Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Joanna Connor Interview
Chicago's guitar goddess has played around the world,
recorded for multiple labels and backed up everyone from Jimmy Page and
Buddy Guy to James Cotton and Junior Wells. Yet she remains humble,
down-home and still not a household name. But a viral video and an
acclaimed new CD shine a light on this remarkable artist.
Chicago's guitar goddess has played around the world, recorded for multiple labels and backed up everyone from Jimmy Page and Buddy Guy to James Cotton and Junior Wells. Yet she remains humble, down-home and still not a household name. But a viral video and an acclaimed new CD shine a light on this remarkable artist.
by Greg Easterling
Is it possible for great musical talent to hide in plain sight? And why do we sometimes take for granted the contributions of our longtime hometown Chicago artists while giving more weight to those who come from elsewhere? Those feelings were stirred recently when I sat down to talk with local blues rock guitarist Joanna Connor whose latest album Six String Stories was just released on New York based M.C. Records, her first new recording in six years and first new studio album in more than twice that time. Joanna has been a regular weekly performer for decades now at her main gig, Kingston Mines and also at Chicago's House of Blues. Four of her albums were released on a onetime respected blues label, Blind Pig Records (now defunct); I remember playing a cut from her debut album Believe It! on a much admired local Chicago station back in 1989. And driving up Halsted over the decades, her name was often posted on the outer wall of the Mines, a longtime destination for both locals and out of towners in search of authentic Chicago blues.
But who is Joanna Connor? She came to town from Worcester, Massachusetts in the early 1980s to play the blues and jam with the likes of James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at the Checkerboard Lounge, A.C. Reed and Dion Payton, in whose band she served an apprenticeship. By 1987, she formed her own band and started to record albums several years later. Critics have bestowed the title of “virtuoso” on her because of her often incendiary slide guitar work; she's also a fine singer and accomplished songwriter, the author of dozens of original songs on her various solo band recordings (she has 14 albums to her credit). While often compared by writers to the much more famous Bonnie Raitt, Joanna's profile has remained relatively modest, even here in Chicago where the latest signings to our local blues labels, Alligator and Delmark Records generate much more publicity. So it's an especially good time to turn the spotlight on Joanna, a woman who has excelled playing aggressive blues rock slide guitar, traditionally a male dominated niche. I spoke with her recently between sets at Kingston Mines on a variety of topics including the new album, life on and off the road, a festival video that went viral around the globe, and balancing motherhood with the life of a working musician. And not to forget the time she got to jam with Jimmy Page at The Mines!
Greg: The new album, Six String Stories, is your first studio album in fourteen years Joanna! What took you so long?
Joanna: There's a lot of answers to that question! Being in the studio is kind of a weird feeling to me. I've been a live musician for so many decades now so going into the studio is not my most fun thing to do. It's more than the anticipation. The way the business has been going, with the “digital revolution,” it's kind of like, what's the rush? But finally Marion Lance Lewis who plays bass (also her ex-husband and formerly the drummer) said he was going into the studio and laying tracks. He asked could you just come? I said alright and started to add lyrics and a few melody lines. Lance played on all the rhythm tracks. It took about six months; I was so sporadic because of my schedule. But then there it was! We actually recorded six more songs that didn't make the record. It was an interesting process. I'd never done that before. It was always with a record company where you would go in the studio for three days up to two weeks, fourteen hours a day. This was much more enjoyable to me since I'm not a real prolific writer. My favorite thing is to play the guitar onstage. When it comes to making an album, what can I say or do that would be interesting? I didn't want to go in the studio to make a CD just for the sake of doing so.
Greg: We have blues labels here in Chicago but you are recording now for New York based M.C. Records who have been putting out some good recordings with Sugar Blue, Guy Davis and Anders Osbourne. How did you come to release Six String Stories on M.C.?
Joanna: Well, the last record I did with Mark Carpentieri at M.C. Records was In 2002. It was a studio album but it didn't really do much. It was pretty experimental and it was called The Joanna Connor Band with a flower on the cover! So when we did this project, we were thinking of putting it out on our own. We actually gave it to a local label but they weren't interested. So Mark is a cool guy and gave us a lot of artistic freedom. For me the music business never makes sense. That's also what got me discouraged about making records. I've been out there for years with Blind Pig and Ruf Records.
