Blues guitarists Joe Bonamassa and Eric Gales. Both were born 923 days apart. Their album debuts were three years apart. But their roads diverged.
Bonamassa is a cottage industry, with huge-selling albums, a vast guitar collection and blues cruises bearing his name. Gales struggled with addiction and prison, requiring a GoFundMe when he and his wife caught Covid in 2020.
The two artists reconnected on one of the aforementioned Bonamassa cruises, resulting in a viral YouTube moment and eventually Crown, Eric Gales' rhythm-and-blues influenced album, showcasing his guitar playing and songwriting, and produced by Bonamassa and Josh Smith.
Gales enjoyed the experience of working with Bonamassa and Smith: "It was great, man," he says. "We came together and [it was] great having him by my side to help make the best record for me. It wasn't a record for him, it wasn't a record for Josh. It was a record for Eric Gales, and they put that hat on, and we made it happen."
One of the album's boldest moments is his version of Lyn Collins' "Take Me Just as I Am" (written by no less than James Brown). Here it's sung by Gales wife/backup singer LaDonna Gales, with all of the soul of the original. Gales finds opportunities for his guitar to shine, but he's mostly supporting LaDonna's powerful vocal performance. It's a risky move for a number of reasons.
For one reason, Gales' name is on the album, and for a release as a high-stakes as this one feels, he might not want to deviate from a Gales-centric plan. For another, it was a song he didn't know. Bonamassa picked it. "We sat there and learned the song and doctored it up our own way and, again, it turned out great," Gales says. "We thought it was a great idea so we moved forward with working it out."
Going with a track like "Take Me" isn't that surprising for Gales, who consumes and synthesizes all kinds of music. "I listen to the radio," he says. "I sometimes listen to Spotify but when I'm listening to radio, it's predominantly all R&B and hip hop. That's all I listen to on the radio. I've got certain particulars that I listen to on Spotify. I listen to Moonchild. I listen to all kinds of different stuff. It's way across the board. It is everything. Everything. Gospel, country, funk, R&B, jazz, everything."
You hear all of these influences on Crown. Of course there's a strong blues energy, but Gales moves between other styles, doing whatever the song requires. And lyrically, he's not afraid to dig deep into his own experiences. The result is a personal, vulnerable album that also swaggers.
You can't help but pull for Gales, because he is so thoughtful and talented. In this interview, he discusses his creative process, which is natural and organic. Gales trusts his instincts and relies on his experience as a songwriter to craft tunes that capture the complexities of contemporary American society while still rocking hard, when appropriate. No one can say if Gales will claim his commercial crown, but there's no denying he deserves it.
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process for Crown?
Eric Gales: We all got together and collaborated and Joe [Bonamassa], Josh [Smith, co-producer], Keb' Mo', all of us that [were] collaborators started out with some ideas and we came together and worked them up and they [wound] up making a record.
WM: Did you bring in sketches of things? Like lyrics?
Gales: Yeah. Some. We came in with bits and pieces and finished them up with each other.
WM: And were you all on acoustic guitars?
Gales: Yeah. Acoustic guitars.
WM: Do you ever write on electric?
Gales: Yeah. We do. It was just convenient to go on acoustic. I write on electric all the time.
WM: You wrote the album during the summer of the George Floyd protests. What was that like for you?
Gales: We went and started writing because there was a lot of things that I was upset and infuriated about. And me talking, Joe was recording what I was saying, and then turned it into material to write about for this record, on some of the songs. And we just went from there and start adding to the songs from there. That's basically how it came up.
WM: Have you ever worked that way before, where somebody is recording you speaking? And then you change it into a song?
Gales: Yeah. Because some kind of way I've always been very vocal about whatever it is that is on my mind at the time. It [doesn't] matter what it is, if whoever I'm writing with knows the right thing to do, then they will be capturing it because that is the best material to come up with for writing.
WM: Do you refine the ideas as the sessions go on?
Gales: Yeah. Of course. It's always refining and tweaking, and making it a little bit better and adjusting and things like that.
WM: You started working on the record in the summer of 2020. Does the world look different to you now?
Gales: No. It's still the same. It's progressing a little bit but still got work to do.
"Take Me Just As I Am"
WM: I really loved "Take Me Just As I Am." I thought that was an amazing song. I was wondering where that came from. Because it was so soulful. It was such a different sound.
Gales: Thank you. It was a Joe idea to come up with a song for LaDonna to be featured on and we had to convince her to do it because she wasn't really about doing that. And then once we convinced her, it turned out to be great. I think it was a nice twist. And to show for a day [that] it was my turn to back her up on on backing vocals and let her be in the front on a song and it turned out great.
WM: After a song like "Take Me Just As I Am," have you ever thought about doing a soul album? An album of all music like that?
Gales: Possibly down the road. I needed to do this record to make my presence more known in the world. Then I can venture off, but right now I need to let this record set a stamp.
WM: Do you feel like you're you're unknown in the world?
Gales: I really don't even focus on that. So I can't even really answer that question. It's not my job to even focus on that. If they don't know about me, then they just don't know. And if they do, I appreciate it if they do. But hopefully this record will open the ears of a lot more people.
WM: And how about "I Gotta Go." Where did that come from? Because that's very funny.
