For the past 100 years, America has been home to the best female blues singers in the world. Starting in 1920, Mamie Smith entered blues history as the first African-American female artist to make vocal blues recordings. In 1923 Bessie Smith was hailed as the “Empress of the Blues” and the first blues superstar, around the same time as Ma Rainey gained the title “Mother of the Blues.” Billie Holiday was regarded as the “First Lady of the Blues,” and she began recording in the 1930s. Other illustrious names since then include Sister Rosetta Tharpe who also pioneered the electric guitar; Etta James, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Mavis Staples, and most recently Beth Hart are among others. While there are many excellent young women blues chanteuses on the UK side of the pond such as Jo Harman, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Elles Bailey, few can yet claim greatness as authentic blues singers. One notable exception is Ruby Turner. And another, Zoë Schwarz, is at last achieving the recognition which her prodigious talent deserves after years of relentless gigging.
This sixth studio album, Chameleon, from UK’s Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion comprises 12 original and diverse tracks and continues the band’s inexorable trajectory to the top. It comes after nearly a decade of building a loyal fan base, touring extensively and writing/recording songs of increasingly sublime, melodic and technical virtuosity.
“Life Goes On” is a jaunty, catchy opener. Zoë’s voice sounds like no one other than Zoë Schwarz. Such is her unique formula of classical, jazz, blues and every other genre she has absorbed into her heart and creative imagination. The brass section is unleashed on the heavy riff-laden “Better Days.” The chanteuse’s powerful, evocative voice leads its explosive crescendos with dramatic intensity. The intriguing, poetic lyrics catch the attention they deserve: “All at sea, hopelessly adrift, and desperately waiting for the tides to shift / waiting for you to send me a sign, cast adrift no land’s in sight / I remember better days.”
The jazz-infused guitar and fluent Hammond interludes on “If Only I Could Be With You” complement the lead singer’s impeccable vocal range and timing. The absence of a bass guitar in the line up gives dexterous keyboard player Pete Whittaker the space to create a distinctive style, which he achieves with aplomb — the fills and solos at times reminiscent of The Doors’ legendary Ray Manzarek.
Starting with a whisper on “Hello My Old Friend,” Zoë stretches her vocal chords to the limit as the mood changes dramatically during the song. By contrast, the uptempo “Give Me The Key To Your Heart” bounces along nicely courtesy of Rob Koral’s dazzling guitar work. Rob has established himself as a major player on the UK blues scene, his magnificent axe work featuring strongly throughout the album. Zoë’s voice soars gracefully above the intricate, tasteful guitar and keys on the balladic “I’ll Be Here For You.” Reggae syncopations are brought to the fore on “I Hope I See The Day” and add further variety to the eclectic mix.
The deep well of blues tradition is never far from the surface. So “When The Blues Come A Knocking,” Rob’s searing guitar shares center stage with Zoe’s edgy lyrical delivery. “Amazon Woman” is the ultimate road warrior song for the ‘super hero’ at the center of this apocalyptic maelstrom — Pete Whittaker’s swirling Hammond, Rob’s slash-and-burn axe and Paul Robinson’s dynamic, pulsating percussion generating the pyrotechnics.
“I Cry Just To Think Of It” is a tribute to the magnificent arrangements which permeate the CD, Patrick Hayes’ trombone and the tenor sax of Ian Ellis in perfect synchronization with the rest of the band driving towards its climactic finale. Chameleon is the best word to describe “Tell Me,” Zoe’s voice now possessing an almost childlike quality before changing to the coolly sensual tones of “Come And Lay With Me” with its calming, atmospheric background keys.
Just when the listener thinks it’s all over, a bonus track — or rather a pièce de résistance — emerges from the ether, which is so beautiful and inspirational it takes the breath away. Zoë is singing “Lover Man” and sounding uncannily like Billie Holiday in the 1940s. The manipulation of the phrasing and tempo, the timbre, the vibe and the improvisational skills could be straight out of Lady Sings The Blues.
