Featured Interview – Annika Chambers and Paul DesLauriers

Cover photo © 2022 Joseph A. Rosen

imageOver the decades, there have been a number of couples united in love as well as their musical tastes. Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy or Ernest Lawlars, Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon, Ann Peebles and Don Bryant, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are just a few of the couples that have made beautiful music together.

For a powerhouse singer from Texas and a noted guitarist from Canada, love came sneaking up on them in the nick of time. Together, Annika Chambers and Paul DesLauriers have met the world head-on, dealing with the pandemic shutdown that stalled their careers, major health issues, and the effects of racism.

Bursting on the scene in 2015, Chambers quickly become a favorite on the world-wide blues festival circuit. Her high energy performances and vocal prowess have brought her much acclaim, including six consecutive Blues Music Award nominations, sponsored by the Blues Foundation, in the Soul Blues Female Artist category, an award she took home in 2019.

DesLauriers has been building his career for decades, touring across Canada before finally starting to make inroads in the US and international scenes after a strong showing at the 2016 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. He and his band have received numerous nominations for the Maple Blues Awards, the Canadian version of the Blues Music Awards. DesLauriers has received two Entertainer of the Year awards in addition to several Guitar Player of the Year honors.

Like many other singers, Chambers got her start singing gospel music in church. Her vocalizing very well could have begun at a very, very young age.

Annika Chambers – “My Granny said that when I came out, I was making noise, if you can imagine that! I joined the youth gospel choir around the age of eight or nine years old, then when you get older you move on to the bigger choir. I only sang lead on one song, because I would get so nervous to sing or speak in front of people. So I only got one solo. That was when I was 15 years old. The next time people saw me singing, it was on stage when I was in the U.S. Army.

“My influences early on were Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar. One of my favorite singers, Yolanda Adams, was out of Houston, Texas, where I am from. Those are the singers I was listening to growing up. I feel that you can really hear that gospel foundation in my singing voice. Gospel music was the end all, be all in our house. My grandparents raised me, and my Granny was very Southern Baptist, so it was a strict upbringing.

image“When I put out my first album, I wanted her to hear it. One of the songs on it was called “Barnyard Blues.” The lyrics go, “All the hens get quiet when the cocks come around.” When she heard that, she turned it off because that is not how she raised me. She has several grand kids now, and understands that times are different than when she grew up. That, no pun intended, we are “Wild & Free!’

Like his wife, DesLauriers was attracted to music early on, spurred on by his two older sisters and a brother. They were always listening to records, so he got to hear the Beatles and other rock-&-roll bands.

Paul DesLauriers – “We had a piano at home, so I would tinker around on that. I am French-Canadian, and brought up Catholic, so I was sent to the nuns to learn music. They taught me to play classical violin, which certainly helped develop my ear for music. But hearing all those records got me interested in the guitar. Around the age of ten, I got heavily into guitar, and that totally became my whole world.

“Through the blues-rock players of the 1960s and 1970s, I discovered where it all came from, And that, of course, is blues music. So I delved into the greats like B.B. and Albert King, Albert Collins, and Muddy Waters, and even further back. That was what really appealed to me.”

DesLauriers started playing professionally at high school dances in his hometown of Cornwall, Ontario, Canada when he was fifteen years old, and soon after was playing in clubs before he was of legal age, playing three or four gigs a week while still going to high school, with math class at 9am.

After graduating high school, Chambers joined the Army. Her first deployment took her Kosovo for an 18 month stretch. Once she arrived, she joined the gospel choir at the church on the base. Opportunity soon came knocking.

AC – “They decided to put on a base-wide talent show, so me and the choir entered. I led the choir like I was Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act II! We ended up winning the competition. Afterwards, a guitar player came up me to say that he would like to teach me about blues music. That was Paul Ramirez from San Antonio, TX. The next time they did a talent show, he suggested that we do a blues tune.

