It's not always a good sign when, during an interview about songwriting for a site about songwriting, the artist confesses they don't enjoy songwriting.
"I love to write poetry, I love to write short stories," blues singer/guitarist Joanna Connor explains. "I don't love to write songs. I probably have written a handful of songs in my life that I had to write. Like, maybe 10 songs. And the rest, I would just make myself write songs for records."
Connor might not enjoy the process, but a quick trip through her catalog shows an artist capable of writing solid songs. And beyond songwriting, she is also a great interpreter, able to make tunes written by others into her own. Her interpretive skills are in full force on 4801 South Indiana Avenue (review here), a collection of covers produced by blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith.
Connor connected with Bonamassa after he found her online. Connor famously went viral with some incendiary videos that showcased her wild slide, that's lyrical but also stunningly technical, like her brain, heart, and fingers are all hard-wired to each other. Connor made albums for decades, but it took the Internet to surface her to a wider array of blues fans. Bonamassa is a commercial blues force, so this alliance potentially exposes Connor to an even larger audience.
Connor's viral moment came at a good time for her. "There was a point where I wanted to quit," she says. "You know, ‘I can't take this. The music business just sucks.’ A lot of people with talent don't get anywhere. I was just getting really negative and jaded. And then I reached this point where, you know what? I don't care what happens, I'm going to just play, and whatever it's going to be, it's going to be. As long as I can pay the rent. I don't care, if I don't make it, if they don't like me, tough. Whatever. I have gigs." And of course, as soon as Connor had the thought, her video exploded.
Bonamassa wasn't the only music celebrity to connect with her, though. Rocker Tracii Guns, of L.A. Guns, reached out to Connor, promoting her social content and even getting her an endorsement deal with Gibson guitars. Guitarist Vernon Reid, from Living Colour, also engaged with Connor, the two eventually jamming together on a Bonamassa blues cruise, the stuff of wild Love Boat fan fiction dreams. These connections will potentially help Connor reach more people, which is good, but her main concern is her art and integrity. Which brings us back to songwriting.
"I really feel like songwriting is such an incredibly hard thing to do and there's so few people that are really great at it," Connor says. "And when you're great at it, I think about people like Carole King or the Beatles or Isaac Hayes or Smokey Robinson or John Hiatt. How they can come up with melodies and hooks. Certain people, they're just so great at songwriting, and there's a lot of people I hear, I'm not impressed. Where's the hook? Where's the melody? Where's the rhythm component that's different? Where's the cool chord change? What are you bringing? Same with blues. It's like, okay, I have a shuffle and I throw some words on it, which I've done. That's cool, but what is still original about that?"
But to listen to Connor's work is to receive a master class on songwriting within songs. 4801 South Indiana Avenue doesn't feature Connor's words or progressions, but her distinctive artistic voice is recognizable within every tune. She owns the tracks, drenching them in vocal intensity. And her slide playing, as always, is super-charged, like a rocket-powered bobsled.
In this interview, Connor discusses the challenges of songwriting, and what goes into her own creative processes. Connor emphasizes the importance of being present while performing, tapped into what's happening in the moment rather than what's already taken place or what she wants to happen. It's impressive how Connor strives to lock into that head space, even in the face of what, pre-pandemic, was hundreds of shows a year.
Connor may not enjoy writing songs, but she knows what makes them great.
Making 4801 South Indiana Avenue
Working Mojo: I was surprised you didn't write any songs on this one. How come?
Joanna Connor: To be honest, this is Joe's [Bonamassa, co-producer] vision for me. And he asked me, 'Do you trust me?' And I'm like, 'I have no reason not to [laughs]. You have a very good track record. I've made albums that I want to make. I've written songs, I've produced myself, and I'm game for whatever you're going to do. And I'll do the best I can.’ So really everything about that record was his concept. He didn't force me. [He'd ask] 'Do you like the song?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' But everything on the record was him just guiding me through it.
WM: Did you pick any of the covers? Or were they all things he suggested to you?
Connor: He asked me about covers. And the only one I suggested was "I Feel So Good," Magic Sam, because we kind of did something like that in my band. But everything else, him and [co-producer] Josh Smith sat around and just started pulling up all [of] these [tunes]. We went through about 20 songs and came down to the ones we got.
WM: And how did you pick which ones you were going to do? Did you record all 20 of them?
Connor: No. The ones we recorded [were] the ones that are on the record. And literally the band was in and out of there within two days. Like they laid down everything. And I laid all my guitar solos down in two days, except for the last cut. We did everything live in the studio. The only thing we overdubbed was my vocal, a couple of solos from Joe, because he's playing rhythm the whole time, and the horns. That's it. And background vocals. Everything else is live.
WM: So what does it entail? Would you just listen to a song and then just go in and play it? Or were you sitting with it for a little bit to figure out what you wanted to do with it?
Connor: I landed on Sunday in Nashville and the next day went to Joe's house, with Josh, and we spent about eight, nine hours, going through songs, picking the keys that would go for my voice. And then him and Josh were hammering out arrangements with a notebook, pad, and their guitars, and then the next day I came back, we did a couple [of] more songs the same way. We finished it up and I played through a bunch of Joe's amps, and the next day we went in the studio. That was it.
