The Future Of Blues: The Tomorrow People

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Meet the young artists who are flying the flag for the next generation…

**Chantel McGregor
**Bradford blueswoman brings the rock. And the acoustic. And the prog.

How can you tell that your daughter is going to be a blues rock star? Well, we’d say that your three-year-old demanding Hendrix and Free be played in the car is a sure-fire sign that you’re raising something grittier than a pop-fed princess.

That was the story for Bradford’s Chantel McGregor, who was raised on rock classics and got her hands on her first guitar when she was only just out of nappies.

Throughout a schooled upbringing, which included nine years of guitar lessons and culminated in a popular music degree, it was the bluesmen with a rockier edge that piqued her interest. “I’ve never swayed towards the traditional blues nor have I swayed towards the traditional of anything,” she says. “I appreciate the traditional blues guys, I’ve listened to them and learned from it but the rock-based stuff is more relevant to me and what I do. I’m a rocker.”

Today, the 29-year-old is on the cusp of releasing her second album, Lose Control, the follow-up to 2011’s Like No Other. It sees her rock side come gloriously to the fore. We’re talking the bluesy stomp of fellow up-and-comers Aaron Keylock and Virgil And The Accelerators mixed in with the snarl of Deap Vally’s Lindsey Troy. It’s full to the brim with raw emotion, rough-and-ready power and stellar songwriting craft.

“Musically everything has got a lot darker and a lot heavier since the first album,” she says. “The songwriting has really grown between the albums.”

Fists-in-the-air blues rock may be the record’s calling card, but there’s more just beneath the surface. McGregor tells us that while the likes of Killing Time and Your Fever are clear-cut blues rock crunchers, Home is a soft acoustic ballad and Eternal Dream was inspired by her love of Jeff Buckley. Oh, and Walk On Land is a Porcupine Tree-influenced prog animal.

I’m my own person. Why change anything? If it ain’t broken don’t fix it.

“That was written in a couple of days of me just wanting to write a big prog epic song,” she says. “It had to be as good as something Steven Wilson would write. I discovered Porcupine Tree five or six years ago and I love them. It was really cool that I managed to writeaprogsong,I’mproudofthat.”

The diversity of the record is a testament to McGregor’s headstrong nature. She’s also completely fearless when it comes to her almost scattergun approach to genre conventions, saying that as far as she’s concerned, if the music is good people will like it, no matter whether the ‘it’ in question is blues, rock, prog, pop or just about anything else. In an age in which young artists are often too easily pigeonholed and packaged, swayed stylistically by managers, labels and producers, McGregor is admirably confident in her own ability and resolute in her decisions.

“We’ve had a few people say I should do this, I should sign to this or that, I should change what I wear and change my image. I’m my own person, I’m comfy doing what I’m doing and it’s going okay so why change anything? If it ain’t broken don’t fix it.”

McGregor also has a firm grasp of the business side of things and will release Lose Control through her own label, Tis Rock Music.

“I have my own record company and I manage myself,” she says. “Maybe I’m a control freak. It’s your business to understand what is happening with your career. You have to be aware of it all and take control.”

And she is now comfortable holding her own in the studio. Not only did she lay down all of the vocals and guitars on Lose Control, she also recorded some bass tracks and got her hands dirty with production work in the making of the record.

“On the first album I went in with wide eyes thinking everything the producer said was right, so I didn’t fight for what I wanted,” she says. “This time I’ve gone in with a clear idea of what I wanted. A good producer brings their own ear to the songs and you need to be open to it, but you need to know when to say no. On the first album I didn’t know to say no.”

But there are still hurdles to overcome. She acknowledges that a twentysomething blues artist will face a backlash from the ‘pay your dues’ brigade.

“People think that you haven’t earned the right to play. You see on Facebook guys in their 40s and 50s saying the younger guys haven’t paid their dues. Hang on a minute, I’ve been doing jam nights since I was 12, how long do you need to pay your dues for you to be validated in your opinion? If you work hard and you’re good at what you do then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be up there doing it.”

And even in 2015 she is still struck by the stereotypes that unfortunately go hand in hand with being a female guitar slinger.