Greg: Blind Pig was your first label with the album Believe it!. I played cuts from it on the radio. What year was that?
Joanna: It was 1989. I did four records for Blind Pig. They went out of business a few years ago and sold the company.
Greg: But M.C. Records really picked up on your new album, Six String Stories?
Joanna: Yes, they really like it. Mark tweaked a few things. We went back in the studio a few times. Mark gave us some good suggestions. I think it has worked out really well and M.C has been working the album. He hired a promotion company too. So we put it out and we'll see what happens. It's been nice. (Editor’s note: Six String Stories has spent over seven weeks on the Roots Music Reports' Electric Blues Album chart since its late August, 2016 release, most recently rising to Number 2).
Greg: Being a woman and playing a pretty aggressive lead guitar was different when you started out in the 1980s. We had female acoustic singer-songwriters and women as lead singers in rock and blues bands but not many doing what you were. There was Bonnie Raitt of course, also Rory Block and Ellen McIllwaine. But you were still kind of a pioneer. When did you start playing?
Joanna: I was 17 when I started playing in bars in Massachusetts. I had my own band and I played with older guys in the blues field who were in their thirties. Two Italian brothers, they were right under the J. Geils Band and they almost made it! I really loved Chicago music and I'd heard about it all my life because of my mom. She took me to see all of those bands while I was growing up. I saw Buddy Guy when I was 10 in Worcester since she worked at Clark University and he played there. I heard blues my whole life there but then we came to Chicago on a hippie road trip across the country. I came here and I was home, returning in 1980 for good! I thought: I'm gonna go to Chicago and play the guitar. At the start, I wasn't really a lead player but I was a good rhythm guitarist and I sang. I played a little slide guitar too. I followed everyone around town and eventually joined Dion Payton's 43rd Street Blues Band. I was also in the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge every weekend for a year and I backed up everybody.
Greg: Were you there when the Rolling Stones dropped by?
Joanna: No I wasn't but I did play with Jimmy Page here at Kingston Mines in the Eighties when he was with The Firm. I was here with Dion back in the day when they had only one band every night and we were on break. But they said, Joanna go back up and play, there's some guy from England here. I said ok, whatever! Dion didn't know who Page was but I got up there and it was like, oh my God, Jimmy is my hero! It was him and me and Sugar Blue that night. Page was so nice. I was twenty something years old then. That's my story!
Greg: What a thrill!
Joanna: Mick Jagger was here at Kingston Mines one night when he was doing a solo thing back in the Eighties. He was looking at guitar players and Dion was one of the guys he was checking out.
Greg: You were drawn here to the Chicago blues scene even though there was a fair amount of musical activity in New England then. Bonnie Raitt went to school at Radcliffe in Cambridge for while and later performed in the area.
Joanna: I actually saw Bonnie when I was 7 because Mom took me. Bonnie was playing in a coffeehouse and I was sitting on the floor. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and A.C. Reed, who I played with, all played on Bonnie's first album. Everybody used to play Boston, Cambridge or Worcester and I'd sneak into the clubs and see all of them. But I loved the Chicago sound; it appealed to me more than the east coast.
Greg: A lot has been made recently in your press releases about you being a mother as well as a musician and the effect that it has had on your career. You have wanted to play gigs close to Chicago as you raise your children.
Joanna: With my son who is now 29, I didn't. I was on the road but my mom helped me. At first, I dragged my son with me everywhere. He went to Europe but it got to a point where I could only take him certain times and I missed a lot. And then with my daughter, who is 18, there was nobody but me there. I said then, I'm just going to stay home. Luckily they hired me here at Kingston Mines so it gave me a chance to stay close. I've played here every weekend for ten years.
Greg: You have had quite a relationship with Kingston Mines!
Joanna: This was the first club I ever came to here in Chicago.
Greg: You also play the Back Porch Stage at House Of Blues.
Joanna: Every Monday I play acoustic there, once a month with the band. I also perform at Lagunitas Bar and Grill and Buddy Guy's about once a month. I played Rosa's for the first time six months ago.
Greg: Kingston Mines is a big tourist draw. When people come to Chicago, they want to see the blues. What do you think is the audience split between tourists and locals?
Joanna: It starts out with older people. Then around midnight, it's younger folks and they're local. They love this place. But I would say it's 60/40 out of town.
