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Joanna Connor – ‘The Queen of Chicago Blues’ finally gets her Coronation

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Interview by Paul Monkhouse for MPM

Chicago based blues phenomenon Joanna Connor’s feet haven’t touched the ground recently. Her, Joe Bonamassa produced, new album ‘4801 South Indiana Avenue’ pouring gasoline on the interest first lit by a viral video showing her play some jaw dropping guitar in a back yard just a handful of years ago.

A professional musician for most of her life, it took this internet sensation to get this globally talented singer and guitarist the global attention that she truly deserved but that was just a mere steppingstone to this current situation where usually aloof and ‘too cool for school’ critics are falling over themselves to praise and talk to her.

With the involvement and encouragement of Bonamassa, this immensely talented, yet seemingly ego free, artist was able to truly spread her wings and the result is one of the rawest, hottest, most exciting and authentic blues albums in many years. Caught up in a whirlwind of publicity, we find her the serene and instantly likeable centre of the storm.

Despite the rigors of days and days of answering questions, she seems as bright, happy and awake as anyone could possibly hope, the reaction, possibly, to the rightful praise being heaped upon her head and the knowledge that she’s just released the album of her career. With the conversation liberally peppered with laughter and smiles, it’s a genuine joy to talk to her and we start off with those everyday questions that are so important at the moment…

Hi Joanna. How are you doing?

Well, about the same as everyone generally. It’s pretty good though, this record has brought my spirits up now that’s it’s out but it’s been a rollercoaster ride…some days are great and some aren’t. I feel like I’m on permanent school vacation at the moment, I’m eleven years old again and can’t drive or do anything (laughs).

How have you been dealing with lockdown?

I’ve been teaching guitar. When the weather was good, I did a few shows outside. I live in Illinois and they were one of the stricter States. Some States didn’t do anything. I did a few private parties in peoples back yards and a few club things but the last time I played was at the end of October and it was cold so I thought I’d better start teaching guitar more and have about twenty students.

The new album has just come out so when did you record it?

It was February 2020, so a year ago. We were meant to be releasing it in June when all the festivals were happening but the time wasn’t right. Joe (Bonamassa) finally said ‘’Let’s release it. We can’t keep sitting on it.’’

You’ve been a professional musician for the whole of your adult life and first picked up a guitar at age seven. What inspired you to do that and why the guitar?

It was my mom. She was really ahead of her time and into the arts. She wanted to be a piano player but her parents were like ‘’No, a young lady doesn’t do that. You have to do something practical!’’ but she never gave up her love of music.

She loved jazz and blues in particular and everything really so I grew up listening to that and pop music and classical, rock and reggae. She was always looking for new stuff to bring into the house and took us to concerts when we were kids and it’s often quoted that I saw Buddy Guy when I was ten years old.

So yes, she was a big influence on everything I listened to and then I found more things for myself. The love of music was always there and I can remember trying to sing as a really little kid. Most kids do like music but it just became a passion and never left.

My mom actually gave me the guitar. I woke up one morning and she said there’s something for you in the living room. It was a little Sears guitar as everyone had Sears guitars in those days.

It was a classical one and she said you’re going to take classical guitar lessons. I wasn’t that thrilled but I thought ‘’okay, I’d like to sing’’ so gave it a go. I did quit for a while and took up the saxophone and played that all through my years at school until I graduated. After that I picked up my guitar and said to myself that I wanted to play it again, I missed it.

Had you shown an inclination to play an instrument before or was it your mother’s decision?

It was hers really and I think she wanted to do it to keep me out of trouble (laughs)…’’we’re going to keep you doing something constructive’’ (more laughter).

What did it feel like to you as a ten-year-old being at the Buddy Guy show?

I was ten years old and I’d never seen anything like that before and it blew me away. It was funny, my mother worked at a college and it was a student centre that was a big empty room with no seats and no stage. He set up on the floor and my mom brought me right up to the front and I was sitting on the floor, literally five feet from Buddy Guy and his amp. I can remember looking up and seeing him and all the musicians and it’s burned in my brain. Everything about it was incredible to me and it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard. I told Buddy Guy ‘’I saw you when I was ten years old’’ and he said ‘’Don’t make me feel so old Jo!’’ (laughs). I never thought, twelve years later, that I’d be playing behind him at his club but it happened.

