I met Layla Zoe for the first time in April 2011. It wasn’t until later that year that I first heard her incredible voice singing live, but I got to witness first hand just how important music was to the girl labelled affectionately ‘Canadas Darling of the Blues’. She had come down to Koblenz for a concert by Ana Popovic and her journey down had been a bad one for reasons I won’t go into, but what I will always remember from that day is Layla suggesting that maybe she could sing a song that evening – as a way to get the bad experience out of her system.
For Layla Zoe music was, and as you will find in my interview still is, the best medicine. Her last release ‘The Lily’ was one of my favourite discs of last year, so when I heard that Layla would be supporting Henrik Freischlader for his show at the Harmonie Bonn on March 19 I took the chance to try and find out why making music is so important to her.
First of all Layla, you’re a girl of several names: Canada’s Darling of the Blues’, ‘The Firegirl’, how did these names come about?
The “Firegirl”is a nickname my bestfriend gave to me many years ago, and it seems it has stuck and suits also my stage show, and not just my personality off stage. “Canada’s Darling of the Blues” is a name the press gave me after my show and win at the Compo 10 blues songwriting competition in Finland in 2006.
You’re also a girl of many tattoos: Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Muddy Waters… Are they all by the same artist? And if you were to add another, who would it be of?
All of my black and grey tattoo portraits (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa) are by the world’s best tattoo portrait artist Bob Tyrrell from Detroit, Michigan. I also have a colour portrait of Janis Joplin by another world famous tattoo artist named Nikko Hurtado. My plan is at some point to have Bob Tyrrell do some more black and grey portraits on my legs when I can schedule time with him, and I would like to do Joni Mitchell, Etta James, and Peter Green at some point.
As Canada’s Darling of the Blues a good early question would be “What was the Blues scene like when you were growing up in your homeland”?
As a child I was introduced to the blues by my father and his record collection. Later when I attended the Hornby Island Blues Workshop in BC, I met artists like David Gogo and Ellen McIlwaine who were teaching at the workshop and I was inspired by their abilities and music. Many of the teachers at the workshop had told me that I could have a career in music/Blues if I wanted and at that time I needed that support and push in the right direction to get out of my bar band and start making a name for myself in the Blues community. Later after living in Toronto for several years, where there is a very strong Blues society and scene, I saw the true support of the Blues in Canada, and was lucky enough to sing with Jeff Healey who also gave me a lot of support to pursue my dreams and career in the Blues.
There’s some excellent Blues and Rock coming out of Canada these days for sure with the likes of Monkey Junk and Jimmy Bowskill. Any other names we should be checking out?
There are many wonderful Blues artists in Canada. But two specific names come to mind, who are also friends of mine and who bring something very special to the Blues. Steve Hill, a guitar player and songwriter from Quebec and also Angel Forrest an amazing vocalist. Both are worth checking out.
You’re music is very personal. Very much from your heart and your personal experiences. I’ve seen early pictures of you when you were very small with your fathers guitar and I read that his interest in music fuelled your own. Can you tell me a little about your relationship with him and his influence on you. I gather it hasn’t been an easy one.
Definitely my relationship with my father has been a tough one to describe in words… After my parents separation, I ended up living with my father, while my sisters ended up with my Mother. My father loved music of all kinds and also played guitar and harmonica and I sang in his band for a short time when I was in my early teens. My father played a huge part in my early introduction to the Blues and he was also a roadie/sound tech at festivals like the Vancouver Folk Festival and he also worked with Bachman Turner Overdrive as a roadie for a while, so I had early experiences at music festivals because of him, that also shaped my love of music. Unfortunately for personal reasons I left home at 16 years old, and no longer am able to have a relationship with my father. But I will never forget what he gave me musically and do not regret any of the childhood experiences I had to endure as his daughter because they shaped me into who I am today and inspired many poems and songs..
“Father come back to me. Put an end to this insanity. Father, you are in my dreams” is powerful stuff lyrically. Has your father heard the song? Has it brought him back in any way?
Yes, I sent a copy of the album to my Father, and I did receive a short email from him although it did not say anything specific about that song. I was glad to finally write this song about my feelings for him, because I had been trying to write it for many years but had never been able to put the feelings into song or words, until the recent album”The Lily” when the music Henrik sent me inspired me to finally sit down and write the words from my heart. And certainly there has been a lot of reaction to this song, because I think many people can relate to the song and see and hear their own personal experiences in the lyrics, which in my opinion makes this song even more special and powerful.
Your new disc ‘The Lily’ digs especially deeply into your family experiences with ‘In My Mothers House’, ‘The Lily’, and especially ‘Father’. Do you find it cathartic to put your private feelings into the public realm via songs?
I personally feel that writing from the heart and being as honest as possible with our art, makes it the best art.and the fans have definitely been touched by these songs and this album, for that exact reason. So I feel I accomplished what I aimed to do with the album, which was to be completely honest in my storytelling and artistic expressions.
Your lyrics are always worth studying. Not just on personal family themes, but also on environmental and Social ones. From early tracks like ‘Disappearing Delta’ to more recent ones like ‘Black Oil’ on ‘Sleep Little Girl’ and ‘They Lie’ on the latest disc. How important is it to you that a song has a message? That it has something to say beyond being just a good melody?
