Featured Interview – Laura Chavez

Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone

imageLaura Chavez often appears to be an unobtrusive “side-musician” who can initially seem restrained and shy.   She refrains from speaking onstage, avoids flashy clothing, and modestly offers support to assist the bandleaders with whom she collaborates.  But when she steps forward to play a guitar solo, the audience finds themselves transfixed by her powerful presence.  Chavez’s impassioned playing is spellbinding, and the purity of her tone reflects the influence of other highly emotive players, such as Ronnie Earl and “Monster” Mike Welch.  She noted that she gets ideas for her playing from listening to other instruments, such as the saxophone.

“I’ve always listened to music with the biggest ears I possibly can.  I listen to other instruments, like the organ parts in rock, blues, or soul, and try to copy those ideas with the guitar.  It becomes less about the guitar as an instrument and more about its role in the project.  Listening to horns changes your whole sense of phrasing because of the way saxophonists must take a breath.  It ends up being in a different place than you would normally end a phrase.  It changes the rhythm and cadence of it.  I tend to listen more to any other instrument besides the guitar lately, and then adapt it for the guitar.”

Chavez first became widely known when touring with Candye Kane, who made it her mission to ensure that the world became aware of Chavez’ superior talent.  However, blues fans are lucky that Chavez continued to seek her dream after an uninspiring experience in school, and then a discouraging and sexist attitude from her first guitar teacher, who did not think girls could be good players.

“I went to a Catholic school—the Brothers of Assisi.  It was such an archaic side of the church.  I got stuck with a teacher who was eighty-five years old and would teach with his eyes closed, so I would sit there, and in my mind, I would practice scales on my left hand.  But my first experience with a guitar teacher was not good at all. I guess I was about eight years old, and there were just two of us when I first started taking lessons—just this boy and me.  The teacher immediately took to him, and made no real effort with me, so I didn’t make any effort.  And he would make discouraging statements, like when I once got the A minor chord and the E chord confused (which are basically the same chords except one string apart), and he went so far as to say that I should be tested for dyslexia.  So, I would start to go hide until my guitar lesson time was over and my parents realized that they needed to stop these lessons. Years later I had a great teacher, and I took over teaching some of the lessons for that teacher at the same store as my first teacher.  He would go out of his way to peer through the window to see what I was doing, but he never said anything to me.  I hope he sees some of these interviews.”

Chavez also noted that for some unexplainable reason, people are constantly approaching her and making statements about how she is a good bass player, which is an instrument she has never played.  She indicated that this happens at nearly every show, even when the actual bass player is playing an upright bass, so she cannot comprehend why they make that error, (and when she asks, they have no answer).  Therefore, she assumes it is likely due to people’s preconceived notions that women do not play lead guitar, an attitude that is hard to understand in 2023.

imageChavez has taught guitar since she was eighteen, and initially had as many as thirty students in a week.  Once she began touring regularly, this number decreased significantly, and she now mainly has some very advanced students.

“One woman took lessons from me and now she’s got this crazy career.  Her name is Liv Slingerland, and she playing with artists like Olivia Rodrigo.  I guess if I were going to give advice to beginners, I would say half of learning is all about listening and absorbing all kinds of music.  Play with anybody, whenever you can.  Take any opportunity to play with anybody.  Nothing is too small—it’s all worth it.”

Chavez was granted, but then decided to defer admission to the University of California-Berkeley and had planned to be a pre-med student.  However, she realized that her music career was skyrocketing, so she abandoned that plan.  However, she found ways to fulfill her desire to help those with medical needs, and for ten years she volunteered at Stanford Children’s Hospital, something she managed to fit in despite being known for being extremely busy.  It would not be unusual for her to have six or seven gigs on a three-day weekend, all with different bandleaders.  So it was a shock for her during the pandemic, when touring ceased.  That was the first time she tried busking.

