Blues Matters, Interview and 'The Blues And I Should Have A Party' Album Review, Issue 101, April/May 2018

"... an intoxicating mix of sass, class and panache." The Bishop

Interview Intro:  The real party is just beginning:  Verbals: The Bishop Visuals: Graham Whittington

Several names immediately spring to mind when drawing up a shortlist of contemporary world-clcass chanteuses with blues credentials: Beth Hart, Mavis Staples, Ruby Turner and Shemekia Copeland to name but a few.  One of the big mysteries in life is why Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion has not yet achieved similar international recognition.  Check out Zoe's timeless singles, Broken, Angel Of Mercy and Beatitudes, listen to the band's albums or see them at a gig and ask yourself the same question.  This is all set to change with their latest sensational CD, The Blues and I Should Have A Party, an intoxicating mix of sass, class and panache, dripping with blues throughout and already a strong contender for blues album of the year.  Zoe and her partner Rob Koral took timeout of their hectic schedule to talk in depth about this latest masterpiece and their musicality in general.

Following a succession of very good and highly acclaimed studio albums, your new release is even more impressive. Is this solely down to the progress of the band, Rob or was there a conscious effort to raise your game to an even higher level?

I like to think that each of our studio albums has something individual and strong about them. We’re not a young band trying to find our way and a “sound”, we are all “gig hardened” with a lot of history outside of this band. Yes, the individual pedigree of each musician is absolutely top-notch, so, if you then play together over a period of several years, the music is going to keep evolving. Surprisingly, I don’t hear many bands these days that have a similar approach, which is just to play “in the moment”, trust and feed off each other, and let the music flow. I love it when I hear a live recording and it’s different from the studio version, simply because it’s a different day. I personally don’t enjoy bands that work everything out and play verbatim. Our evolution musically, and resultant prolific output, comes about through inspiring each other, enjoying, and believing in what we do. I still remember to this day when I first heard Zoë’ sing up close and personal and I pat myself on the back for this, because I definitely heard something that she had that was solely her own, and unique. I think it is fair to say I’ve been proven right.

There seems to be more hard driving blues/rock guitar interludes on this album than previously. Was this because you were in party mood or does it reflect a change of emphasis?

We definitely were in party mode. I don’t like to have limitless access to recording facilities, I like to make recording an “event”, so that it’s exciting and for a purpose. If there was a change in my approach, I think it would have been subconscious; perhaps I thought that I had to slightly repackage my “sound” to fit into the British scene, which is predominantly rock-blues. I know that people recognise my ability to play, but perhaps found it subtle so I want to get them on board. I have most definitely not compromised my playing at all. The hard driving rock sound is quite natural for me, as my beginnings are based in the first generation of British rock guitar heroes; not just Eric Clapton, but Richie Blackmore, Robin Trower and the rest of them.

The recording, mixing and mastering are exceptional. Wayne Proctor is regarded as excellent in this field; what is he like to work with?

It was a smart move for us to use Wayne and Steve Wright for mixing. Wayne in fact had implied that he thought he could really enhance our music by raising the bar on the sound and production. He was dead right and we are absolutely thrilled with the result. Wayne had played a few gigs with us a couple of years back, so he knew our music; and of course like wise, we had heard several albums which Wayne had produced, and liked them very much. It was very nice for us to pass the mixing baton on to people we could trust. Seeing a whole project through from start to finish ourselves is massively time consuming. Also we wanted to hear someone else’s take on our music. We used the whole ‘House Of Tone’ setup: which includes recording the album at Superfly studios, and ‘Close To The Edge’ Mastering. Andy Banfield at Superfly was fantastic to work with, he’s a top engineer and the studio has a great vibe. As a result we were all very chilled. We still managed the recording side of things ourselves; we decided on arrangements and which “takes” to use. We record in a “live” way to keep the music vibrant and real, and to catch the special moments and improvisation. It seems to me that not many people do it that way these days. I’m very much of the feeling that what I play “in the moment” is the right thing and I know our Hammond organ player Pete Whittaker and drummer Paul Robinson are the same.

The Memory Of You must have been very difficult for Zoë to write and it is such a moving tribute. Was it a cathartic experience or just emotionally draining to put these memories into words and music? The genius of this song, however, is that it is also joyful, uplifting and in my opinion has all the ingredients of a commercially successful single.

