Cover photo © 2022 Roman Sobus
When you think of blues artists, you tend to think of heartbreak. You probably don’t think of marriage counseling. And yet singer/guitarist Donna Herula, known for her acoustic blues, is also a marriage counselor.
“Even as a young child, I think I’ve had a deep sense of empathy for people,” she says, explaining the bridge between the blues and marriage counseling. “I really feel the blues is all about emotion. I think I’m just in a good position to be able to write songs because I see things in a different way than I think a lot of people [do], having that background in mental health. Just having some empathy for people and understanding how hard it is, at times in life, with your relationships, things that happen in your life. There could be loss or trauma that happened to you and how difficult that is. That’s what made counseling intriguing for me and that’s what makes the blues so intriguing for me, is this tapping into that deep well.”
That deep well has worked out well for Herula. She’s a regular performer at Buddy Guy’s Legends club in Chicago. She entered the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2016. And her excellent album, Bang at the Door, was nominated for Best Acoustic Album in the 2021 Blues Blast Music Awards.
Herula’s blues journey began as a child in Chicago. Her arrival was a bit of a surprise to her parents, meaning a big age difference between her and her siblings. She started off learning piano but having an older brother who was playing saxophone around Chicago bars made her want to switch to guitar at age 10. She wound up with an electric guitar at 13, and two years later she was performing her first blues song, “Midterm Blues,” with her high school jazz band. Sadly, there is no known recording of the track.
Herula’s path from electric blues to acoustic is surprising, discovering acoustic blues via Eric Sardinas, perhaps best known for his electric slide work, but with experience in country blues. “[Sardinas] just caught me,” Herula says. “I was not expecting to hear this slide guitar style that was so captivating for me. And it was through his slide guitar playing, when I looked on his website, and it showed that his influences were all these country blues, Mississippi blues, slide players. Many, many kinds. Chicago blues slide players. I started looking them up. And that’s when I found out about Son House. And once I heard Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” that was it for me. And I knew. I just fell in love with Delta blues, country blues, and that kind of more Mississippi sound, which really was the basis of the Chicago blues sound.”
Herula says she loves the way the blues delivers unadorned feelings. “I’m hooked into the raw emotion of it,” she says. “And the words. When I heard “Death Letter Blues,” it just hit a chord in me. It rang true to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but Son House, his voice, what he’s singing about, the words of the song, and the way he plays his resonator guitar. It kind of all works together. And in my head, I’m like, ‘That’s what I aspire to be like.’ Because I want it to be like Son House, as much as I can. I mean, he’s Son House. And he’s a great blues legend, but as much as I could be like him in the songwriting, with “Death Letter Blues,” which I think is one of the greatest blues songs ever. His voice and the way he plays the resonator guitar. It’s kind of an aggressive style. And that’s why [he’s] one of the people that I model my style after. Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. All of the greats.”
The Sardinas connection helped Herula discover those greats, but he’s also responsible for another, more direct musical introduction. Her research into Sardinas’ back catalog led Herula to 2001’s Devil’s Train, an album Sardinas made with bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards. That led to Herula going to meet with Edwards, who lived in Chicago and was a friend of a classmate from the Old Town School of Folk Music, where Herula now teaches.
“So one day after class, [my friend is] like, ‘Hey, you want to go to Honey’s house?'” Herula says. “I’m like, ‘Sure!’ So she and I, and her friend Don, the three of us drove out to Honeyboy’s house and brought him some whiskey and chocolate and we played together. He actually played my guitar and just chatted about the blues and things like that. And so we went there several times.”
Herula says Edwards had a lot of people passing through his home, but she and her friend probably had an advantage. “I’m sure he liked to have a couple of young girls in his house as well, [to] liven things up,” she says laughing.
Sardinas also gave Herula an appreciation for musical variety. “I’m really taken in by somebody who can be a solo, acoustic, blues slide guitar player, who can do it solo as well as with the band” she says. “Bobby Rush can do that as an artist. Buddy Guy can do the same thing. He can do a solo song and then he can do the whole band, actually work with the whole band. So that’s what I was really inspired by: being able to do both. And that’s what I like doing now too. I play as a solo player, I play as a duo player, but I also have a full band.”
Perhaps unsurprising given Herula’s vocation, her duo features her husband, Tony Nardiello. But with the release of Bang at the Door, she’s touring with a bigger band including Marc Edelstein on upright bass, Tony Wittrock on guitar, mandolin, banjo guitar, and Kenny Smith on drums, giving her a larger on-stage sonic palette.
