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Published: 2009/01/25
by Randy Ray

Of Butterflies and Tributaries with Susan Tedeschi

A way a lone a last a love a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay – Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

The title track on Back to the River references thoughts about returning home, along the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida, after many weeks on the road, and rings true. Drifting just a little bit further from the shores of her origins, Susan Tedeschi augments her sound with some formidable songwriting partnerships on her passionate new work. The album features co-writing with choice collaborators, including her husband, guitarist Derek Trucks, who plays on several tracks, and produced one track, the sublimely funky “Butterfly,” as well as veteran songwriter Tony Joe White, Doyle Bramhall II, John Leventhal, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. Produced by George Drakoulias, Back to the River presents Tedeschi in full flight, co-authoring ten of the eleven tracks, and displays her richest portrait to date of the wide range of her art, which remains firmly planted in blues, R&B, and soul, and continues to be enriched with the classic Tedeschi voice that defies description, but always knows how to belt out a timeless tune.

Once compared with everyone from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt, the musician, wife, and mother balances her diverse worlds with a thoughtful defiance of creative compromise. catches up with Tedeschi in the days leading up to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Change and Hope are in the air, again, and the gifted artist explores our national transformation, her domestic life, the new record, her equally talented husband, and her thoughts on the record industryall with a soft-spoken elegance that complements a sharp wit and energetic mind.

RR: I spoke with Derek backstage at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival a few years ago. I said, “You must have the most amazing jams sitting at your table at home with Susan.” He laughed and said, “You knowit doesn’t happen as often as you think it would.”

ST: Well, you know what’s funny? Sometimes, we do sit around and play, but a lot of times, we’re home for such a brief time thatyou’re not going to believe thisI’m always cleaning. Derek is usually on the phone doing interviews and other stuff. Whenever we do have a second, we get out of the house. We’ll go fish, or we’ll go for a walk, or go boating. We’ll do something with the kids. It’s just one of those things. The kids don’t want to sit around and listen to us play. (laughter) Sometimes, they do. Like he said, it doesn’t happen as often as you think it would.

RR: People think I have the most incredible music collection because of what I do, and my kids are listening to music 24/7, and I usually say, “Well, no, you’d be surprised.” Family dynamics eat up your time in a very profound yet positive way.

ST: Right, they have their own agenda. (laughs) That’s the thing that people don’t know unless they have kids. They’re like “Goshkids really rule you.” They really want to do what they want to do, and you have to try to help accommodate them. If they want to play basketball or baseball or take dance, you have to bring them to all of the practices. Charlie’s in baseball, he goes back in the spring, and he loves football, so sports are definitely a big part of our life here. Sophia’s really into dance and singing. She’s our entertainer. (laughs) She’ll take both of our jobs.

RR: Ahhhthe passing of the torch. Speaking ofyou get to play at one of the inaugural events for our incoming President Barack Obama.

ST: Oh, yeah. Derek and I became friends with Peter Rauss who was the Chief of Staff on the campaign committee, was part of the transition team, and is now Senior Advisor. I got to speak with him after the Democratic National Convention in Denver. At Red Rocks, the Allman Brothers played that weekend, the day after the convention. Peter Rauss’ favorite band is the Allman Brothers, and he came back and hung out, met Derek, met Gregg, and everyone, and during the show, I ended up sitting with him and a couple of the guys from that team. They were incredibly sweet and down to earth. We were talking about how we were such big fans of Barack, and I was telling them how I’d written a bunch of songs and this and that, and he said, “Well, you guys keep the 20th open. If we get in, you guys will play.” I said, “Yeah, right.” (laughter)

And then, sure enough, he called back and said, “O.K.we want you guys to play.” And we said, “Oh my gosh.” It’s incredible. We never dreamed that it would really come together. We were supposed to do it with the Grateful Dead, but they didn’t have enough room on the stage for all of the gear so they actually gave us our own ball. [Author’s Note: Derek Trucks Band with Susan Tedeschi, and Wil Gravatt Band played at the Southern Ball Common on January 20.] It’s pretty exciting. Derek actually got invited to play at the John F. Kennedy Center for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on the 19th. Derek and I have played with Wynton [Marsalis] and his quintet once before in New York City at the Lincoln Center, and they sounded amazing together. [Author’s Note: Derek Trucks sat in with Marsalis on January 19 at Let Freedom Swing! A Celebration of America in Washington, D.C., with numerous other musicians, including B Fleck on “Sweet Georgia Brown,” on January 19.]

