Despite it being Valentines Day 3songsbonn was hard at work for you, dear readers. Shut away, shortly before concert begin, in a back-room at Bonn Harmonie with only three pretty girls and a microphone for company. The occasion was a chance to interview the ‘Blue Sisters’ as this years RUF Blues Caravan calls itself. Last year the tour featured three ladies with guitars. This year the instrument of choice is a voice – or three to be precise.
Three singers and only one microphone? As it turned out Tasha Taylor, Ina Forsmann and Layla Zoe were all in perfect harmony both on and off stage. Of course it’s very early days on this years RUF Records Blues Caravan and these are three ladies with their own unique styles and expectancy from what the coming months will bring as my interview reveals…
First off all, welcome to Bonn ladies. I know Layla has done many shows here in Germany, but how about you, Ina and Tasha, is this new territory?
INA: I’ve done a couple of shows here before, but only like two or three gigs.
And how about you Tasha?
TASHA: Last year I was in France, Belgium and the Netherlands on the ‘New Blues Generation’ Tour with Shawn Holt and Wayne Baker Brooks. No Germany though.
So I guess you don’t speak the language yet?
TASHA: About two words: “Guten Abend” and “Danke Schön”.
LAYLA: That’s four words already!!!
TASHA: I’m growing my vocabulary rapidly John!
As an introduction to this year’s tour RUF released a video of ‘Chain of Fools’. Was that the first time you all met and sang together?
TASHA: Yes, it was. We play a number of songs together in the show though.
We actually start with ‘Chain of Fools’ (LAYLA) – and we finish with some numbers together…
Which will be?
LAYLA: It’s a surprise John! (everyone laughs) What do you want? a list saying ‘these are the songs’ and how long we will sing them…? I don’t want to give it all away!
Okay, Okay then, but at least tell me what we can expect from each of your solo sets?
TASHA: I probably have the most mellow set. I play guitar a little bit too. Maybe a little more singer-songwriter in style. These young ladies are more powerhouse singing…
LAYLA: You’re powerhouse too, baby!
TASHA: Slowing it down more maybe, and mellowing it out I guess – I don’t know. We all have our own distinct styles really so the best thing is to just check it out!
INA: We all do mostly our own songs, so here you get, like, a little review of what each of us is capable of.
LAYLA: I think we are all very different
INA: But then again we’re all coming from the same roots. It’s just that each of us also has different roots from the others too.
Well, roots aside, You do certainly all have distinctly different backgrounds, and I’d like to touch on that by going back to Tasha’s remarks earlier regarding the tour with Shawn Holt and Wayne Baker Brooks. Both of these, like yourself, had a famous musical father. (Tasha is the daughter of Soul hero Johnnie Taylor)
TASHA: I’m always getting mixed up by people with Cassie Taylor who think my father was Otis. I’m Johnnie Taylor’s daughter, so please don’t get mixed up!
No, I wrote down Johnnie ‘Philosopher of Soul’ Taylor in my notes Tasha. Honestly. Did he encourage your musical career?
TASHA: He just wanted to make sure I was sure. Once he realised I wasn’t changing my mind he was very supportive. Invited me on tour and on records. I was touring with him when I was actually just a baby, but certainly from my teens it was like going in to work with him. Then as he got bigger and started having to fly more than drive it got more of a headache for my Mom taking care of the kids and stuff. Probably I was touring properly as an artist from around twelve years old. Getting on the tour bus and doing songs. Duets. Before that I didn’t really figure what the big deal was about his music. But it prepared me. Made me sure I wanted to do this.
He was ‘The Philosopher’. Is that a part of your own writing style?
TASHA: I think so. I find songwriting is always cathartic and a lot of people learnt life lessons through his songwriting too.
Let’s move on – to Dr House of all things. You gathered some auspicious acting experience through an appearance as one of the good Dr House’s hated out-patient appointments. What do you remember of Hugh Laurie from that time (2007)?
