Gina Coleman, the soul and voice of Misty Blues band, remembers actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson handing her a CD that changed the arc of her musical career.
Back in 1999,Coleman played a gospel singer in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of A Raisin in the Sun. Someone with the play had decided to use the character as a way to transition between scenes and Coleman was a local who could sing, working with an acoustic folk/funk band that was beginning to dissolve. Women of color who are also musicians aren't common in Willliamstown, Massachusetts and Coleman jumped on the role. "I was pretty much the natural person to go to to try to get that part covered," she says.
At the end of the show's run, Santiago-Hudson, who was also in the production, had advice for Coleman. "[He] said 'You've got to stop that acoustic folk/funk/whatever nonsense,'" she recalls. "He's like 'Your voice is perfectly suited for the blues.' And so he gave me this CD collection, called Men Are like Street Cars. It's a double-disc collection of all female blues artists from the early '20s to mid '60s. And I consumed it. I loved it."
Coleman knew the songs on the compilation, but the performances moved her. They moved her so much that she gathered the remains of her disappearing band and told them they were switching genres: "I'm like, 'Let's change things up. Let's become a blues band.' They're like, 'Yeah, we like the blues. That's cool. Whatever.' And then off the top of my head, I'm like, lets call us Misty Blues. And that was it. "
Eleven albums later, Misty Blues Band is still rolling, creating intricate blues songs that are also soulful. It's a line few musicians can walk, yet Coleman, the primary songwriter navigates it perfectly, especially on One Louder (reviewed here), one of three albums they released during Covid.
The hook of One Louder is the guests, which include people like guitarist Justin Johnson, singer Big Llou Johnson, and the great Joe Louis Walker. "We've never done that before, really," says Coleman about bringing in so many outsiders. "So it did put a different spin on things and it was energizing to see how some of these guest artists interpret our music, and then how we in turn just ran with it."
Unfortunately, after posting "Freight Car," a One Louder track co-written with Coleman's son and featuring Johnson, a troll left a horrible, racist comment. The vitriol shocked Coleman, not because she hasn't experienced that kind of hate language, but because it had never been tied so closely to her music. But as a prolific, thoughtful songwriter, she used the experience to write a song, "The Hate," which she imagines as a duet between herself and the great Mavis Staples, assuming she can get the legendary singer to hear the song. It's not Coleman trying to cash in on the experience; rather it's how she lives her life as a songwriter, processing ideas through her music.
In this interview, which took place before the venomous posting, Coleman discusses her process, which seems straight-forward, but relies upon a lot of subconscious detangling. She also speaks about her own guitar playing and what makes for a strong guitarist. Coleman is focused and upbeat, knowing what she wants from her music, as well as how she wants it, which is what's made it possible for her to write so much for so long.
With any luck, a Staples duet will soon join the Misty Blues catalog.
Working Mojo: What was your writing process like for One Louder?
Gina Coleman: Well, One Louder was a third of our pandemic albums [laughs]. Seclusion does some funky things to us. Oddly, well not oddly, because it's a pandemic, [the album is] very introspective, thinking about really things that I have experienced in my life, not present, because there are a lot of songs about leaving your man [laughs].
And I'm perfectly happy; I'm not getting rid of my husband [laughs]. But, you know, thinking about the struggles of people around me. Close to me. When you spend much more time by yourself, some of the not-so-bright, chipper things that run through your head start to emerge.
WM: I'm sorry, did you say you wrote three albums during the pandemic?
Coleman: Yeah, they've all been released.
WM: I didn't pick up on that.
Coleman: I'm trying to think back. The first one was right at the beginning of the pandemic. So that was April 1, 2020: Weed 'Em and Reap. And then February 14, of 2021, was None More Blue. And now January 28, of 2022, One Louder.
WM: In terms of your writing process, you were talking about lyrical ideas before, but what about the musical ideas?