Chameleon is an empowering, exhilarating, groundbreaking album which pushes and at times re-draws the blues boundaries whilst staying mainly within its conventions. When the award is handed out for the best blues recording of 2020 embracing innovation, passion, musicality, lyrical intelligence and vocal supremacy, Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion must surely be a strong contender.
Artist: Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion
Label: 33 Records
Release Date: April 3rd, 2020
Running Time: 56:42
Interview With Zoë Schwarz and Rob Koral
David Scott, UK correspondent for American Blues Scene, caught up with Zoë and her partner, co-writer and guitarist Rob Koral to hear their story prior to the release of the band’s new album.
Following a succession of very good and highly acclaimed studio albums in a period of less than a decade, your sixth and new release, Chameleon, is breathtaking and represents yet another major step forward. Can you talk us through some of the tracks and their vibes individually and give us some insights into the stories behind them?
Rob: The first thing about the material for the new album is that all the songs vary so much in mood, tempo and feel; hence the title Chameleon. The opening track, “Life Goes On,” unusually for us, doesn’t feature a solo and instead has a relentless and hypnotic groove and story, so there’s the first surprise. Highlights for me are “Hello My Old Friends,” “When The Blues Come A Knocking,” and “Come And Lay With Me.” Zoe I’m sure has different favorites. It was a fun summer sitting in the garden with an acoustic guitar and a notepad coming up with these ideas. At the start of each project, the idea of coming up with another bunch of songs feels daunting. But to be honest, once the ball gets rolling it just seems to flow, and represents a lifetime of music making.
The recording, mixing and mastering are exceptional. Wayne Proctor is regarded as excellent in this field. What is he like to work with? And please tell us about Andy Banfield’s input at Superfly Studios.
Rob: It was a smart move for us to use Wayne again after his successful start with us on The Blues And I Should Have A Party, our previous studio album. A few years back, Wayne in fact had implied that he thought he could really enhance our music by raising the bar on the sound and production. He was dead right and we are absolutely thrilled with the result. Wayne was familiar with our music and of course likewise; we had heard several albums he had produced, and were seduced by the cohesive and impressive production. It was very nice for us to pass the mixing baton on to someone we could trust. Seeing a whole project through from start to finish ourselves is massively time consuming. Also we wanted to hear someone else’s take on our music. Andy Banfield at Superfly was fantastic to work with. He’s a top engineer and the studio has a great vibe. He has an unflustered and decisive manner, and as a result we were all very chilled. We decided on arrangements and which takes to use ourselves. We track the music “live” to keep it vibrant and real, that’s probably what we do best. I’m very much of the feeling that what I play “in the moment” is the right thing. I’d say that most of the time I play my best on the first couple of takes. After that, the right side of the brain tends to take over too much. And I’m sure our keyboard player Pete Whittaker and drummer Paul Robinson are the same. One day, resources permitting, I would like to have a go at taking more time over the recording process and being more clinical, if only to see what would happen.
Will you be choosing a single from this album yet? If so, it must be a difficult choice! My personal favorites are “Amazon Woman,” “Hello My Old Friend,” and “Tell Me.” But really they are all great songs.
Yes. Two, actually: “Hello My Old Friend” and “Amazon Woman.” We have got a couple of really great artistic videos to go with them.
Zoë, tell me about your musical relationship with Rob and how it works?
