- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
(Photo by Jani Mahkonan)
You don't need the sun shining, outside, in order to feel happy when you are in the company of Erja Lyytinen. Her sole presence, her smile, beauty and charisma is enough to light up an entire country. Add to those qualities an insane ability in playing guitar and then you get the whole picture about Erja Lyytinen. From her hometown Kuopio, in Finland, this extraordinary artist has gone very far in the last 10 years. With both parents coming from a musical background, it was kind of natural that Lyytinen would follow the family trade since a very young age. "When I was a child, being my parents musicians, I used to fantasize that a couple, before getting married, should play at least a concert together. Typical fantasies of a 5-years old girl!".
The Finnish Guitarist/Singer/Songwriter is in a great moment of her career. Lyytinen has released, early this year, an excellent live album recorded at the prestigious 100 Club in London, UK, rated by the music press as one of the best live blues albums of the year. "I do remember that when I went there, I expected the place to be exactly like it was back in the days. Looking at all those photo frames on the wall, showing that the cream of the music industry had been performing there was really impressive. I also remember the whole recording evening going really fast. I had to do some photo shoots with my favourite photographer Tina Korhonen that night, prior to the gig and I was rushing to get ready, put some make up on and go to Soho for some photos, then back at the venue for some extra photos. It was crazy! Then there was the soundcheck, the camera crew trying to get the best position for the DVD recording, so much going on. But it was all worth it. It was a lot of fun to record that night of music, good time and great crowd. And I do remember also that our opening act, that night, was an all-male band all dressed up like women. That has been an experience to witness too! (chuckles)"
Lyytinen is an authenthic joy to talk to. Energetic, with a witty sense of humour and with a contagious positivity. BBR asks to the Finnish artist whether growing up in a musical household and her parents being both musician, has pressured Lyytinen in any stage of her life. "You are the first person ever to ask me this question. I have been privileged never to be pressured by my parents, when I announced I wanted to become a musician. Quite the opposite, they encouraged me and provided all the support possible that I needed every time. They never pushed me to do anything. As a teenager I liked a lot music and I liked a lot sports too. In the end, music took over because I always dreamt, since a very young age, that I wanted to travel Europe and play my music. I am really truly thankful to my parents for never putting any pressure on me at all. I have got such fabulous memories of me, at 14-15 years of age, in my living room, playing my guitar with my mother, which was hugely supportive but perhaps a little more critical in judging the quality of my music in comparison to my father, looking at me and saying: "Erja, you know what? That stuff you just played sounds really good!". That was real validation for me. I thought "Wow, if my mother gives me the seal of approval, I must be really doing good music".
One of Lyytinen's trademarks, as a performer and a blues guitarist, has always been improvisation, which comes even more evident during live performances. "If you are familiar with my works, you will certainly know that I like to change the shape of songs from their original format, therefore, yes, improvisation is really important for me. Just to give you an example, on one of my songs, Soul Of A Man, I put a lot of different chords while singing on one key. If I had my guitar with me, I'd love to play it to you right now! By adding extra chords to basic ones, the melody of the tune somehow elevates and I like to do that kind of thing in my songs. I grew up playing my guitar in the way we were tought at school, that means using a lot of improvisation. I remember I'd always be practicing a lot over changing rhytms as well. Different type of music scales like jazz, blues, you name it. I just wanted to challenge myself in different styles and become as good as I could possibly be in playing guitar on any genre. Blues is a real passion for me and to be able to improvise, in my opinion, is a must for every blues musician".
(Photo by Adam Kennedy)
The Finnish artist spends, as many fellow blues artists, the best part of each year performing live with her extra added "On-The-Road" music family. Playing with trusted musicians must be absolutely vital for every artist and to have the right chemistry with them, night after night is a key factor. Lyytinen seems to fully agree to BBR's thoughts on the subject. "Chemistry between musicians is fundamental, especially performing live. When there are tensions between musicians, it is very palpable on stage, both for us musicians and for the crowd too. That is the reason why I think that it is vital to support one another on stage, to have the right atmosphere and respect each other. In that way, the core of what we play on stage will be fully respected and the performance will gain a lot from the positive vibes within the band too. As musicians, as long as you respect what you are doing when you are on stage and you respect the audience, all will be just fine. Another key word for me is enthusiasm. You need to be excited in what you are doing, when you are up there. In my career, I have come across many different musicians and, to me, it doesn't matter what gender you are, how old you are or how professional you can be. As long as you express joy and vitality when you perform, that will do for me and we will get along just fine".