Coleman: Yeah, the funny thing with the music, I've always had this very weird thing, and most of my musician, songwriter friends are quite envious of me. Songs generally come to me whole. Like I hear music and lyrics packaged, if that makes any sense to you.
WM: When you say music do you mean a melody? Or do you hear like the horns...?
Coleman: I hear melody and as the lyrics are forming with the melody, then I'm like, 'Oh, wow, that would be so cool with horn. Oh! I hear this horn line [sings horn line; laughs]'. I have whole songs that come to me, in my sleep. I wake up at three in the morning, and I have to write them down in a hurry. They come to me in flashes. If I don't pay attention to them right away, they go as fast as they come.
WM: Do you mean literally write them down? Or do you sing it into your phone?
Coleman: Nowadays [laughs]. Back in the day, because I've been at this for a long time, so I didn't have the technology to keep up with my head. I remember getting on a payphone back in the day and calling my landline answering machine [laughs]. But now, you know, smartphones, I just put on the voice recorder and everything's just right there. I can come back to it. And a lot of times they don't address it right away. And then like a month later, I pore through my voice messages. Like 'Oh, wow. That was great. That was cool. Let me flesh this one out now.' Yeah.
WM: Do you wait a little bit for convenience or do you want to revisit them fresher?
Coleman: Some of them don't come, like the entirety of the song [doesn't] come to me at once, so I let those ruminate for a little bit, but some like from beginning to end, in a flash, come to me and then I take care of those right away.
WM: "Take a Long Ride" is one of my favorite songs and it seems so different from your tracks. How did that one come together?
Coleman: Well, see, "Take a Long Ride," oddly, was on an album that I put out several years ago. It was on our, I think, our Pickled and Aged album. And I fell in love with it. It was a totally personally-driven song. It was written while I was driving [laughs], in the dark of night, just like grinding it and just wishing I could be home with my family. And no one really took to it. I don't understand it; I think I think this is a great tune [laughs]. But DJs really didn't pick it up, they didn't really spin it, there wasn't a lot of attention around it. And since there wasn't a lot of attention, we inevitably, really stopped playing it live. Nobody's interested, we'll move on.
And then I had this incredible opportunity to pitch a song to Joe Louis Walker early last year, and I'm like 'I'm going to pitch him "Take a Ride." This may be the shot in the arm that the song needs. And so we went back in the studio, because I had members in my band now that weren't in the band when I originally wrote it. So when we went in to do a scratch recording of the songs to send to pitch to Joe Louis, it gave a different life to it.
WM: Why did you choose to recut the song and not send Joe the original?
Coleman: It was an older song, but we didn't want to give him old material, either. We have evolved as musicians [laughs]. That's the hope. We wanted to give him a version of how we sound now and how he might see himself adding to it.
WM: Did the song change much in between the two recordings?
Coleman: Yeah. I mean, Joe Louis Walker's part energizes it to a level that we had never even conceived. Originally there were two giant saxophone solos, one in the middle, and then one the outro solo. And I'm like, 'Well, we've got to give Joe Louis Walker space in here.' So we decided just to do the outro sax solo and give a giant space, a giant palette, for Joe Louis to step into in the middle.
WM: And were you all together or did he record it separately?
Coleman: He recorded it separately. But my guitarist and I went to his preferred studio to meet him, just before he layed down his part So that was cool. We got to meet him the day that he recorded. But we gave him his space [laughs]. We're like sitting there, watching him as he crunched away. We said our her hellos, gave him some Mist swag. I thanked him profusely, checked out the studio, and then we went about our day.
But the studio that he recorded in, I was taken by. The space had such wonderful energy that we decided to contact that studio and record the rest of the album there.
WM: What was it about the energy that you liked?
Coleman: It was just one big room, and just the ability to all see each other and have that real live feel to the album.
WM: And what's the dynamic when you're working with somebody like Joe Louis Walker? Are you giving him any direction or notes? Or are you just seeing where he takes it?
