Featured Interview – Rachelle Coba

Young Rachelle Coba may have had an idea that the trip was going to end with big trouble headed her way.

And she was right.

Still, nothing was going to keep her from the chance to see B.B. King do his thing.

Not a lack of transportation, not the rain falling from the sky, or even more importantly, her mother’s directive not to go to the show, was going to keep Rachelle Coba away.

When she finally arrived at the Century II Convention Center in Wichita, she found more than just the Beale Street Blues Boy there; Coba found her mom in the audience that night.

“Yeah, I snuck out to go to the show and walked in the rain to get there. A friend saw me walking and gave me a ride and when I got there, I ran into my mom at the show and got in trouble,” laughed Coba. “But I did get a chance to hear the show … I was just in a lot of trouble afterwards.”

All things considered, Coba has probably long been forgiven for her ‘youthful transgressions’ and has went about creating a path all for herself in the world of the blues over the course of the last decade-plus. There have been nights spent playing the blues on the high seas; evenings spent leading the band for one of the original Blues Brothers; and afternoons spent with a world-famous Chikan, chasing down … rolling chicken trucks. But the latest – and probably most meaningful – step in that journey is her first full-length disc, Mother Blues (Mono Records). In addition to seeing her first CD out on the streets, Coba also garnered a nomination for the Sean Costello Rising Star Award at this year’s Blues Blast Awards, making 2014 a fairly special year.

“This year’s been wonderful. I officially released the CD in February and it’s gotten a lot of press and airplay from radio, so it’s had quite a good response,” Coba, who currently calls south Florida home, said. “It’s been really cool. I really enjoyed putting that record together. It took awhile before it got released, but things have been great.”

Coba also produced and arranged Mother Blues and the finished product is a pretty accurate description of where she’s at musically these days, but the disc did end up being a different sort of beast from the one it initially started out as.

“I thought I would put together a CD of just me and my guitar, because that was the bulk of the work that I was getting in Wichita (Kansas) at the time – I was working as a solo act because of economics,” she said. “I was busy (playing gigs) and I thought I needed to put something out to sell at the gigs. After I did the first track (for the CD), I took it home and listened to it and said, ‘Uh, uh, this has to have a whole band on it.’”

It only takes one spin of the disc to figure out that Coba is an immensely talented guitarist and singer, but to add to that, the bulk of the material on Mother Blues is tunes that she penned herself. Resisting the temptation to do a covers-heavy album was something that was on her mind from the outset, says Coba, although a cover song may have just germinated the whole process.

“I originally wanted to record the title song, “Mother Blues” which was written by Sam Taylor, Jr., so that’s where I started,” she said. “And there was actually one other cover that I thought about doing, but I thought it would be better to get my stuff out there. Some of the more standard blues-type songs on there, I wrote when I was 19 or 20 years old, so I thought it was time I got those out there.”

It was pretty much a given that Coba was going to do the Sam Taylor Jr.-written title track on her new CD, although she might have had doubts about what the song was actually titled at one time, due to some low-down skullduggery.

“Sam Taylor Jr. was one of my mentors and he gave me one of his CDs. It was in the CD player in my ride when I went to Kansas City to do a Blues in the Schools,” she said. “Well, while I was there, all of my equipment was stolen, including his CD. One of the songs on that CD was about passing down the blues. I wasn’t sure of the name of it, but I called it “Mother Blues.” Well, I later found out that the song was called “Blues on the Move.” People that played with him (Taylor) have told me how cool it is that I’m covering the track on my new CD.”

Recently, Coba has started writing songs with a co-writer and describes that experience as “working out really well.” And like most artists, she keeps her eyes and ears peeled for potential subject matter for new tunes on a daily basis.

“Yeah, I’ll hear something and get a new idea … it’s almost like you have to catch all those ideas that are just out there in the air. You have to catch them as they go by, or there’re gone,” she laughed. “They come out really fast and when they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s interesting. It’s a craft that I could use more work at. I think my song-writing is probably my weakest spot that I have.”

Just from looking at the entirety of Coba’s abilities, many would argue that she has any weaknesses at all. One thing that certainly is not up for debate, however, is her formal training as a musician; she has a Bachelor’s of Music in classical guitar.

“I was the first one to graduate college on my mom’s side of the family and I thought if you got a degree in anything, it would help you get a job in that field,” she said. “And I really wasn’t interested in anything other than music. Music had just taken over my life and I really loved the guitar. So I thought if I did what I loved, then things would happen.”

It took awhile before Coba – who started out playing the violin in college before switching over to the guitar – realized that she might ultimately want to become a performer, taking what she was learning in college and applying that knowledge to bandstands all over the world.

