Interview – Cherry Lee Mewis

‘blues powerhouse meets  hillbilly boogie’.  You certainly can’t forget the description of her music, or her name for that matter: Cherry Lee Mewis.  Walter Trout, Robin Trower and former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden have all shared stages with the girl who’s base is in Bedford but heart is in Memphis.  This month saw the release of Cherry’s excellent third CD, ‘Heard it here First’ which impressed 3Songs so much that we wanted to know more – so we asked, and Cherry kindly took the time to answer…

First the question I’m sure you are always asked – Is that your real name?

It sure is! My mum and dad were huge Jerry Lee Lewis fans, and Jerry is my great-grandad…ha just kidding! It’s purely coincidental. They weren’t to know that 8 years from the day I was born that I was to ‘announce’ that I wanted to be a singer…I like that people aren’t quite sure about whether or not my name is real, it gives them something to talk about and remember!

 

Your Mother was keen on Motown and Retro-Soul your father into 60’s Pop and Psychedelic but you began singing – Blues!.  I hear so often of musicians who found their musical style via their parents’ record collection.  You seem to have done the opposite?  Tell me how you came to be singing the Blues?

Well my dad is into all sorts of music, blues included and he’s got every book and every record you can think of on blues! Growing up, I was into the songs my friends at school were into and followed the charts, but then there was stuff from way back that none of my friends would listen to but I’d hear it around the house and love it. I got into Janis Joplin and from reading about her influences, Bessie Smith being one, it introduced me to the sounds of Bessie herself, then Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Otis Redding and I’d ask my dad “have you got anything by Blind Lemon Jefferson?” or any artists I was checking out at the time and he always would have records by them! I think it’s important to know where things come from. All music evolved from blues.

 

You moved from your birthplace in a small Welsh Village to Bedford.  Was that music related?  Joanne Shaw-Taylor moved over to the States fairly recently, Is a place in Memphis your own dream location? 

Totally music related! Well when I was 17 I signed with a management company in Bedford, I sent a demo tape to them and shortly after meeting them, I had a management and production deal. I had just passed my driving test so it worked out great, I’d bomb down in my little Metro almost every week to go and record original material and cut my teeth in the studio. I was doing pop/r’n’b material then which wasn’t my preferred style but I just went with it at the time and for the whole time I was with my manager and producer, from 17 to 20 years old, I got to release my own 12-inch vinyl white label and it got into the Music Week’s Urban Club Chart as highest new entry amogst artists such as Beyonce, went on my own 24 date UK tour too! Before we parted ways, I got introduced to my now guitarist, Max Milligan who lives in Bedford, and we started to do acoustic gigs together. Max soon suggested I do an album with him and he asked what I’d like to do. I told him how much I loved blues music and we started working on Little Girl Blue in 2007 and in October 2008 I was tired of travelling back and forth to Bedford from north Wales so I eventually moved! All my band now live in Bedford and surrounding areas so it’s ideal now and the music scene here is really healthy, much more than back home!

I have been to Memphis twice now and love it – I don’t know about living there but I’d certainly like to spend more time there..I’ll be back in Memphis in October, as well as going to Nashville and New Orleans. I can’t wait.

 

Here in Germany there seem to be less and less places offering live music.  Is it that way in Britain?  How easy is it to make a living in the Blues Scene in the UK these days?

There is a lot of live music here in the UK and we have a healthy blues scene, but a few venues have closed down recently. I hear of more and more UK blues artists going over to Europe to play as there’s more money, but that’s not to take away from the venues and festivals that do treat artists well over here. You can get an artist that appears on TV and then play at a smallish venue and it’ll be sold out because of that media exposure, but that doesn’t mean that that very same audience will then go to every show at that venue to support it. It’s a tough one. I see that a lot of venues now book the odd tribute act here and there as they attract guaranteed audiences. Bedford is great, most nights of the week there is live music going on somewhere. But I do think that some venues put ticket prices too high. I haven’t met many blues artists over here that haven’t got a day job as well to support themselves.

 

Cover of the new CD - c.Jez Brown

Your own sound is almost a contradictory mix with your image – You come across as a happy-go-lucky vivacious youngster yet your vocal is set against the traditional slide/resonator playing in the background courtesy of Max Milligan.   It’s a raw sound that seems natural coming from someone like Seasick Steve, but pairing that rural American sound with a young Welsh girl seems either madness or a masterstroke.

How did you come to be playing in that particular style?

Well, I think now, with my third album, I really have a sound of my own, which has been described as ‘blues powerhouse meets  hillbilly boogie’, whereas before with Little Girl Blue in 2007, I explored my love of blues by doing our own arrangements of songs from the 1920’s and then with Southbound Train, my second album in 2009, there were 8 original songs on. Now we’re here in 2012 and I have my third album that has 10 original tracks all co-written with Max Milligan. We get all sorts of people at our gigs, not just blues-lovers and I think that’s important. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. We get acoustic fans, rockabilly fans, rock fans, hell we even opened up at a rock festival last year! I don’t look at the style so much as the quality of the material. We write and play good songs that seem to resonate with a lot of people and when you come to see us at a gig, I want people to have a ball, to toe-tap, foot-stomp, clap, dance, sing-a-long and most of the time they do and they leave with a big smile on their faces..it’s about entertaining as well and I’m having the time of my life right now!

 

Max Milligan seems to be very much a part of your sound.  Tell me a little about him and how you came to be working together.