RR: You’ve also got another leg on your Back to the River tour coming in February.

ST: That’s right, yeah. The two of us are doing the Blues Cruise with Taj Mahal, Irma Thomas, and all sorts of artists. It’ll be my band, Derek’s band, and then our bands together so it’s all three bands. That’s going to be fun. It’s a week where we go to the Dominican Republic, Tortola, and Dominica. Then we come home. I was supposed to fly to France, but thank God I’m not because we start our tour up in the States three days later. I was going to fly to France, do a T.V. show, and fly back. (laughs) I think they’re going to wait until May now to do that show so that’s good. I’m happy about that. See the
kids for a couple of days, and then go away for about three weeks.

RR: Yeah, I see you’ll be heading out to the west, too.

ST: Excellent! I’m excited to get out to the West Coast. It’s been a while.

RR: Back to the River contains the most songs you’ve either written or co-written, and I feel that because of that fact, it is your most powerful project to date. I’d like to talk to you about your collaborations with other musicians on the album, and obviously, Derek’s role as he was also quite a factor on several of these tracks.

ST: Yeah, whenever he plays on something, it becomes super important (laughs) because he just adds so much to the song. I wrote a bunch of songs for this record, and then I was just trying to finish it up and add a few more original songs. I wanted to make it an all-original record since the last record was all covers, just to prove to people that I write. Hey, I write all the time. It would be nice to have a record that’s all originals, instead of covers. Sometimes I have to struggle back and forth with the label. What songs work? What songs don’t? What are they looking for? What am I looking for? It becomes this whole weird situation that artists have to deal with all the time.

For me, I thought I only had a few songs to do, and then when I started writing songs in a different vein, like I started writing more rock tunes, then they said, “Oh, well, do this. Write more songs like that.” And I thought, “Oh, gosh.” So I actually have 40 songs that I wrote for this record, and only 10 of them made it. A lot of the ones that didn’t make it were actually part of a theme, like an environmental, political themesongs like “Til the Earth Runs Dry,” and songs that had other meanings, that were sort of a Chicago blues kind of style, which would have been more like Just Won’t Burn, in a way. But Just Won’t BurnI guess people think of that as a rock record a little bit, too. I don’t know.

[Back to the River] is a nice record because it shows a lot of different styles. It’s not just one style. I really had a blast when I started to write with other people because I’ve never really done that. I’ve written with people that I’ve played in bands with, but I’ve never really sat down and co-wrote a lot, so it was a really great experience. I met some people that I’ve never met, and then wrote with them on the first day, and ended up writing some great songs like “700 Houses” [with John Leventhal and Ted Pecchio] and “Learning the Hard Way” with Gary [Louris]. We also wrote a song called “Pack Up Our Things and Go.” I really love the song, but I think I need to figure out how to make it not so political. It was sort of a bring the troops back home’ song and I had negative feedback on the idea of it, at the time, for the record, even though I think it’s a great song. I’m still trying to deal with how to make it so it works for everybody. (laughs)

There were songs like “People” that I wrote with Sonya Kitchellwe had actually written a few songs that day, and some of them are really pretty piano songs, but they just didn’t fit the recordand it is more upbeat and that’s really had a lot of good feedback.
People are very supportive of the song. Also, at the time we were writing it, everything was about voting and everything going on in the world was about the election. I had to write an election song. (laughter) It was about people going out and voting, and how important it is to educate yourself, and not just go along with the masses, but actually try to educate yourself and find out what the issues are, and make a good decision.

I was writing about that because I felt that if you were educated, the only real decision was Barack Obama. But, you know, you don’t want to say that to certain people, especially where I live here in Florida. It’s a very red state. And really, they’re not very up on the issues, and as soon as you ask them what are three things about McCain you like, they didn’t even know. “I’ve always voted Republican,” and “Roe vs. Wade!” Those
aren’t the issues that we’re dealing with in today’s real life world. It was just one of those things that I felt needed to be talked about, sung about, and I wasn’t afraid to do it.