Herula’s appreciation for variety extends to songwriting. She also cites Lyle Lovett as an example of an artist who can craft different sounds without losing his identity. “[Lovett] does songs where he’s an individual solo guitar player, and then others where it’s a big band,” she says. “And I guess I just get these ideas in my head, where certain songs are just solo songs, and certain songs, I can hear a whole band.”
Lucinda Williams is another influence, with Herula covering her “Jackson” on Bang at the Door. “Lucinda Williams is one of my songwriting inspirations” she says. “When you think of blues, I guess I’m thinking of a broader perspective, like more of roots music or maybe Americana. I only had three covers [on the album]: Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, who is really a great slide player as well, and Lucinda Williams. She’s a great songwriter, kind of a country blues type.”
Herula also liked the Williams song because it allowed her to use a different slide guitar style. “It’s a softer, kind of more of a bad, beautiful slide guitar playing,” she says. “So I think for contrast reasons, as well as I love the song, and my husband sings it very well, and we do a really good job when we play the song out at festivals. So I thought that was a great song that we played, and I just wanted to kind of tip my hat to the importance of songwriting, and what Lucinda Williams does with her songwriting.”
Herula’s slide work is impressive, a tool she’s spent time developing, but her singing voice is also well-developed, and something she’s also worked hard to strengthen. “I used to consider myself more guitar player that sang and now I really consider myself a singer who also plays guitar,” she says. “Back in like 2014 or so, I attended this acoustic blues camp out in Oregon. And there happened to be Maria Muldaur, who is a great kind of folk singer, blues singer, who had a master class when I was out there. I took her class, and she had this CD that she created, that has vocal exercises on it. And so I was very intrigued by this and bought one of her CDs, and she really helped me out a lot. I went home and I was inspired to really dig in and really focus on improving my voice.”
Herula also took vocal inspiration from another slide guitar player: Bonnie Raitt. “Originally, I listened to her songs because of her exceptional slide guitar playing skills, but then I realized what a terrific blues vocalist she is,” Herula says. “So I began singing along with her songs to try and imitate her smooth and dynamic vocal style. Her voice is both powerful and beautiful; she is a wonderful role model.”
Herula also takes a lot of inspiration from teaching. She’s taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music for six years, teaching courses like introductory acoustic slide guitar and intermediate finger style. Just this year, she started teaching electric slide, too. “I absolutely love [teaching],” she says. “Some people just want to play for their families. Some people want to just play at an open mic. Some people want to incorporate slide guitar into their act, maybe they’re already performers. So I’ve taught people from all different levels, and it just makes me happy to see them improve and meet the goals that they have.”
Teaching and marriage counseling exist along the same continuum for Herula. “I get joy out of helping people grow and learn and improve,” she says. “So I guess it just goes along with my wish to make the world a better place. Like helping people with their own mental health, and then helping people learn how to play an instrument.”
Teaching and counseling are feminized professions featuring high percentages of women. The blues, while opening up more and more each year, is still a predominantly male field. When asked about this, Herula brings up a Bang at the Door review that said the album came from a woman’s point-of-view. “I think [the reviewer is] absolutely right, because I wanted to write songs from a woman’s perspective for this album, because I think so many times the woman’s view is really not included,” Herula says. “And it’s for no bad reason. A lot of the guys are the ones that have been writing songs for ages, like blues songs, folk songs, country songs. For example, so many blues songs and country songs and folk songs talk about getting in trouble and going to jail or prison. Many songs are about`that, but I wrote a song called “Promise Me” that’s about the spouse, or the partner, or the father, or brother, that goes to prison, and what it’s like for the woman at home, feeling sad, and worried about the person that they care about.”
“The perspective I took when I wrote the album is [I] really wanted to include the woman’s voice in in the blues,” she continues. “And I wanted to offer a range of emotions. I wanted to offer joy, sorrow, strength, excitement, hope, into all the songs. So a real range. Some of my favorite blues artists, like Robert Nighthawk, he has songs that range from humor to sadness to joy and I wanted to make sure that the songs were about a range. It wasn’t just about one same old thing. I wanted to take people on a journey and experience different styles, different emotions, as they went through this journey on Bang at the Door.”
While there’s something initially counterintuitive about a blues artist who saves marriages rather than wrecking them, it makes sense for Herula, whose music isn’t about roughly exposing emotion so much as it’s about gradually revealing it in a safe thoughtful way. She’s tapped into the rawness of the blues, but her light, personal polish gives it a different sheen, one rooted in healing, that still honors the original greats that set her on her blues journey.
Check out Donna’s website at https://donnaherula.com/