“It’s still an obstacle,” she sighs. “It’s a sad state of affairs that in this day and age girls still think they shouldn’t play guitar because it might damage their fingernails. I still walk into guitar shops and they talk to my dad or my bandmates, not me. They don’t think I’m going to pick up a guitar and play it. That’s wrong. That stigma needs to be broken. I don’t know how to break that but it needs to happen.”

We think we know how that can happen – writing more records like Lose Control will do the trick. And with this superbly eclectic collection, what on earth has she got left in her locker for album three?

“Next I’ll have to do my country album,” she laughs. “I’m joking. I’d like to keep going down the rock avenue. There’s no better feeling than absolutely ripping it up with a band on stage and rocking out.”

Lose Control is out October 9 via Tis Rock Music.

Tabitha
What’s in a name? Here’s a blues-loving folkster that we’ll be marveling at for years to come.

Cher. Madonna. Adele. Music is littered with single-named songstresses, and here comes another. Brit singer-songwriter Tabitha is the latest artist to drop the surname (Smith, in case you were wondering). But it was search engines more than superstar chart-hoggers that influenced her decision.

“There’s a Marvel comic book character with the same name as me,” she explains. “It’s pretty cool, but also confusing if you’re looking for a blues singer. Also just Tabitha is nice and simple.”

The name might be simple but the music most certainly is not. There’s a whole host of styles and sounds at play here, which isn’t surprising given that Tabitha first dipped her toe into the songwriting waters aged just 10. Her Black Wave EP showcases the years of honing and development that her writing chops have undergone since then. Storm sounds like Etta James jamming with a blues rock trio, while just a few songs later, on the title track, Tabitha glides over a stripped-back folky base of guitar and snare drum.

“I’d like to refine my sound a bit more,” she admits. “I find it difficult to refine my songwriting to one style. I listen to so many different types of music that when I write a song it just comes out a certain way and I’ll think: ‘Oh no, that’s not the right style, I have to make it more like this or that.’”

Black Wave is an unexpected gem of 2015, but the EP was actually recorded several years ago. Without the financial means to push it, Black Wave was forced onto the back burner until another 21st century blueswoman came calling.

If you love something then you will do it whether you’re making money or not.

“I didn’t know what to do with the EP, I didn’t know where to start,” Tabitha sighs. “I went into music teaching and left the EP behind a little bit. I had done nothing with it until my friend Dani Wilde invited me on tour with her next April. I dug it out, repackaged it and re-launched it.”

We reckon that was a very wise decision. But, despite having a voice to die for and a painfully obvious knack for penning tunes, Tabitha’s musical career frustratingly remains a part-time pursuit. It seems that teaching music is a better way of paying the bills than playing music. Tabitha juggles three jobs as she looks to find the cash to fund studio dates and time on the road.

“It’s really hard being a new artist,” she concedes. “It’s easy to get downhearted about the industry, but if you love doing something then you will do it whether you’re making money or not. I’m happy to just be doing it, because not doing it is just terrible. If you’re driven to make music then you just have to do it.”

Tabitha tells us that she hopes to have a new album recorded and released in time for those April 2016 slots supporting Dani Wilde, and she has an eye on finding her big break while on the road.

“You hear these great stories about bands like The Staves working with Bon Iver and The Smoke Fairies running into Jack White and getting signed to his label. You hear these stories, so they do happen and I’m hoping one day I might run into someone! We’ll see. Maybe it’ll happen on this tour.”

Black Wave is out now via Bri-Tone.

Rebecca Downes
When the fiery Rebecca Downes cuts loose, expect the unexpected.

As soon as people heard me sing as a kid, they went: ‘You should be singing the blues,’” says Rebecca Downes, who played her first gig at 13 and has been walking the long, hard road of the blues ever since. While her first band played Led Zep covers, Downes was raised on the jazz greats. “I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Julie London, people that my parents worshipped,” she says. “They brought me up on swing and jazz, so those were my first experience of what real singers should sound like.”

Inspired by Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, Downes started writing her own material before forming a creative partnership with rhythm guitarist Steve Birkett. “I’ve always been wrapped up in how beautiful and unexpected lines can be. What’s awful is listening to a song you don’t know and you can predict the next line,” she says. “I try to look for something that’s going to surprise people and paint a picture for them, because we all sing about love. At the end of the day, what else is there to sing about?”