Songs like “Back to the River,” I got together with Tony Joe White, who is a huge legend, especially in the songwriting world, writing songs like “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Polk Salad Annie,” hundreds and hundreds of songs, and just getting to meet him and have that experience was priceless. It was wonderful. He was so sweet. He was wonderful to be around. He pulled out all of his old pedals and his old guitars. He had a ’67 Strat, and a bunch of pedals from ’69 from London. You knowhere’s a guy that was friends with Johnny Cash and Elvis and everybody. (laughs) It’s pretty wild. He toured with Tina Turner in Europewith him and a drummerin front of 60,000 people, doing a duo. He’s a very courageous guy, very sweet, down to earth, and very funky. We just started playing guitar, playing with his pedals, making up riffs, and before you knew it, we had some ideas, and we just started to write. He asked me, “What do you want to write about?” I said, “I don’t know.” Then, he started asking me about my family and where I live, and we started writing “Back to the River,” so that’s how that came about.

RR: Why did you choose “Back to the River” to be the title track of the album?

ST: Out of all the songs, I just thought it sounded the most like an album title. Also, being that it was Tony Joe White, I was just trying to give props to him because he’s really the veteran songwriter out of anybody I’ve ever written with, so I thought it would be cool to use that song. It was also appropriate for the timesgetting back to family, back to roots, trying to figure out what’s important. It was sort of a mixture of different reasons that I picked that song. It’s funky, upbeat, and a cool rock tune.

RR: “Butterfly” also shares some of those elements.

ST: Yeah. “Butterfly” is a song that I had written, and I was really struggling with it. I really loved the song, but it didn’t really go anywhere. I was in the studio, one day, practicing it with my band, and my husband came in, and he said, “O.K., honeydon’t get mad, but (laughs) let me try something with the band.” I said, “O.K.” Bobby Tis, his guitar tech who is also a fabulous engineer, was at the house and we have a new studio
that we built [Swamp Raga Studios in Jacksonville, Florida] to do our recording, just for demo purposes really. I did a scratch vocal and Derek had written this part in the middle that was sort of a Curtis Mayfield kind of a bridge that really opened up the whole song. We recorded it and did a demo and it sounded great and I loved it, and I was really excited about where the song had gone.

We went to record the song with George Drakoulias [Back to the River producer] in Los Angeles, and it just wasn’t happening for me, and we ran out of time. I said, “You know what? I really want this song on [the album].” Derek produced, engineered, and helped co-write it, and it’s cool. It’s a moment in time. The singing isn’t perfect. Honestly, I would have loved to have gone in and sang it more than once, but it just had a rawness to it, and I thought it was really cool and so funky. I had Robert Walter on the Clavinet, and Derek playing some of that feedback in the intro, when his guitar comes in, and then I, obviously, played the solo. It was fun and ended up being a blast, and I just really liked the rawness and organic quality of it so it ended up staying on the record. I fought for it, and the label finally agreed to it.

RR: You mentioned your producer, George Drakoulias, who has also worked with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, among others, and I wanted to know about his methods and influence on Back to the River.

ST: George really has his own style. He’s a very creative guy, and he does know what he’s doing, but he’s hilarious. He’s one of those people that you just don’t know at first“What is he doing? He’s making us do this song 50 times, and it sounded the best on the first two,” because then, it wears into the ground. I said, “Dude, we’re not the Black Crowes. We don’t want to do it a hundred times.” He just has his own style of producing that I guess I wasn’t really used to, so he had a lot to say about grooves and arrangements and putting horns on this, or Mellotrons, or adding plug-ins, and doing different things like sampling or mixing stuff. He’s definitely a more modern producer, and that’s really what the label wanted. They really held off because they wanted somebody like George or T-Bone Burnettsomebody with a real distinct sound.

I thought, “I’m going to have a say in this. I’m not going to let somebody completely rule it,” so it was really a combination of George and I working together, trying to get to a similar ground. It really worked out good. I got along great with George, and with Dave Bianco [Back to the River engineer], and I respect both of them. They both have tremendous bodies of work that they’ve both done. It was really an honor and a chance to get to see things from that perspective, so it was cool. I’ve learned from every producer that I’ve worked with, just to see how they go about it, and approach it, and the things that they hear, and how they get the players to do certain things that they want, or what they’re looking at out of the song, just to see how they approach it and get it done. Yeah, it was a blast. I had fun.

