Christone "Kingfish" Ingram's debut, Kingfish, was a stunningly sophisticated introduction. Released when he was 20, he showed restraint and maturity, but also flash. Many artists, regardless of where they are in their career, would be happy with an album like it in their catalog.
Musicians sometimes struggle with sophomore albums. There's the potentially crushing expectations of following up a strong debut. There's the time crunch of writing a second album. And there's the fatigue of touring behind a debut—especially a successful one. None of those factors seemed to impact Ingram, who makes a strong return with 662, keeping a lot of the straight-forward blues rock that made Kingfish so enjoyable, but also slowly and deliberately integrating new sounds. It's a level-headed response to an expectation-packed moment.
"I did think about [the pressure] a bunch of times because on this record, I have no featured [guests], no big artists, nothing like that," Ingram says. "It's all me. And I did think about it once or twice, but once I start thinking [about if listeners] are going to pay attention to the growth of the sound, the growth in the matured vocals, and in everything like that, after giving the record a couple of good listens, I think we definitely one-upped the first one, for sure."
Ingram's vocals, while always impressive, shine on the album, the result of his getting more comfortable in the studio. "There's a way certain lines have to be sung, and you have to really belt out," Ingram says. "You really have to sing. And I had taken all that I learned from the previous sessions that I did, especially the first record, and I came with that attitude on this on this one, because of that. I knew what to do vocally and I think [that] helped the sound of the record. Plus me getting older as well," he laughs.
Ingram writes with drummer/album producer Tom Hambridge, along with songwriter Richard Fleming. However, 662 features "Rock and Roll," an album bonus track written by Nashville songwriters Sean McConnell and Ashley Ray, and released as a single last summer. Ingram lyrically tweaked the track to make it a tribute to his mother, Prince Pride, who died in late 2019. That song has a pronounced pop feel, a musical style he says he might want to pursue some day.
"[I love] all types of music and different genres of music, Ingram says. "The experimenting part of what I do, that's something that I'm not going to be able to control to purist standards [laughs]. I've always wanted to do something in almost every genre. So yeah, I can see myself doing something like [pop] in the future. But obviously giving some blues feel to it as well."
When Ingram says every genre, he means it. The track "Long Distance Woman" has a riff that's almost heavy metal. It's no coincidence. "I do listen to heavy metal a lot," Ingram says. "I do sometimes come across old Dimebag Darrell videos and stuff like that. I do like him and Zakk Wylde and everything. I had actually been listening to a whole lot of Eric Gales riffs. If you listen to some of the riffs that he did when he was on the Shrapnel label, stuff like "Retribution," even stuff on his new record, that was really heavy. Like I like the song "Repetition." I always wanted to create riffs like that. So "Long Distance Woman" definitely falls into that category."
It's surprising to hear a blues guitarist name-check guitarists like Wylde, best known for his work with Ozzy Osbourne, and Darrell, the late Pantera guitarist who pioneered groove metal. But for an artist like Ingram, all he hears is music that he can apply to his own songwriting, helping all of these sounds to fit together.
In this interview, Ingram discusses his songwriting process and explains how the blues should have big, important messages that reflect our ever-changing society. He also speaks to the idea of certain songwriters as prophets. It's a bold claim, even as Ingram is quick to exclude himself from that list. If there's no way to know if songwriters somehow tap into the supernatural, there's no debating that Ingram's sound and ideas are evolving in a forward-looking direction.
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process was for the album?
Christone "Kingfish" Ingram: When we got off the road [because of] Covid, we had a lot of time to utilize. Me and Tom [Hambridge, drummer/producer] got together and we did Zoom sessions, I want to say May to September, every Thursday. And because it's been two years since my first record, we wanted to showcase the growth and all of the things that have been going on personally in my life: all the celebrations, but also the bad stuff as well. So we just kind of [address] different situations and different stuff that was happening in my life. We get to brainstorming online, phrases, and that's how our songs come. Some of the songs [Tom] would actually have some parts already written and it would just so happen that I'd finish them up with him and also [with] Richard Fleming.
WM: Are you both playing guitar or is Tom playing drums while you're doing this?
Ingram: Tom has his acoustic guitar out and he'll be playing the note while singing. And he'll be working out the song and then, me, I have my guitar out, but I'll be I'll be working out the chords that he's doing. Because when he's singing the song and playing his guitar, he's only playing the root note, just to give a feeling of what the song is. I'm the one that, me and also, Richard Fleming, we have to work out the chord of the root note that he's playing.
I'll give you an example. One song that we did, the key was an E, but the relative minor key is like maybe C-sharp or something like that, if I'm not mistaken, and we had to make a song like that. He was doing the root note and I had to work out the chord.
WM: Are you thinking in terms of theory when you write?
Ingram: When I have to work out the chords, that's when all that comes in. But after that part is over, nah, I pretty much don't think about it again [laughs].
WM: There are a lot of songs about the blues life on 662. Is that a theme of the album?
Ingram: In a way yes, and probably in a way, no. That particular song was highlighting the area where I'm from [Clarksdale, Mississippi]. And then there are a couple of more songs that have that biographical type of content.
As for no, I would say that it would just be one of the songs that I would talk about my life and part of the other ones, I'm talking about romance and even political things as well.