I wouldn’t want to sing the same way twice. That would be so dull.

Downes names Scottish powerhouse Maggie Bell and Tina Turner as her vocal heroines. “I loved their no-holds-barred approach when they were on stage,” she says. “It’s a completely unleashed performance, it’s not contrived, it’s not controlled – it’s all out there. You can tell it’s what they were put on the planet to do. They’re not holding back in any way. I love to see a performer in the throes of what they’re doing.”

The influence of those formative years shines through in Downes’ spontaneity. “I never sing the same song the same way twice,” she says. “People always think if you’re going to try something different you’re going to go louder, higher, faster. It’s not about that. A lot of the time I will really pull a song right down vocally and just really hold it down and learn something different about it every time.” As thrilling as this makes the live shows, it can drive Mark Stuart, the producer of her soulful debut album Back To The Start, to distraction. “Mark is always tearing his hair out when I’m in the studio,” she says. “Whenever I put down a vocal he’s like: ‘Can you just sing that again?’ ‘No way, man! My brain can’t remember what I’ve just done!’ I wouldn’t want to sing it the same, it would be so dull. You want to try to bring something new.”

Back To The Start is out now via Reel2Reel.

Hamish Anderson
From a shy Melbourne teenager to Hollywood stardom, via BB King.

In May this year, one of the last original blues icons passed away. In his last few years BB King continued to be idolised by many a new blueser. Multiple younger players had told us he’d be their dream stage companion. So you can imagine how coveted the support slot on those last few shows was. Who did it go to? One may imagine it was someone pretty established – maybe a Gary Clark Jr, Philip Sayce, Joe Bonamassa even?

It was actually a quiet, 23-year-old Australian boy from an un-starry patch of Melbourne, without a full LP under his belt. Hamish Anderson wasn’t exactly a household name, but something about the singer/ guitarist won over the booking powers-that-be above all the other contenders. His latest EP Restless, cut with Stones producer Krish Sharma, would have had a lot to do with it. A strikingly mature record, it streamlines Delta blues, classic rock and Dylan-esque folk qualities into a smooth, modern whole. It’s acoustically rooted, to radio-friendly effect, but spiced up with raw, rootsy electric strokes; comfortably nodding to the likes of BB and beyond. Oh, and work for the debut LP is now underway.

“It was surreal and amazing and bittersweet,” says Anderson, of the BB King experience. “I remember my dad playing me Live At The Regal when I was 14 or 15 and it just blowing my mind. I became completely obsessed. When my manager told me she’d pitched for it and I’d got it, I thought she was joking. It didn’t seem real. It’ll stick with me forever, and it’s strange also as it turned out to be his last shows…”

Similarly strange, perhaps, was not actually seeing the King himself off stage – by this point just a couple of months prior to his death.

“He was kept very separate up until the moment when he would come on stage,” Anderson explains.

“I got to hang out with his band, and they were super nice guys and very complimentary; they’ve also played with Ray Charles and people like that.”

Since moving to Los Angeles a year and a half ago, Anderson has seen his fair share of famous faces. One night on the BB King tour, jazz legend George Benson watched three rows from the front. And at a New York gig, Gary Clark Jr rocked up.

“I was playing and I had no idea he was there, then saw him in the crowd and my hand froze up and I was like: ‘Holy shit, it’s Gary Clark Jr!’” he giggles, still a little starstruck. “But we got to hang out after and he’s just such a nice and humble dude.

“That’s one of the things about playing these shows in America,” he adds. “You will have people like Gary or George Benson just rocking up in the crowd. I did a show in LA and Macy Gray was in the audience. She came and bought a CD after! Coming from where I’m from, you could play there for 15 or 20 years and it would probably never happen.”

Before music it was a real struggle for me to find a way to get things out. It gave me a sense of identity.

Anderson had a quiet upbringing in Melbourne, with a classical violin-playing sister and parents in the dairy business. They were massive music fans. As a 10-year-old Anderson listened to his dad’s BB King, John Lee Hooker and Cream records, laying foundations for musical ventures to come.