“The first blues song I learned was the Chris Smithers song that Bonnie Raitt had a hit with, “Love Me Like A Man.” Totally unlike how I perform now, I just stood on stage in in my PT uniform with the microphone, just singing. When I look back at a picture, I look so boring! But that made me want to know everything about the music. I didn’t have the connection because we never played blues in the house. So in 2005, I started ingesting this music that I had a unique connection to on a regular basis.”

Her husband has been singing right from the start, learning to harmonize from listening to records. For him, singing and playing guitar went together. It wasn’t just about playing guitar, When he was performing, singing was an integral part of the whole experience.

imagePD – “Somebody in the band has to sing. I just did it, because, first of all, I love it, and it wasn’t a conscious thing. It was something you just did it. I was fortunate to have a lot of opportunities for us to cut our teeth playing live in clubs, bars, and school dances. I saved calendars from those days as a teenager where I marked every day I had a gig. Man, those things were full every month through school, summer, and holidays. That is a testament to how much I loved playing. I spent a lot of time sitting on the couch at home practicing, then doing it for real.

“After high school, my parents insisted that I get an education. My way of getting around that was to study jazz guitar at McGill University in Montreal. Jazz is not my wheelhouse, but I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. But halfway through that process, I realized it wasn’t for me. It was not a necessary path for me to succeed as a musician. I was still playing gigs, and the opportunities kept multiplying. You have to get out there in the real world and learn the craft, the business. My parents had a lot of trepidation back then. My Mom has lived long enough to see me have a measure of success.:”

AC – “We did a gig recently in Paul’s hometown. She came to the show, then afterwards were at her house. She looked at us, saying “You people have something special!”

Chambers was in frequent demand during her Army career, singing at ceremonies and as part of shows designed to entertain the troops, whatever she could do to fill her time. As her enlistment was coming to an end, she had a decision to make.

AC – “I told my Colonel that I thought I was meant to sing. His answer was: ‘ if it was anyone else, I would be try to retain them. But Sgt. Chambers, I see something special in you.’

“So I was honorably discharged in February, 2011. Then I started going to school in Houston to get degree in singing. It was school by day, jams at night until I was able to get a band together, trying to build some traction.

“We entered the local blues challenge. That is where I met Richard Cagle and Larry Fulcher, bass player for the Phantom Blues Band. They were judges that year. They had been looking for an opportunity to work on a project together. After hearing us, they offered to help me put a demo together. Originally set for four songs, it turned into my first full album, Making My Mark, which was nominated for a 2015 Blues Music Award in the Best New Artist Debut category.

“We didn’t have a budget, no nothing. But musicians from all over Houston wanted to be on the project. People just offered their time and talent. I think we had 21 people on the record. That is why we listed it as me, backed by the Houston All-Stars. I left the Army ten years ago. It has been a crazy ride, but dreams do come true!”

DesLauriers made it to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge for the first time in 2012, making to the finals in the Solo/Duo category, paired with Dawn Tyler Watson, who won in the Band category in 2017. DesLauriers returned with his trio in 2016, finishing second in the Band category

PD – “That was a fantastic experience. We were coming in as unknowns, three guys coming in from Canada, where we were well known. But we hadn’t toured much in the states. The point of being in the Challenge is to represent yourself and your music in an honest light. That worked out for us beautifully, and opened a lot of doors internationally. I have tried to be there every year since just to network, and to do some showcase events. It is true that the most important part of the Blues Challenge is the connections you can make at the largest Blues gathering in the world in less than week’s time.”

imageThe couple had heard about each other, but did not actually meet until the finals for the 2018 Blues Challenge. Paul made his way across the lobby to say hello to Annika.

PD – “It was one of those “ our eyes met from across the crowded room” moments. We briefly said hello. I was tongue-tied, and I think she was too!”

AC – “Yeah, can you imagine us being nervous?”