Coleman: Yeah, I'm like, it's Joe Louis Walker. Here's your space. Do with it as you wish [laughs]. We're good. It's kind of a let go, let Joe.
WM: What about "Seal of Fate"? Did that come to you whole as a zydeco song?
Coleman: Yeah, that came to me whole. It's one of those desperate songs like, God, this notion of like, being stuck somewhere and there's really no good route. And it was that notion that came to mind. And then the music just really flowed with that. And very kind of New Orleans, Creole, kind of like 'Oh. This is cool. I'm going to run with this.'
WM: And how about "Freight Car." Because you wrote that with your son.
Coleman: Yeah, Diego. So here's the process when I write with someone. When I write with someone else... I'm the lyricist in the band [laughs]. So if I'm writing with someone else, someone has given me a riff or diddy, some little music form, and they're like, 'Do you hear anything?'
The fun part is that it's pretty immediate. Like, I either hear something or I don't, or I'm like, 'Oh, that sounds cool.' And then there's silence. No one gets offended. They know it's either I feel it or I don't. But I save them all. I save them all and every once in a while, I come back to them and every once in a blue moon, something that doesn't speak to me immediately, later on, does, and I can craft a whole song around a riff.
But my son had this pretty full song, like the music, and I'm like, 'Oh, that's cool. I hear a train in it. Do you hear it?' And he's like 'Yeah, I hear it. I wrote it!' Writing with him is so funny because we're like battling with each other. I'm like, 'Don't be short with me' [laughs]. So then I'm like, 'I do. I hear something and it's a train.' And then the lyrics started to flood around that image of someone just getting on a train and getting away.
And my son is a painful Frank Zappa fan. Not painful. Brilliant—both Frank and my son, but Frank much more so musically. So whenever I write songs with Diego, everyone in my band knows 'Oh, this is a Diego tune, isn't it? Guess it'll have something really funky.' And that lick there [sings the guitar riff], that's totally Diego.
After after having Joe Louis Walker, 'Yeah, that sounds great. I'd love to add to it.' I'm like, 'Where do we stop? Do we stop? Let's see who else.'
And I've been a huge fan of Justin Johnson for many years. Actually Justin, when I started playing the cigar box guitar, I tried to figure out who were the most prominent cigar box players and he came up immediately. And I started to consume his videos like, 'Oh my goodness. So ridiculous.' But not just cigar box. He can play any string instrument, and every one, and just brilliant. But as I was starting to look more into him, I realized that he had an instructional series on playing the cigar box, so I bought it. This is like seven or eight years ago. And so I learned how to play the cigar box because of Justin Johnson.
So I thought 'Why not?' Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I pitched him. We had become Facebook friends a couple of years ago and so I reached out. [He was] like, 'Yeah, I'd love to hear something' and I sent him "Freight Car" and he was like, 'Oh, I'm in. So in.'
WM: What grabbed you about his playing?
Coleman: I think what strikes me about him is that he is not a singer. He's a solo guitarist. I think that's really the other intriguing thing: I hadn't seen him play with a band. I don't think I've seen anything with him and a full band. He's just like this solo guitar player.
And the emotion that he gets, or how emotional I get when I listen to his playing, it feels like there are multiple musicians playing at the same time. It's kind of the same feeling I get when I listen to guitarist Tuck Anderson. And it's like a rhythm, a lead, and a bass happening all at the same time. And it's just so wonderfully rich and technically adept, that is just so striking to me.
Shut Up 'n Play Yer...
WM: What do you like about the cigar box guitar?
Coleman: I love the fact that it's such an authentic instrument for the blues genre. I love the primitiveness of it. I love that, wow, this thing that was slapped together with a box and just a few strings [laughs] can make such this wonderful sound that harkens back to the earliest music produced in the genre and in America, really. I love the traditional sound and there's a...I don't know. I just feel sad in a way, but not in a bad way. It has this haunting sound for me that I love splashing in certain tunes that we write.