As you can see from the list of artists I chose to have tattooed on my body, I feel very connected to and inspired by the artists who are the best storytellers, lyrically. It has always been very important for me to be the best songwriter I can be. And I also feel that there should always be messages and songs about things that are current, and that do not always stem from stories of love, or life on the road. The best artists are also the
ones who are politically active in some way, even if they do not intend to be that, when they write. Just to write about what we know and feel, no matter what the subject, and no matter how it makes people feel, is very important as an artist. To write and live without fear, makes for the best art…
You also had a book of poetry in the pipeline. Are there any plans to release it?
I already self-published my book of poetry in 2010. It is a collection of work from age 10 to age 30 (20 years worth of work selected) and is titled “Diary of a Firegirl”. It was a great accomplishment for me to finally release some of my poetry for my fans and was inspired by the death of my bestfriend, because she died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2010 and taught me that life is so short and precious that we should do the things we dream of now, and not wait…
Gospel songs must be amongst the most powerful ‘message’ songs that exist. This is something you are very committed to I suspect? I’m thinking of your wonderful online Gospel videos every Sunday. How did the idea for these come about? and what does Gospel music mean to you?
Like the Blues, I grew up hearing gospel music because of my Father. And later I sang gospel on the streets of Vancouver after I left home, so I could make enough money to survive. Gospel can be sung anywhere, anytime, and without a band, and many people can relate to the heart and core of the spiritual aspects in Gospel music, even if they are not “religious” people. So I really enjoy to post and sing Gospel music because not only do I feel it is the original roots of the Blues, but also because it picks me up spiritually and emotionally, and has been a strong connecting force for me and my fans. It is amazing how many fans now wait to see what I will post on Sunday on the Facebook page, and how much JOY people are getting from the gospel video series so far. I hope to continue doing it every Sunday, for as long as I can.
You have a lot of fans here in Germany and have fairly recently re-located to Cologne. How did Canada’s Darling of the Blues come to be a ‘Kolsche Madche’ (Cologne Girl)? What do you like about Germany that made you move here?
I am actually living outside of Bonn, not Cologne. But this is simply because it made sense to live as close to my band as possible, since my drummer lives in Cologne and my guitarist lives in Bonn. I came to Europe because I realized that in the last few years I had been playing more of the year in Europe than I was in Canada, so it made sense to stop paying rent for an apartment in Montreal when I was never there. Also, although I have a great band in Canada, my band in Germany who tours all of Europe with me, is actually my best band ever and I want to work with these musicians as much as possible. They are incredible people and musicians and I feel very blessed to travel, tour and get on stage with them.
Having a base in Germany has certainly made it easier to communicate with your Record Company Cable Car, especially it’s owner Henrik Freischlader. How did you come to meet and work with Henrik?
I met Henrik in 2009 when I came to Germany for the very first time to perform at a festival called the Grolsch Blues festival. The festival promoter had asked me if I would mind to travel alone from Canada and sing with a band from Germany and I agreed as this was the same thing I had done before when I had played in Finland the first times. So it turned out that the band the german promoter connected me with was a band called 5Live that was a side project of Henrik’s, and we had so much fun on stage that we kept in touch, and later ended up working together in the studio to make my last few albums.
For those who don’t know Henrik, how would you describe him?
Henrik is one of the best musicians I have met in my life. He is a multi-instrumentalist and played guitar, bass and drums on my last 2 albums (Sleep Little Girl and the Lily). He is also an incredible songwriter and in my opinion is one of the hardest working men in the music scene. I have never met anyone as supportive, creative and hard working as Henrik. He has become a dear friend to me over the years and has given so much to me to help my music, and my name in Europe. I thank God every day for bringing Henrik into my life. He inspires me every day to work harder, and to be a better person and a better musician.
How did the two of you exchange ideas and music for the two CD’s you made together so far?
Henrik would send me demos of music he had written and I would choose what I liked, and put lyrics to the music. Then in the studio he produced me by suggesting things for me to try vocally in the studio. He has an amazing ear for music and vocals, and working with him has taught me so much. Also, he never asked me to change any lyrics, and always gave me complete artistic freedom and control. This was a very important part of the process for me and why I wanted to work with him, because I knew he too was a musician and knew what it felt like to have a story to tell. It is an absolute pleasure when we come together to record, or perform on stage together.
What do you think Henrik brings to your ideas?
Henrik never pushes me, but rather makes suggestions to me, and then when I hear the end result of his suggestions, I am always blown away at his incredible knowledge of all aspects of music. Really, he is a genius. and has helped to raise my music, albums, and singing, to a whole new level. Working with him was the best decision I ever made in my career.
What plans do you have for the near future? A live CD maybe?
We are considering a live album, because there has been so many requests for this from fans of course, and also possibly a live dvd.
Finally, is there any message you would like to give to your fans or something you would like to say not covered here?
I want to thank all of the fans all over the world, who have been supporting my music, connecting with me online, and coming out to the shows again and again. The Blues would not be what and where it is today, without the incredible fans. I feel blessed everyday to be able to do what I love, and get paid to do it. Even when it is a struggle sometimes, I always know in my heart that it is what I am born to do, and that God put me on this earth and gave me this life to use it to sing and perform for people. I try to bring feelings of joy and pain to my audiences when I sing, so that I can inspire emotions and feelings that many people are afraid to feel or experience. I feel that I achieve this every night on stage, when I pour my heart out to the listeners, and I want to thank all of the fans for coming with me on my musical journey every night that I step out on that stage, and invite them into my world of Blues…