Featured Interview – Joe Bonamassa

imageTwenty years into his career, Joe Bonamassa is known internationally for his outstanding guitar abilities, songwriting and a vocal style that’s evolved through both hard work and study.

Few artists have established such a devoted fan base — something that’s paid off with 23 albums that have reached the top of Billboard’s blues charts, including his latest, A New Day Now, an accomplishment made possible by incorporating a sound marketing strategy and building a team of professionals who use social media platforms and available revenue streams in a holistic approach that works so well, it should be a model for all musicians.

Even with the world in a tangle, Bonamassa is moving steadily forward with multiple projects that will come to fruition and delight his fans in the immediate future, kicking off with a 20th anniversary re-release of his first record, A New Day Yesterday, in an expanded format. The original album was produced by the legendary Tom Dowd, the man who invented multi-track recording while working for Atlantic Records.

The updated set, A New Day Now, features changes Bonamassa’s made to pay tribute to Dowd, who left us 2002. The new version was supervised by Kevin Shirley, who took the baton from Tom and has been in the control room for all of Joe’s CDs since You & Me in 2006.

“I first met Tom at a BBQ place that was one of the house gigs I had as a kid in 1998, a place where we had to wait for them to clear the tables off the stage around 9:30 pm so that we could get set-up,” Bonamassa remembers. “They used to plead with us not to order dessert because things were already running late.

“Tom came out at the behest of Michael Kappus, who ran the Rosebud Agency. I was recording some demos for Epic Records for a development deal I had with them at that time. Tom came out, heard us, and liked me. He particularly liked my enthusiasm while understanding that I was an artist that needed some help. I was surprised that he decided to work with us. He mentored and nurtured me, taught me everything that he could in the time we had together.”

“He was 73 years old when I met him. When we picked him up at the airport, he looked around and said, ‘You know, I haven’t been in this part of the world for 60 years!’

“That is something to hear as a 19-year-old! Tom was a brilliant musician. That was the first time I was hip to the fact that he was from the old school, where the producer was the best musician in the room. He listened to everything. He was very cognizant of the kick drum pattern versus that of the snare drum…Is it rubbing with the bass? Is the guitar playing right and fitting in sonically?

“And, of course, he wanted to know if the songs were good. That debut record we made, A New Day Yesterday, was a college education for me in how to record — and a lesson in music history, too.”

“For the 20th anniversary issue, I re-sang all the vocals in Tom’s honor. I wasn’t a good singer at all back then. We also remixed it. There was an issue because some of the original tapes got lost when we took over ownership of the masters from Sony Music. So we had to go with what we had. Thank God that there was something from each song! Kevin Shirley did a wonderful job of piecing it all together.

“Tom and Kevin have similar styles,” Bonamassa says. “Tom liked cutting stuff live, and we still do that. It’s song first, then tempo, because they produce records from the bottom up. That means the drums have to be right. The thing I have learned from all of the great producers I’ve recorded with is that the drums are hypercritical. Everything else can be overdubbed.

image“Both of Tom and Kevin are very musician-oriented. But it all starts with the drums, the backbeat, the feel. One click out of tempo can make something feel too fast, like skipping a rock across a pond. You want the beat to be tough and grounded, like a tugboat.”

“The biggest different in the productions, Joe insists, “is that I’ve learned how to sing. I had some vocal issues when I was 28. My ear, nose and throat doctor said that he could remove the nodule from my vocal chord, but that won’t fix it long term. He suggested that I go learn how to sing and come back in six months for a follow-up.”

“So I went to see Ron Anderson, the guy he recommended. It doesn’t matter if you’re Myles Kennedy — singing hard rock with Slash — or Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Steven Tyler or Joe Bonamassa singing blues, there’s one guy who’s name comes up consistently, especially when singers are trying to save their career, and that’s Ron Anderson.

“I was lucky to be able to work with him, and I still go in for my 100,000-mile check-ups because you develop bad habits. Ron was able to improve my vocal range by almost an octave.”

The A New Day Now release has some bonus tracks, too — three cuts that were captured at a 1997 recording session in New York City — an event spearheaded by another well-known guitarist who had a great appreciation of what Bonamassa was doing at that time: Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen E Street Band and Sopranos fame.

“I met Little’ Steven in New York,” Joe remembers. “He was looking to branch out into production and some other things, We started writing some songs together. Again, I wasn’t an artist at that point — I was a kid! I was in a band, and I played guitar. That’s not really an artist.

“So I learned a lot from Steven. I sucked back then! One of these days, I’d like another opportunity to work with him.”

