Blues In Britain Magazine, Issue 152, August 2014

INTERVIEW, Zoe Schwarz & Rob Koral: Wedded to the Blues

On a beautiful summers day Blues in Britain met with Zoe and Rob and asked them about their usicl backgrounds, current projects and plan s for the future. 

Zoe: I started singing very early.  My Mum was a classical music teacher and the house was full of music, but nothing other than classical.  I went to boarding school and there the music was the same – all classical and choral.  I sang enthusiastically throughout my younger years but hardly ever heard any pop or jazz, nevermind blues.  The monumental changing point in my life came when I was about sixteen; my uncle gave me a Billie Holiday tape.  I was struck with the melancholy, the unusual and relaxed phrasing.  She was instantly my heroine! I now know most of the songs she sang, read a lot of literature about her and her life, and I’ve paid my personal tribute to her and the power of her music by writing a couple of songs about her life, one of which will be featured on our new album and is called ‘Let’s Explain’.   One of the interesting things about Billie Holiday, is that although she didn’t sing that many ‘traditional’ blues, her vocal delivery and style is as full of blues as anyone I can think of.  I used to sing Billie’s songs to myself but doubted that my voice was suitable; I felt that it was too light for jazz.  After school I did a performing arts degree but ended up working in the City, not singing at all.  On Millennium New Year’s Eve I was working and missed all the excitement – that persuaded me to change my lifestyle, quit the City and move to the country, Dorchester, in fact.  On a summer school in Dartington, I sang  ‘Lover Man’ as part of a late night jam session; people got very excited, telling me I needed to find a sympathetic accompanist with whom to perform these songs and Rob’s name cropped up.  We met on a Tuesday, tried a few songs and Rob said we should do a gig sometime: we were performing in a restaurant the following Sunday!

Rob:  My epithany was Cream.  I was too young to have seen them live but once I saw the video of the farewell concert at the Albert Hall I was hooked on Eric Clapton’s amazing playing, as well as the chemistry of three supreme musicians playing together in an improvisational way.  That gave me a buzz about playing guitar that I have never lost.

That first gig with Zoe was in 2002.  By 2005 we were playing a week’s residency at Ronnie Scott’s, in a jazz style – an amazingly fast development.

Zoe: When I was working in London I used to take clients to Ronnie Scott’s and I was so jealous of the performers getting to play on that stage.  I could hardly believe that five years later I was doing it myself.  Rob has always written songs and it came naturally to us to write together, even from the beginning. As we developed our writing it veered towards the blues and we decided to provide a vehicle for those blues songs in a larger band with guitar, Hammond, harp and a rhythm section.  Rob knew Paul already and we met Pete around the time we were starting the band.  When it came to a harp player I recalled meeting Si and being impressed with his playing but he was trekking in New Zealand at the time!  We waited until he returned to fill the harp slot and initially went out under a different name. Then, with a tweak here and there, we got the chemistry just right and it morphed into Blue Commotion, the band we have now with Paul Robinson on drums, Pete Whittaker on Hammond and bass keys, Si Genaro on harp (and manic dance moves!), Rob and myself.

Rob: We also play regular duo gigs, often in small bars and restaurants and there you see and hear another dimension of our music – quieter, more jazz and standards-inspired, but still plenty of blues.

Zoe: I enjoy singing in the stripped down duo situation as it gives me the space to develop discipline and control of my voice, also, really importantly, you have to concentrate on phrasing, fine tune it if you like, this helps massively in the band setting.  I love gigging – if we don’t have a gig for a couple of days I start to get withdrawal symptoms!

Rob, how would you describe your guitar style?

Rob:  We all strive to make our guitar style instantly recognisable, and I think the way to do that, like most things in life, is to be true to yourself.  My style is a harmonic approach to playing blues, with an emphasis on the obvious things such as tone, phrasing, and light and shade.  I approach playing a solo from the point of view of ‘target notes’, or, if you like, the important chord tones which distinguish one chord from the next.  I very rarely play a pentatonic scale over an entire chorus of a straight blues.  I get bored quite quickly of guitarists who haven’t explored outside of the blues cliché licks, after all, this was all done so well in the sixties.   I do like to play fast at times, it’s exciting, and nice to have gears to shift through at the right moment.  I certainly disagree with anybody that would say ‘speed’ and ‘feel’ do not go together… you’ve either got feel or you haven’t.  It’s about having a vocabulary.  For chord voicings, I often stack other intervals such as the ninth and thirteenth on the dominant chord found in the blues, even occasionally a sharp eleven for say the last chord.  Sometimes, perhaps just play a mixture of octaves and upper extensions of a chord.  I don’t use very many effects, perhaps a bit of wah-wah, reverb and occasional boost from an SD1 boss distortion pedal.

