally restrict my style of playing. A thumb pick could potentially work as it doesn't restrict the motion of the thumb and mostly adds volume, but lack of volume is really not an issue for me. I also decided early on that picks limit the tone you can get as it is always going to be the sound of metal on metal or plastic/shell on metal. I think the bare hands on the strings present the greatest range of tonal choices and movement options.
I read an interview where you said your music saved your life and gave you a sense of self. "You Got To Shine" is written about "the darkest hour," believing in yourself when no one else does. Tell us about the process through which music has had this power in your life.
Music, the guitar, the songs I write have always been a life saver to me. At the lowest points in my life, in moments of zero hope, something has prompted me to start playing. I have literally been able to turn despair into joy in minutes through playing or writing a song. I have survived the worst feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem by searching out an instrument and losing myself in music. Melody and rhythm have a vibration that goes beyond "healing" all the way to super-empowering, it really connects you to the central, limitless core force in the universe. Anyone can tap into this... it's free, and all of human kind has used this power since the dawn of time.
You often joke about being early to bed, early to rise, not exactly the stereotypical profile of a blues singer. How have you survived a rigorous touring/performing schedule and years of life on the road as a self proclaimed morning person?
I am a high energy person to say the least, a morning person, a person who can go on overdrive or can run on empty. It's a certain personality type which runs in my mother's side, and I have to be careful as it can cause burn-out and exhaustion, but I have always searched for a balance so I hopefully channel my energy and don't allow it to fizzle out and destroy me. I once had a thorough blood analysis at a laboratory which not only gave me a thumbs up regarding my health but actually said that there was something highly vital about my energy. They called it "extraordinary vitality", God knows how they knew this. I have always counted on this factor to pull me through, and I see this same kind of super energy in my son. I try to warn him from time to time to pace it or face burn-out, but he seems to regulate himself pretty well.
Many of your friends and acquaintances were lost or damaged in the drug scene which began the sixties. In "Life Song" from your latest release "Confessions Of A Blues Singer" you say, "The Hippie thing was happening, but I just played the blues, the drug culture was raging, LSD was news, but I was never tempted, cause I had my good guitar..." How did you grow up in the middle of all of this and yet not succumb to temptation or what so many others seemed to think was alluring?
I suppose this goes back to the issue of my being a morning person, to my energy level, or maybe it's more my state of mind. I have always been extremely health conscious and frankly considered drugs far too risky and dangerous to warrant the supposed perks. I am just too paranoid about hurting myself when it comes right down to it. I started eating macrobiotic food in 1965 and have been on one or another health regime ever since, with the notable exception of the last five years when I have fallen off the health food wagon with a crash. Coffee and brownies is a studio thing, and a driving down the road thing, and I am pounding my head against the wall trying to figure out how to live without coffee. But I haven't found a way yet, so I guess that's my big addiction.
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.
Your son Jordan works with you on the road and records with you. People often react with a lot of emotion to the two of you singing together. Your version of "Walk In Jerusalem" has become somewhat of an anthem to certain people. Can you tell me what it means to you to work with your son?
I feel so lucky that he is willing to put up with me. I say that with humor as I am a good mom, but how often does hanging around with your mother seem acceptable to young people? I think Jordan is one of the strongest most clear headed people I know, and it is out of a solid sense of self that he offers to help out. Luckily, we are very good friends and share a completely zany sense of humor, but I also make every effort to give him a lot of space on the road the way I would any other crew member.
He is also very powerful in his own art and I know he will fly with it and won't be available to work with me forever, but for now, I am proud to say that we are doing the time honored old fashioned thing of being family sticking together.
You have a link on your website just for your dogs. People write to you just to tell you the names and breeds of their dogs. Tell us a bit about your dogs and why they are so important to you.
We have three dogs. We only expected to get one, but the second and third came to us as hardship cases and we just couldn't say no. When I told Jorma Kaukonen that we had gotten a third dog, he said, "Dogs, ya gotta love 'em. Can't have too many!" That kind of sums things up!
Our lives are pretty much dominated by them, they really are like children to us. Instead of driving the kids to soccer practice, we are taking the dogs for long walks or arranging play dates with other dog friends. They come in and out all day long and demand easily as much attention as kids. We used to take the two older dogs on tour with us, but when Sophie came along it just got too crowded. But we love them dearly and couldn't imagine life without them.
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!"
INDEX OF QUESTIONS, in order of appearance:
* When were you born?
* Where were you born?
* Where did you grow up?
* Where do you live now?
* Can you tell us about your first experiences with music and what inspired you to start playing the guitar?
* 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.
* When did you first become aware of Blues?
* 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?
* 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?
* How much did your father's interest in music play a role in getting you started?
* What are your musical influences and who has been the greatest inspiration?
* 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?
* How many tour dates do you play a year?
* 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?
* Some people think a performer's life is all glamour: you travel to beautiful cities, see the sights, get adored by fans... yet many performers have written about the loneliness of the road, the disillusionment after the show is over. How do you make it work for you?
* You talk about your fans like they are your dearest friends. What do you mean by this?
* How much do you think the audiences affect the kinds of concerts you do or even the records you make?
* 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?
* You are known for writing extremely personal songs, songs about death, alcoholism, violence to women, loss of body image... not exactly easy topics. Why do you think you have developed this particular style of writing and where do you get the strength to open these parts of yourself?
* Tell us something about your process of writing songs.
* Some performers ask for other people's opinions of their work where others shun criticism and seem to wall themselves off, never reading reviews and so on. Where do you fit in?
* You have often credited your record company with giving you complete artistic freedom. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it has helped you in your artistic journey?
* Despite what you say about Rounder not pressuring you to be "commercial" you have in fact released a number of very commercial sounding records, most particularly Tornado and Angel of Mercy. How does this fit in for you?
* What kind of guitar do you play?
* 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?
* 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?
* What about using finger picks to protect your fingers?
* I read an interview where you said your music saved your life and gave you a sense of self. "You Got To Shine" is written about "the darkest hour," believing in yourself when no one else does. Tell us about the process through which music has had this power in your life.
* You often joke about being early to bed, early to rise, not exactly the stereotypical profile of a blues singer. How have you survived a rigorous touring/performing schedule and years of life on the road as a self proclaimed morning person?
* Many of your friends and acquaintances were lost or damaged in the drug scene which began the sixties. In "Life Song" from your latest release "Confessions Of A Blues Singer" you say, "The Hippie thing was happening, but I just played the blues, the drug culture was raging, LSD was news, but I was never tempted, cause I had my good guitar.." How did you grow up in the middle of all of this and yet not succumb to temptation or what so many others seemed to think was alluring?
* 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?
* Your son Jordan works with you on the road and records with you. People often react with a lot of emotion to the two of you singing together. Your version of "Walk In Jerusalem" has become somewhat of an anthem to certain people. Can you tell me what it means to you to work with your son?
* You have a link on your website just for your dogs. People write to you just to tell you the names and breeds of their dogs. Tell us a bit about your dogs and why they are so important to you.
* What advice do you have for aspiring young/new musicians?