Despite the acclaim he’s already achieved, Joe’s still always looking for new opportunities. Earlier in the year, he and his manager, Roy Weisman, announced the start of a new label, Keeping The Blues Alive Records. Their first release, Blues With Friends, spotlighted a true musical legend, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci, who grew up a major blues lover and became a superstar in the ’60s as front man for the Belmonts, producing a string of hits that include “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” among others.

“Dion approached us about putting out the record,” Bonamassa says. He already had the music in the can and was trying to find a home for it with a label.

“He’s a neighbor of my manager, and they had a number of discussions about getting it out for people to hear. We told him that, these days, you really need a strong marketing effort behind the release to make people aware. He could have gone with a number of other labels, but chose to work with us.”

The guitarist and his manager already had a label, J&R Adventures, which only releases Bonamassa’s records. They decided to initiate Keeping The Blues Alive Records to put out Dion’s album and create an imprint for future CDs with some sort of charitable connection involved in the process.

“It’s a pretty incredible CD,” Joe insists. “First of all, it’s Dion! Then he has all of these special guests, including Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, and Samantha Fish.

image“He’s a legend, and an icon. He’s 80 years old, looks like he is 50, sings like he’s still 30, and has more energy than both of us put together! Dion loves the blues, and he is beloved by so many music lovers. Working with him was a no-brainer. It made sense to me, so that’s what we did. What better way to launch a new label, your first release with a true icon.

“We already have the non-profit 501 (c)(3) sat up with the Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation. Through our previous efforts, we’ve already raised about $1 million dollars for music programs, blues and music awareness. And our new Fueling Musicians initiative was created to provide pandemic financial assistance, where we are giving away $1,500 packages to full-time touring artists that are really buggered right now. Artists can go to the Keeping The Blues Alive website to fill out the application and apply.

“It just made sense to put the records out under the Keeping The Blues Alive umbrella because, to me, that is kind of what we are doing in a sense.”

With Dion’s release garnering plenty of attention — it spent six consecutive weeks in the No. 1 spot on blues charts, Bonamassa already is working on several other projects for the new label. He is very excited about being able to cut an album with Joanna Connor, another fine guitarist he feels deserves far more recognition.

“I’ve known about Joanna for years,” he says, noting that she really caught his attention.. “I saw a video of her playing at the Chicago Blues Festival and she ripped into something. I thought: there’s some playing that I haven’t heard in awhile!

“Later, I showed up at a show she was doing at Kingston Mines in Chicago. I listened to her set, watched her working her ass off. She typically does that five, six nights a week, four to five hours each night.:

“She was great, he insists, but was playing “a set that unfortunately plays to the tourist crowd, meaning it is covers of blues and soul tunes. I wanted to figure out how to bottle what I heard in that video. I approached her to ask if she would be interested in making an authentic Chicago blues record.

“From watching her show, there were a couple of moments where people weren’t really paying attention. That was when the real Joanna Connor showed up. She got tough, and I saw the fire. I knew there was a punk-rock Chicago blues record in this woman. She’s been a fixture on the scene for many years. I let her know that I wanted to do a record that sounds tough, rough and ready — and asked her to trust that I had her back.

“When she got to Nashville to start recording, I let her know that my bedside manner in the studio may not be what you would expect. I’m tough, and I have a singular vision of what you should be doing. I am so proud of her. She brought her A+ game.

“With just a little prodding from myself, I believe that she made the record of her career. I am very excited for people to hear it because Joanna deserves it. She deserves a career resurgence. I love seeing people like Bobby Rush, in his 80s, finally getting the attention he deserves.

“A lot of times these great artists are under-serviced in the marketplace, and taken for granted. I didn’t want that to happen to Joanna. She is a wonderful human being, guitar player and vocalist. People need to know that she is just as a good a singer as she is as a guitar player -– and she proved it!

“My strategy was very simple: Get an A-list band that knows the material, that has a real authentic feel for the material. She stared talking about playing this rhythm, or that rhythm. I told her not to worry about that because Josh Smith and I would play rhythm guitar.

“I also made it clear that she was going to play lead guitar, that I was going to frame her up like Albert King, so when she comes in, it will be a big event. It is like the blues acts I would see when I was growing up. They didn’t play chords, they played solos. That was an art. They sang, then they played one note that brought you to tears. Joanna has that ability.

image“You just have to put her in a situation where she can flourish.”

In addition to those projects, the guitarist has his own new release, Royal Tea, set for release on J&R on Oct. 23. It’s a homage to the pioneers of British blues — John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Cream, Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck — and features ten originals full of amazing guitar tones and arrangements full of dazzling sonic textures. Lending a helping hand are members of his touring band: Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass, and Reese Wynans on keyboards.

