Joanna Connor talks about working with Joe Bonamassa and being a woman in a man's world
Chicago-based slide guitar virtuoso Joanna Connor has performed with some of the biggest names in blues. Her 14th studio album, '4801 South Indiana Avenue' sees her working with Joe Bonamassa and is about to open her music up to a whole new fanbase. We caught up with Joanna to talk about the new album, her mean guitar playing, summoning demons and how it really is her time to shine.
Photo by Allison Morgan
Hi Joanna, how is everything over there in the US with the pandemic?
In Chicago, supposedly this weekend they're going to have indoor dining again. It just doesn't make any sense to me. None of the clubs are open, though. Some in the suburbs, a few but none of the ones that I play at.
You're used to playing a lot live, have you been able to perform at all?
No, October 30th was the last time I played live.
How have you been affected by the pandemic?
I don't even know what to think anymore. I mean, it'll be a year next month that everything happened. I went through so many different changes. First, it was like, disbelief, anger, I didn't believe it was necessary. Then I realized it was and I got sad and some days I was happy. I mean, it's just been all over the place. I played a minimum of 175 to 220 gigs a year forever. So it's a lifestyle change for me.
Have you enjoyed the break or has it been hard not getting out and playing?
You know, I was never one to hang out a lot. I had two kids I raised and so if I wasn't playing I was home. So, I was used to that, I wasn't really a party girl per se. I've just missed playing with my band. I missed the energy of the crowd. It was good to take a break in the sense that you don't realize how much you've been pushing yourself until you don't do it anymore. You're like, “wow, I was really kind of a maniac there”, but somehow there's a happy medium.
You've been professional since you were seventeen, have you found it hard to motivate yourself during this time to pick up your guitar and play?
I've been teaching seven days a week on online guitar. So I am picking it up, but I'm not doing it nearly as much as I was. I mean, I always played at least four nights a week for hours and on my days off I wouldn't even look at the guitar. Now I pick it up every day, I don't want to lose all my chops, my calluses are starting to get soft. I'm like, Oh, no!
Your new album takes its name from the address of Teresa's Lounge. That venue obviously meant a lot to you, what was it like playing there?
I grew up in Massachusetts, which is a totally different culture than the Southside of Chicago and I absolutely loved it. I mean, everything about it was kind of exotic to me, but also, just musically, it was just the best education. It's what I wanted, that's why I moved there. To stand in a place like Teresa's, where Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy Junior Wells played, I mean, that's why I moved to Chicago, to have those kinds of experiences.
You were in your late teens when you moved to Chicago. To go to a new city and throw yourself right into that scene was quite a brave thing to do, especially for a young woman.
It was brave. I look back, I'm like, wow, I had fortitude and courage and blind faith, more than I have now. But yeah, that was me. I was headstrong. I knew what I wanted. I knew I wanted this adventure, personally and musically. So I guess I just did it. That's part of my personality, I suppose.
'Destination' is the opening track of your album, are there any destinations you want to reach or any other ambitions?
I kind of go with the flow of life. I don't make as many plans as I used to. I would like to make more records with Joe, I'd like to do some touring around the world again, I really miss playing in Europe. My son is in his 30s and he and his girl are talking about maybe having kids next year so we'll see where that goes, that will be a whole new chapter. Plus my daughter will be getting her master's and she's on a path to become a college basketball coach. So, it's all kind of exciting, what's going to happen with them. We've been separated for a little bit and we want to reconvene somewhere. So it might be California, where my son moved to, we'll see.
Your son's a musician as well, do you have plans to work together?
We have done a few things together. It's been pretty intriguing. He moved to LA about four months ago, so he's making a lot of really good connections. He's already had some music in movies, TV and a video game but now it's going further. So that's why I said the future is in a holding pattern, but there are some exciting things in the works too.
The track 'It's My Time' ends the album, but it's quite a personal track. Do you feel as if it's your time now and you can have more freedom?
I do. I do. Yeah, you know, it's almost 30 years of raising children. Yeah, I guess it does feel that way. You know, it's kind of a good feeling. Being a musician and having two kids and performing and trying to survive, I look back I'm like, wow, that was a lot. I can take a deep breath now. I loved every minute of it, but of course, definitely challenging.