PD – “I probably said something about being friends on Facebook. Then somebody came up to talk to us, and we got sidetracked. A couple months later, we were both appearing at the Bonita Springs Blues Festival in Florida. I was playing at the Center Bar after the fest with my band, and Annika sat in with us. We saw each other again the following January. That was when things exploded for us. Three months after that, I asked her to marry me under the Arch in St. Louis. Much to my delight, she said yes.”

The time they spent together in January came several days after the end of a different relationship that Chambers had been in. She figured they would have lunch, hang out a bit. She never expected to fall in love again so quickly.

AC – “When the love bug hits you, it hits you! We hung in Memphis for the week of the Blues Challenge, then stayed an extra week to spend some time together away from the hoopla of our musical lives. It was clear we had a connection, something bigger than just a fling. We saw each other again the next month. Anybody that can me get me to come from the South to the North in the dead of winter, I must really like you.

“We were both finishing records, so we had plans to get together again at the end of April for a little road trip through the Midwest. I love St. Louis, so we stayed there a few nights. We had already talked about marriage but I didn’t know if Paul was serious. He was almost 50 years old, had never been married.

“When I was younger, I went to St. Louis on a church trip. I was exposed to seeing women getting proposed to at the Arch. I thought if I ever get married, I want the ceremony to be at the Arch, and I had mentioned that to Paul. So we had breakfast with a friend Saturday morning, then went for a walk. When we got to the Arch, he got down on a knee and proposed to me.”

PD – “And then her phone rings! She says this is about my merchandise, I have to take this call, and proceeds to answer the phone. There I am on one knee, she is on the phone, and the people around us were wondering what was going on.”

AC – “I’m telling the person I have to hang up. Paul is kneeling, and says, so will you marry me. Everyone around us is waiting for an answer. I said of course. We hugged and had our memorable moment. A few days later, we were in Memphis where I received my first Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Female Artist. I was having a real good week!’

Another part of the trip was a visit to Houston for Mothers Day, so Annika could introduce Paul to her family. Now the visit became more serious.

imageAC – “Now he had to ask my Mother and Granny for my hand in marriage. My grandmother was totally fine with it. My Mother had me when she was 14 years old, so we are like sisters, best friends. She wasn’t so accepting at first.”

PD – “She had visions of me running off with her daughter, taking her to another country, and never seeing her again. Who is this absolute stranger coming to my house trying to take my daughter away from me.

“Mom finally gave in. A couple months later we were back in Bonita Springs playing a benefit concert for Joe Connors, who had been Annika’s guitar player. He had a life-threatening medical emergency. We flew down there to help raise money. We were outside the venue when this beautiful 1956 black & white Chevy Bel Air drives by. We looked at each other, saying that is the car we should get married in.

‘The people in the car were friends of Joe’s, and heard what we said. The lady in the passenger seat said she was an officiant, that if we went to the courthouse and got a marriage license, she would marry us the next day. We looked at each other, said let’s do it! Twenty four hours later, we were on Barefoot Beach at sunset getting married, including the couple in the car that drove us to the wedding. It was perfect because it solved the problem of trying to get our aging families together. Our mothers watched the ceremony on Facetime. It was beautiful and uncomplicated.”

Like a lot of musicians, the pandemic shut down both of their careers. The lengthy lockdown allowed them to move beyond the personal attraction, where they clicked on many levels, and explore a musical partnership, which became a welcome therapy. They were living in Florida, which gave them a chance to jam with guitarist J.P. Soars and his drummer, Chris Peet. Done initially for fun, it developed into a full album that will be released later in the year on the VizzTone label.

PD – “ The tentative title is Umoja Soul, which is a Swahili word for “unity”. It represents a meeting of minds by people who love and respect each other musically and in life. It has been a wonderful time putting it together. We are very excited to start performing the music live.”

AC – “We are just capturing the times, and putting it down on paper. We want to share different messages as we offer people hope for the future. Whether it is stand up and speak out, or give a little more love, we are trying to get people to hear the message like the Staple Singers used to do.”