Strangely, given Lyytinen's great ability and skills as a guitarist, the first instrument she learned to play was the violin. "Initially, I was asked by my parents if I wanted to try and play the piano, then came the idea to introduce me to violin, because my cousin was playing violin and they thought it might have been a nice instrument for me to learn to play. To play violin inspired me in many ways. I started, initially and strangely, to play classical music on violin despite the fact I was listening, back then, many different types of music but classical. The moment I picked up the violin the very first time, I clearly remember how excited I was. I found it inspiring and I played it until I was 14-years old. I have got fond memories of my last year playing violin because I got to play Russian Violin with two teachers, one of which was really young and handsome and I think I might have had a little crush on him! (chuckles). Studying classical music via the violin was great fun indeed. I remember also that once, when I was 10, I played on stage with an entire orchestra and I shall never forget the beautiful harmonies and the fabulous shivers down the spine that experience gave me. But then, as you can imagine, being young and willing to play rock music, rather than playing classic instruments, I decided to move on because I wanted to rock the world! (chuckles). So from a magical world of classical music, I have moved to the world of mystical blues vibes, which I totally love".
Lyytinen started to make records from 2002, in a music era in which there were not many female blues guitarists worldwide, certainly not of the same calibre of the Finnish artist. That certainly makes Erja Lyytinen a pioneer for female blues guitarists in her own right. "I am very proud you are saying that about me! (chuckles). I guess I am a little bit a pioneer within my generation of female blues guitarists. When I started playing guitar at the age of 15, as far as I remember and bearing in mind that, back then, there was no internet yet and I couldn't do any research on the subject, there were not many women in Europe playing blues guitars. Somehow, as the years went by and perhaps with the help of the internet, there has been an increasing interest from women in studying , appreciating and learning the blues, which I think it's fantastic. I never thought, when I was a child, that I would so passionately embrace the blues but hey, here I am! As a teenager, I started listening to artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block and Deborah Coleman which made a real impact on my blues formation. And then, when I signed for Ruf Records (Erja's label), about 10 years ago, I remember I got to play with brilliant guitar artists such as Ana Popovic or Sue Foley. What great fun that has been. From that point on, in the following 5 years, the world of female blues guitarists has grown so incredibly much and there are now so many talented ladies out there playing guitar really well. Very soon, in few years time, I feel there will be no need to define a specific gender when talking about the subject of "blues guitarists", because we ladies are simply as good as the boys!".
Bluebird Reviews has been following Lyytinen's live activity costantly over the last few years. Every crowd always look mesmerised not just by the class and quality of this incredible guitarist and by her performances but also by her intense singing style and her appearance. Given how stunningly beautiful Lyytinen is, there is no wonder why she gets the attention of the spectators also from a non-musical point of view. One cannot stop to wonder what Lyytinen checks first, before going on stage every night, whether it is the hairdo, the guitar pedals or the outfit. "Are we counting the soundcheck too? Because that would change the whole sequence you just mentioned! (chuckles). I have got to admit, I check the pedal board first. If I have an opening band performing before me on the night, then perhaps I would check my hairdo first, then the guitar pedals. Not that long ago, I had the privilege of playing with a 25-elements orchestra in Finland, called Rikiu Niemi. Full band, a string section, the horn section, you name it. I remember the second night I played with them, there was this young girl, part of the orchestra, who didn't make it the first night of the performance and, as a consequence, never met me before. After the show, that second night, she approached me and said "I saw you, an ordinary girl, coming on stage before the show and checking your pedals. That was not the same girl that came on stage when the show started later! You came on stage wearing a black leather mini-skirt, eye-lashes, your hair done beautifully, just like a sex bomb! What the hell happened to you before the show and when you came on stage?". And I couldn't stop myself laughing. I explained to her that it was just a part of me. I am a woman, therefore I like dressin' up and I would love to spend a fortune on clothes but it wouldn't be wise, especially now that I have kids. I would spend a lot of money on guitars too but that wouldn't make me a very good and wise mother! (chuckles).
