With three young starlets currently playing on the ‘Girls with Guitars’Tour, the question might be asked “Does Thomas Ruf really need another female Blues musician on his impressive roster at Ruf Records?” If you’ve been lucky enough to catch Dana Fuchs on one of her European Tours, or on the road in the States, Then you will know the answer is an emphatic ‘yes!’ The girl fromNew York has been playing to ecstatic audiences throughout Europe in promotion of the new ‘Love to Beg’ CD. I managed to track her down between concerts, acting, and photo shoots to find out more about Dana Fuchs, her Blues roots and the ‘Church of Rock n Roll’ as she describes her energy laden shows.
What is your earliest memory of performing in front of an audience. I’ve read that your whole family enjoyed making music, which gives me the impression we could have had ‘The Fuchs Family’ rather than ‘The Partridge Family’on tv in the 60’s!
Well my first memory of performing was in a 1st grade play. In fact I was the lead of every play in grammar school because I could remember words so easily! Then in 3rd grade I would hold “talent shows” at recess and force everyone to let me sing. Then I’d judge the other kids (how obnoxious!) When I was9 I sat in with my oldest brother (Don) and sister (Donna) who had a band that was playing the local clubs. Then it was church. Then at 16 I fronted a local band made up of men 3 times my age. My brothers and sisters (I’m the youngest of 6—4 brothers and a sister) were always playing music, singing around the house, etc. We would sing all night from our beds across the halls together until the last person fell asleep.
At 19, you announced to everyone you were “Going to New York to sing the blues” and within a relatively short time there you were, on the Blues circuit alongside stars like James Cotton, Taj Mahal and Etta James. It sounds easy but what was the reality? and what was it like working alongside such Blues luminaries?
I often wish I could go back in time to when I met and performed with those greats. I was just learning about the Blues and at the time I was too young to understand the depth of where musicians like that were coming from. In fact, once I understood that, I stopped covering the old blues songs because I didn’t feel I had the right to sing about such things as racial prejudice, oppression and growing up on tobacco road. It was experiences like performing alongside such deep artists that inspired me to find my own truth and my own story while aspiring to put the passion and soul into the music and singing that all of them did.
I hear that you even found your ‘musical partner’ via the Blues. You heard someone playing Muddy Waters on guitar, went into the club and found it was Jon Diamond. Tell me about the meeting.
I had just moved to NY and I was walking around the lower east side not knowing where to go when I heard the most amazing, woeful and powerful guitar sound. I walked in and sat there stunned listening to Jon Diamond playing with an amazing singer who called himself Moose. (He was a 6’4 man part Cherokee Indian and part African American). I couldn’t believe I could just walk in for free and hear something so incredibly amazing.
How did your musical partnership develop from there?
I introduced myself to Jon that night and explained that I had come to NY to sing and was really taken by the blues stuff. He then invited me to sit in on Stormy Monday, which I butchered. He told me I had a great instrument but needed to study the great blues and soul artists if that’s what I wanted to sing. At the time I was a big classic rock fan, so Jon insisted I go listen to all the great soul, blues and r&b artists that my favorite rock bands (Stones, Zeppelin, Black Crowes, etc) were influenced by.
But you decided to leave the American Blues circuit though. Why was that?
It wasn’t that I intentionally left the circuit. I just had to start connecting with my own songs and story and influences. By now these influences embodied all the gospel, rock, country and soul that I grew up listening to. It just all morphed. Then the blues circuit in US thought I was too rock! So Europe called and we started touring there. In Europe I learned that Blues, Soul and Classic Rock fans are all the same! And it’s the same in the US, (but I suppose the promoters and agents had to learn that before I could start working here. Haha) The audiences over here and in Europe are the same and have been so receptive. They’re just music fans. Like all of us.
What part does blues play in your music today?
Blues and old school soul/r&b will always be the foundation of my vocal inspiration and sound. Writers like Dylan, Waits, Chrissy Hynde, Lucinda Williams etc., are the inspiration for my lyrical aspirations.
You started your career singing in a Baptist Gospel Choir and indeed there seems to be a strong spirituality in both your music and your life – you even refer to your shows as ‘My church of rock n roll’. What part does religion play in both your life and music?
I grew up in a religious area down south. There was so much prejudice toward skin color and yet the white churches seemed ok with that but insisted that joyful things like music and dancing were evil. This is why I was drawn to the black churches. It was about a celebration of love and life with stomping and singing. Had nothing to do with “man’s” idea of what “god” is supposed to be. Whenever man misinterprets we have wars, hatred, prejudice, etc. So I think it doesn’t matter what form of “god” someone believes. As long as it follows the simple golden rule of “doing unto others as you would have done to you!” Compassion, love, and consideration. If we could all pull that off, there would absolutely be peace.
You are making a name as a musician these days but you are also to be seen acting – in ‘The Mortician’ for example which premiered in February at the Berlin Film Festival. Add to that playing Joplin in ‘Love, Janis’ off Broadway and your role in ‘Across the Universe’. Tell me about the acting. Are you a singer who acts or an actress who sings?