“I was very lucky that he put all his vinyls out,” he remembers. “He never forced me to listen, but it was always there. I remember seeing the cover of Led Zeppelin VI and Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, and holding these things in your hands and then hearing the sound they’d make…”

At school he was shy, picking up a guitar at 12. It turned out to be a release for the quiet student.

“For a long time before music it was a real struggle for me to find a way to get things out,” he says. “Music gave me a sense of identity, and something I could turn to when I didn’t really wanna indulge in other things – I could just lock myself in my room and play guitar from sunrise till sundown.”

And so he did, playing his first gig at 14 at a school fete, and continuing to look further back through the lineage of blues greats. Son House, Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell became regular names in his head, alongside Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Strains of these have since translated to his own music.

“Once you get hooked on blues it becomes an addiction,” he enthuses. “You want to look back as far as you can. Blues has such a rich history I can’t understand how people wouldn’t want to know where it all came from.”

In those early years, singing wasn’t part of the agenda. He initially took up singing duties out of necessity – more interested in being an axeman.

“For a long time I just wanted to be a guitarist,” he admits. “I didn’t really care about songwriting, or singing. But in my later teens I became more interested in song structure, and it was hard to find someone to sing so by default I just ended up doing it.”

Now equally dedicated to electric and acoustic styles, Anderson had a tetchy start on the Melbourne pub circuit – as things kept blowing up on him.

“I felt like I was cursed for ages,” he laughs. “Every time I’d use an electric guitar, the amp would fuck up or the guitar or pedals…”

He switched to acoustic gigs for a time. “Playing a song acoustically to a crowd, you can tell within the first couple of seconds if it’s going well,” he muses. “It’s funny when people try and separate the acoustic and electric guitar. If you’re a guitarist you have to play both. People really box in the acoustic guitar as this softer, mellow thing, but there’s so much you can get out of it.”

It’s easy to forget he’s only 23. Indeed, the vision of him living alone near Hollywood – in a little apartment “enough away that it’s a nicer atmosphere” – makes him seem very young, very far from

home. He admits that moving there by himself was intimidating; full-on LA life contrasting with his Aussie origins. Still, with a strong team around him, friends met through session players and a little more experience, it wasn’t difficult to fall for America.

“Coming over to the States, a lot of it was about going to where this music came from, where the history starts,” he says. “I think my favourite thing about playing here is going to these cities like Nashville, Austin or Chicago, all these places have so much history and the people are still so into their roots of rock, country, blues… There’s so much ground you can cover.”

Restless is out now via LTPS.

Eliza Neals
From opera halls to smoke-filled clubs, here comes blues’ newest leather-throated siren.

You might think we’ve gone off the deep end when we say an opera singer raised in the home of Motown is one of the hottest new blues artists. But we’re deadly serious on this one.

The star in question is Eliza Neals, a Detroit vocalist who has put herself on the map thanks to her superb new album, Breaking And Entering. But this is one blues icon-in-the-making that very nearly slipped the net.

After being turned on to classic rock and blues by her elder sister while just a nipper, Neals quickly discovered her talent for melody. The sisters jammed rock favourites on the piano, performing at local talent shows and often walking away with top prize. Right from an early age, Eliza’s vocal ability stood out, and when she enrolled to study opera at Wayne State University, it seemed that her future as an operatic powerhouse was set in stone.

But things don’t always turn out quite as you planned. Fast forward to today and Neals’ future as a vocal force is very much being realised, but it’s the blues that she is singing rather than opera. It seems that while she had the pipes for classical, her heart remained rooted in rock. She tried to juggle the two polar opposite styles, but when it came to a head there was only ever going to be one winner.

“My teacher told me I had to choose between opera and rock, I couldn’t be a raspy opera singer,” she explains. “Rock was where my heart was.

I decided I’d rather do my rock’n’roll. I had the techniques for singing opera but I was writing blues rock tunes.”