You’ve clearly come a long way in not much more than two years, but for those people who haven’t been to a gig, or heard a Blue Commotion album yet, what can they expect?

Rob:  They can expect to hear music that is drenched in blues feeling, but also takes on board any number of influences that we’ve subconsciously absorbed through our life experience of playing, writing and listening to music.  Not meaning to be big headed, but they can expect to hear top class players stamping their personalities on to the songs that Zoe and I write.  We don’t give them a remit. There’s also plenty of space for inter-reaction and improvisation, we are not just a band with a ‘diva/blues shouter’ up front.  Zoe is a very unique and expressive singer, but we pride ourselves on every band member being as important as each other.

You have two CDs out and a third in production.  How have those discs gone down and what may we look forward to on the new one?

Rob: Blue Commotion had its first gig in early 2012 so it is pretty amazing to realise that we have only been going two and a half years but have already released two albums, with a third in production at the moment. The first CD “Good Times” really opened doors for us, especially tracks like ‘Beatitudes’ and ‘Fine and Mellow’, not only here in the UK but also, particularly, in America, every month the great percentage of our website views are from the USA.  The second album, “The Blues Don’t Scare Me”, has capitalised on all of this and received a lot of attention, the IBBA is very important to bands like ourselves, and they’ve played a big part in making people aware of our music. We’re proud of both albums.

Zoe: We have just recorded our third album of predominantly original material.  We went into the studio at the end of May and in two days recorded 15 tracks, all originals bar one cover.  We have a working title of “Exposed” and we put our heart and soul into it.  I cannot say whether it will be ‘different’ to the other two albums, but we were pleased with the way the recordings went.

We have always tried new material out live before recording and what I can say is that we have had a tremendous reaction to the new songs when we have debuted them live.  In particular “Atonement” has been a big ‘hit’ with audiences though we are reflecting on what one promoter suggested, which was to use a line from the chorus (“Angel Of Mercy”) as the title as it seems to fit the song a little better than the one word title.  We are working hard on the mastering and production of the album and hope to have it available by the autumn. 

Rob:  The CDs have been well received and we always sell plenty at gigs.  Financially it is a struggle:  I have been a full-time gigging musician for thirty years and we have to pay the bills.  Taking a five piece band of professional musicians to a gig at the other end of the country costs a fair amount of time and money, so to be offered a small fee for the privilege (even sometimes no fee at all!) simply will not work for us.  One promoter we worked for recently agreed and sympathised with our view.  He put it well when he said that if you don’t pay the bands properly you will not get good music.

Zoe: Sometimes if we get a gig a long way distant we will use a local rhythm section to reduce costs but that in turn means that the crowd will not get the full Blue Commotion experience as some of our material is quite tricky to learn so we tend to go to the common denominator and play more standards and fewer of our own tunes at those gigs.

Where to next for Blue Commotion and for Zoe and Rob?

Zoe: Well, we have had some strong reaction from the States and an invitation to play in Florida which we would love to do.  A friend suggested we contact his local French blues festival and they liked what we sent them and might want us over there.  Rob: The German scene is very strong and there is a good circuit there which we feel we could break into.  However, at the moment we do have a young family so we may have to wait a couple of years before we can really go for it on that front.

Zoe: We have ticked off a number of things on our wish list: Had a few plays on the Paul Jones show on BBC Radio 2, as well as other shows on radio 2 and 3. We’ve played the legendary 100 Club, Ronnie Scott’s, Dean Street, great festivals like Blues On The Farm, Skegness and Tenby.  Rob: Some of the festivals have a format of a main stage and then a ‘trail’ or series of pub gigs.  Whilst that offers the fans incredible choice it is less good for the bands as the available finance has to be spread across a lot more acts with the result that only the headliners get well paid.  As I say this right now, I can see in my diary that we have two gigs on the blues trail in Maryport on 27th July, to be honest, I haven’t got my head round how to make it work yet….. do I borrow a rhythm section from another band or do we take a hit, and pay our band a proper wage?  I’m sure this resonates with a lot of band-leaders! We actually prefer a single stage set-up, fewer bands but better arrangements for the musicians.  Zoe: That also gives us, the musicians, a chance to see other bands perform – not something we often have the pleasure of doing! We love playing for the promoters and clubs that really understand and appreciate the music we produce and we always look forward to going back to those places to see friends old and new.  We hope that playing some of the larger festivals will lead us to a main stage or headline slot.  Rob: I guess ‘more of the same’ will apply for a while, keeping going with both the duo and full band gigs, as well as looking out for any opportunities that arise to take our music to a wider audience. We think we can keep the pot boiling.  It’s a very productive period right now, and our energy is high. Who knows where it might lead?

  • Words by: John Mitchell