The first interesting thing is that we are poles apart in our musical backgrounds. I initially sang sacred music, was classically trained, learned to read and write music, and conduct choirs. Rob comes from that completely self-taught generation, from the street if you will. We first met in the summer of 2001, and I can categorically tell you that the first song we played together was “Lover Man,” a song that was made famous by the one and only Billie Holiday. I can still remember finding the chords that Rob played strange and unusual; this was the initial collision of musical upbringings. I’m a determined sort of person, and so wanted to play this music that I was going to persevere no matter what! The way we bridged this gap was to gig, gig, gig over the next several years! I can let the cat out of the bag here and now and say that we’ve paid homage to that moment in time, by recording “Lover Man” for this recording session. It was a one-take performance and is a bonus track on the album by way of a hidden track. Just hang on for 20 seconds after “Come And Lay With Me.” Actually, Rob and I played our first gig four or five days after this initial meet and practice session. As we continue to gig together, Rob introduced me to, and made me perform with (in the context of our own band), several top-class elite players. Perhaps even way before I was ready! This was a massive learning curve for me and stands me in good stead to this very day. Looking back on this period now — wow, I’ve got to say I was very brave, and green! Rob on the other hand, of course grew up with this music. But interestingly, says I have a definite leaning towards singing the blues. I think he’s right, but it’s very curious, because that music was not in my world growing up! One final and interesting point: through the formation and development of our band Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion, it has brought Rob back to his early and passionate love of rock music. So in a bizarre way, we have both been very good for each other. Anyway, the proof in the pudding is when you hear the music, and our album. I think this new album is our best to date! If people do want to check out the music we initially played together, there are three albums of ours that I’d like to recommend. I am not going to categorize the music, but just tell you the albums are called Celebration, Slow Burn, and a Zoe Schwarz album titled Blue Commotion. This is where we got our band title from, our first being Good Times.
Over the past few years you have gigged relentlessly, building up a healthy fan base, as well as releasing several outstanding and highly acclaimed albums. Given this context, are you happy with where you are career-wise at this point in time?
Playing creative, original music is a hard road. Our realistic goal is to play on great stages at good venues and festivals in front of people who have come to hear the music. On top of this, to write some seriously good song, perhaps that people want to cover; anything over and above this is out of our control. We do think we have written some good songs though. However, the belief in what we do is supported by the fact that some of our biggest fans are established and well-respected artists and critics who really know their stuff. That feels very nice for us.
What do you regard as your most significant achievements to date?
As an instrumentalist, vocalist, or band, the most sought after goal is to have your own style or sound, it is not easy to achieve this, but we are confident in saying that we believe we don’t sound like anyone else. We’re so proud of that. How do you achieve this? Well, by believing in yourself and trusting your instincts. We also don’t censor or tell the guys how or what to play ever. Add into the equation sheer stubbornness and a refusal to be diverted.
Zoë’s style is a wonderful, intriguing mix of blues influences including Billie Holiday and several contemporary artists which is great for the listener.
I know that most people don’t think of Billie Holiday as a blues singer, but I most definitely do. She had a really hard life and as a result had so much emotional power in her vocal delivery. Not the archetypal blues shouting, but lazy, behind the beat phrasing, which really appeals to me. Yes, she didn’t often sing straight 12 bar blues, but instead favored the 32-bar format of the Great American Songbook. To me that’s an advantage in learning one’s trade, because of the musicianship required to know your way ‘round and not get lost in the form. Of the current crop of singers, I really love Beth Hart. And here in the UK I love Kyla Brox and Alice Armstrong although of course there’s a whole bunch of fantastic women bringing their own brand to the blues table.
Rob, you have an interesting and individual guitar style, how did this come about and who were your early influences?
Thank you! I’ve never really copied solos note for note. I’ve just absorbed the vibe of a player I like. I work on my playing every day. It is such a potent means of self-expression; you can tell your story and say everything you need to through the instrument. Important players to me at the beginning were Eric Clapton when he was with Cream, Jann Akkerman, Wes Montgomery, Allan Holdsworth, and Robben Ford… They were all super important to me. If I had to sum up one thing that distinguishes my way of playing from standard pentatonic blues playing is that I nearly always play “on the changes.” Put simply, this means to outline, or spell out, the sound of the chords via the lines you play over them. In other words, if you were to take away the backing you would still hear the sound of the chord changes. This is so important, and I can hear instantly if a player knows their stuff or not. So many rock players don’t really think this way or indeed have the vocabulary, yet it is such a good skill to acquire. After all, it is 2020 now! Strong words I know, but it’s true. Matt Schofield and Robben Ford are great examples of modern blues playing.
