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Between Sets with Debbie Davies

One wonders if Jimi Hendrix had the blues students of today in mind when he said, "Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel." However, when the self-invented wild child of blues, Debbie Davies, hits the stage, it all makes sense!

From my first "plug-n-play" of Davies in my studio at a small stick in New England, Davies' manipulation and passion of the strings ignited the station populace. The Duchess of Blues was loose and out of control. Every lick had fever pitch. It was the blues, it was not easy and it was nothing but feel, from where I was spinning.

For blues, Debbie Davies in some way is my favorite example of white lightening, for even with the fanfare and golden accolades, she has been an untainted, but tenacious force in the world of blues. Davies is that visionary who learns as she goes, not missing a concept or fret.

Homegrown, Los Angeles-based Davies' journey is one of influencing acquaintances and molding memories from Maggie Mayall and the Cadillac’s to Albert Collins. Davies' trail leaves no regrets and harbors numerous lessons on and off the stage. She is "old school" blues with a diverse audience appeal. Crowds just take to her free-spirit by embracing the atmosphere she projects on stage a very cool experience for those with a ticket to ride!

As we bantered back and forth, a real energy unmasked itself for the one life she truly knows; that of the blues! Not afraid to tell you what’s what, makes Davies a pure musician and educator, no holds bar... so just jump, cash in the ticket, and hang in for the conversation, it’s sure to be a trip! That is the Davies Dimension!

Davies goes into numerous aspects of life on the road and off; the teachings and differences of the "Old School" of blues, versus that we know today--a lesson all future cats of the art should listen to are spelled out within this interview. There is no text book to these pieces of wisdom as Davies will tell you. It’s all about placing your heart on the right chord and licking it out. It’s the feel, that passion she holds as her most precious possession. Sure, Davies will define the "old school" for us, but unless you take in the vibration of a Fender Strat, and watch it melt down your arm in rhythm, you’re off without a clue.

Blues Blast, her new release from Telarc, is a collection of many things, as Davies will express. It may be that indefinable piece of art that needs to be spun to understand, however, that isn’t that idea. This spin is pure Debbie Davies, classic, electric blues guitar with an obscene amount of attitude, designed to cook the room.

As CoCo Montoya’s cut spins "Where the Blues Come to Die," well CoCo that may be, but Davies' blues doesn't die, they just simmer until next time! So let’s go between sets with the musician, vocalist, educator and all around Duchess of the Blues, Debbie Davies

JazzReview: Let’s start this ride with a statement that intrigued me. You stated that you're part of the "Old School" of Blues. Define that term, along with what you feel are the major differences between "Old School" and today’s School of Blues.

Debbie Davies: Well, when I refer to "Old School" for both blues and jazz, and the whole way players became players, was to apprentice. As a player, you came up a bit harder, like there were no learning materials and instructional DVD’s. (laughter) You really learned off records then. You worked your day job and played music in the after hours as you taught yourself and hung out with other players. What you tried to do was to land a job with somebody accomplished. For instance, you think of all the players that came out of the Muddy Waters band and Howlin Wolf’s band, it was a way you became a name player. You went out on the road with somebody who was a name! You learned the music that way and not only the music, but the culture of the music. It was not just learned on DVD or at music camp, you know what I am saying.

I notice today with a lot of the younger artists, their careers are subsidized by their parents because the baby-boomer generation, like myself, encouraged their kids to be musical, whereas in my generation, your parents just wanted you to get a "real" job." It’s a lot of stuff, basically though, it has to do with going out in the old way, coming up a bit harder, hanging with all the "cats," [and] learning it from the real "cats!"

JazzReview: Albert Collins was a fixture in your development, if I am not mistaken. How was the ride with him and what stood out most from that relationship?

Debbie Davies: Yeah! Touring with Albert was totally an "old school" experience. I mean he drove the bus himself and we all carried food in our bags to save money. Sometimes we all slept on the bus cuz there was not motel money. We would all hang out with Albert’s friends for a lot of after-hour card games and fish fries. I love hearing all the old "cat" stories. They would reminisce about their early years of touring and trying to survive. Of course, Albert, he began touring before the Civil Rights movement so that is a whole other ball of wax there.