“The pandemic was hard for most of us.  It made me doubt the future and caused an identity crisis of sorts.  What am I if I’m not a guitar player? Up until that point I had not made a single dollar doing any other kind of job other than playing guitar. For two months I didn’t play at all, and I even lost my callouses, but then tried busking and it was actually pretty cool.  You didn’t want to be partly responsible for causing people to gather or enticing people to be irresponsible, so I went to an area of San Diego called Little Italy where there are just pedestrians, no cars.  So, people can distance while walking and restaurants had outdoor seating.  I started playing with Chickenbone Slim and at first, I thought I’d just come with an acoustic guitar, but soon I was bringing battery-powered amps and a whole drum set.  We started playing every Friday and we drew a regular crowd.  The whole busking thing, along with grants from the Blues Foundation and some generous bandleaders, saved me during the pandemic.  And Chickenbone Slim and I recorded an album together with Kid Anderson at Greaseland, which should be out on Vizztone Records in the Spring.”

During the pandemic, Chavez also spent a lot of time reading recipes and cooking, which is a talent most don’t know she possesses.  She is particularly fond of recipes that honor her father’s Mexican heritage.

“People are surprised to hear that I am an aspiring cook.  I really got into making different dishes with mole sauces during the pandemic.  I would take all the peppers and grind them down and make everything from scratch.”

Chavez is also a songwriter, and while she does sometimes write both the music and the lyrics to songs, she prefers writing in collaboration with others.  The most meaningful song she co-wrote was a song she wrote with Kane, called “Walking, Talking Haunted House”.  This was also Kane’s favorite song and reflected their shared fondness for anything spooky.

image“I’ve written the most songs with Candye.  She was very prolific.  She would have poems that she had written, and it was never very difficult to turn some of them into songs.  It would come together so easily and naturally. The “Walking Talking, Haunted House” song was written from the perspective of an older woman, and she was looking back, basically as the ghost of all previous relationships.  It’s like a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins slow, minor, dark-type song.  The entire last album, Coming Out Swinging, was therapeutic to write.  I remember recording that album right when we found out that she had relapsed, so the whole recording was very difficult for a number of reasons, but also therapeutic.  It was a dark time, but it still managed to be fun.  That album is full of life.”

Since Kane’s passing, Chavez has worked with numerous artists, but most often can be seen supporting Nikki Hill or Vanessa Collier.  They travel extensively, often internationally.

“I’ve been to over fifty countries.  One of the most interesting and amazing places I’ve played is Israel.  That is a country just so full.  Everything converges in this one area of the world, with Judaism, Muslim and the Christian Church altogether.  It’s very intense. It permeates every other aspect.  I went to Russia a few times and I hope the situation improves so that someday I will have the chance to go back there.  You know, you have no concept of what is truly old until you see some of those buildings, and surprisingly there are three different blues festivals in Romania.  I think often of the people I met in these countries, and everyone was so grateful that we came, and they couldn’t believe that we thought to come to their country.  They appreciated us so much.”

When asked about the equipment she uses in performance Chavez replied:

“My guitar is a Fender 1960 Relic, one of the first they made back in 1996. I’ve had it since the beginning of 2001 and it’s played every gig with me since- literally thousands and thousands of gigs. People ask me about the pickups and I have no idea. It’s been refreted with giant frets over and over again and it’s a long overdue for another one.”

“My main amp has always been a Vero 20th Century limited built by Chris Fazio in Joliet, IL. For bigger venues when I can play louder it’s a Fender Bassman. I also have been playing a tweed Blues Jr. when I can’t get my Vero everywhere. Regardless of the amp, I always have the Boss/Fender 63’ Reverb pedal and an older model Xotic RC Boost that I keep on all of the time.”

Chavez’s powerfully moving guitar style is something every blues lover should witness.  And she has captured the attention of some of the biggest names in blues guitar history.  For example, Bob Margolin has stated the following about her abilities: “Laura always finds clever, fiery and lyrical guitar fills and solos in any song.  When I listen, I can’t wait to hear what she’ll play next!”

Chavez does not have a webpage, but you can check out her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/THELauraChavez, and she is likely to be found wherever Nikki Hill and Vanessa Collier are touring.

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