You have written some classic songs, notably “Broken,” “Angel of Mercy,” and “Beatitudes.” What are your favorites, and can you talk us through the songwriting process?
Well, there’s three of our favorites right there in your question, and we’d like to add “This Is The Life I Choose” and “I Believe In You.” We hope we’ve created a few more favorites on this album. Our songwriting process starts in either one of the two obvious ways: with a guitar riff or chord sequence, or a set of lyrics. Sometimes the songs happen instantaneously as we sit together in our music space, and sometimes we throw it around for a few days. Having a sense of mood can transform the simplest cliché, make it sound fresh, and give it a new meaning. We don’t have a formula or musical template for writing songs, and we don’t throw an idea away if it starts taking a direction seemingly outside of our original idea. It’s amazing what happens to an idea when you bring it to the band, and how it can change character completely and surprise you in a very positive way. The moral of the story is don’t put constraints on your ideas, and keep an open mind. Another huge factor for us in relation to the general fruition of our music is that we can honestly say that we have never told another player what to play. We bring them the musical DNA, i.e. the musical arrangement and chord sequence, and then Pete Whittaker and Paul Robinson add their magical ingredient. That’s how we feel a band should work.
Tell us about the qualities of your band members, how they have developed musically and what they bring to the overall sound?
You could say that like-minded people attract each other and it’s the same in music. We have similar musical tastes, interests and history. That’s why it works, and why we started playing together in the first place, and that’s why we chose Pete and Paul for the band. They simply bring creativity, personality, technical brilliance, and a massive musical authority!
In this era of music streaming and, in some cases, falling CD sales and diminishing live music venues, are there challenges in maintaining the status of a professional musician? is it harder than it used to be?
It’s definitely harder, just simple things like driving from A to B, parking a car, getting up the M1 or M5 on a Friday night, getting your guitar on a plane, battling double yellow lines as you try and load into a gig… These are definitely problems that the first generation of British blues players didn’t have to deal with, so we just have to be more organized these days. Things like YouTube and the Internet generally are a great help in getting the music heard in this age where middle of the road music dominates all mainstream outlets. Streaming is contentious amongst musicians. But my opinion is if people really like what they hear they will buy it anyway, and quite possibly come to a gig.
What do you think about the current blues scene in Britain and the USA?
Zoë: There are so many passionate people who really care about the blues scene in the UK and commit so much of their time to the cause. I’m thinking of people who run radio shows, music review websites, magazines, clubs and festivals, not forgetting organizations like the IBBA and the UK Blues federation. We’ve met so many lovely people, and without wishing to sound corny, they, together with the people who love going to gigs, make it all worthwhile. The same applies to the musicians; the camaraderie backstage at festivals is always great fun. They are mostly a friendly bunch.
Rob: There’s a hell of a lot of energy out there, and the majority of the bands are of the blues/rock persuasion; some good, some not so good. I guess this is understandable considering the resuscitation in interest of the American blues culture originated here in the UK, albeit repackaged and reborn via the much more heavily amplified British bands who fronted what became known as the ‘60s British Blues Boom.
Observing the American blues scene from over here it seems that the more traditional bands are more popular and doing well in the polls, compared to over here where the scene is dominated by blues rock, such as those at the forefront of the ‘60s blues boom in London.
Do you have a message for American Blues Scene Readers?
Please check out our music. I think you’ll like it! American reviews have always been very favorable to us, and we’d love to play there. I sense we would go down well!
Good Times 2012
The Blues Don’t Scare Me 2013
I’ll Be Yours Tonight – Live 2015
This Is The Life I Choose 2017
The Blues And I Should Have A Party 2018
The Beatitudes 2012
Angel Of Mercy 2016