When I was out with Albert, I knew this was a really special experience. I realize that even more now! Albert was really just a fun guy. I think why we really connected, besides our love of blues guitar, was in the area of our sense of humor. He loved to giggle and laugh, and crack-up just as much as me and a bunch of others. He really treated people with a lot of grace and kindness. That had a huge effect on me; I was hoping to evolve as a player and road-dog!

JazzReview: Your father was heavy into the music field, so how did he guide you?

Debbie Davies: I can’t really say my dad was a guide or mentor. He was actually kind of the opposite. He was a pretty distant and removed parent. He was involved primarily in his own career so where I got my love of music from, in fact, was me! I became a self-proclaimed music junkie. I guess the lack of a quality relationship with him, in part, drew me to the blues and created in me this "wild child" thing. It (the relationship) made me want to get out there in the world.

JazzReview: Blues is such a "wild child" so what brought you to embrace this genre? Talk also if you will, first about your relationship with the guitar and what brought the passionate love affair you have for its sound?

Debbie Davies: Well, it’s a typical baby-boomer story. Even though I grew up around music, my parent’s instrument was piano, listening to Big Bands, hearing a lot of horns, but I am one of those kids who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and was just like, "Yeah, that is what I want to play." Then all the music that was coming on the radio back then had its "groovy" sounds like John Mayall, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Stones--it was all blues based! This is what I was drawn to. As I started getting more into it, I realized that these guys are all playing electric blues guitar. Many of us worked backwards into finding all the B.B. King, Freddie Kings, Albert Kings, and into the Muddy and Howlin Wolf era T-Bone Walker and you keep going back! It was the sound and feeling, everything that I wanted to do!

JazzReview: Define "Blues" according to Debbie Davies?

Debbie Davies: It’s a feeling that is groove based. It’s a kind of bottom line music where if everybody is playing it right and together, you don’t have to think, you just feel!

I love all the different blues grooves. I love the feeling, writing songs around them and with them. When its happening, the fact that audience can connect with it, when it’s really fun, is when the audience is "Movin and Groovin" and giving back to you. You’re connecting with people on a soul level. That’s what I love about the blues and think that it is!

JazzReview: Now define Debbie Davies for the audience; in fact tell us something we don’t know.

Debbie Davies: I see myself as a musician first. When you are so strongly drawn to music you can’t "not" be a musician. The specific music I express myself through is the blues, however, I love all kinds of music. My particular soul and personality expresses itself through the blues. I am not a heavily driven career person, but you always want good things to happen for you, taking advantage of all that is going on. I can, however, pretty much get lost in the music part of it. I learned over time about business and learned about keeping it together. You have to do that! I do try hard to learn those (business) skills. But basically, it’s just the music and other people that are kind of in it in the same way. That is my comfort zone that’s when I feel I am with my tribe! Outside of that, the other part of me, or my love, is the natural world. I am really into that...nature and animals and stuff.

JazzReview: I remember you back when I was doing a show in New England called the "Back Road Blues" show on a small FM stick. That’s when I met your heat, head on! I noticed then you had this intense relationship with your instrument and performance technique. It’s a temperament rarely witnessed today. Describe the emotions you’re going through when you’re in the heat of performing, more so live?

Debbie Davies: Well, what you’re hoping to get into when you play is what people call the "zone." It’s where you do not have to think and there is no struggle, that’s the intensity. In the zone, you’re trying to get your whole being and band in that place where you do not have to think. Just let go and let your emotions out, be vulnerable in front of the people. When you're playing and singing like this, you're letting your feelings out and showing yourself believing that everybody has those same human feelings, and that everybody wants to connect. It is a gut thing, where I try to get into my gut!

JazzReview: What is the "Zone" you describe? Go further into it.