I love the cover of 'Bad News'. What made you choose that particular song?
Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith really got together and chose the material for me. He said he had a vision for the kind of record he'd like [me] to make. He said, “I hope you trust me to do this.” I was like, “Yes, I think I'll trust you. You have a very good career behind you and ahead of you” and he's a fantastic musician. So they chose the material with my approval.
What was it like working with Joe and did you enjoy the experience?
I did. I really did. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know him that well. The conversations we had were nice, but you never know until you get somewhere, whether it be a gig or a studio, how it's going to work; the vibe, the energy, the creative process. I'll tell you from start to finish, it was truly magical. I mean, everything was just flowing. We got along, we hit it off, there was nothing that they chose to do that I was uncomfortable with. I think he really brought out the best in me.
Tell me more about what happened during the album process?
I went to Nashville, that's where Joe decided and we recorded at Ocean Way Studios, a really famous, wonderful place. Joe and Josh put the band together. Josh brought the rhythm section that he'd worked with and then Joe brought Reese Wynans (read our interview with Reese HERE). They are pedigree musicians and super down to earth, nice men. They played their butts off and they were really easy to work with. The first day I spent with Josh in one of Joe's houses, which is in Nashville and we chose the material. They presented it to me. We went through some amps that Joe had, to see which one sounded good. Then, literally, like, the next day, we went into the studio. We cut the record in four days total.
So you just went for it?
We did. He wanted that feeling of energy and passion and spontaneity. I mean, there was arrangements and stuff. But literally, we never rehearsed. We went in, you know, Joe would guide them and I played the guitar live the whole time, but the last track we overdubbed. Everything was live, except the vocals and some little things like tambourines and the horns, but everything else we all played together in one room.
That's old school, but it's the best way, isn't it?
I think so, we wanted that old school feel, that's where he knows I'm most comfortable. I go in the studio maybe once or twice a year. So the stage is where I'm comfortable. Joe wanted to bring out that fire that I bring to the stage and he wanted to put that on the record. I think it worked really well.
The engineer had his hands full. He was a little like, “you want what?”, but it worked. He made it work. JJ Blair was fabulous, but it was definitely not traditional. I sang in the control room. I was never in an isolation booth, ever.
There's something too clinical about that. I know it's usually necessary but I always think you lose something.
I do too.
Do you have any favourite tracks on the album?
I listened to the record last night and every track has its own vibe, its own style, its own message. So it's hard for me to pick which one I really, really like. Some I really love the vocal, some I love the guitar playing and some I love the band. I would say 'Feels So Good.' I love that. I love 'Bad News', 'Trouble Trouble.' It's hard for me to pick one. I don't think there's a weak track on the whole record really, in my opinion. That was part of Joe's vision he said “all thriller, no filler.”
The vocals on the album are pretty heavy duty. Do you do anything special to look after your voice?
I should probably do something. I don't smoke. I don't drink much. So you know, I guess that's good. I sang for so many years, at the Kingston Mines, I had my gig three nights a week. I did like 17 hours a week of playing in three days. So it was used to that marathon thing. So for me to give everything I got for a few hours at a time wasn't so foreign to me. I think I can definitely recreate the album for an hour on stage because I don't usually sing that hard all night, because it would be rough on the voice.
How did you go on to develop such an attack in your playing? It's usually all the guys that have that kind of aggression, so it's great to hear a female player with the same attitude.
Thank you! I just felt like the men were the gold standard for most instruments, including the guitar, especially when I was coming up. I thought there's no reason why I can't play as well as a guy. When I'm with them, I want to even play better. So I think that's what gave me the edge, the chip on the shoulder. They [men] always underestimate women, even now. It gave me that propulsion to do what I do, and I guess it's aggressive. Joe's always like, “you got the demons, you got to summon the demons.” There was something inside of me that was just like that.
Your mother was also a musician, she was a piano player. So you've been around music all your life.
My mother was a feminist too. I mean, she was ahead of her time. I grew up with that. My parents never said to me, “oh, well, you can't do that, you're a girl”. But in society, and people in school, my peers said to me “oh, you can't do that. You have to act like a lady” and something in me was always like, no!
You're known for your slide playing, but you are also comfortable with rhythm, which do you prefer?
