When Belgian singer/songwriter/guitarist Ghalia Volt needed to write an album, she decided to hop on a train across the United States for a month.
It’s an interesting instinct. There’s something romantic about a train. The beautiful views. The coziness. Sure, you’re not getting anywhere fast, at least not in the United States, where our train system is archaic, but when you’re writing, that’s part of the appeal.
The result of Volt’s train trip is One Woman Band, an album of classic blues licks and strong grooves, all courtesy of Volt, who provides guitar, vocals, harmonica, and drums simultaneously (the album title is literal). It’s an innovative response to the challenges of a global pandemic that makes it tough for people to be physically close—like in a recording studio.
Volt is new to this DIY musical set-up, which gives the tracks a garage-like energy and a fragile beat straight out of classic 1950s records. But lyrically, Volt creates her own world.
Volt discusses her train trip on the album. “Espìritu Papàgo,” which she calls her very favorite recorded vocal performance, is a tale woven from a misadventure in the Arizona desert. “I got tricked by someone and I found myself stuck in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls. “There was no train, there were no buses, and you're really in the middle of the desert. And somehow, I found my way back to Tucson Station. So of course, I didn't want to say that men are pigs, and I hate men and all of that. So it's just like this idea of [getting] in trouble in the desert.”
The song evolved from a tale of human trafficking to a desert casino story, eventually becoming a tribute to the southwest’s indigenous peoples. “I kind of romance the story in a different way, not to tell my own problem that I had, because I just didn't want to talk about it like that.” The title is a nod to Volt’s Spanish roots. “I'm begging that spirit from that Papàgo tribe to give me a sign and then well, of course, I'm on a train trip,” she says. “So the train is going to be my answer.”
The story of ”Espìritu Papàgo” gives a broad sense of Volt’s writing process, but in our conversation, she gets into the details. She discusses the importance of her scratch book, filled with all kinds of ideas, and how the right location can help her start, and more importantly, finish a song. Volt shares a lot of information to help move a song from the head out into the world.
She is a thoughtful, deliberate songwriter. Volt’s love of the blues shines through her answers, showing how much she’s internalized the genre.
Ghalia Volt: The process of writing this album was a little different from the previous ones. I decided to leave on a train trip in August. And I left New Orleans for a month being on a train just traveling [through] 18 different states. And so you find yourself in the train for sometimes 30 hours.
The goal of that trip was to write my new album, being on the road. And I had an amazing landscape, as you can imagine, amazing views from the desert of Arizona, crossing the coastline, the Coast Starlight line, sort of showing California, watching the ocean, the mountains of Colorado, the [harbor] lights of Chicago. I was amazed by the landscape of that travel.
So I was on the train writing song by song. And some songs that I had in my scratch book for a little while. Some other songs, it really just came from the experiences on the road, and the views of everything I just mentioned. And some adventures.
I came back and sure enough, I had all the songs for the new album and a couple I needed to finish. Some songs talk about Mississippi, crossing Mississippi on train, and seeing those rusty farms and rusty cars and just imagining what it used to be to live there, years ago, or still now, actually. And the songs talk about the desert in Arizona. I got in trouble in the desert: I'm like, ‘Oh, my God, what do you do when you [get] in trouble in the desert?’
When you spend a month by yourself you have plenty of time to get into your scratch book and start writing songs. Maybe I'm weird, maybe it's the case for a lot of artists, but I'm that kind of person where I have lines in my head, I have songs in my head, just a couple of lines, and then I can keep them for a year before I start writing it. And so when I start writing, it just comes like that, it comes really quick. It's like, I've been thinking about the song and the theme for a year. And then everything just comes through the pen and bam, it's on paper. So that was kind of the writing process this year.
Working Mojo: So when you're on the train, were you just writing lyrics? Or are you also thinking about the music?
Volt: Mainly lyrics, but the music came too. And sometimes you have music and you have lyrics and you're like, ‘Oh, what about if this would match this?’ And so it depends. I also wrote melodies and I would record them right away on my phone, the vocal memo thing. So I don't forget that. That's always a mistake: it's not recorded right away.
WM: Were you singing to yourself on the train sometimes? Or would you go to the rest room?
Volt: Correct! Yeah, I have so many recordings of me singing lyrics of songs. So ideas and you can hear the train howling.
The scratch book
WM: How is your scratch book organized?
Volt: Oh, it's such a mess. It's beautiful. It's really a mess. And sometimes I write on my phone. Like I'm [going to] write in my book in French and English, mainly in English, but sometimes a little bit in French when I'm not sure how to organize my ideas in English. I was always writing the travel [notes]: the fields and the colors of the travel. The description of [the time of] year; if it's swamps, if it's desert, if it's the colors. It was really a big mess.
WM: And when you say you have stuff in your head for a year, do you mean literally, or do you keep going back to your scratch book?
