Cover photo © 2022 Rapha El
If one were to look up the word “fierce” in the dictionary, several alternative definitions would be found, including “showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity” and “attractive in a bold or striking way”. Both of those definitions quite accurately describe the intriguing and talented musician from Belgium named Ghalia Volt.
Ghalia is also fiercely independent and has been from a very young age. The only musician in her family, she picked up the guitar at age eleven and instead of trying to learn a song, she immediately attempted to create her own melodies. In her teens she was a fan of punk music, then drifted over to psychobilly music, and soon discovered rockabilly music. She then learned about the connection between rockabilly and jump blues and has been passionate about the blues ever since.
“Jump blues is my favorite music style, and when you like something, you dig into it more and more to find out where it came from. I was digging into the roots and learned about gospel, country music, and spirituals.”
Ghalia decided to come to the United States to become more immersed in the blues and worked to make money to support her journey by busking on the streets of Brussels. She then left on a solo blues adventure.
“It could be raining, snowing, I’d still be out there, playing the same ten songs over and over again. I finally made enough money to come here and travel for three months, so I left with just a backpack and a guitar.”
Coming from Europe, Ghalia wasn’t quite prepared for the lack of public transportation in much of the United States and didn’t even have a driver’s license.
“In Europe you don’t need a car. We really depend on public transportation, so I was taking greyhound buses, Amtrak trains. I tried hitchhiking too, but I guess that is not the best thing to do in the US—it can be a little scary. I’ve had to jump out of moving cars. We don’t grow up with the gun situation like you have here, and we trust people a little more than we should. But then I would meet some good people on the road and convince them to go visit places with me, like following the Mississippi blues trail. That’s where I discovered Hill Country blues—I had never heard of it before then.”
Although Ghalia is most known for her solo performances of hill country blues-influenced music, she initially was performing and recording with a group called Mama’s Boys, which was based out of New Orleans. In 2017 they released an album entitled Let the Demons Out. Given that her band resided there and given that New Orleans is more beautiful than most places she had visited, she decided to settle in New Orleans herself. Her next album, Mississippi Blend, was released in 2019, and featured collaborations with Cedric Burnside, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Watermelon Slim and Cody Dickinson.
Ghalia then performed a few shows as a one-woman band and found that it was so well-received, she decided to record an entire album in that manner. But first she embarked on a month-long train trip to write the songs for the album. She headed to the west coast, crossed Wyoming, came back to Chicago, and then headed south, sometimes riding for forty hours in a row. She wrote the songs from her experiences on that trip, as well as putting together some old writings from the scratchbook of ideas she had kept. She noted the impact that the solo trip had on the writing of the resulting album, entitled One Woman Band.
“It’s amazing what can happen when you finally get the distractions out of the way and get centered on what you need to do. I got back and called Ruf Records and went to Memphis to record the album at Royal Studios with Boo Mitchell. Then I booked a tour in Europe, but it got cancelled because of the pandemic. So, then I booked this Midwest tour. I used all the contacts I had made from my previous travel and went back to see them. The funny thing was, I still didn’t have my driver’s license at that time, so I was moving from one city to the next by train. It was insane. For every show I would have to find a way to borrow drums and the bass amp, etc., and after the show I would have to put it all in an Uber car and go back to the hotel, sometimes pushing two carts of equipment by myself. It was so insane that I just had to get my license and buy a car. Soon I was driving to Boise, Idaho, but that was also an experience because I had never been on a highway before.”
The sound of One Woman Band, (which features contributions from Monster Mike Welch and Dean Zucchero), is what Ghalia calls ‘Hill Country meets Blues-Rock’. The songs on the album tend to be very meaningful and based on her experiences. For example, “Last Minute Packer” describes living out of a suitcase, and “Meet Me in My Dreams” captures the intense emotions of tragically losing ones we love who reappear in our dreams. She explained a few more of the songs.
“’Bad Apple’ was written after being around some very loud kids. It’s about how if you don’t teach manners to your kids, they will grow up as they have been educated by their parents, and “Espiritu Papago” was based around a very bad situation I encountered in the Arizona desert.”
It is clear that songwriting can be very therapeutic for Ghalia, and she had to give some consideration to which of her originals was the most therapeutic for her to compose.