Blues rock came calling and she must definitely had the tools for the job. Early Neals records such as the locally-released Liquorfoot and No Frogs For Snakes (released in 2005 and 2008 respectively) may have been blues-lite, showcasing more of a pop and country rock sound, but they were littered with glimpses of what she was capable of. More specifically, they showed flashes of her powerhouse vocal prowess. Today, she tells us that her stunning range wasn’t purely a God-given gift, rather something she honed and perfected through good old-fashioned grit, determination and practice.

“I was playing six nights a week in rock clubs that were full of smoke and then I would do a wedding,” she says of her early days. “Doing that for 10 years straight moulded my voice. Detroit was the training for my voice, Detroit was boot camp for my voice. When I sing blues it’s almost like someone is pressing a fuzz pedal, I just have this rasp.”

It wasn’t just her voice that Detroit helped shape, Neals’ work ethic was also forged by this unforgiving music city. As home to rich blues, jazz, soul, gospel and classical scenes, Detroit is jam-packed with talented writers and musicians. As Neals notes, to stand-out here you need to be something special.

“The musicians here are fantastic because they have to be. People might hear you play and say: ‘Well, that was okay but come back when you know what you’re doing.’ Then you’ll go away for a year and work at it. People in Detroit don’t quit.”

You have to erase everything you learned and do what moves you. You need to listen to what you feel.

Neals took the Detroit ethos of working at your craft to heart, and the rewards can be heard all over new album Breaking And Entering. Not only is it one of the finest records you’ll hear this year, it’s also one of the most eclectic. The blues flag is flown proudly throughout.

There’s guitarist – and long-time Neals collaborator – Howard Glazer’s Delta dobro that jangles in and out of Detroit Drive, for starters. Then how about the slick slide that fills Goo Goo Glass or the title track’s tried-and- trusted bar-room blues formula?

But there’s also Southern Comfort Dreams with its polished rock pomp, the electric dream pop of You, the raspy Windshield Wipers and the straight-up Motown swing that carries Sugar Daddy. Neals may have found her voice by staying true to her Detroit roots, but her musical footprint steps all over the map.

“Everything I’ve ever learned and loved came through me on this album. These are the songs that I would want to hear. It’s classic rock, soul, blues, southern rock and Motown, I rolled all that up and wrote these songs. I wanted to make an album that was a throwback in the vein of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. I wanted this album to sound like it came from Woodstock.”

The heroes of Woodstock would surely be impressed with the strong sense of identity that Neals has stamped through Breaking And Entering. If her early records were the sound of a promising songstress testing the water and seeing exactly what she was sonically capable of, this is an album made by a fully-formed, well-rounded artist.

“On the first record I was learning and just listening to what people told me,” she admits. “They would tell me to do something and I’d do it. On each album I was learning how to write better tunes. But then you have to erase everything you learned and just do what moves you. You need to listen to what you feel.

Sink or swim, I’m doing it the way I want to do it. It’s my soul, my heartbeat, my phrasing, it’s all my breath and no one else’s breath.”

The vocal performance on the record’s title track is a sweet sign of Neals’ well-earned confidence. She soars and squeals, sounding majestic and possessed in equal measure. It is raw emotion, a vocal take borne out of passion and, as it turns out, a desire to impress.

“I sang Breaking And Entering in one take. It was so funny, there was a guy in the studio who came to watch. I was told he was someone huge in the blues, so I wanted to show him what I could do. I thought he was some huge blues booking agent that could work with us. I was trying to impress him by singing the song in one take and it turned out he was nobody at all, he couldn’t do shit! I’m glad he was there though because that turned out really well.”

One true giant of blues that did give Neals his approval was BB King. King hand-picked her music for the Bluesville radio station shortly before his passing earlier this year.

“That was a huge honour, I couldn’t believe it,” she beams. “We’re forever connected through the music. For him to pick my music really freaked me out. BB always sounded so natural and free, that’s how I want to sound.”

We’re not sure that endorsements come much better than that. We round off our chat with Neals by asking whether she’s here for good. Does the blues have a new starlet that will blossom into a great, or will she be tempted back to her operatic roots?

“My heart is in rock blues,” she assures us. “One day maybe I’ll do some more opera, but I love what I’m doing now. Blues is carefree whereas opera is so rigid. When I left opera I had to forget all of the rules I had learned and go my own way.”

Breaking And Entering is out now via E-H.