WM: So when you and Tom are writing, do you have a larger theme for the album? Or were you just writing one song at a time and picking out what sounds good?
Ingram: Pretty much one song at a time because [when] we had recorded the record, we didn't have an album title [or anything] like that. It may sound funny, but "662" was just another song that we recorded [laughs]. We wrote like 21 different ones. So I think it's like 12 or 13 on the record? It's like a whole bunch of other ones that didn't get put on there that we did. When we started putting them into form and trying to tell the story of what we had invented, "662" came perfect right in.
WM: Do you demo the songs or do you just go into the studio once you feel like they're done?
Ingram: We demo them. When we write them, I know where we're at and what we do is, [Tom] will press record on his phone, like a little memo, and he'll record me playing the song acoustically. But I have seen in certain cases, like if he's doing a song with someone else, he'll demo it with his band like a full, live studio rig and have the music set up. But particularly for the songs that we do, just an old memo recording of me playing it acoustically, and he'll play it over the speakers in studio, trot it out for the musicians, and we'll go lay it.
WM: Do you guys record your Zoom sessions?
Ingram: Oh yeah. The finished products of the songs. But I'm definitely going to, in the next few sessions that we have, I plan on recording the whole thing, just in case there's like a line slip up, or something that we can use for something else.
WM: Do you ever think about writing alone?
Ingram: Yeah, I do. I'm really just now gaining more confidence in that because you can't do too much co-writing [or] you stop being an independent person. Actually, when I first started writing. I was actually writing alone, but I didn't like what I was writing alone, and then when I started co-writing with other people, where I could get more understanding about songwriting, [it] built-up my confidence where I can do it now for sure.
WM: How did you start writing with Tom?
Ingram: I met Tom through the connection with Mr. Buddy Guy. The first record, Mr. Buddy Guy helped us tremendously, putting it out. He got us in touch with Tom to help us produce a record and I told Tom what I want to do at the time. And our first songwriting session, in 2017, 2018, I went to his house in Nashville and we got the first six songs of the first record out. So that's how I met Tom. It's been cool ever since.
WM: And I wanted to talk about "Rock and Roll" because that that was written by Sean McConnell and Ashley Ray, and you turned it into a tribute to your mom. Was it hard to take somebody else's words and make it into something so personal?
Ingram: I would say yes, but not in that case. She was actually writing about a loved one herself. I wouldn't say it wouldn't take much, but we didn't spend a lot of time on revising certain words and certain lyrics to mean what we were giving it. It was kind of like the song was meaningful for both of us, pretty much because we both had the same situation. She was just talking about a loved one who, I think, just happened to be alive.
WM: How do you find new things to say with the blues?
Ingram: For one, a lot of people have a narrow understanding of the blues, and think, 'Okay, all I need to talk about is cotton fields, and my baby left me, and give long guitar solos,' when it's a much deeper meaning than that. It didn't start because of that. So when you look at some of the things that are going on in the world today, topics like George Floyd and all of the protests, and police brutality, and whatnot, all of that is a part of what the blues is, so that's one of the new things that we can definitely talk about, because that's our news of the day.
WM: With the political songs, was that something where you had ideas, and knew it was something you wanted to write about?
Ingram: Do you know what's crazy? That was something that I actually wanted to write about. And what's crazy is that particular song that I'm talking about, ["Another Life Goes By"], we actually wrote that one say, maybe like, two or three years before everything kind of went haywire in the year 2020, which just goes to show you that anytime something like that is relevant of the day, there's a big problem.
WM: Are musicians tapped into the world in a different way? So you're writing a song two or three years ago, and it comes out now, and it sort of seems like you wrote it this morning. Do musicians see things differently?
Ingram: I think that for sure because if you look at artists like Prince, Prince was definitely a prophet in some cases. Even Curtis Mayfield. Curtis Mayfield wrote so much about the world and how he saw it and how he thinks it should change.
WM: So do you feel like you're a prophet?
Ingram: [Laughs] I wasn't expecting that one! Here's the crazy part. Well, I woudn't call it crazy, but I grew up in a religious household and I went to church frequently, my mom took me, and I heard it through multiple mouths, but would I call myself one? Nah. Probably not. But I have no problem putting truth about peace and love into my music, because there's definitely stuff that needs to be said.
WM: And I wanted to talk about your guitar playing, too. Your solos are so lovely: how and when do those come about?
Ingram: I'll say in certain cases, I do try to hit certain scales for certain parts of certain songs. But most of the time, it's really just off the cuff. If I record a solo in the studio and I've got to do multiple takes, it's probably going to be different every time, unless there's a certain spot that I feel like a certain lick needs to go in, which is very rare. If you notice on the first record, my playing is a little restrained.
As for this record, I really wanted to punch hard, like punch in the gut, [and] that's why on this one there's more shredding stuff than there was on the first one. I really wanted to get in and show the ripping edge, emotional side, of the guitar that I do. But not only that, there's also the sweet and soft side, which I don't show a lot. So you get a taste of that on the record as well. A little variety.
WM: How do you know when you're done writing a song?
Ingram: When you can go through the lyrics and you can know that the story is being told: That's the intro, that's the plot [laughs], that's the climax, that's the ending. When you can read the story in a song. Or unless you're happy with it [and] how it came out, I think that's when a song is finished.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.