Featured Interview – Joanna Connor

Blues music is usually not thought of as a living, breathing organism that is capable of functioning and growing on its own.

But maybe blues music should be thought of in those terms.

Instead of merely being on display like some sort of museum piece that just sits on a shelf and gathers dust, blues music is around us every day and seems to morph from one form into the next with unfettered ease.

This can be witnessed in a number of different places, including on a long road trip from Chicago to Terre Haute, Indiana.

Slide guitarist supreme, Joanna Connor, explains.

“The blues will always be a part of popular music. I’m not a huge rap or hip-hop fan, but that’s what my kids absolutely love. I was on a trip to Indiana State University with my 17-year-old daughter and she had this CD from Gucci Mane – a hip-hop artist who is from Atlanta. I’m listening to this thing over and over for like four hours, when it hit me; this guy is doing the Delta blues … but it’s rap. That hit me so hard. I thought, ‘This is like the new blues music.’ It’s really primitive in a way and is so grooving and dark, but it definitely has the blues in it. So the blues are in everything,” she said. “The old saying is, ‘The blues will never die’ and I believe that. It’s growing and changing, even though some of the blues purists may get mad. There’s just a whole new generation playing it and there’s a whole new interpretation of the blues that is going on these days.”

Connor has long been one of the artists that were not content to just kick back and play the same old thing. She’s a blueswoman, for sure, but she plays the blues the way she feels them, not the way some old book says she should. That’s one reason why she’s became one of the ‘must-see’ guitarists of the past two decades. That’s also one of the reasons why 2015 has been such a good year for Connor.

“It’s been a pretty amazing year. As you get older you realize that there’s never a perfect year; they have their good and their bad. But it has been a great year. That video of me playing slide on “Walkin’ Blues” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWter1w4vWE) that a big blues fan named Sodafixer 2 posted (from 2014’s North Atlantic Blues Fest) last summer really, really took off,” she said. “I was never really into the internet, I was like, ‘Aw, whatever,’ but that video has gotten like 12 million views around the world, so that was pretty exciting. It’s opened up some doors to some festivals and some travel.”

Maybe the most exciting news of the past few years for Connor centers around that trip to Terre Haute. That’s where her daughter is set to be an Indiana State Sycamore next winter.

“My youngest child, who is my daughter, signed a basketball scholarship with Indiana State University this year. She’s getting a full ride there, which was pretty much the best news of my life,” laughed Connor. “We’re really proud of her – she’s a senior in high school this year. And my son – my oldest child – got a pretty nice job and he’s also into music, too. It’s more of a part-time thing, but he does a lot of hip-hop . So life’s good; I’m living in a nice spot and my gigs just keep going. I play three nights a week at the Kingston Mines and just picked up a weekly gig at The House of Blues. Life’s pretty sweet.”

As if having her wickedly-hot slide guitar technique going viral through cyberspace – along with the impressive accomplishments her two children are in the midst of – were not enough, there’s also the little matter of Connor stepping into the studio this year to cut her first new studio album in well over a decade.

“Yeah, I’ve not been in the studio in 12 years. But my bassist – Lance Lewis – who was also my drummer for years, kind of put the band together and recorded the tracks and then I went in and wrote some stuff with him and played guitar and sang. We’re going to have about 70-percent original material on it,” she said. “It’s kind of varied; there’s some real deep blues and some swampy blues and some jazz. It’s a cool thing and MC Records (the label issued 2002’s The Joanna Connor Band to critical acclaim) has decided to put it out, which is really exciting. It should come out in May of next year.”

Twelve years is a long time for a working artist to go between studio releases, but as it turns out, Connor was really in no big rush – and under no pressure – to create a new record.

“Well, I’ve always been kind of on the edge of the blues world and I’ve always pushed the envelope from day one. That’s kind of rocked the boat in some good ways, but it’s also done the same in some bad ways. A lot of people have criticized my writing or my playing, so I kind of got jaded,” she said. “I thought that until I really had something to say, I was just going to play (and not record). And the music business seemed to be in such a strange place since the advent of the internet, so I’ve been sitting back and watching. At the same time, I was working so much – gigging everywhere – and raising my daughter pretty-much by myself and taking her to all this basketball stuff since she was about 11, so I was just exhausted. I would literally not sleep for two days a week. So there were a lot of factors involved (with the length of time between CDs). If Lance hadn’t asked me to get involved in this project, who knows? It may have been another two or three years before I went back into the studio.”

Although any number of songs from her Blind Pig catalog (starting from the very beginning with 1989’s Believe It!) would certainly indicate otherwise, Connor says she doesn’t really think of herself as a natural-born songwriter.