RR: What is interesting is that you do have a distinctive voice and style of guitar playing and yet, with each musician that you brought into the project, those characteristics remained strong and consistent. That is especially true with a song like “Revolutionize Your Soul,” which you co-wrote with John Leventhal.

ST: I flew out to New York, I met John, and I went to a studio that he usually works at and he’s comfortable in [Pilot Recording Studios]. He’s a fabulous producer/instrumentalist/songwriter/everything. He’s one of those guys that does everything, and he couldn’t help it, like help produce it, even when we were doing the demo. (laughs) The demo sounded so good that I thought, “How are we ever going to do this song? It’s not going to ever be as good as the demo,” but it was, and it ended up coming out great, and it was a lot of fun.

When we first started writing, he said, “What do you want to write? Do you have any ideas?” He was looking through some of my notes, and he saw “Revolutionize Your Soul,” and he said, “Heylet’s make that the hook of the song.” It was just a lyric that I had written somewhere in my notes, and he had a couple of chords. He said, “I heard these chords when I was driving in Jacksonville, Florida. They are kind of gospel-like, but they are soulful and still kind of folk-y.” I said, “Let’s hear it,” so he played me the intro part of “Revolutionize,” and I said, “Wowthat’s really cool.” To me, at the time, it didn’t sound like Aretha Franklin, or anything, but then when George heard it, he wanted it to sound like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and ended up putting that kind of an intro on it.

Everybody has their own vision, but it was one of those songs that really clicked right away, and at the same time, I really had to understand how to be open-minded writing with somebody else because here he is, and he wanted to use very concrete images, and I like to be more subtle, use more subliminal things. I enjoy it when the listener creates what they think the song is about, more than just laying it all out on the table. So, here’s somebody that thinks differently than I do, but at the same time, he wants concrete ideas, but very visual with a lot of adjectives and adverbs.

It was nice to meet with different people to see how they all write, and how they think about the form of a song. That songwe wrote it the first day that we met, and I think we finished it, maybe, the second day. We got together the second day and finished it up. We started “700 Houses,” which, actually, we wrote most of it, and then, stepped away from it for about two weeks, and then got back together and finished it.

And I like to do it in person. A lot of people said, “I noticed that you did a lot of your co-writes in person,” and I said, “YeahI don’t want to write something over the phone with somebody, or just e-mailing back ideas.” Also, you don’t feel like you’re really working together because one person feels like they’re doing all the work when they send it in to see if they like it or not, and then they switch it, and they feel like they’re doing all the work. You don’t really have to compromise as much, and I think it’s important to [compromise]. I think it’s important to get together, and really feel each other out and really know each other as people, as well as know how to make a great song. I don’t know. I like it to be more personal.

RR: True. You don’t have to hold back. A co-writer could be more frank in person. What about something like the process of writing “Learning the Hard Way,” which you co-wrote with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks?

ST: That’s a good example of a song that we started in his basement. We wrote “Pack Up
Our Things and Go,” and we said, “This is great. We’ve got this song down for the record. Let’s try to write something else.” We started “Learning the Hard Way,” and I was trying to talk about a parent-child relationship, and about teenagersyou don’t want to be told what to do, and I was trying to get across to a different audience on that. (laughs) We started to write that song and didn’t really do too much with it; then, he e-mailed it to me after about a week and a half. He had put all of these other parts on it and finished the song, and it sounded great. I said, “WowI remember writing those lyrics, but I didn’t write all of those lyrics.” We hadn’t even finished all of the arrangements, and he came up with some really nice parts. He’s just very talented, and I really dug it. I said, “Coolit’s done.” I’m used to having to be the one to finish stuff, but I didn’t have to for that one, and it was nice. It was 50/50, but really I felt like he really stepped it up and finished that song for us.

RR: I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention the fine contributions of your entire band on Back to the River, not only on all of the original material, but your lone cover song on the album, Allen Toussaint’s “There’s A Break in the Road.”