WM: I read an interview with you where you said that you wished you had started playing guitar sooner. How come?
Coleman: Well I'm jealous of my son [laughs]. Because he started playing instruments probably around three. But he was just so all-in at such an early age and I'm like, 'Oh my God, did I create this?' But by the time he was seven or so, he started to really take lessons. And he just, the sponge just knew at such an early age that music was what he wanted to do with his life.
Now we are realists in our family and so we have been very honest with him, because he has a perfect model at home: you're not gonna make much money [laughs]. But if you're happy, if this is what fulfills you, then we're here for you. We will support you, as much as we can. But be mindful your mother is also a musician, so we can only [help] so much.
WM: Do you feel like the learning would have been easier for you if you'd started sooner?
Coleman: Well, you know, I started pretty darn early, doing music. I played the piano starting at the age of five. And it really wasn't that much later that I started playing the guitar. It's just that I didn't really go all-in . It's always been this thing on the side. I just wish now that I had paid closer attention and put in the time because really, as long as I have been playing the guitar, I should be like Steve Vai by now and I'm so not [laughs].
WM: Is Steve Vai the the pinnacle of guitar to you?
Coleman: No, no, no [laughs]. He's the first guitarist that came to mind.
WM: Your family really does love Zappa!
Coleman: I'm imprisoned in a Zappa home [laughs]. My husband is probably the biggest Zappa fan known to man. Frank Zappa called him at his home when he was like in high school, because he had pre-ordered some album collection, and he was like, serial number 00001 and Zappa wanted to know who was this kid that ordered the thing.
So then my kids became immediate Zappa fans, because that's all the music, other than my music, that's the only other music that was played in the house. I remember times driving, and had both boys in the car, and they're like, going off, 'Frogs with dirty little legs...' Like, all weird Zappa tunes, just all the time.
WM: And how do you feel about Zappa?
Coleman: Yeah, I get it [laughs]. I really don't. I get how brilliant a band leader he was, and how incredibly gifted the musicians that he surrounded himself with [were]. I get that. And there's certain songs that are appealing to me, but as a whole, it's a little weird for me. I mean, I grew up listening to Motown and then Salsa music. And there's there's something very rhythmic and very predictable about those, you know? And that's not what you get in his catalog really.
WM: What the hardest part about leading the band?
Coleman: Oh my god, the hardest part is just the wrangling, the cat-herding [laughs]. There's six of us, seven of us sometimes, because my son plays with the band a lot. Although I won't make him an official member. I told him that I'd never make him an official member because I don't want to be that person who kicks her son out of the band. Not that I've had to kick out too many people. But I just don't ever want to be in that position [laughs]. He will remain on our farm team.
I have a farm team. It is just incredible professional musicians that keeps study, they keep current on all of our latest music. And if for some reason someone in the band can't make a particular show, then they step right into that instrument. So I have a couple of guitarists, a couple of bassists, a couple of drummers. One or two [keyboard] players. Just waiting [laughs]. It's crazy. I don't know if I'd be hanging out there.
We play stuff from all of our albums pretty regularly. Everything's on YouTube. We have a Dropbox that people can go to and just crunch away. I'm getting much better at drafting setlists that we will hold to, for the most part [laughs]. So if someone is stepping in, they get a setlist the week in advance and have enough time to review the songs that will be in that particular show.
I don't get twisted because someone's not available. I didn't book it. Or it wasn't booked at the time and [I] move on. There's some shows that are really big shows. And I'm like, 'Any chance you can find a sub for that other thing...?'
WM: That bat mitzvah.
Coleman: Yeah. I mean our farm team is also great for subs for my core members who are trying to get out of something else [laughs]. But yeah, it's a cool family. The biggest headache is just the arranging of everyone's schedules and making sure we're all on the same page for things. And, yeah, it is like cat-herding at times, but that's just that's the nature of the beast.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.