Greg: You have been a white blues woman here at the Mines working the weekends for years now!
Joanna: I'm the only one. I feel privileged. African Americans have always loved me. I just played the South Side in a park near Inglewood.
Greg: As far as musical influences, you have stated that Buddy Guy and Jimmy Page were both big for you.
Joanna: My two biggest influences! For slide guitar, I learned a lot of Ry Cooder for his technique. I listened to everything. Freddie, B.B., all the Kings. The old stuff, Robert Johnson and Blind Blake. I listen to world music and I love rock. A lot of jazz and reggae.
Greg: Your band is real important to you. Lance, your bass player, former drummer and ex-husband co-wrote all the original songs for Six String Stories. Tell me about your relationship.
Joanna: It's kind of Fleetwood Mac like! I had my daughter and I was married. He was married too and had a son. We both got divorced and then we got married. We split up about five years ago but we kept playing music together. I have known him for nineteen years. He's the male voice you hear on some of the tracks on the album.
Greg: Anthony Palmer is your second guitarist and has been for a long time now.
Joanna: Off and on since I first started the band in the Eighties.
Greg: What about this popular viral video of you playing a festival somewhere? How did that come about?
Joanna: We did a show in Maine. It went really well and we came back home. That was in July and this guy sends me a message that he did a video of me and it got 100,000 hits in Russia. I'm like what? He sent me a copy and then it started to go. To Brazil next on a site that wasn't YouTube. It had four million hits in Brazil. And then it went to Italy, 8 million hits! And then it was in China. It was in two different spots on YouTube, one under my name and the other is I Can't Believe She Nailed It! I'd never put up a video on YouTube until recently. The biggest one I'd ever had previously was like 35,000 hits for a reggae tune I did. That is pretty good for a blues artist. I think a bunch of stoners liked to watch that one! Someone came up to me at House of Blues the other day and said I saw your video in Sweden. I get written up in these national newspapers. I got flown over to Spain to play an amazing private party in a villa in the mountains overlooking Barcelona. All because of this video! Even the show America's Got Talent called me!
Greg: Of course as a professional musician, you are way beyond what they normally have on that show but it would still be great publicity!
Joanna: Some lady producer from L.A . called and said, we want you. So then the show was in town last winter and they wanted to meet me. I said I'm not standing in line. She said no-no, you just go in. I had a number and they let me go through. But they didn't take me (laughs).
Greg: Let's talk about your new album, Six String Stories. You come out blazing with a Robert Johnson/Sweet Home Chicago like original song called “It's A Woman's Way” and then you follow with a Bo Diddley influenced number (“By Your Side”). Was that planned?
Joanna: Those are just such traditional grooves and then I just put my own lyrics on them.
Greg: People love that too. Some who listen to the album for the first time will be able to get into it on that level.
Joanna: That was Mark's (Carpentieri) decision. He decided the order. We recorded 16 songs and there were five extras. We did a Stevie Wonder song and a jazz tune. We were all over the map! The only one I kind of fought for “Halsted Street.” Mark said he didn't like the synthesizer in it. I said, well listen we can get rid of that so all the weird sounds you hear is me playing. I took a guitar and we shook an amp. I had a strap and a tremolo bar so I replaced all the synth parts with guitar sounds.
Greg: For “Halsted Street,” where Kingston Mines is located, I was expecting more of a traditional Chicago blues sound. You really wailed on that one!
Joanna: The title was Lance's. He pretty much wrote the groove too. It's kind of moody and he said just go crazy and play! I don't think I ever recorded anything like that before.
Greg: It's got kind of a Jeff Beck feel to it. The next song “We Stayed Together” sounds like it has a lot of inspiration from your personal life and it has a nice groove too.
Joanna: Thank you. You're making me blush!
Greg: After that, cut 4, “Golden” is a real departure for you. It was once a hit for R&B singer Jill Scott. You do a real nice job on it. What kind of guitar do you play on that one?
Joanna: It's the acoustic you heard me playing onstage earlier tonight. I listen to everything and there's a lot of rhythm and blues that I didn't do tonight because I kind of try to read the crowd. Jill is a tremendous singer from the neo-soul movement. I was kind of hesitant to record it but Lance said he wanted me to try it. He kind of pushed my boundaries which is good because I don't know if I would have chosen to do it.