What was it about blues that grabbed you particularly?

The first album I ever fell in love with was a Taj Mahal record, the double album ‘Giant Step / De Ole Folks At Home’, I’m sure you’ve heard it. Really whoopsie stuff and banjo and harmonica and the more urban stuff. Every time I listened to it, I was transported somewhere else and it just struck a chord. I remember dancing to it when I was seven or eight years old. I liked a lot of other things too but there was just something in that music that spoke to something inside of me, it always has and it always does. I think when you’re exposed to the blues it’s something you never put down again.

You were born in Worcester, Massachusetts but then went to Chicago…

Yes, it was a sort of pilgrimage at aged 19. I got into some clubs that I wasn’t meant to be in and they had a free jazz festival. Chicago still has so much music, with the festivals and the clubs, it was just heavenly to come here. The whole culture was different from where I grew up and it fascinated me. I’d see the bands when they came to Boston or New York and there was a decent scene in Massachusetts with Ronnie Earl and Room Full Of Blues and those type of people but there was something about the Chicago style of playing that made me go ‘’that’s the sort of thing I want to be in’’.

I would immerse myself in that whole culture and I’d see the food, the clothing, the language and it felt so different, so exotic in a way. Now it’s been so long I feel like I’m a native now and the whole way that the musicians interact to each other and the way they played that music is part of me. A lot of the musicians played at and came from gospel churches so they brought a feel to the music that you wouldn’t find in any other city. Other cities have own their culture like New Orleans and Memphis but Chicago is loaded with that.

When you moved to Chicago you worked in Dion Payton’s band and described him as ‘’extremely rough and disciplinarian’’…

It’s funny, I was talking to my brother about growing up and it snowed a lot. The whole school yard used to be covered so they ploughed it up into a big mountain of snow and we used to push each other off and nothing happened but today none of that would happen. When we grew up and you did something in class the teachers would pull you out and knock you around. It was a whole different thing and maybe if I were a millennial and had to deal with Dion it would have been ‘’oh my God!’’ but it was just like dealing with my basketball coach. I respected him but it was tough…he used to yell at me onstage and say ‘’No, don’t do that…beep beep beep’’…I won’t say the curse words he said…and people quit on him but I was so eager to learn I just toughed it out.

Eventually I left, I’d done two and a half years with him and it was time to go but he was really a disciplinarian and some days I’d used to open the show singing and he’d play behind me and I didn’t really play and sing at the same time, kinda like BB King used to sing, play a line and then sing again. He said to me ‘’Joanna, you’ll have to play guitar and sing because I’m not playing behind you’’. I said ‘’What do you mean? I can’t do that’’ and he replied ‘’well, you’d better learn. You’d better learn to play rhythm and sing because tonight you’re going to be doing that’’. I don’t remember what happened that night but I had to learn pretty fast and it was like throwing me into the pool at the deep end and you had to swim. Now I feel I can play pretty much any rhythm and sing so maybe it was what I needed, who knows. I look back on it as a gift.

It’s like Van Morrison…I know he has a bit of a reputation for doing that…docking their wages at the end of the show…

He’s old school. James Brown too. If anyone messed up, he’d fine them five dollars. We make a joke about that…my band does that (laughing)…they make a mistake and say ‘’oh…five dollars!’’ and we kid about that but Van Morrison, he’s old enough to know about that. He’s so amazing too so if you’re as good as that you have high expectations. It’s funny, I was watching a documentary about Benny Goodman and he would look at them and they’d call it ‘The Ray’ because he’d stare at them and it’s funny because I’d do that if someone is really pissing me off onstage, I’d give them ‘the look’ and I thought ‘’Oh, I never knew I had ‘The Ray’ like Benny Goodman’’ (laughs).

It’s that you want to put across the best to audience to respect both them and the music itself…

Musicians are only human and don’t give it their all or aren’t focused…maybe sometimes they’re drunk or whatever and you have to deal with those things. Even with the best of bands, like Van Morrison’s, if they mess up, he has to correct them because you’d want that perfection. I always say to musicians ‘’No matter what, give it 100% and at least try because every night’s not going to be wonderful but if you’re not putting your heart into it, you shouldn’t be doing it’’.