“I think I secretly dreamt of being a performer, but I spent probably my first two years of college not talking to many people because I was so shy. So it’s interesting how all that happened,” she said.

The worlds of classical music and the blues seem to rarely intersect, but according to Coba, there are dividends to be gained out of a college degree in classical music, even despite such diverse sides of the art.

“It’s really easy for me to get a teaching job. I didn’t get a degree in education, so I don’t teach school, per say, but I’ve been a resident teaching artist in public schools in Wichita doing Blues in the Schools and putting together programs,” she said. “And I may have gotten some gigs in the past over some other people because I could read a chart, so there’s been benefits (to a degree in classical guitar). To me, the benefit is in pretty much anything you go to school for, you learn the ability to learn. I dodn’t think I would have the confidence I have now without that education, especially because I was such a shy, introverted kid.”

Shy, introverted or reserved are hardly words that could be used to describe Coba these days; especially on the bandstand. She hits the stage with her bright red fedora and blond Fender Stratocaster like a blazing bonfire and she doesn’t let up until the whole house has burnt down.

“That’s probably out of necessity. I’ve been around some really great performers that I’ve played guitar for and that’s what they do – they hit the ground running. That whole blues tradition, you know, with performers standing on the bar or doing whatever it took to grab the audience’s attention, is just part of playing the blues,” she said. “You’ve got to be ready to do whatever it takes to entertain people. That’s what my heroes, guys like Junior Wells, who was a great entertainer, did. It’s kind of like stepping outside of myself when I’m up there, because I am still carrying a certain amount of shyness. But it’s all about connecting (with the audience). People just want to connect with something. They want to feel it.”

Different styles though they may be, there are still certain linking factors between a classically-styled approach to the guitar, and a more rootsier-based attack commonly used in the blues.

“I think a lot of the methodology (between classical guitar and the blues) may be different for a lot of people, but not for me. One of the big things that I do is – I never use a pick. I didn’t before I went to college and I haven’t since. To me, that’s a basic thing, because all my blues heroes were finger-pickers, like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy and on up. And classical guitar is also a finger-style thing. In the history of the guitar – way before the blues – plectrums were not often used. That was kind of an anomaly (using a pick), so finger-style guitar playing has always been at the forefront, despite what people might think. The plectrum use really started when we got into the recording era.”

The lead track off Mother Blues is a Coba-penned tune called “Never Been to Memphis.” While she actually has been to the Bluff City, competing in the International Blues Challenge in both the solo and band categories the past couple of years, her vocal delivery on the song is 100-pecent pure Memphis soul. Her vocal influences include a pair of usual suspects, along with someone that might come off as a bit of a surprise.

“I know he’s a guy, but I try the best I can to sing a track like Junior Wells. He was one of the best blues singers ever. Then there’s Etta James, Aretha Franklin … there’s just so many that I love,” she said. “The blues just has so many wonderful singers.”

Her education in the blues hit hyper-drive when Coba did a stint as band director for the legendary Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy.

“Oh, Matt’s awesome. He’s one of the nicest, coolest guys in the world and an absolute sweetheart. He’s had some health issues and he may be a bit older, but he’ll still make you feel bad (trying to keep up with him on the guitar),” Coba said. “He can still humble anyone on the guitar in a minute. He’s just an amazing player and he’s played with everybody.”

Copa also spent time in Grady Champion’s (“He’s such a gifted performer,” she said) band at one point in time, and also sailed on board the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise last year – playing with Albert Castiglia and jamming with Marcia Ball – and has also kept company with one of the most colorful characters in the world of the blues – Clarksdale, Mississippi’s own – James ‘Super Chikan’ Johnson.

“I love Chikan. He’s a riot. I went out to Utah with him and we were driving through Salt Lake City and there was a Chick-fil-A truck that looked like a chicken, driving next to us. I was like, ‘You know, we have to give him a CD.’ So we’re on the highway and I grab a CD and we’re honking at him and I’m leaning out the window, trying to hand the driver of this Chick-fil-A truck a CD as we’re going down the road,” laughed Coba. “We just thought they needed a Super Chikan CD in their chicken-mobile. Chikan was clucking and making all his chicken noises … that was awesome. I’m sure they were probably like, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’”

Coba, who is of Cuban ancestry, was born in Wisconsin, lived in Chicago for a brief period, moved to Miami for a spell before relocating to Wichita and then heading back to Miami. It was in Florida that she learned how to play music and that’s pretty much been her life ever since. And if things go her way, that’s what she would like to still be doing five years down the road from now.

“Hopefully I’ll have five more records out and be able to get out and support them and make a decent living playing music,” she said. “I know that’s quite a lot to ask for these days, because you’ve got to be lucky and good. But I would really love the opportunity to continue to do what I’m doing.”

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