WM: Wow. Were you thinking about it? I'm thinking of your vocals and your solos. Were you going home and thinking about what you were going to do the next day?
Connor: Nope [laughs]. The thing is that because I play so much, the last 10 years I'm probably averaging a minimum of 180 shows a year, if not to 230 or 240. I play so much in the sets for so long, I'm kind of just used to being an improviser and having played blues for so long, not that I'm an expert, but there's not too much you could throw at me that I wouldn't feel comfortable with. Plus having Joe there for the solos, I didn't plan anything.
Some of the things, Joe would say, 'Hey, I want you to play this really rough, like do like Hound Dog Taylor. I don't want it pretty.' There's a couple of solos that are much messier than I would usually do, but it's what he wanted. He's like 'Do blah, blah, blah.' Or some things he'd be like, 'Just hold one note here.' So he kind of guided me through some of the things and the rest was just me playing off the top of my head.
Now the vocals were a little bit [different], even though we did those in two days, he would have me sing and then if there were parts, he would sing some things to me, like, 'Hey, why don't you try it like this?' Or he would just get to the emotion of the song, kind of paint a verbal picture. It was very, very, very fresh, raw, and for the moment. Some of those songs I had never heard before, never sung before, never played before.
WM: Which were some of the ones that you've never heard or sang or played before?
Connor: "Please Help." The Albert King song, "For the Love of a Woman," we changed to "For The Love Of A Man," I had never done. I had never done "Bad News" by Luther Allison. I mean about half the songs. I'd never heard of "Destination," the opening track. Yeah, a lot. A lot of songs Josh wrote, I never heard [those], obviously [laughs]. I knew "Part Time Love." I knew "I Feel So Good," because I had done that. So really out of the whole record there's probably, shoot, two songs that I had known.
Taste and presence
WM: Your guitar playing has a lot of melodies and hooks. Where does that come?
Connor: Thank you. I didn't know I did [laughs].
WM: I think you're joking, but your playing is melodic. There's a lot in it. It's not just like Guitar Center after school gets out.
Connor: I try to have taste. Because I'm a blues musician, [but] I think like a jazz musician. I'm not a jazz musician, per se. I've dabbled in it. I'm not at that level, but the idea of every night, even if I played a song a thousand times, I always bring something to the table that I'm feeling in the moment.
I never played with a set list. Ever. I just go off what I feel is in the room on a gig or at the festival. Or in the studio, I just was vibing off of what was happening around me, with all the great music that was being laid down. And it just felt so good. I think that's where my strength lies as a musician.
WM: If somebody asked you how to be present in the way that you are in the moment, what would you tell them? Because so many musicians are taught that preparation is the heart of performance.
Connor: Well it's funny, having been under this lockdown situation, which is the longest I've gone without gigging since I first was in a band at 17. I always played every week. The longest I ever had off was two weeks, when I had each child. They were both late—two weeks. I was supposed to take a month off, but it ended up being two weeks each time.
So I guess preparation-wise, I might run some scales to warm up or whatever. But I don't necessarily prepare. I think the only thing sometimes I do, especially with a really big show, or something with a lot of pressure involved, let's say, I'll kind of go into this little quiet space where I don't want to talk to a lot of people. People think I'm grumpy, but I'm just kind of going into that space, getting ready to bring some explosions to the situation [laughs]. I'm really about the moment with music.
I like structure, don't get me wrong. With my band we do have structure. We do have places we know we're going to go to and play a certain line. But I take 50% of what I do, even now, especially with the quality musicians, a lot of it's off the cuff, just going with the moment. I can't explain how I do it, it's just part of what makes me me, I guess.
WM: Because blues is so structured, how does that work for you? You want to be present and in the moment, but then you're working over like sort of similar sounding progressions. How do you keep it new and fresh, but then also stay within a defined structure?
Connor: That's been a real tricky scenario for me since I made my first record in 1989, in a sense of not playing at the blues. I'm hearing stuff now, and I'm not at purist, that are on the blues charts, and I end up going, 'How, in any kind of way, is this blues' [laughs]. I don't even hear the link in there. So I try to have some kind of root. And I've recorded some songs that are absolutely not blues, but for the most part there's always going to be that earthy quality, that bluesy quality, in the music.
[I've] backed people up and we literally will go and do like shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, slow blues, shuffle, shuffle, all night, and it's incredibly boring. And sometimes even in the same key. So when I'm doing a record or doing a show and it's blues, I'm cognizant of like, 'Okay, I'm not going to do a lot of songs in the same key in a row. I'm not going to play three slow blues in a row.' I'm going to try to appeal to the different rhythmic qualities of the blues. And I think you hear that on the record. Some of this stuff is real swampy, some of it's more rock, and some of it's slow, some of it's minor, some of it's swinging. So we kind of brought in different aspects of blues, which I think, if you're going to listen to blues, that's a really important component. To keep it fresh.