Thank you Bishop for giving this song the thumbs up. Of course the words can apply to anybody, as it talks about the loss of someone, but yes, I was thinking of my mother when I wrote them. I think your point is spot on, in that you can listen to this song on two levels: the sadness of the lyrics, or the contradictory brightness of the music with its bouncy, almost happy groove. Strangely, I had reservations about this song, I don’t know what I was thinking; how wrong could I be? Thankfully Rob was emphatic that it was going to turn out great.

Have you chosen a single from this album yet? If so, it must be a difficult choice!

We’re thinking about it, and yes it’s a tough choice. Our choice would be Way Down In The Caves with lyrics by Pete Feenstra because it speaks of a venue that many current fans still remember and it has a powerful arrangement. It’s a good sign that we can’t easily decide.

Zoë’s style is a wonderful, intriguing mix of blues influences including Billie Holliday and several contemporary artists which is great for the listener.

I know that most people don’t think of Billie Holiday as a blues singer, but I most definitely do. She had a really hard life and as a result had so much emotional power in her vocal delivery. Not the archetypal blues shouting, but lazy, behind the beat phrasing, which really appeals to me. Yes she didn’t often sing straight 12 bar blues, but instead favoured the 32 bar format of the Great American Song Book... to me that’s an advantage in learning one’s trade because of the musicianship required to always know where you are in the form. Of the current crop of singers, I really love Beth Hart and here in the UK I love Kyla Brox and Liane Carrol although of course there’s a whole bunch of fantastic women bringing their own brand to the blues table.

Rob, you have an interesting and individual guitar style, how did this come about and who were your early influences?

If I list some important names chronologically all the clues will be there. So, here we go: Eric Clapton when he was with Cream, Jan Akkerman, Scott Henderson, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Allan Holdsworth and Robben Ford; these are all super important for me. If I had to sum up one thing that distinguishes my way of playing from standard pentatonic blues playing is that I nearly always play “on the changes”. Put simply, this means to outline, or spell out, the “sound” of the chords via the lines you play over them. In other words, if you were to take away the “backing” you would still hear the sound of the chord changes. This is SO important, and I can hear instantly if a player knows their stuff or not. So many rock players don’t really know the difference between major and minor when it comes to playing a solo, and it just doesn’t sound good, yet it is such a fundamental and simple skill. Strong words I know, but it’s true. This is why players like Matt Schofield and Robben Ford stand out.

You have written some classic songs, can you talk us through the song writing process?

Our song writing process starts in either one of the two obvious ways; with a guitar riff or chord sequence; or a set of lyrics. Sometimes the songs happen instantaneously as we sit together in our music space, and sometimes we throw it around for a few days. Having a sense of mood is the all-important ingredient as it transcends a cliché and brings new life to, for example, a common chord sequence. We don’t have a formula or musical template for writing songs, and we don’t throw an idea away if it starts taking a direction seemingly outside of our original idea. It’s amazing what happens to an idea when you bring it to the band, and how it can change character completely, and surprise you a very positive way. The moral of the story is don’t put constraints on your ideas, and keep an open mind. Another huge factor for us in relation to the general fruition of our music is that we can honestly say that we have never told another player what to play. We bring them the musical DNA, i.e. the musical arrangement and chord sequence, and then Pete and Paul add their magical ingredient; that’s how we feel a band should work.

Tell us about the qualities of your band members, how they have developed musically and what they bring to the overall sound?

You could say that like-minded people attract each other and it’s the same in music. We have similar musical tastes, interests and history; and that’s why we started playing together in the first place, and that’s why we chose Pete and Paul for the band. If we could brag on their behalf for a minute, we’d like to mention some of the big names they have played with. They include Nina Simone (Paul was her drummer for 19 years), Van Morrison, Jim Mullen, Nigel Price, Paul McCartney, Wonderstuff, Rod Stewart, Zoot Money, Proclaimers, etc. They simply bring creativity, personality, technical brilliance, and a massive musical authority!

Over the past few years you have toured relentlessly, building up an extensive fan base, as well as releasing several outstanding albums. Given this context, are you happy with where you are career wise at this point in time?