Debbie Davies: Oh Gosh! Suddenly that smile comes on your face (laughter) and everything lightens up a bit. It’s just like "All-right!" As a younger player, and I know this is true of all the younger players that I’ve talked to and players my age, when you are younger, you are so involved in your chops and everytime you play you’re thinking of the new chop you just learned. You’re showing it off on stage and playing everything you can think of. Your brain is a lot more engaged in what you are doing. For me now as a player. and what I would call that "zone" I have always been reaching for, there is not really thought anymore for you just feel the song and feel the crowd, then play! To me that is the "zone."

JazzReview: Back in 1998, you released Round Every Corner and then in 1999 came Tales from the Austin Motel. Please explain the difference between the two. How did you approach each recording in relation to your 2007 Blues Blast?

Debbie Davies: Well, Round Every Corner was my first CD for a company I had just signed with called Shanachie, so half the music I wrote, the other half was filtered down to me through the label and the producer, and they had a lot more control over that record. They were thinking what they wanted to do and how to market me. In fact, they did not let me use my players on the album. They took their players and so [on]that CD, I was compromising a lot because I found when you signed with a record company, they do not know you that well and want that control over what you are doing.

After they got to know me better, they asked me what I wanted to do for my next record and how we could do something special. I had been thinking I wanted to record with Chris (Layton) and Tommy (Shannon) for awhile because I had played with them after Stevie (Ray Vaughn) passed. There were several benefits and I played at several of them, and Double Trouble was the house band. At that time, I realized "Wow, these guys have that groove" (laughter), and I would be so happy and lucky to record with them. So at this point, the company said okay and they would do what I want. The company set it up in Austin and it just so happen that Chris and Tommy were available and really wanted to do it.

Now Blues Blast is an accumulation of many things. My CD I put out prior to Blues Blast, All I Found, was an all original CD with songs written by myself and my songwriting partner/drummer Don Castagno. Telarc, my recent label, was saying let’s do something really basic blues and live in the studio. There is a party in this Blues Blast record. That was our focus and I just called all these "old school" types to do that. We chose the rhythm section out of The Broadcasters, which was Per Hanson on drums, Rod Carey on bass, and Bruce Katz on keyboards. So once they were in there, it was just really easy for me and my guests--Tab Benoit, Charlie, Musselwhite, and CoCo Montoya. We were just like kids in a playground with that great rhythm section. We all came in kind of knowing what we were going to do. We just tried to get a good vibe and jam it out in the studio. That is basically what that album is.

JazzReview: Now let’s stay on your current release Blues Blast, which is coated with attitude. What were your expectations going into this recording and where they met?

Debbie Davies: Well, they really were met. It was because of the trust level I had with all the artists involved. It actually went more easily and faster than I thought. It just happened. We just jumped in there. It was pretty exciting and fun. You know, it's not often you get these folks in one room at the same time. Their schedules are so complicated and [they are] traveling in different directions. It felt pretty special for all of us.

JazzReview: Blue Blast comes out of the gate with a white hot performance called "A.C. Strut," which is a tribute to Albert Collins. How was this spin arranged and what impact did CoCo Montoya have on it?

Debbie Davies: This tune I had written and recorded on the Round Every Corner CD, but the fact we were bringing in CoCo for the project and we both had played with Albert, we felt it was perfect. When CoCo and I are stage together jamming, we just kind of channel Albert. We look at each other and know these certain licks that he would play. In other words, we get that feeling and just start playing. We just wanted to get into that Albert feeling!

JazzReview: Speaking of Coco Montoya (guitar & vocals), you also had in your court Tab Benoit (guitar) and Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica & vocals). Talk about the cast behind you and the impact they had on this project.

Debbie Davies: Well, it’s really easy to do with those guys! They all want to play! These guys are road dogs, not that these guys are doing it to be stars or they are going to get some gold ring at the end of the trail, they do it because they love music. They have to play. So everybody was pretty mellow and making jokes. I am especially thinking of Charlie because he is one who needed absolutely no warm up time. It is amazing to watch. Charlie is at that point in his personal career and playing that he will plug into a strange amp and that is it--he is on fire, has his tone and [is] in his groove! The guitar players took a few more minutes because they are trying to work on the sound and everything. If the mood is there, and the friendship [is] there, the music is going to happen!