As explained in an earlier answer, I got introduced to Max through my old management back in 2005 and we haven’t looked back! Max is an amazing musician and person and someone I hugely admire. He can play every instrument and is a fantastic songwriter. He’s been doing this a long time and gigged all over the place. His experience and knowledge is invaluable, he’s more than my guitarist on stage, he’s the glue that holds it all together.

 

How and why did you come to have your own label (‘Cherry Jam Music’)?

Back in I think it was 2003/4 when I started seriously songwriting, I started reading up on copyright and how to be smart and protect your songs. I wanted to do it properly so I found out how to start my own publishing company. People sign their songs away and end up taking less than half of the royalties! How is that right?! So I wanted to have my own publishing and that’s what I did! Got a lil’ logo and I was good to go!

 

The first CD was almost entirely cover versions – your interpretation of many Blues classics.  Is it a representation of the Artists who influenced you?

Well I always tell people that I see Little Girl Blue as a blues version of what Joss Stone did with her debut album The Soul Sessions – taking rare and hidden gems from way back and without changing them too much, doing our own arrangements of the songs while still keeping it real raw! A lot of the songs I chose because they were artists I admired and songs I felt I could do justice and almost bring back to life because they seemed like ‘forgotten’ tracks. Songs like The Man Next Door by Koko Taylor & Keb Mo, Everybody Here Wants You by Jeff Buckley (which was actually recorded in 2005 and it’s a bonus track on the album), Sweet Substitute which was originally a Jelly Roll Morton song but I’d heard the Karen Dalton version. My dad suggested I record Wade in the Water and he played me Judy Henske’s version which I loved instantly. Max chose Cherrywine (which is a real crowd pleaser at gigs) and Shame, Shame, Shame. There was one original song on there, Ugly Night that I wrote on the guitar. We just wanted a nice mix of material, showcasing the different dynamics and I was able to really explore what sound I wanted and the more we gigged these songs, they became totally our own.

 

In contrast, your latest CD ‘Heard it here First’ is largely self-penned or written with the band.  Tell me about recording it and how you see it as a development of the two previous discs.

I would say that it takes the solid roots of Little Girl Blue and the foot-stomping vibe of  Southbound Train, and we’ve pushed the boundaries even further. We really went to town with it, had fun and poured our heart and soul into it, and I feel it really takes you on a journey. You can dance, you can sing-a-long, or you can chill out and reflect. There’s songs about good times, love, jealousy, humour and there’s even a short instrumental where my dobro player Nick Slater beautifully chills you out before the album’s final track, a pick-me-up after the rollercoaster! This album feels like a life raft because I was in the middle of it – it was all done in real time – while I was writing it, which was a different experience than writing in retrospect like I had done previously. I wanted this album to be totally original and it is bar one track, and what’s been the best thing is a lot of people have been saying it’s the best album out of the three. I feel I’ve come a long way since 2007 – I have a sound of my own and I owe a lot to Max Milligan and my fantastic band; Robbie Stewart-Mathews (double bass), Nick Slater (dobro) and Flow (drums).

You’ve already shared the stage with some very respectable names in the business such as Walter Trout, Robin Trower, The Quireboys and Ronan Keating which is quite an eclectic bunch.  You’ve played some major Festivals too.  What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Finally going out to Memphis with my dad back in 2010 and getting asked to do the Howlin’ Wolf Festival was pretty special. I met Howlin’ Wolf’s two daughters and niece there and they watched my performance – I had to pinch myself! I had an amazing bunch of musicians who were my band out there including Grammy-award winning Billy Earheart on keys (The Amazing Rhythm Aces) and Little Richard’s guitarist, Kelvin Holly!

Singing at the BBC Children in Need concert that went out live on national BBC TV back in 2006 when I was 21 in my hometown in Colwyn Bay, in front of all my family and about 20,000 other people was pretty amazing but I have to say that being able to play regularly and at some pretty special places with my band is always a highlight for me and I feel very privileged to have the best of the best with me!

The Band as depicted on the CD cover

Who would you most like to play onstage with?

Oooh alive or dead? I would have probably had a fit if I’d had the chance to have shared the stage with Janis Joplin and/or Jeff Buckley! Tina Turner would be pretty amazing, BB King – one of the original blues giants..there’s so many!

 

 There seem to be a lot of young Blues players coming out of Britain these days.  Why do you think there is this resurgence of interest in the Blues  right now?  Is there something lacking in the modern pop scene that would account for it?

Younger and younger people are picking up instruments and today’s blues musicians are starting out younger. I thought at 26             I was quite young but there’s some guitarists on the scene that are still in their teens! It’s fantastic..having a focus on something when you’re that young is brilliant. I think people in general want to go out there and just take the music world on themselves. They want to book their own gigs, play their own songs and self release their own albums. Most people are tired of the X Factor manufactured rubbish, I know that musicians hate it! I think younger people are getting curious about artists like Robert Johnson, but all in all, it’s a very healthy scene and it will only continue to grow.

When can we see  you play over here in Europe?  What are your plans for 2012?

I would love to come over to Europe this year. We’re just waiting for the right promoter to take interest as all the bands on the blues scene from the UK that are playing in Europe are more rock than blues so I sometimes think that some promoters don’t ‘get’ what we’re about as there’s no one else on the scene doing what we do, but we have had some enquiries as the profile gets bigger, the interest is growing so watch this space! I think it’s important to get as high a profile as possible in your own country too.

We have lots of festivals already confirmed for this year and my new album has only been out a couple of weeks so I’m excited to see the response from magazines and radio stations. The pre-ordering interest was overwhelming so I’m so eager to see what 2012 will bring!

Don’t forget that you ‘Heard It Here First!

www.cherryleemewis.com

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