“For me, Clapton is at the top of the list,” Joe says. “He’s my favorite singer, songwriter and guitar player all rolled up in one person. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for him as a person and as a musician. He’s given back, helped many people like myself and others. And he’s been involved in making some of my favorite music ever made with Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Derek & the Dominos, Cream, his solo recordings.

From The Cradle, to me, is one of the greatest blues records ever recorded. That was the template I used for Joanna’s record. It is all covers, but done his way. He was passionate about the music, like he was opening up his musical diary.

“It is fucking criminal that John Mayall is not in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But it is what it is. He is 86 years old, so what are they waiting for? The guy was involved in changing the world, changing the music. If that is not the definition of deserving to be in the hall of fame, then I have no idea what the criteria is.

“We were trying to capture that spirit on Royal Tea. I wrote the majority of the record with guitarist Bernie Marsden and Pete Brown. I also got help from keyboardist Jools Holland, Kevin Shirley and Dave Stewart. We were all just hanging out in London, trying to get that sound. The record is not so much a tribute to guitar players, but more of an experiment to capture that sound.”

Despite the pleasant title, he says, the disc isn’t for the faint of heart. Many tracks exhibit a fierce energy that leaves listeners wondering if songs like “Why Does It Take So Long to Say Goodbye,” “I Didn’t Think She Would Do It,” ‘Lonely Boy” and “Beyond The Silence” were themes pulled from the universal gestalt or were they far more personal for the guitarist.

“This one is straight out of the diary,” Bonamassa says. “I had a long break-up in a long-term relationship. It took a while for her and I to sort it out. We still have great respect and love for each other. But I had a few things that I had to say.

“When One Door Opens” is one I wrote with Pate and Kevin, one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. Pete came up with the line, ‘When one door opens, another closes on me.’ When I read that, I said it is a very eloquent British way of saying if it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. So we had a blues song!

image“Another song, ‘Conversation With Alice,’ is about a therapist I once saw — only for two sessions. I learned pretty quickly that I was unrepairable! I am a character. At least I’m not hurting anyone. Like all humans, I’m just flawed. Once the music business kicks me out, I will do my decade of atonement, mellow out, and start an antique store or something.”

Bonamassa crossed another item off his bucket list when he decided to record the album at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, where he’d previously done a 2012 session with Jon Lord, the composer/keyboard player known for his work with Deep Purple and Whitesnake.

The magical history of the studios had an immediate impact on the project.

“We started recording these songs that I wrote with these British artists,” he says, “and after I heard the first track, I said I love it when a plan comes together.

“We’d hatched this project back in 2018 with Bernie and Pete when I was working with Ginger Baker. I had always wanted to come to London and write a British record. As soon as we heard the first track, Bernie started laughing and said, boy, that worked right. Being at Abbey Road did what it was supposed to do, it’s not a sound-alike thing.

“We wrote the record in a little office at Abbey Road that we rented. The magic wasn’t so much that that was where the Beatles and other artists had recorded iconic music. It was the fact that every day we would get out of the cab, walk in the front door, go to our office with a gig bag and a note, thinking this is not the uncoolist thing we have ever done!

“There were people out there taking pictures, but we had pressing business to take care of in the studio.”

The guitarist also has scheduled a livestream concert from Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sunday, Sept. 20, which will feature the material from Royal Tea plus tracks from his first record. It’ll be the first time Bonamassa’s ever delivered a concert in which he played a full album before its release to the public.

He’ll contribute $1 from each ticket purchased to his foundation’s Fueling Musicians program. If you’re interested, tickets are still available at https://joeb.me/JBW

Bonamassa’s a busy, busy man despite the uncertain times we live in, but he remains focused and committed to moving forward with all his projects while doing what he can to use his public visibility to make a difference in the world around him.

“I’ve been very lucky in my career to weather a few storms,” he says. “Now it’s time to give back to my friends who fight the good fight every day and who’ve had the rug ripped out from under them.

“So far, we’ve raised over $300,000 for Fueling Musicians, and we’ve given it all away to over 160 musicians from all types of genres, not just blues .

“Funds are available to touring musicians who’ve had dates canceled. We made the decision to keep the program going as the need’s still there — well into next year. People are really hurting.

“It will be a very different, and difficult, landscape when things do come back. I wish I could raise more. If we get a million dollars, I’ll gladly give all of it away. We want to be there for people in need at their time of need.”

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