(Photo by Tina Koronen)
Since Forbidden Fruit, her 2013 last studio album, Lyytinen has not released a new album with new original material. Bluebird Review heard that 2016 may see a new studio album being released by the Finnish Guitar Virtuosa. "What you heard is true. We are currently working on the album, which is already at a very good stage and will be released next year. My last studio record, as you said, was almost 3 years ago and I cannot wait to unleash this bunch of new songs I have written. Some of the new material has been tested on my recent UK Tour and I felt the feedback coming from the crowd was excellent. There are a lot of personal subjects involved in the songwriting of my new material. On the new album, I shall dig deeper into the blues but also trying, in the meantime, to explore a little bit new musical territories. I want also for the album to be recorded with that live and studio elements combined at the same time. In essence, I want to be able to capture the rawness and immediacy of a live recording and refining it with studio technology. I am very excited about this next album, I cannot wait to release it".
For somebody so highly respected and talented, to be a mother, a successful musician and have a Master's Degree in Music must be feeling already very gratifying. Bluebird Review is wondering whether there is any other dream that Erja Lyytinen would like to fulfil along her life journey. "Good question. I have always had an adventurous mind and I lived in many places, such as Denmark, Sweden and United States. I would love to try and live somewhere else away from Finland, just for a little while, as a life experience. But there is a lot to take into consideration, including the fact that I should move with my children, which are very young right now but, hey, one day it may happen, never say never".
Before we part company, given the fascinating musical journey Lyytinen has been on so far and her great passion for music, it is necessary to ask where this incredible and talented musician sees herself, musically speaking, in 10 years from now. "Difficult to say. At this stage of my life and career, I wouldn't be able to predict it. In my next album, together with playing blues, as I said before, there will be some new music elements in my songs. Little touches of rock at times, with tempos that may remind you occasionally of different artists, from Pink Floyd to Jeff Beck. And in-between all this, there will be me, storytelling about myself and my life in my lyrics. I guess that the different variety of music I put on my records defines who I am in that precise moment, both as an artist and a person. Certainly, when I did the Elmore James tribute album a little while ago, that helped me to dig even further into blues and I am pretty positive that blues will be always there, walking by my side. Ask me the question again in 10 years time, that is a Press Date between you and I!".
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
(Photo by Laurence Harvey)
She rocks arenas worldwide through her phenomenal ability on guitar and with her beautiful voice. 2015 has been a very special year for Chantel McGregor. The new album, Lose Control, is a record that McGregor likes to define "Southern Gothic Rock" and marks a new high in the career of the young and very talented singer/songwriter.
Bluebird Reviews has managed to catch up with Chantel McGregor, now that she has just returned from her European Tour and discuss the new album, her career and life in general.
BBR - Lose Control is a very beautiful album that reflects many aspects of your personality, both as a woman and as a musician. Does the whole theme of the album reflect a particular moment of your life or is it just your personal take on the concept of Southern Gothic?
CMG - I think it's a bit of both, because it's something I have been always interested in. So, I would say it reflects rather a long period of time in my life. As a child, I was always interested in scary stories or ghost stories and as I grew up, I just found myself liking television programs like True Blood, or scary movies, voodoo stuff and things like that. So, it is rather a life long period, I'd say! It is something that has always been into me, therefore I thought I wanted to write an album about things I was really interested in. It would be very easy to write, say, ten random songs that have no relations to each other but I just wanted to push and challenge myself and writing about who I am and what I like. A concept album about Chantel McGregor with a little hint of progressive rock, which I really like very much too.
BBR - The first three tracks opening the album dig deep into the rock of the 90's, with that typical heavy and distinctive grungey sound. How much of an impact has that genre made in your musical development?
CMG - Massive, I think. I have always been defined, in the music circle, as "the girl that plays the blues/rock" but as a teenager, I grew up listening to people like Nirvana at school, with my headphones on during class time. They made a big impact on me, as a kid. There were other great bands I loved too, like Soundgarden, Silverchair. I guess that the biggest influence I got, from a musical point of view, was that those bands were playing stuff that were emotionally raw, wild, straight to your face. As much as I admire perfection and technical ability in a rock act, I also believe that you have got to be loud, wild, be yourself and let it go, otherwise your act will sound a bit too cold and soulless.