Volt: What I mean is, for example, I have a theme I [want] to talk about, and it just stays in my head, I'm not even going to write it down. And maybe I'll write one line. But I think about it for months. And then until I start writing in a book, I keep it in my head, thinking of the concept, thinking about the theme, until I just lay down the words. I mean, the longest was really on my last album, Mississippi Blends, a song called, "Why Don't You Sell Your Children?" It was a song that talks about greed and society and how money became [the] number one value in most of the world. I had this theme in my head, but I couldn't find the right words. And I started talking, and it was way too serious. And way too much. You know, if you're not the Rolling Stones, talking about communication, administration, generations, it just sounds heavy.
I had a very complex song and I didn't know how to express [the theme]. And the last day of the studio recording session last year, I changed the whole song. It became a satirical song. I wrote the song in 30 minutes, after thinking about it for a whole year and it's probably one of the best lyrics I ever wrote. I thought I was pretty crazy. And it came so natural, like through that pen. That's what I'm saying. Like when you have that song in your head for a year and just...ideas are there. It’s still stuck, like writing it, but every idea is in my head and finally it just goes through and sometimes it takes 30 minutes, like that song, and sometimes you work on it for a week or so.
WM: Did you have the music also? Were you trying to fit the lyrics to something or was the whole song kind of an unknown?
Volt: No, it was really the lyrics and then the melody came after. I did know that I wanted to play that song in a certain groove. "Last Minute Packer," we call that a train beat, kind of a groove and I really missed that on my albums. Same for "Reap What You Sow." It's a shuffle, but like a fat, greasy shuffle.
Performing as a one woman band
WM: And how about the drumming? Since you did all your own drumming on One Woman Band, were you thinking about that with the songs?
Volt: Not in the writing process aside from the groove. I imagine a groove in my head. There's [only] so much you can do when you play as a one woman band and also I started a year ago, so there's not that much you can do so far. I mean with the years, I'll be able to probably play more stuff. So there's a couple of grooves and when I write a song, I'm like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be shuffle. This is going to be a train beat. This is going to be just a swampy Mississippi feel.’ And then I just imagine the groove [and] I'll write a song. And then I practice the song on the music I picked for it. I just practice and try stuff and 'Okay, here, I'm going to do that. And here, I'm going to hit with the hi-hat. And here I'm going to do a double hit on the snare instead of just one. Here, I can play the kick drum.’ But it really comes after.
WM: And do you demo your songs at a certain point?
Volt: Yeah, every time I practice the songs. I just record it on my phone to remember the way I played it. And most of the time, I don't even listen to it. But just in case, I might forget it, I always have it. And also, it's a great way to improve. I've been doing that since I'm a kid, I mean, 12 years old, by recording yourself, you get to hear and practice what you don't like and just hear how you sound and like, ‘OK, I don't like that. I want to improve this.' My pronunciation is something I really work on. And by recording and trying to analyze the way I pronounce words, I can improve a lot.
WM: I wanted to talk to you about covers. How did you choose Elmore James’ "It Hurts Me Too" for One Woman Band?
Volt: I wanted a slow blues. I wanted some kind of emotional song that I've been singing for a while and I thought this one was the one that matched the album the best. So I really decided in the studio. There's a couple songs I could have done, but I wanted to have everything linked to Mississippi and Memphis. So it's a lot of slow songs I was thinking of. Emotional songs, but "It Hurts Me Too," I thought was the more appropriate for the record.
You know, Elmore James is from Mississippi and he did the most famous version. But before that, I never can pronounce his name right, Tampa Red, the guy who wrote it and I don't remember where he's from. He's from Georgia I think but, but then Elmore James, who was from Ebenezer. So I wanted to stay in the Mississippi vibe and the Memphis vibe since that was really the theme of the record. And then "Just One More Time" was first written by Ralph Bass and Ike Turner. Ike Turner was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. And so that was also on that theme. [It’s] another song that I've been singing a lot recently. So that's also how I picked that song.
WM: The blues is so idiom-based. How do you find new sounds?
Volt: Well, there's two different things here: the way to record the album and the sound itself. I'm not really into modern blues, aside from like, ‘Okay, this guy's really stands out, and I'm digging it.’ But I really listened to old stuff, like everybody that performs now [probably does]. So for the sounds, I've always been fascinated by an Elmore James or Magic Sam guitar sound. There's no clean [tone], it's just natural and organic. And so you crank your amp, because that's what happened at the beginning. Tube amps, when they're cranked up, they just have a beautiful natural distortion. And I really dig that, on old Magic Sam and Elmore James recordings. So that's the sound I was trying to have.
Volt: By being a one woman band, as the name says, you need to be your whole band. We used a couple amps for one guitar signal. And so I used a bass amp, I used a clean-sounding guitar amp. And then I used a very small vintage amp that I cranked so that third [one] was distorted but naturally, and that's a beautiful distortion when it's natural distortion from the amp that you crank. So you have the bass amp for the bottom, the clean amp for the warmth, and then the little cranked amp for the rough [sounds].