I love acting but singing is my true passion. Acting sort of fell on my lap because of the singing and I am grateful for the opportunities but I wouldn’t quit singing to go pursue an acting career. If cool roles come along that I can do that’s great! But, I need to be on stage with my band. That’s where my home and heart is.
Does that mean we can expect more live shows from your band in Europe now?
Maybe Dana Fuchs on one of Thomas Ruf’s future ‘Blues Caravan’ Tours?
We’ll see. But right now I have such a chemistry with my band and that’s what the audience is feeding on. Which then feeds me. It’s working. It has to be sincere for me.
Of course, tour dates in the UK would be great. Have you played in Britain yet?
I’m Working on that now with a potentially new UK agent. DYING to play the UK! I know we have an audience there to grab!!
How did the contract with Ruf Records come about? Are you not concerned that Thomas Ruf will expect more blues oriented material from you on his label?
Tom Ruf loves the record and the fact that it’s not straight ahead blues. In Denmark he, me and Jon stayed up til 3am listening to Tom Waits, Radio Head, Stones and so on. He just loves “honest” music. That’s why I signed with him. His heart is truly in it for the music much more than the money. He’s deep enough to know that blues/gospel/soul are the basis of mostly all of it anyway!
Can you give me some background to the new ‘Love to Beg’ CD?
It’s only your second studio CD but you sound super confident on it and even produced it.
Most of the songs were written on the road. Some are about life on the road and the times it can get lonely and lead to trouble! Jon and I wrote these songs together, we started playing them live and flushing them out, so we figured we could produce ourselves because by now we knew what we and our fans wanted. Fortunately I think it was the same goal. We didn’t want to make some one else’s record, which often happens with a well-known producer. We didn’t want to worry about the length of the tunes, the dark nature of some of the songs or the fact that it had all of our influences of soul, rock, blues, gospel, old country, folk, Americana, etc. That was the fun part. No boundaries!
In addition to your own songs there’s an Otis Redding number?
Yes! Otis is my favorite male soul singer of all time. I have a few but he’s number one. That song was a last minute idea because we knew we wanted to pay homage to a legend but covering Otis is a daunting task that I feared could piss people off. When we tracked it we thought we’d just “see how it came out”. But I wept as I sang it over the band playing live and knew it was gonna be a keeper for the CD. It’s the perfect love song. The album needed that.
You have a very powerful voice. Have you had any voice training?
Thank you! I found a great coach in NYC years ago who teaches the operatic Belo Canto method. It’s got nothing to do with style, but simply how to really use and utilize one’s instrument and increase range and stamina. I Could never ever have done this without him. (Jim Carson). I still see him when I’m off the road to check in and make sure I haven’t picked up any bad and dangerous habits. Plus he’s become a dear friend.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been many. Making Across The Universe definitely one because of working with other musical idols, Joe Cocker and Bono. Playing Janis on stage is also up there. I suppose the one that really still makes my heart burst is the time we played Bospop Festival in the Netherlands 3 years ago. Our first big European show. No one knew us. It was our first time in that country. Yet, they started singing the lyrics to my song “Songbird” (which I wrote for my late sister Donna) long after the song had ended. Jon and I were in shock and looked at each other with tears in our eyes as thousands of people started singing: “oh songbird fly”. (I still get emotional when I recall that moment).
Would your sister have been surprised at your success? That you are now internationally known with a major recording contract?
I know she’s happy for me whatever form or place she’s in now. I don’t think she’d be surprised. She was always so encouraging of my singing. I envied her sweet, pure, high voice and she loved my big, deep rough one. We always thought it would be a great compliment to each other if we had a band together. Unfortunately we never got that chance.
Who are your musical influences?
Ouch. I Would need about 20 more pages. I think I already mentioned many of them. There really are so many and for such different reasons. All the blues/soul/gospel singers for their vocal brilliance. All the great songwriters for their poetry, and all the great rockers for their attitude and edge!
Who do you listen to when you play music on your mp3 player?
Everything. I have a play list for every genre including Indian, Brazilian, etc. It depends on my mood and what inspiration I’m looking for. Voice, or lyric or attitude. It really varies.
I should cut and pasted the “play list” I have on my iTunes that I use before every show on tour. It is all over the map!
Is there anything not covered here that you would like to say to readers of ‘Blues Matters’?
I’d love to just thank everyone for reading and hopefully listening. I’m so honored to get to travel around and do these shows, which to me are meant to be a celebration for the audience and us (me and the band). That’s why it’s the “rock &roll church of love”! Nothing to do with religion, just joy and love and human experiences. Even the darkest ones, which I like to talk about on stage!
Many thanks for taking the time to answer questions for Blues Matters Dana.
– Interview by John Hurd
(This interview first appeared in the UK’s Blues Matters Magazine)