I love all the aspects of guitar playing. When I do my regular gigs, it's about 40% slide and 60% rhythm. I'm always playing rhythm in my band. The slide is just something I learned as a young teenager from a guy in my hometown, who was amazing, and it was like a happy accident. I wasn't necessarily looking to play slide, I just took to it. I remember working at it but I guess it was just something I had a natural proclivity for.
I know you have your trusted Les Paul, but do you have a favourite guitar that you play on the album?
I use one of Joe's Les Paul's for a lot of the slide work. Then I have my newer Les Paul that Gibson gave me about a year ago, the Les Paul Model, which I really like. I'm really loyal to one guitar. I like to play it for years and feel like it becomes part of me. I'm not constantly switching instruments as some people do. I just like to get it under my fingers and make it another part of my body.
You have done some writing but are you still most at home improvising?
My favourite thing is improvising and jamming. I like some kind of structure, good groove, some people that can play well, and then I just like to jam on the top of it. That's my favourite thing to do in the whole world. I never have a setlist when I have my shows. I'm very, in the moment. We have our material with the band, but it can change from night to night.
You credit, Dion Payton, with getting your chops up and helping you learn your craft? Have you played with him since and did you respond to your playing?
Dion had a lot of health issues. So, unfortunately, I don't think he's even played in like 10 years. I haven't seen him for probably about 10 years. He messaged me on Facebook. I don't know if he's aware of what's happening with me? I think he is. It's kind of sad.
What advice would you give to other female guitarists coming up into the business?
I'd say the most, the most important quality you can have as a female musician is to be strong. You have to be ready for criticism. You have to be ready for situations that men don't find themselves in. So you have to be strong. I mean, it is a different kind of culture now than it was, say 30/40 years ago for women. I think it's improving in all aspects of society, but it's still a man's game for the most part.
I read that you'd like to make a record with a female choir. Is that still something in the offing?
One of the things that I would really like to do is take a lot of the women singers in Chicago and produce a record for them. Yeah, that's something I would really like to do. I hope someday I can.
I also heard that you'd like to do an acoustic album. Would that have more of a Delta feel to it? And how would you approach that album?
I think it would. I play a lot of different styles when I play the guitar anyway. Joe and I were kind of talking about maybe doing a tribute album to Ry Cooder and there would be a lot of acoustic stuff on there. In the future, I'd like to do an acoustic album revolving around fingerpicking and the various styles: Delta stuff, Piedmont blues, maybe a little Celtic thing, just kind of a mash-up of stuff that I would like to do.
A lot of your music is on YouTube, have you felt social media impact your career?
Yes, for sure. I was dragged kicking and screaming into that. I don't probably utilize it as much as I should. It got me some great gigs, got me the attention of guitar companies, a movie. I mean, it's been pretty amazing. I never put any of [the videos] on there, it was all just people posting things. I just finally got my own YouTube channel. I'm late to the party, but it's necessary.
Any other musicians you'd like to work with?
If Eric Clapton ever has his Crossroads festival again, I would love to be on that. I mean, that's been a dream. I've played with so many greats and I'm really, really happy about that. I've crossed off a lot on the bucket already. I'm just a fan of so many different types of music and I love guitar players. There are so many fabulous guitar players. I'd like to play with Eric Gales and he just did a record with Joe. I'm hoping that maybe we can do a little package tour like Eric, myself and Joe, but we'll see. We'll see what happens. It's hard to make plans right now. We tentatively have plans for February 2022 tour.
What are you going to do next?
I have no idea. My agent and I talked today, I have a gig in May. We're just waiting. The whole music business all over the world is on hold. You can go to Florida and play because they never closed down, but Florida is really far and it's not worth it for me. This record coming out is wonderful. I think it's going to do great things for me. I'm proud of it. This whole pandemic thing just taught me that none of us is in control of our lives anyway, ever. This really taught me a lesson, you just never know what to expect.
I kind of believe in the tenacity of musicians, they'll find a way somehow.
Yeah, we will. That's what I thought my whole life. You know, I was panicking for a while but I always left it up to the higher power. You just keep pushing and things always manage to work out. You have to have the tenacity to be a musician. I'm not pessimistic about it.