So there's no pedals. There's nothing. It's just three amps plugged together, played at once. And what is beautiful on that is one amp answers to the other one. If you listened to a song like "Last Minute Packer" or "Loving Me is a Full Time Job" on a real good PA, you can hear the bass answering to the chords and so the root of the chord, the one if you call it that, so the one is answered by the rest of the power chords. And so you can really almost hear [sings bassline] ‘bum bum bum boom, boom, boom,’ and also the kick drum answers to the root note of the chord. You really almost can feel there's a bass on the record, but there's none. On those songs. I had some guests on the [other] songs on bass.
"Loving Me Is a Full-time Job"
WM: You just mentioned "Loving Me Is a Full-time Job" and I loved that song. How did that song come about? What was the writing process like for that one?
Volt: Yeah, I like that song. It's playful lyrics. I was having a bike ride in New Orleans by the lake and I was listening to "Jim Dandy Got Married." You probably know this song "Jim Dandy" from LaVern Baker. And she did a second song called "Jim Dandy Got Married" and I was listening that song and I heard that sentence: ‘Loving me is a full-time job.’ And I just started laughing and I listened to it a couple of times. Maybe I'm needy in my personal life, and I thought it was really a sentence for me, and why not write a whole song about it? And then I looked on Google and YouTube, and I'm like, well, it hasn't really been done yet. There's one funky song called "Love is a Fulltime Job," but it's so different from the text I had in mind and the groove. I was like, okay, so I can totally write that song.
Volt: And regarding the music, LaVern Baker has that R&B but also gospel feel. And so for the music, I was more into, actually another song from Ruth Brown. Ruth Brown’s got a song called "Saved." It's kind of a gospel. And so she answers on the bass drum. She even mentions it, she says, 'Come on bass drum and bass.' And the cymbals hit too, every time she mentions it. I had that in my background, in my head when I wrote the song. And so that along with my way of playing as a one woman band, that kind of groove, it was kind of a train beat, but having a gospel feel to it. And somehow, there's like a little punk vibe to it, too. So that's how it all started. And I had the idea in my head for probably two months; just a line. And that was still a song I need to write. That's how it starts. For me, I have my scratch book. And I have all those titles of songs or ideas. And then I developed the songs.
I finished that song in Chicago. I have a picture of me writing that song by the lake. Oh, it's funny. You know what, I never realized that. I had the idea of that song by the lake in New Orleans, and I finished the song by the lake watching the sunset in Chicago. I'm all about that, finding the right spot to write a song. I like that. To be in an atmosphere and have a view and that kind of stuff.
WM: Does it always have to be a new spot, or do you have consistent spots that you visit for writing?
Volt: I have both. I'm not like, Oh, it's got to be a new spot. No. I have some spots, I really like to go and write. I also like to write in my head, just have ideas in my head while doing a bike ride or a walk, and then take some vocal notes. And then when I get home, to experiment and start writing. But in this case, "Loving Me is a Full Time Job" really was in my head for two months. And then I started finally [writing it in] Chicago after thinking about that song for two months. I'm like, ‘Alright, now it's time to write it.’
And I write it. And a lot of stuff I do is I write in my book, but I always have my phone next to me. I use Google translation and RhymeZone to help express my ideas and, sometimes find better words. As you know, French is my main language and, man, it would be so much easier for me to write in French, obviously, but I just don't like it and expressions are never the same. Of course, you know, sometimes it's a great expression that doesn't don't translate in English. So for me, to find expressions in English, I’ve got to read a lot. I’ll often find some expressions like that by reading [and] on RhymeZone, and some websites like that.
Songwriting in another language
WM: Do you think it helps because you're coming to English with a fresher take than a native speaker?
Volt: Yeah. There's so many expressions I've never heard [like] to reap what you sow. It's not expressions that I grew up hearing. So just imagine that my bank of expressions is French and it's got nothing to do with the English ones. You know, to be under the gun, and that kind of stuff, all of those expressions, so when I hear them, and I discovered them, I’m like, ‘Oh, that's pretty cool.’ I like that, to be under the gun and sometimes people tell me things like that. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's so cool. That's a song.’ And for them, they've heard that [their] whole life and there's nothing special. So I think there's really something different here.
Getting to Done
Volt: A song is never done. A song is never finished. A song can always evolve. And sometimes it does. You record it that way and then you keep singing it live, and then you change the line or just a way to play it. And then that's the way you play it on live shows, but for me, a song always has got room for improvement. And same for lyrics. There's always more. So it's very hard. Sometimes it's just time or I guess it's time for me. I work under the gun, too, and I always find myself finishing up the album right before the recording session. Sometimes, I wish I could add some verses, but the song's already too long. So yeah, never finished.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.