Greg: It's a nice change of pace musically and you really pull it off. It's real jazzy. You take a varied musical approach with Six String Stories. Was that part of the plan? To mix it up?
Joanna: I don't think I ever made a record with just straight blues. There was so much music that I listened to and absorbed being a kid that grew up in the Seventies. You'd put on the radio, the Top Forty station and you'd go from the Commodores to Led Zeppelin. It was everything back then. For me to limit myself would feel like I'm cutting off part of me even though I love Chicago blues. That's why I named it Six String Stories. Different stories told with a guitar.
Greg: That's a great album title and I'm surprised nobody else ever came up with it before. I never heard anyone use it.
Joanna: I felt kind of good about that because originally we didn't know what to name it.
Greg: On the front cover, your various guitars are pictured beginning with a resonator.
Joanna: And there's a cigar box guitar which actually sounds great! A guy from Italy sent it to me so I put it on there and then there's my Gibson Les Pauls.
Greg: And your acoustic guitar which you have turned around so you could print the album title Six String Stories on it.
Joanna: Laying in the garden which was my idea. A picture with all the guitars back there.
Greg: You had blues man Omar Coleman playing on the jam “Swamp Swim” which is cut 5. I almost thought it was Sugar Blue at first, a bit like his style.
Joanna: The real subtle kind of stuff on there. Omar is great and a really good singer too.
I used to hire Omar to work for me before he had his own band. I think he's a barber too. So he was doing that as his job and then coming out to the clubs to play.
Greg: “Swamp Swim” is a cool sounding instrumental. What was your inspiration for that?
Joanna: Lance had some weird obscure tune and said he wanted that feel. I'm kind of an aggressive player so Lance said just play real , real laid back and I came up with that one live.
Greg: Then you follow on the album with “Love Coming On Strong.” That rocks real nice.
Joanna: That is my Zeppelin/Howlin' Wolf kind of thing!
Greg: And then you get to “Heaven,” cut 7 with a gospel vibe to it. Was that Lance preaching?
Joanna: That is him preaching. He's actually a reverend too. His father had a church in Harvey. I originally recorded “Heaven” on a Blind Pig release and we redid it. Lance came up with a whole new arrangement although I wrote the tune. He really took it to a place that I would have never gone.
Greg: The lyrics to “Heaven” are more like we have heaven on earth and need to make the best of it. But Lance got into a more traditional gospel kind of thing with the preaching rap. It's interesting that you that you put the two approaches together.
Moving on...your cover of the Elmore James classic, “The Sky is Crying” which is Cut 9, surprised me. I was expecting a full on blues rock treatment but I liked what you did with your lighter approach. It's different and you put your stamp on it.
Joanna: That was from the Maine show with the viral video. Lance had a little recorder that he attached to the sound board. Mark picked that one too. I really like the way it sounds.
Greg: Does “The Sky Is Crying” mean a lot to you?
Joanna: It is kind of my tribute to those times with Dion Payton. He used to do it that way. I love playing guitar in a minor key. You can just get lost; it's a good place to be for me.
Greg: Most who cover that classic do it in a more rocked up fashion, You do it like somebody's really crying. It's also a woman's touch that you bring to it.
Joanna: It's mournful. Thank you for noticing.
Greg: The album's final cut, “Young Woman Blues” sounds like it was going out to your daughter.
Joanna: It was. She was crazy about this boy so it’s all about her. A little advice from an old lady!
Greg: You're at a crossroads now with your daughter gone off to college for the first time. She's attending Indiana State on a basketball scholarship. Do want to get out there on the road again?
Joanna: Well, I have thought about it. I did so much traveling for 17 years but I don't want to be on the road like I was. Unless it's a bigger act, say, someone like Joe Bonamassa comes along and asks, can you open up for me for a year? What I'd rather do is pick and choose. Like go out to the East Coast for a week. But I also want to see my daughter play basketball too, we'll see what happens.
Greg: I know you have to get ready for your next set tonight here at Kingston Mines, Joanna. It's been great to finally meet you after all this time and thanks for speaking with me.
Joanna: I enjoyed it. It's always great to be interviewed by an intelligent human!
Greg: Thanks so much Joanna! And best of luck with the new album.
info or to buy the CD:
For info or to buy the CD: www.joannaconnor.com
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.