BBR - Home is one of my favourite moments of the album, in which you showcase even further your great singing skills. Using that song as a mirror, how do you see yourself, musically speaking and as a person, in comparison to your first album back in 2011?
CMG - That is a really personal song. And because it is so personal, it's the perfect mirror of how much I moved on since that time on many levels. My first album was a collection of songs that were written over a long period of time, while with Lose Control, the writing process has been much faster. And talking about Home again, I feel that song shows also how my writing style has developed too, for which I am very proud of.
BBR - The word "Loss" often recurs, when you describe all the different aspects of your new album to the media. How has loss effected your life, Chantel?
CMG - I suppose not that much, really, in comparison to many people out there. I met many people that shared with me, their experiences. They told me about losing family, friends, relationships and I have got to say, I feel really lucky and privileged to have still my mum and dad, half of my grandparents and special people that really matter to me. I guess that it will come the time for me too, hopefully not for many years to come, to lose somebody special in my life and I am sure it will break my heart, as it happened to all the people that told me about their personal losses. I guess that, by writing about loss, I just wanted to write about something everybody can relate to and identify with. An inevitable passage of everyone's life.
BBR - In Lose Control, you have been personally involved in the arrangements, production side and even the album artwork. Do you feel sometimes that this album represents you and what you want to express as an artist, more than Like No Other?
CMG - Absolutely. We were discussing before about my debut album back in 2011 but to me, this feels almost like my "proper" debut album, due to my complete involvement into it. It feels like my little baby. It is so amazing for me to think that I wrote and recorded the whole album in 10 weeks and the whole record was ready and wrapped up few months later. Even things like, designing the artwork in the shed in my garden, makes me feel so proud of what I achieved on Lose Control and how much I managed to express who I really am in many ways.
BBR - Was Anaesthetize a difficult song for you to write, given the hard subject (substance abuse)?
CMG - Yeah, I think it was hard, because it is not something I have experienced, you know. I have never tried drugs, not even cigarettes! I have tried booze, that is for sure. But drugs, never. To write about something you never experienced can be a bit difficult, because you don't want to look like somebody really miserable, pretending to write something about you really never went through in your life. The song was more about my personal observation on the subject. I read a lot of books and seen movies about how drugs can effect or has effected people's lives. I just wanted to express my point of view on this matter. I hope I have not offended anybody, by going through these type of issues in my song, from the prospective of an observer.
BBR - We heard you are a fine connoisseur of beer. Give us please your top tip for the best three beers you have ever tried.
CMG - Well, what can I say? Bearing in mind this is just my personal opinion, I would say that good beer it's not about high percentages or where the beer comes from. I like a lot weird beer, stuff like fruit beers. Where we live, there is a place that does some raspberry blonde beer, which is to die for. The Plum Porter from the Titanic Brewery is an amazing one too. Also, there is a beer from Manchester called Boggart Rum Porter, that is one you should try too!
BBR - You have been often saying that music allows you to give voice to your inner feelings and the fact you find writing music liberating. Is there any other art forms able to give you the same emotional response that music does?
CMG - Not really. I think people are different and they all find a different outlet to express their emotions. For me, it is just music. You should see me drawing things, I am terrible at that!
BBR - There are a lot of different layers, on your new album. Sometimes it gets darker, sometimes spiritual, sometimes melancholic. You do come across instead as a very outgoing person, full of life and very bubbly. Which of the two is the real Chantel, the one we see in live shows or the one you sing about in your songs?
CMG - I think both! (giggles). It may sound like I am crazy but it's just the way I am. I think we all have two different aspects hidden inside of us. I guess you are just different, say when you are with different people, for instance. You may be a completely different person, going out with your mates in the evening than the person that the next day is watching Eastenders (long running British TV drama) on television! It's just depends on the situation. For me, when I am writing, I tend to be a bit melancholic, even a bit miserable sometimes, solitary confinement type, that sort of stuff, sitting in the dark, surrounded only by candles. I don't think that the crowds though, at my shows, would love to see me like that. As a consequence, the other Chantel needs to come out and be entertaining, lively and sparkle a little. As I said, it's all depending by the moment or the situation. It's like two sides of the same dice. It just depends on which side the dice is going to roll in that moment.