JazzReview: Musslewhite’s harp generates a fine piece of sound on "Sittin & Cryin," however, he comes out of the gates with even more vengeance on his piece "Movin & Groovin." Which was more of a task to produce and arrange? How so?

Debbie Davies: Well "Movin & Groovin" was Charlie’s tune, he wrote that. I think that was the easy one for him, but neither are hard. They all are a basic blues groove. I had not recorded "Sittin & Cryin" with harp before, which was really fun, and we almost got into a slightly different groove than we had the last time I played it. On "Sittin & Cryin," when we were in the studio, if you were to keep the whole length of the cut of that song, for we must have played it for like fifteen minutes because we got into such a heavy groove, the engineer had to cut it down (laughter) for the album.

JazzReview: What spin was the most enjoyable to perform? Which was the most difficult to get through?

Debbie Davies: There were none that were difficult to get through. I can’t really go there and do that with this album because it was all very smooth. There was nothing hard for anybody and that was the point of the album. We selected material that everybody could sink their teeth into.

JazzReview: In 2008, what can we expect from you in the studio and out? Any DVD’s coming our way?

Debbie Davies: I would love to put a DVD out, but I personally do not have the finances to hire folks to come out and do it. It's one of those things that a label may want to do for you. Sometimes you’re in a club where they are set up for that. If that happens, fantastic, we will put that out! I just continue to write tunes as does my drummer Don. When we have the material ready, we will go back in studio.

JazzReview: As a veteran of the music industry, give me your perception on the music industry today.

Debbie Davies: Sure. First of all, as a woman, since I started trying to be a guitar player from then until now, I have seen the industry as well as the social culture of our world do an absolute 180. When I was starting and wanting to play electric guitar, as a female, that was seen as a kind of degenerate behavior. When I grew up, everything was very gender specific so you had on one side, all of the types of clothing and types of jobs that were okay for females. Then on the other side, the types of clothing and types of jobs for men (laughter). I have seen that change so much and it is very exciting. As opposed to people looking at me like a freak when I was trying to do what I do today, young women looking to play the electric guitar or drums are just so encouraged now. It is so cool. That makes me just so happy to see those changes.

The music industry really started finding women, I guess, around 1990, really tons of women artists started to be found. Prior to that, it was far and few between. Things have opened up and changed, but the record industry right now is going through a crazy time. Because of all the technological changes, it is really hard to know what the future is going to be.

JazzReview: Now for kicks, when you are alone and away from the professional scene, what does Debbie play just for Debbie?

Debbie Davies: Hmmm you know, I do not divert too much from what I play, but sometimes I will pick up an acoustic guitar and play some old stuff I learned acoustically as a kid. I still like to play some of those Neil Young songs and Joni Mitchell songs.

JazzReview: Now, to get to know one, you need to have fun, so let’s do! Answer if you will these probing questions and be blatantly honest

1. What is your favorite afterhour’s beverage? Well, I am not too exciting these days. I had to let go all of my bad habits awhile back so I’ll just say, Chamomile Tea.

2. Favorite spot to play? Oh yeah, definitely the bathroom, natural reverb (laughter).

3. What is your favorite guitar make? I am a diehard Fender Strat Yeah!

4. Your favorite non-blues artist? That would probably be Joni Mitchell.

5. If you needed to get away where would you go? Probably to a tropical island.

6. What gets you high? Well, in the past it would have been a multitude of chemicals (laughter). I don’t mind if you print that (laugh), but today it would be petting a dog.

Debbie’s Final Thoughts: Well mostly that a lot of the clubs and much of the whole live music scene are struggling right now. I'd like to encourage people to go out and see, especially some of the older blues artists, that are still touring. Go see them and support them live! Before you know it, they will be gone. Help keep live music alive! Go out and support the music!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Debbie Davies
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2008
  • Subtitle: Holding Class in the Old Schoolhouse of Blues
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