In addition to the pandemic turning their careers upside down, the couple also had to deal with several major health issues that affected Paul, one of them life threatening.

PD – “I was in Montreal for a gig right as the pandemic hit. They were starting to close the borders, so I had to make a quick decision. Stay in Canada in the cold or go to Florida to be with my wife in the beautiful weather. So I packed a suitcase, grabbed a guitar, and left Canada, figuring it be OK in a couple weeks. Four weeks later, I started having severe excruciating pain, convulsing on the floor. Annika saved me by calling an Uber and getting me to the hospital. The next day they removed a gangrenous gall bladder that was poisoning my system. I came home to my favorite nurse, who took great care of me.”

AC – “That is when he realized why he married me! I had been in panic, so I had to turn off my “wife” mode and go into the “soldier” mode. It was a matter of life or death. He was probably hours away from checking out.”

imgeIt took months for DesLauriers to recover, aided by the shutdown which left them with nothing but time. He knows it was a blessing that he was home and not out touring when he got sick, as he probably would have ignored his symptoms, honoring “the show must go on” creed, then dying in a hotel room. His surgery created another issue that required him to undergo hernia surgery several months later.

In August of 2018, the guitarist suffered a traumatic brain injury when he fell, at an event that he has no memory of except for waking up in the hospital. After three weeks of bed rest, he went back out on the road with gigs calling and a European tour coming up fast. He continues to deal with dizziness, vertigo, and cognitive fog while being thankful that his ability to play guitar and write songs did not suffer impairment.

PD – “I was an idiot, ignoring all common sense. After 18 months, it became apparent that I could no longer function like I did before I fell. The blessing for me is that I now have someone in my life who cares for me, who knows when I hit the wall. She has saved my life. The beauty of our relationship is that we don’t have had to explain to each other why we do what we do, never have to justify the sacrifices we make for our love of music. I just want to walk through life hand in hand with this amazing woman.”

AC – “Your health is all you have. Men can be stubborn when they are out on the road trying to get things done. There are some things you can’t push through. The doctor told me that if we had waited even an hour later, it would have been a dire situation. He was in the hospital all alone while I was sitting here waiting for the doctor to deliver some good news when she Facetimed with me.

“I always thought I’d have someone in my life that wasn’t a part of my musical career, to have that contrast. It ended up that men would feel left out because they felt I wasn’t making time for them. But when it is your life’s work, what you are meant to do, to me it seems selfish to ask someone to give that up. I am very vibrant, happy-go-lucky woman most of the time. But I have some wounds from the war, and from growing up with teenage parents, being raised by my grandparents. It is great to have someone who can pick me up, remind me that I am not alone.

“We had to adjust to marrying someone from another country. It has not been easy to deal with immigration issues lately, getting Paul a green card and permits for me to travel and perform in Canada.

“Then there is the issue of race. Being a Northern boy, Paul was not conditioned to things as I am being from the South. I had to point things out to him. Now his attitude is that if you don’t respect my wife, you don’t respect me.

“After George Floyd died, we were out protesting, going live on Facebook. Paul got some messages telling him to get your wife in check, that I was going to lose gigs. At the end of day, people need to understand that I am going to stand up, to fight for equality, the belief that we all deserve to live peacefully. I don’t know why some people thought he is my master. At times it is too much. But we have a beautiful thing together. You have to trust your gut and follow your heart.”

PD – “The attitudes of some of my close friends definitely changed. Canada certainly has it’s own issues with race and indigenous cultures. It is not a perfect paradise either. However, the a notion of superiority based on the color of a person’s skin was not instilled in me at a young age or as I was growing up. It has been very eye-opening, and strange for me, and I don’t notice some of the stuff because I’m a white guy. But being with Annika has helped me realize the effects that this has on her and others. It has brought on a lot of learning and soul-searching, strengthening our resolve to walk through this life hand in hand.”

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