“I’m really not a writer, per-say. I think my strongest point is being an improviser of the guitar on stage. I don’t really feel the need to write,” she said. “My son, for example, has written more music in four years than I’ve written in my lifetime. He loves to do that. But that’s not so much my calling. I always feel like if I can’t write a better song that what’s already out there, then why should I?”

Connor blew into the Windy City from her home place of Worcester, Massachusetts back in 1984 and quickly found herself immersed in Chicago’s thriving blues scene. Even though some of the faces and places have changed since then, some of them do remain the same.

“The scene is still really vibrant, in the sense that there are still clubs all over the city to play at. There’s still many people from all over the world coming here to see the blues and people are still being converted to the blues,” she said. “I started off at the Kingston Mines with Dion Payton and the 43rd Street Blues Band – we really started off at the Checkerboard and then went to the Mines on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Which is kind of funny, because that was in 1985 and here I am in 2015, playing those same nights with my band at the Mines.”

The Kingston Mines may have been one step ahead of the curve when it comes down to expanding the typical demographics associated with blues fans.

“I have noticed from traveling all over between 1988 and 2005 that the blues crowd is pretty much my age, or older; like 40-plus years old. But at the Kingston Mines, the owner – Doc Pellegrino – was smart enough to encourage the college-aged crowd to come in, by letting them in for free during the week,” said Connor. “The hours help too; it’s open until like five in the morning. Once it hits around 11 p.m., the majority of the crowd I’m playing for is between 21- to 30-years-old. It’s been really amazing, but my son’s generation – the millennials – really enjoy the blues and we rock it up a lot, which they really like. It’s like Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers and The Stones and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. They love all that. But when I travel and do festivals, it’s not really like that in other places. I really think the Kingston Mines has a corner on that market and it’s really, really encouraging to see that and I hope that it spreads more on a national level. But right now, my biggest demographic of really hard-core fans is between 21-30.”

There are still plenty of excellent blues to be seen and heard in Chicago these days, but as Connor notes, there are a lot of the great ones missing, too.

“Yeah, a lot of the great ones are gone; a huge amount. God bless Buddy Guy, who’s still amazing. I’ve known him since the old Checkerboard days and whenever he sees me, he says, ‘Joanna, you and me are the only ones left.’ That’s intense, but that’s true,” she said. “We still have guys like Lil’ Ed and Lonnie Brooks – who doesn’t do much because of his health these days – but to be frank, the people that should have taken the place of guys like Son Seals, the people that are in my age group in their fifties, the drug culture hit Chicago so hard in the 1980s, that it took a lot of them out. The crack and cocaine epidemic probably took out a good 50- or 60-percent of the people that should really be prominent right now. It did knock out a really important wave of people and that’s a real shame. It might have been like that with alcohol in the blues scene at one time, but the drug scene decimated Chicago. Thankfully, that’s really not the case anymore. We do have Billy Branch, who is doing great and Melvin Taylor, who is doing better now and Carl Weathersby, who is awesome. Then you have guys like Toronzo Cannon and Mike Wheeler who are great, but there would have been so many more than that. But this is still a great town for the blues.”

Another great one – who is still around, but doesn’t play as much as he used to – is the highly-underrated Dion Payton. He really gave Connor her start in Chicago and as she found out, Payton played the blues just one way – authentically.

“When I moved to Chicago, I had had a band in Massachusetts, but I was mostly a singer and rhythm player. I really wanted to learn to play the guitar, so my whole goal was to come to Chicago and learn as much about the blues as I could. My whole thing was I wanted to play guitar in someone’s band. So I started stalking Dion Payton, because I loved the way he played. Well, I ended up in his band and probably one of the greatest things about that was he was such a taskmaster. He put me through all kinds of stuff. He’d go, ‘Why are you playing that? Play this. Where’s your E string? It’s not ringing. Don’t play that, play this pattern. Don’t ever play what I’m playing, you play something else.’ At the time, I was like, ‘Ahhh …’ But he really taught me so much,” she said. “He was just so particular with the whole band. We used to rehearse five days a week. But I’m really, really glad I chose him and that he was so rough. At the time, I couldn’t play and sing at the same time. I’d kind of do a B.B. King and sing and then play a solo. Dion told me, ‘I’m not playing with you anymore; you have to learn to play rhythm and sing at the same time.’ So I did. Now I can play anything and sing, but not back then … I was in my early twenties and he really pushed me. He was hardcore and let you have it, but I’m really grateful for that now.”

While he may indeed have been ‘hardcore,’ that didn’t mean that Connor was intent on striking out on her own and leaving Payton’s group just a couple of short years after hitting Chicago. Instead, she was encouraged to do so by Pellegrino.