“I think I would say it was ‘Can’t Escape,’ because it talks about being stuck in your own mind. I sometimes have a hard time sleeping because of my train of thoughts—it’s just constant. I could be having sex with my boyfriend, and I would still be writing a song at the same time. It’s a brain that never stops. ‘Can’t Escape’ is a little dark. It talks about if I can’t find peace in my mind I will explode, and you’ll find me six feet in the ground. That’s what blues-influenced music is to me—sharing the feelings that everyone can relate to. You feel like you aren’t the only one. Songwriting is one of the most interesting parts of this job.”
In addition to gaining some experiences to inspire songwriting, Ghalia also felt that her journeys would help her demonstrate that she has paid her dues and would lend more authenticity to her playing.
“People judge you when you are a girl. There’s a bit of prejudice against a girl playing drums or guitar and, as a European, it’s even more of a challenge. Plus, every time I go back to Europe, my accent gets stronger, so that also requires more work. I knew that Robert Johnson would jump on trains and hitchhike and go learn the blues, and I thought that I have to pay my dues too. That’s why I call what I do ‘blues-influenced’ music and not the blues. We don’t own this music. It’s not ours and I respect that. But we do all have traumas and situations in our lives.”
Many musicians have discussed the shock they experienced once they realized that they weren’t prepared to handle the business part of their career, but Ghalia was always able to easily take on those challenges as well.
“It just came naturally for me. I’m energetic. I have drive. Musicians need to understand that being a great musician is not going to make you artist of the year—it’s not just about the music. There are a lot of amazing musicians out there, but they didn’t know that you have to spend a thousand hours in front of your computer booking and planning. It takes a lot of energy. You can be as good as you want and won’t make it. Some okay musicians make it because they have that drive. You have to be persistent, consistent and have a lot of energy.”
Although influenced by blues-rock, Ghalia has a unique style that seems to separate her from that genre. She explained a bit about her technique.
“I’ll never be shredding, but then, I also wouldn’t want to. I’m more of a ‘play one note but play it right’ kind of musician. BB King was like that, the way he would play that one note. I don’t even call what I do ‘picking’—I call it pinching. To get that groove, I pinch. It’s minimalistic, but full and raw and very organic. I like that organic sound.”
Now that music venues have returned to normal scheduling, Ghalia is looking forward to continuing some intense touring. She was particularly excited about having the opportunity to open for Buddy Guy on his Farewell Tour this coming January.
“I’m glad and honored that they called me to open for him during his farewell tour. Then I have a European tour from mid-January until March, and then will be coming back for a Midwest tour. I’m also excited that I will get to play for the first time in Spain, which is special to me because I am half-Spanish. We recently released the vinyl version of Mississippi Blend this year, so I’m also happy about that. And we’re also about to release a new album. I’m almost done writing the material for that album.”
Ghalia also stated that while some of her tour would feature her as a one-woman band, she was drifting back toward performing with a full band. She noted there were positive and negative aspects of both arrangements.
“As a one-woman band it’s really a showcase. It’s a journey and I’m telling stories. And I have the freedom not only with the setup of the stage, but I can be on my own schedule musically. I’m totally free to slow down or rush it, whenever it feels good. I just love the fact that it feels right, and it is always sincere and authentic. But you are tied to the chair and drums as a solo act. When I play with the band, I am freer to move around the stage, and of course the interaction with other musicians is what makes it so special. It’s a totally different performance.”
Ghalia discussed the icons with whom she would love to share a stage or collaborate on a recording. One slightly surprising one was Bobby Rush, who seems to have a drastically different style from hers.
“But we both write dirty songs, in a very subtle way. Well, sometimes they are less subtle. I’m writing a song I would love for us both to sing, but I will have to work hard to convince him. He’s been doing this for over fifty years and doesn’t need someone writing songs for him. I also think of Mavis Staples as my queen. She is my legend. I would drive all the way Ohio or to Gainesville, Florida from here just to see her. I’m a big fan, but I didn’t take the opportunity to meet her when I could, because I don’t want to meet her as a groupie. I’m taking my time to hopefully one day meet her backstage playing the same festival roster.”
She really does not need to worry. When she does finally meet Mavis, Mavis is sure to recognize and appreciate the ‘fierceness’ of Ghalia’s talent. To experience the music of this unique artist, check out her videos, and see her tour schedule visit her website atwww.ghaliavolt.com