BBR - Are you planning to tour America as well you did recently in Europe anytime soon for Lose Control?
CMG - Myself and the band have been touring the UK in October and then in November we embarked on our European Tour. The fans were brilliant everywhere, no matter where we were playing or which part of the world we were playing. We will be doing few shows in UK too in December. For what concerns America, I would love to Tour that beautiful part of the world. One day is going to happen for sure.
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
(Photo courtesy by Robert Cray's Archive)
There is nothing more refreshing than talking to somebody that has seen and lived the last 4 decades of music in his own skin. It is almost like an art lesson, in many ways. Robert Cray has recorded many great songs in his career, played with the elite of the music establishment and still going.
His new live album, 4 Nights of 40 Years offers an accurate retrospective on the past and present of the Robert Cray Band and finds this incredible artist from Columbus, Georgia in a real great shape. Bluebird Reviews is thrilled to meet Cray and talk about the new album and music in its globality.
BBR - Robert, welcome to Bluebird Reviews. The Live Album 4 Nights of 40 Years is the best way to celebrate an important landmark of your career. How easy was it for you to choose the many key songs to put on the album, given your extensive catalogue?
RC - Well, I had help, you know. We had Richard Cousins, our bass player to help out as well, together with our producer Steve Jordan and all our Management Team. We gathered together and we played a lot of tunes, we watched some video footage of some of our concerts and work out which of those were more suitable for the CD/DVD project. It was a great find as well, checking out this old video footage. It gave us a lot of pleasure and fun.
BBR - On the record there is a mini live show recorded in the Netherlands in 1987, featuring Smoking Gun and Still Around, among other tracks. Did you choose that particular show to be featured due to the quality of the live performance?
RC - There were three reasons why that show was chosen. First, the performance, then the line-up and the songs we played. We do not play some of those songs anymore, these days. I thought, choosing that show, was a great way to get these songs included on the record with that particular band which we recorded those tunes with.
BBR - On the DVD there is a touching tribute from you to Richard Cousins, your lifetime friend and band member of the Robert Cray Band. Can you choose three words to describe your friendship?
(Photo courtesy by Phil Weedon)
RC - Ha (giggles)! Three words, that is hard! I don't know. He is my best buddy, you know. It's just how it is. We have been friends since we were 15-16 years old. We went to rival High Schools, in the same High School District and we played in bands together long before we started the Robert Cray Band in '74. We grew up picking our cores and decided what it was we wanted to play before starting the band. I guess there is a lot more too. I mean, here I am, the frontman of the band, so to speak, but in the background, I know that there is Richard, which has always been the mouthpiece. Back in the early days, it was Richard that would go out and book the gigs for us, due to the fact that back then, we didn't have any Management or Booking Agency. That is the kind of personality Richard is. He is the outgoing one and I am the introverted one. Richard, back then, would also introduce the tunes when we were playing live, because I could sing the tunes to the audience but I couldn't say a word while on stage! So, it has been a Team thing, a joint effort all along.
BBR - You always have been depicted as one of the best music storytellers in the whole music world. How much has the angry Robert Cray of Nice As A Fool Can Be from the Who's Been Talkin' era, changed and developed his writing style?
RC - Well, I had a lot of help. Great lessons were learned by being able to work with Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker in particular. Dennis Walker wrote some of the great songs we did early on and his lyrics were very visual. I am talking about tunes like Who's Been Talkin', Right Next Door, Because Of Me, all those are Dennis Walker's tunes. Myself and Richard were able to help for what concerns the musical aspect of such tunes. It was really very special the way Dennis wrote those songs, it was a great lesson for us, to be able to visualize the stories within the songs.
BBR - Many fellow artists have celebrated your special music birthday on the 4 Nights album, people like Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, amongst others. Have you ever had any artist in particular, as a music role model, back when you started in the late 70's?
RC - There was a lot but Albert Collins holds a special place. We had the opportunity to work with Albert Collins, I believe the first time was back in 1976, which was just a couple of years after we started the band. We had the great privilege to be his back-up band while he was touring the West Coast, for about a period of over a year and a half. Standing behind Albert Collins, gave me the opportunity to be a backing musician. As a band, we were already playing some of Albert's tunes, therefore that experience gave me the chance to learn even more about him and his style. Albert was a real father figure to us. Through his experience, we learned how to cut our teeth with the first of our heroes. He was really important for us, on many levels.