When you formed your own band, you were doing about two hundred shows a year, a pretty punishing schedule. You once had Joe open for you. Did you see him play and think ‘’he’s going places’’ or was he just another opening act?

(Laughs) He opened one show for me at the House of Blues and the booking agent called me on the day of the show and said ‘’Joanna, this young guy is going to open up for you and he’s a rising star in the guitar world. Is it okay?’’ I said ‘’I don’t care…it’s one hour less I don’t have to play!’’ (laughing again). I was happy about that and I remember going there and we were playing in a restaurant and he’d brought a Marshall. I thought ‘’oh, he’s playing with a Marshall’’ and I heard him and thought ‘’oh, he’s good’’. A few years later I had a night off and I turn on (television station) PBS and it’s ‘Joe Bonamassa at the Royal Albert Hall’. I was like ‘’who is this?’’ and then went ‘’oh…that’s that guy!’’ (laughs). All weekend they played that and I was like ‘’wow’’ and he obviously kept on growing and growing and became very famous here.

It’s funny isn’t. I used to see a guy play a lot around the local bars and bar where I was living, often talking to him and that was Ed Sheeran. I knew he was good but had no idea he was going to be this global superstar that he became…

Oh wow. (Laughs). Who knows, I meet musicians in Chicago or Massachusetts guitarists or singers who are amazing but they don’t make it. My daughter went to see Ed Sheeran when she was a young teenager at a small theatre in Chicago that held, maybe, two thousand people and the next year he was playing a stadium with Taylor Swift.

With regards to other musicians, what for you personally makes a good guitarist?

Oh boy…well…you have to be fluid on your instrument. I mean…and I’m not just saying this…but Joe is one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever seen. I love someone who has a lot of emotion in their playing, a lot of fire and who have a lot of versatility in their playing so if you see them you don’t think ‘’oh, they’re a one trick pony’’.

Someone who brings everything to the plate, someone with a good sense of rhythm no matter what kind of music, has a groove so yes, all of those things. (At this point we went off on a brief discussion about my appreciation of the incredible guitarwork of Pat McManus and Hannah Wicklund, Joanna promising to check them both out). I love fast players and technical players too but if there’s no soul it can get tiring and you’re like ‘’okay…’’ (laughing).

You went under the radar for ages but then the video of you playing ‘Walkin’ Blues’ in someone’s back yard came out and went hugely viral. Was that sudden attention strange?

At first it was. It was kind of unnerving. My emails were blowing up and people were trying to get in touch with me including some from the tv. I just wasn’t used to it being THAT sudden but some really nice things came out of that; a part in a movie…my band…we’re playing…I’m not acting (laughs). But it was shocking and I was someone who got dragged into the digital age by my kids and I was like ‘’no, I want nothing to do with that’’ but they were like ‘’Ma, get rid of your flip phone…get on the internet!’’. My son said ‘’I’m going to make you an Instagram account’’ and I was like ‘’Oh, okay then’’…and then I saw the power of it and I was like ‘’oh…okay’’. I was a little late to the party (smiling).

It’s great that this has all happened and I remember Jeff Healy in ‘Roadhouse’ and that was excellent to see him in it…

Yes…It’s a film called ‘Deep Water’ and it’s meant to be out in August this year and stars Ben Affleck.

Of course, one of the people who saw the video was Joe…

Yes, he saw that and responded to that. Also, someone filmed a little video of me doing a guitar solo and I threw that up on Twitter and it started going around various famous people and he re-Tweeted it and it was May of 2019 and he said something like ‘’She plays with the best of bad intentions’’ so I messaged him and said ‘’This is Joanna Connor, thank you and this is my contact info’’ and he got back to me the same day and things went from there.

He made promises and actually kept them. You know, you meet people who say ‘’oh, I want to help you’’ and I call that the ‘Hollywood Promise’ and sometimes they just can’t even if they have good intentions but he actually made it happen.

What was it like working with him in the studio?

At first, I was so nervous. I was thinking ‘’I’m going to sit in a room with this guy who’s one of the best guitar players in the world’’ and I didn’t really know him that well. We talked and he seemed nice but as things went on it was just a very special time, everything was flowing well and we go along well. He’s a really smart guy and has great sense of humour, is very down to earth and is very straight to the point and I like that. He thought he was hard on me but I was like ‘’No…you’re not really…not compared to what I was used to.’’ He was hard in that he told you what he wanted and I liked and respected that. It was a great experience and the musicians he picked were so stellar and it was awesome all around.