Gales: We just rounded the record off. The record is basically a cruise to 16 different destinations. And by the end you're telling everybody, it's done; it's time to go. It's a perfect song to end a show with. And we just wanted to feel like it had been a live performance that the listener had heard through the whole record. And just gave it a fanfare, like B.B. King used to do.
WM: But it's also kind of a funny song. Did you think it was also a humorous way to end the album?
Gales: Yeah. Just some way to have fun at the end of the night, you know? That's all.
WM: Do you think that fun element is missing from a lot of contemporary blues?
Gales: No, because I hear it, and it's been on the type of blues that you listen to, because they've been doing it for decades. Been doing it for years, this sort of banter between the singer and the listener. It's been happening for a long time and I don't think that enough of it has been around. It was great to bring that back to the forefront.
WM: I spoke to Kingfish last year, and he was going on about your Shrapnel work and how much he liked it and how much he was listening to it. Do you get a lot of feedback from people about that particular body of work?
Gales: From time to time I do. I get feedback on my entire body of work and Shrapnel definitely is a part of that. And it makes me feel good to hear artists that I admire, and I'm friends with, that bring up [my] old catalog, which is work that I'm very proud of. It definitely is a good feeling.
WM: Is there a part of your catalog that you're especially proud of?
Gales: All of it, man. I can't separate it. I'm very proud of it all.
WM: In terms of your solos on the record, are they composed?
Gales: No. All top of the head. First take.
WM: Do you ever go back to clean something up?
Gales: No, no. If I did it, maybe it was once or twice, but all of it was straight off the cuff. And Joe was very particular about that, because it was more effective that way.
WM: How do you find new sounds and new things to say with your solos?
Gales: I just let it do what it do. I try to get out of the way and let outer beings take control and it's what happens.
WM: Some of your stuff here, and across your catalog, has a bit of a heavy metal vibe. Do you feel like you have some of that in your sound?
Gales: Yeah, if you say that, you have to name the other stuff, too. You know, heavy metal, R&B, hip hop. It's all in there. There's no telling. I might jump on any bandwagon at any given moment. So I'm influenced and inspired by all different styles of music, so there's no telling what may come out.
The road ahead
WM: You've been very public that your career took a detour because of some personal challenges. Do you feel like Crown is kind of putting you back on on track? Like, where you were?
Gales: Absolutely. First and foremost, getting my life together, regardless of the record, that's the first step toward earning my own personal crown within myself, and then doing it publicly with this record is a broader approach, but I do definitely agree with that.
WM: I know this album is just released, but are you thinking about the next one?
Gales: Yeah, I got some ideas roaming around already. I'm already planning, trying to plot for the next one. Nothing [detailed] but yeah, of course my mind is already on the next thing.
WM: And what does the planning for that look like? Are you jotting down lyrical ideas or musical ideas?
Gales: Just musical. Riffs and grooves and stuff. That's all. Nothing concrete. Just some things in my head. I hadn't really got to that point of documenting anything yet but I got some stuff starting in my mind.
WM: How long do you usually let stuff stir before you start to feel like a song is ready to go to the next step?
Gales: It all depends. I mean, they formulate by a groove first, and I let the groove sit for a minute. It just all depends. It has to be the right feeling [and] moment for it to be.
WM: And then typically, you would come in with lyrics?
Gales: Yeah, yeah. Later on. I start with the music first.
WM: And you do you keep a notebook of lyrical ideas or do you just kind of listen to the music?
Gales: I just kind of listen to the music and they kind of just come out. Lay melodies down first. The music and the melodies come, and then the lyrics come out.
Discovering the blues
WM: How did you find the blues?
Gales: It just kind of finds you. You know if you've got it. It just comes. It just kind of finds you.
WM: Do you remember the first thing that you heard that drew you to it?
Gales: Yeah, Albert King was one of the first. Muddy Waters and Albert King.
WM: What is it about Albert King that drew you in?
Gales: He's powerful. I don't know. Everybody might not like him, [but] for me he was a very inspirational guy. It's not hard for him to be in the arsenal of people that I was influenced by.
WM: Is he part of the reason that you play your guitar upside down?
Gales: No. I picked it up that way before even knowing about anybody else that played left-handed.
WM: Do you get a lot of lefty guitar players coming up to thank you?
Gales: Yeah. They do [laughs]. They say 'We're glad we ain't all by ourselves.' We do exist. We're around.
WM: Is the plan to tour behind Crown?
Gales: Yeah, man, if Covid ever settles down. I just got some news of one of my tours for overseas having to be moved again for the third time, so that's got me kind of irritated at the moment.
WM: I know you and your family have had a rough time during Covid. Is that something you would write about it in a song?
Gales: It can. It isn't on this record but going forward, yeah.
WM: When you're in the studio, how do you know if a song is done?
Gales: You just know. It comes to you. I really don't have an explanation but you just know.
WM: As you've been playing and listening to the songs, is there anything about Crown that jumps out at you, that you're starting to notice as you spend more time with the tracks?
Gales: That I like the record more and more. I can't wait to tour this record live. I can't wait. It's going to be amazing.
WM: Is there anything in particular you like about it?
Gales: Yeah. It's my own shit [laughs]. It feels great and gratifying to be able to go out there and play your own shit, as opposed to a lot of artists out there doing cover songs every night. It's my own stuff so yeah, I like the messages and I'm very pleased with it. It's a wonderful feeling to be doing your own stuff.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.