As far as a blues thing, I mean, what's crazy about the blues is because it's such a "simple format," it's like an open canvas too, because you don't have like structured pop, where this is the tune, and there's really not a whole lot of room [to change things up], unless you're soloing, or maybe you're singing a little different cadence, whatever. But the song is what it is. There's jam bands and stuff, so I'm not going to paint all rock or pop like that, but there's a lot of music that you don't have that room to be expressive, in a sense. You're kind of limited to what the song is about, whereas in blues, it's a little bit more open.
WM: Do you like that openness?
Connor: Yeah, totally. That's what drew me to the blues too, because I heard it all my life. My mom played blues all my life, on records, and took me to concerts. I grew up in the 70s and I graduated in 1980, as [the] punk scene was coming along, and electronic drums and all this stuff; things that I wasn't too keen on, let's say.
I really appreciated the raw honesty of the blues and the passion and the emotion and the realness. It wasn't on MTV. There was no pretense about it. And a lot of the musicians were just really excellent musicians, too. I don't know. It kind of took over my life and I dove deeper and deeper into it during that time, because the 80s for me, the music...it wasn't the best time for me to listen to music, in my opinion [laughs]. That's just my opinion!
WM: I was hoping you would confess to being a big Depeche Mode fan.
Connor: Oh, nooooo. I mean, there were some bands that had some great music out there. But in my opinion, it was few and far between. But that's just my opinion. I can't speak for other people. What turns me on might totally not turn someone else on, so I'm not going to judge anybody about it.
WM: Do you work on your vocals a lot too, like when you're not recording? Is that something you practice or exercise?
Connor: I should [laughs]. I started out as a singer. I did take some voice lessons. And I did take a voice class in college. But I know I don't do what I should with my voice. It's funny, because I did so much singing at the house gig I had, at the Kingston Mines, because it was so many sets. My voice has gotten kind of a crispy edge to it now and it's gotten much deeper. I think it's from a lot of abuse. I mean, not too, too much. And I can still sing, but definitely weathered, let's put it that way. So it's a good blues voice now, but I had to be almost, you know, sixty years old to get it.
When I was younger, I would listen to my voice and go, 'Damn, it's so high.' I sound like a little kid when I hear some of my earlier records. I'm like, 'Oh, this is pre-puberty!' I went through puberty at 55 or whatever. But no, I don't practice, but I do like to sing with music, just for fun. And it's how I taught myself, too, just singing with different people. And I do think about what I do when I'm singing. I really think about things when I'm singing, like pulling up from my diaphragm. Not singing too much from my head, not pulling from my throat. I am aware of stuff.
WM: Would you say your singing is more deliberate than your guitar playing?
Connor: No, I think about my guitar playing too. I mean, I don't plan it out, but I do kind of look back at it. If I watch a video, [I'll see] what I could do differently. And I do think when I'm playing. I make it sound like I'm just flying by the seat of my pants. In my best moments, that's true, I'm not thinking at all, but other times I'm definitely thinking about what I'm doing instantaneously while I'm playing.
But I think with music, for me, the whole process is I analyze myself and try to think of what I can do to be better. Not just practicing but actually thinking about, okay, what if I sing this lyric like this or what if I bend my voice this way, and also, in my band, my drummer is a singer and he's a very good singer. And kind of listening to how he sings. I listen to a lot of people and the ones that I like, I [think] 'Okay, what are they doing that I really like? Is there any kind of way I could incorporate this?'
WM: Is it kind of like game film? Do you go back after every show and review it or is it just if something caught your ear during the show?
Connor: Oh, well, now that there's social media, I can go watch every show, pretty much. Somebody's going to post something. Back in the old days, no, I never would, of course. So that is kind of cool. I do watch it.
It's funny. Most of the time in my head, I'm like, 'Oh my God. That sucked. Oh. I missed that note.' And I tell my bass player, 'Man, I just didn't have it tonight.' And then I go watch later, I'm like, 'Oh, I sound good.' It impresses me, because in my head I'm thinking of every little [mistake]. 'Oh, that was wrong. Oh, I missed that.' I'm my own worst critic. I'm thinking so rapidly. Because things that seem such a big deal, it's like literally a split second. I'll look at it later and think 'Wow, that felt like eternity but it was like, half of a second.
WM: Albert King once said that the blues is designed to soothe. What do you think about that statement?
Connor: That Albert King. He was such a liar. I don't think of Albert King and soothing. Although his voice is very creamy and lovely.
The blues is meant to soothe... I don't know about that. Well, I guess in a sense, [with] the blues you're digging up emotions. But there's so many different shades of emotion on the blues, of the painting of the blues. You can go from partying to morose to sexy. There's so many things, like life. It's a mirror of life. But I guess what I think, historically, in terms of someone like Albert King, who came up in a much different time as a black man, the blues for him has a whole other set of meanings than it does to me.
They say music is universal. Yes. Blues can be played by anyone. Yeah. But being a black person, even now, but especially back then, the blues had a whole other healing property. So maybe that's what he means by soothing. We're all human, and we all feel, and we all go through things, but that's a whole other experience.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.
Joanna Connor's new album 4801 South Indiana Avenue is available from www.ktbarecords.com