He seemed to have pushed you with your guitar playing but more specifically vocally…

That was the challenge for me because I started out as a singer and not so much of a guitarist but my goal was to become a guitarist and the singing was always there but felt I was stronger with the guitar. The vocal parts were always difficult for me, especially when I made my own records and produced myself but he pushed me with my vocals.

The guitar part he’d direct me in but I flew by and did whatever I wanted as I was playing along with the band. After we’d finished that part, we did the vocals and it was really helpful because he can sing and sometimes he’d say ‘’why don’t you sing it like this…’’ and he’d sing to me. But he was really pushing me hard and I knew I had it in my voice but I didn’t use it that much and he said ‘’I want your vocals to be as tough as your guitar playing’’ and I was like ‘okay…well let’s try’’ (laughing).

Listening to the album, it seemed like Joe really ‘got’ you. You’re experienced, you know your style and what you want to say but he thought you’d only scratched the surface on things and really brought those out.

I’m totally impressed…the fact that he’s a great player and a great businessman too but he’s a great producer. He really knows how to inspire people, feel comfortable and bring out the best. Maybe there’s some psychology but he did and it was a great partnership. That’s when you see great partnerships in the studio, like the Beatles and whoever, they have a great producer and it works so well and I think I found the perfect producer for me.

In your mind, how does this album compare to your other releases?

It’s a lot more focused. I was usually all over the place on my records (laughs) but that was my choice but this is way more focused and way more steeped in the blues. I think the production is way better…I mean, my records sound good but this sounds BIG and doesn’t sound slick, it sounds real. It’s hard to do, to make something sound so high fidelity but also sound real and on it. Joe pulled that off for sure and was even pushing the engineers, saying ‘’No, I want this…’’ and they were saying ‘’Are you sure?’’ and he replied ‘’Yeh’’ so they said ‘’Okay, we’ll try’’.

I think that’s what I noticed with ‘I Feel So Good’ and it’s certainly followed through the album that there’s a real rawness, passion and honesty. Have you got a favourite track on the album?

Oh…that’s hard because they’re all different…but I guess the one that hits you the hardest is ‘Bad News’ because it’s very emotional. But I like every cut on the record and each one brings its own thing to the table.

Listening to the album, ‘It’s My Time’ reminded me so much of the atmosphere on the Robbie Robertson track ‘Somewhere Down The Lazy River’ from his solo debut in the late 1980’s…

Oh, I can’t believe you just said that! It’s given me chills (a huge smile immediately breaks out on her face). While we were doing that I said to Joe ‘’Do you remember that Robbie Robertson cut ‘Somewhere Down The Lazy River’ where he’s talking and (sings) ‘Somewhere Down The Lazy River’?’’ and that’s EXACTLY what I thought and I loved that cut. Good for you! Bingo!

I loved that Southern Gothic feel and it’s a stunning way to close the album.

It almost didn’t make it on there. Joe was saying ‘’Oh I don’t know if we should put that on there, it’s so different from everything else’’ but I’m really happy he did. I love it and he plays some great slide on there. He always says ‘’I’m not a slide player’’ and I say ‘’Yeh, whatever’’ (rolls her eyes in mock disbelief). We did the whole thing as a slide duet and I love that. When he told me to do the spoken word that’s when it clicked I thought ‘’oh yes, that’s that Robbie Robertson cut’’.

So, what’s next for you? I don’t know exactly although we’re going to come to the UK. I’ve spoken to an agent and he said that February 2022 we’ll start bringing you over and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s only a year away! (laughs) I’m still waiting to see what happens like a lot of musicians where I live. Places like Texas and Florida didn’t close anything down and I heard that New Orleans opened up this week so we’ll see.

The album closes with the words to ‘It’s My Time’ saying ‘’I’m not after fortune or fame, I just want people to remember my name. It’s my time’’.

Fingers crossed!

With a huge smile and laugh it was time for Joanna to go and get ready for another in the current endless string of interviews. Given the strength and sky-high quality of ‘4801 South Indiana Avenue’, those last sentiments look destined to be fulfilled in no uncertain terms.

Get the album now at http://bit.ly/4801sindiana

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