Playing creative, original music is a hard road. Our realistic goal is to play on great stages at good venues and festivals in front of people who have come to hear the music. On top of this, we’d love to write many songs that people could cover; imagine if Beth Hart covered one of our songs. Anything over and above this is out of our control. I love the playing of Matt Schofield; it is elegant, stylish, with a beautiful sound. I remember reading an interview recently where he implied that having moved to the other side of the Atlantic things have happened that just wouldn’t if he was still living here. Here in the UK so many bands play the same old tired blues/rock. We have plenty of edge and power in our music, but perhaps with a touch of sophistication that makes it a little tougher. However, the belief in what we do is supported by the fact that some of our biggest fans are established and well-respected artists and critics who really know their stuff, and can’t be bluffed.

What do you regard as your most significant achievements to date?

Simply the fact that through sheer stubbornness we refuse to be diverted away from what we want to do and how we want to do it. Yes it’s a harder road, but so many people ask us where all the energy comes from, and that’s the answer, if you get pushed down the wrong path, you loose your momentum and desire. The hardest thing for musicians and bands to achieve is a distinctive sound of their own. We like to think we have a sound that is definitely ours. In any walk of life, being identified for something you do or stand for is half the battle and helps give you belief and a degree of satisfaction.

In this era of music streaming and, in some cases, falling CD sales and diminishing live music venues, are there challenges in maintaining the status of a professional musician?

It’s definitely harder, just simple things like driving from A to B, parking a car, getting up the M1 or M5 on a Friday night, getting your guitar on a plane, battling double yellow lines as you try and load into a gig. These are definitely problems that the first generation of British blues players didn’t have to deal with so we just have to be more organised these days. Things like YouTube and the Internet generally are a great help in getting the music heard in this age where middle of the road music dominates all mainstream outlets. Streaming is contentious amongst musician but my opinion is if people really like what they hear they will buy it anyway, and quite possibly come to a gig.

Your hectic schedule gives me palpitations just reading the list so how do you balance this with a family life?

With great difficulty and a lot of chaos! Our 11 year old daughter has certainly had an interesting upbringing. We cover a lot of ground but wish we could do more; there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

The Review: ZOE SCHWARZ BLUES COMMOTION

THE BLUES AND I SHOULD HAVE A PARTY

33WM157 PROPER NOTE

Rarely does an album title communicate what is actually on the disc but this is some shindig from start to finish, the ultimate blues celebration by four brilliant musicians at the top of their game. Please Don’t Cheat On Me is a dynamic, catchy opener reflecting the party spirit although Zoë’s edgy tone suggests more of a threat than a request, the searing guitar and organ solos providing this affirmation. The next indication that this is going to be a very special album comes with the title track, a slow burning ballad sung with gusto and interspersed with some of the best blues guitar you are likely to hear this year. Rob has been described at various times as subtle and intricate, his blues virtuosity somewhat understated, but this is 100% finger blurring fretwork, ‘eat-your–heart-out’ Bonamassa. Indeed, the whole album proves that Koral is as talented, dynamic and versatile as the best in the business. You’ve Changed is similarly balladic and a vocal tour de force with its series of crescendos, contrasts of light and shade, magnificently and seamlessly arranged. The tempo and temperature rise with Way Down In The Caves, Pete Feenstra’s mysterious, atmospheric lyrical tribute to the 1960s enhanced by enigmatic vocals, haunting Les Paul guitar, mesmeric drumming and sumptuous Hammond organ. Don’t Worry Blues is as authentic as Ma Rainey, Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith in their prime, proving that not only is Zoë is a contender for queen of the genre but also has the band to complement her status. Shout with its compelling drumbeat, jagged guitar fills and hurdy gurdy flavoured middle section, courtesy of Pete Whittaker’s Wurlitzer, is refreshingly inventive. You Don’t Live Here Anymore is best savoured for its emotive lyrics delivered with trademark aplomb. Gems like this typify the exceptionally high calibre of all 13 original Schwarz-Koral compositions and set the band apart from others on the current scene. My Handsome Man brings a witty and lighthearted side to the proceedings whilst the jaunty Tell Me is sung in that natural conversational style which engages the listener. Don’t Hold Back is the perfect platform for Zoë’ s incredible vocal range and Rob’s sophisticated, measured guitar work. So catchy yet poignant is The Memory Of You that it could be a hit single, the band’s chameleon qualities coming to the fore. Feenstra takes another bow having penned the lyrics for Time Waits For No One, his poetry a perfect fit. It may be a Thank You from Rob and Zoë and a final flourish from drummer par excellence Paul Robinson to end this particular party but for Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion the real party is just beginning. 

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    • Words by: The Bishop

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