“I really didn’t want to (start her own band) at the time. Doc said, ‘You’re getting really popular here (Kingston Mines) and people like to hear you sing, so I want to give you your own night.’ I was like, ‘What?’ So he gave me Tuesday nights for a month and that kind of made me put my band together,” she said. “That kind of made me leave Dion, because I felt like it was a conflict of interest. And then things took off. But it was all because Doc pushed me out of the nest, even though I didn’t feel like I was ready at the time.”

As anyone who was seen Connor play can attest to, (and for those that haven’t, once again, simply check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWter1w4vWE) it’s almost as if the guitar has done something to wrong her and she’s paying it back with all the might she can summon. If there’s a guitar player who is any more physical than what Connor is, they have yet to surface.

“One guy said, ‘Man, you play like you’re mad at the guitar.’ I don’t know where that comes from, but I’ve always kind of been that way. I really can’t explain it,” she said. “I guess that’s why people equate me a lot with rock, because rock music is pretty aggressive. So that is in me. I came up really loving Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers … but I really listened to everybody and I still do. I guess that I just get up on stage and turn into a maniac.”

Connor’s favorite instrument of abuse has remained by her side for a couple of decades now.

“I’ve played the same Les Paul, pretty much exclusively, since 1990. It was given to me by Gibson and I love it. That guitar feels like part of my body; I call it my third child,” she said. “Amp-wise, I was with Victoria Amps for a while and I love them, but then Supro came along and they sent me an amp called the Coronado and I love that amp and use it also. I also have an old Peavey Chorus 212 that I use and it’s really loud and powerful. I’m not a real gear-head, but I’m always looking for a particular sound, so I try and dial it in. I always try and find a good sound, but that all starts with my guitar.”

While she adores the big 70s’era rock-n-roll bands, Connor’s path to the blues started with, well … the blues.

“My mother was a huge music lover and was a classical pianist coming up and really wanted to do that. But she was born in 1930 and where she came from, it was like, ‘No, women don’t do that.’ But she loved music. She moved to New York in the 1950s and actually heard Charlie Parker and all those guys. She loved the blues and the first music I remember hearing was blues and jazz,” Connor said. “One of the first albums I really liked when I was 5 or 6 was Taj Mahal’s Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home double-record set. That was the first music I really loved and I would play it over and over … I just loved the whole album and the way he looked on the cover with his cowboy outfit and the rainbow. I’ve heard blues my whole life … Ry Cooder and Robert Johnson … and my mother took me to see Buddy Guy when I was 10-years-old, back in 1972. I also heard a lot of classical music and Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. My mother also took me to every Newport Jazz Festival and I saw Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I was really fortunate that my mother loved music that much. She even brought home .45s back in the 70s of reggae, back before Bob Marley was even well-known. It’s all because of her.”

The bug to play music eventually bit young Joanna Connor, but it would be awhile before she started fooling around with the technique known as ‘slide guitar.’

“I really didn’t even know what slide guitar was. I played classical guitar when I was really little and then I quit, because I didn’t want to practice. Then when I was in high school, my best friend got a guitar and that kind of spurred me on again,” she said. “My mom was working at a college and one of the husbands of a co-worker taught guitar. It turned out this guy taught blues and ragtime and slide. So it was kind of like fate, I guess. I started off playing the really early stuff, like Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell – all the blind guys – and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James. The really old stuff. Well, he also loved Ry Cooder, so he started teaching me some of that, too. He was the one who taught me the slide.”

Her children will always remain in the A number-one slot for Connor, as they well should. And though she’ll be wearing the royal blue and white of Indiana State University (thanks to her daughter) and may listen to a bit more hip-hop (courtesy of her son), with them pursuing their own goals and dreams, that may open up a bit more of Connor’s daily planner for delving deeper into the blues in the upcoming years.

“Well, with my daughter about to go off to college, for the first time since I pretty much started my music career in Chicago when my son was about a year old, I’ve always had a child and my music. Now I’ll be like the ’empty-nester’ and I’m kind of sad about that. But mostly I’m over-joyed for my daughter and now I can devote more time to music,” she said. “It would be nice to be on more festivals and I’d love to do a tour with Walter Trout, or someone like that … like a real guitar-heavy tour. I’d also really love to produce some people and maybe do some behind the scenes stuff. I have a dream of taking a lot of the African-American women singers in Chicago and put them all together and produce an album for them, like a Showdown kind of thing. I’ve also been playing more acoustic guitar lately and I’d like to do an acoustic album in the future. But I’m kind of just winging it right now.

Visit Joanna’s website at www.joannaconnorband.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015

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