ST: It’s funny. Robert Walter had made me a CD of New Orleans-based musicdifferent artists just to turn me on to different things. That song was on there, and I didn’t realize, at first, where the song had come from because it wasn’t really labeled. I just started hearing that song over and over in my head, and when we were in the studio, they said, “What else do you want to do for tunes? Do you have any covers?” I said, “I don’t know. What do you think of this song?” I played it for them, and everybody liked it right away. George said, “Yeahlet’s do it tomorrow.” And poor Falcon [Tyler Greenwell, Tedeschi’s drummer] said, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that Zigaboo on drums? Damnit. One day” (laughter) “Zigaboo.” [Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste] It’s a hard part and Zigaboo’s one of the best. Basically, it’s the Meters with Betty Harris singing it. It reminded me of the first time I heard Candi Stanton do “Evidence.” It had a lot of soul, a really cool soul singer with a really cool bandMuscle Shoals sax mixed with funk, mixed with New Orleans. I really just liked the groove of it. I thought if we’re going to cover something, it’s really got to groove. It’s got to be soulful. I just wanted it to be upbeat like that. It seemed like a good fit. The band just killed it. They did a great job. It’s not an easy song to cover. I was really impressed that they did such a great job on short notice. And it’s fun to play; they like to play it live; it gets a decent response.

I thought [the band on the record] did an excellent job. They really did, and they are all super sweet guys. They work really hard, and I think they bring a lot to the table because

they make it so I can play the kind of music that I want to play. Whereas, I’ve had other bands where they are either more jazz players, or more pop players. They aren’t more blues, R&B, and soul players. These guys really are. If I want to just play swing all night, they can play swing. If I want to play funk, like Sly and the Family Stone, they can play that. If I want to play Meters, they can play that. If I want to do country, they can do that. If I want to do Bob Dylan songs all nightyou know, whatever style I want to do, pretty much, they can do a really great job. Also, they sound great with my husband. They actually play on his record a little bit, too [Already Free].

RR: As well as a mixture of the two bands in the Soul Stew Revival.

ST: Yeah. It’s just a big musician pot. (laughs) A big stew.

RR: You spoke earlier about the quantity of material that did not make the album, Back to the River. Any chance in the future of releasing those songs?

ST: Yeah, I would love to start recording that stuff. I’m thinking about trying to do some recording whenever we have some downtime. There’s three records that I really want to make. I really want to make a Soul Stew record with Derek. We already have the material, we’ve been writing some new stuff, and we need to finish writing new stuff. Ultimately, that would be incredible. We could have a record that we could sell when we do those shows, as well as maybe doing T.V. and stuff like that. We can’t do television without a record. There’s all of these weird things without a record, even if people know who you both arethey need something for that project. Ultimately, this year, I’d like to record that, as well as do another original record, just start it, at least. I don’t expect to do one this year and finish it. I usually tour a record for about a year or two, before I get to work on another record. I would like to, at least, start writing now for the next record. Even though I have a bunch of other tunes, I don’t know if they’re going to work for the next record or not. Maybe, I’ll just record them and set them aside and have them.

It’s difficult right now because Derek and I are both signed to other labels. We don’t really own our stuff. I am in the process of trying to fix things with my old label and my old records. I am not being paid for my old records. I would rather people buy my new records until that gets taken care of. I’d rather people buy Hope and Desire and Back to the River, rather than my old records because I’m not getting any money for them.

I just want to get my masters and move on. I’d like to start recording stuff in our studio. Soul Stew is not signed, so I would want to do it ourselves, and then put it out, and hire people to do the stuff that we’d basically get from a record company. People don’t always know how the industry works. It’s basically like getting a bank loan, except they are telling you what to do with your money, (laughs) and you have to pay it all back, and you still don’t own it when you’re done paying it back. If people said, “I’m going to buy this car, and I need $20,000, and I’m going to pay it back, but you’re still going to own it, and if I want to buy the car, it’s going to cost me 20 later, or actually maybe more, maybe 60,” that would sound crazy and ludicrous, right?

The industry is not set up right. I feel someday, I might have a higher calling. I don’t know. Maybe, I’ll join the Senate, and write some legislation for musicians and artists. (laughs) I don’t know. Maybe not. I do feel like I need to get involved somehow in politics. Now that we’re close with the Democrats, maybe I could persuade some of them to write some legislation to help protect some artists, at least to revert some masters and copyrights [back to the artists], or give them right of refusal, give them an opportunity, after a certain amount of time, to buy back their own things. The industry’s just a mess, anyway. They are all going down. Nobody’s selling records like they used to. People can copy anything, steal anything, and it’s lost it so much that we’ve got to figure out a new way to do it anyway.

- For the flip side of the Tedeschi/Trucks household, please read the Derek Trucks feature in the February/March 2009 issue of Relix magazine.

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