(Photo courtesy by Paul Natkin)
BBR - The Robert Cray Band has changed different band members, since the beginning. I feel the current line-up of the band is one of the best you have ever had. What is the secret about being able to maintain the incredible quality of your sound?
RC - Thank you. You just have to be yourself. I think that is what is all about. The band members have changed, over the years for many different reasons but, fundamentally, I still do what I do. I am upfront and everybody within the band knows what their role is. It is pretty simple. I don't have any strict guideline, you know. I just want everybody to be themselves and let them all play out of their souls.
BBR - You have met and worked with authentic giants of the music business, people like the fellow artists previously mentioned or late great music legends like John Lee Hooker, BB King or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Have you ever thought about writing a book on your life, as a musician? You must have a lot of stories to tell..
(Photo courtesy by Robert Knight)
RC - There is a lot of stories but probably I need Richard to sit down with me and we can reminisce and put them out into a form that make those stories sound right. Yeah, there has been talk, to be honest and we'll see what happens. You don't know how interested people would be after all, we will see.
BBR - We all know, through your talent and artistry, who Robert Cray was 40 years ago and who you are now, as a musician. When you publish your next live anniversary album, what version of yourself do you wish to be?
RC - Hmm..I honestly don't know, because I am not gonna stop, that's the thing. It is so much fun, you know. When you hit the stage, it's such a challenge. You go out there and it feels like you are walking out there without your clothes on. You have to make people to listen to your music and forget that you are naked out there. Because people are not afraid to say what they feel about a show. And that is the reason why, night after night, we go on stage feeling like it is the first time we play in front of an audience, because that is the way it should be always done.
BBR - Your voice, together with your incredible skills in playing guitar, has always been one of the most recognisable trademarks in your career. Did you always want to become a singer or was that just something that you discovered all of a sudden?
RC - It was something that, you know, I guess goes hand-in-hand actually. I think anybody that plays wants to sing and then you discovered if you can or not. I knew I could hold a melody but, in the first band I was in, we had lead singers. And in a couple of those situations, it just happened that the lead singer quit, so I took over. To be honest with you, the second time that happened, we went to an audition and the lead singer didn't show up for the audition so I took over again. We didn't get the gig but from that moment, I took over the role of lead singer. Being an introverted person, it was a big step for me. When we started the Cray Band, anyway, I was the lead singer but Richard was still making the announcements! (chuckles). It has been a real work in progress, starting talking to the audience on stage between tunes. At first, I started talking to the crowd real fast, because I wanted to be as short as possible and then I gradually slowed down the pace of my announcements in-between songs. As you may know, I am perfectly comfortable, right now.
BBR - Robert, music legacies among artists is what keeps the music chain going, through time. As I am sure many fellow artists have transferred part of their legacies to you, by the same account, what part of yourself, as an artist, would you like to pass to future generations?
RC - I think that people should have an open mind towards music, you know. I think that people should have the opportunity to listen to different music genres. That's how I grew up and the guys in the band grew up and that was long before, especially in the States, people tend to categorise the music a lot. Now you have satellite radios and there are so many different stations playing every single music genre on the planet. So anyone could pick their favourite station and stick to it, they would never change the dial on the radio. In this way, they would be never able to find out about people like Duke Ellington or Hank Williams or Albert Collins. My advice would be to keep an open mind about music. You can try and listen to a tune belonging to a different genre and, if you don't like it, that doesn't necessarily mean you should dislike immediately that genre. Because in the whole world, there is a lot of good country, rock, jazz, blues or classical music. Speaking of my music, whoever comes to our shows, is able to hear many different elements belonging to different music styles and that is the reflection of how we, in the band, grew up. People needs to listen healthily, a little like trying a wide variety of food. When I think about the way I write a tune, it's all natural and spontaneous. It's not like, I sit down thinking of writing a song on a specifing genre. When the tune is finished I would look at it as a unique creation, a genuine result coming from the soul. It's all about thinking freely and be open.