TASHA: Well it was really cool, because in between takes he would have his guitar out…
Did you get to play along with him?
TASHA: I didn’t, no. I was too focussed on my acting game at that moment. But I did talk to him about his music and he was very humble, which was nice.
So. Bottom line: you are an actress or a singer?
TASHA: I’m a singer who acts rather than an actress who sings (laughs)
Which brings me nicely to your new CD ‘Honey for the biscuit’. Would you like to tell us a little about it?
TASHA: Well. I would say it’s soul with a blues side to it. It’s intentionally more focussed on blues, with a lot of songs written on the guitar. Myself with Tom Hambridge and Richard Fleming. The band included Nathan Watts (bass) who plays with Stevie Wonder and who helped me put the guys together including my brother John (guitar) and we brought in three drummers (though not all at the same time! ed.) and a horn section.
Modesty maybe prevents Tasha mentioning it perhaps but the disc also features some quality guest stars in their own rights: Keb Mo, Tommy Castro and Samantha Fish.
If I can turn to you now Ina. No appearances in Dr House but you seem a natural actress in your RUF video for ‘No room for love’. Have you done any tv acting?
INA: No I haven’t.
But you do have some tv experience in Finland via their ‘Idols’ music casting show. More recently, in 2014 you took part in the European Blues Challenge. Did you see that as some sort of fast track to fame?
INA: Well, with ‘Idols’ I was 17 at the time and it was something I’d always wanted to do, and then with the European Blues Challenge it was really the first gig I had the chance to do outside of Finland which of course was exciting. I didn’t stress about winning. It wasn’t about the competition. Just a chance to play in another Country. I know Thomas Ruf was there, although I didn’t meet him then. He was a judge and he said later that he put my performance in the back of his ear so to speak. Which he obviously did because about six months later he contacted me and we started talking about Blues Caravan…
I love the new disc and it sounds like you have a lifetime of experience on it, but in fact you hadn’t that many shows outside Finland and here you were walking into a studio in Austin Texas with a handful of self-written songs. What was that like?
INA: Well I’d made a disc previously in Finland but that was with my band and all covers, so this was really my first real solo album proper. It was really a much bigger thing altogether. So at first I was a bit afraid. I was there alone and worried that if for some reason I couldn’t get along with the producer or some of the players what could I do? I’m on the other side of the world with no-one here to help me out and what happens if I have to make this album with people I don’t like?
INA: …and as soon as I got there everything was so perfect. The producer, Kaz Kazanoff turned out to be such a good friend. We had the same vision regarding what we wanted the album to sound like and it was really easy to work with everyone – they were all super professional.
You certainly sound very at ease on the disc. Never more so in fact than on the only non self-penned number – Nina Simone’s ‘Sugar in my Bowel’. How did that song come to be on the CD?
INA: I already knew approximately what was going to go on the album and where, and I wanted the last song to either be a cover or at least a really slow song with only maybe a piano and perhaps a little saxophone. I’d known the song a long time without thinking of playing it but it just seemed to fit perfectly with what I wanted so I took it along as one of a couple of covers for possible inclusion.
It doubles your age when you’re singing it
INA: (laughs) yeah. Thanks! But yes, really I love the song and I’ll be playing it tonight.
Comparisons with a much younger legend than Nina Simone have also been made and I refer of course to Amy Winehouse. Do the comparisons flatter or annoy you?
IF: Well, it works both ways really. I’m a huge Amy Winehouse fan. I love her and I love every song – but when people compare her to me it feels weird because she’s, like, really on another level. I mean, she’s unreachable. Then I think ‘Compare me to Amy Winehouse?’ come ON! Really?!!!’
The disc is finished, is excellent. Is it exactly what you wanted? Or will the next one be different?
INA: The next album will be different. I’m very happy with this album. I’m proud of the songs and how it turned out to be. The only reason I say the next one will be different is that I constantly find new things and new music. It’s happening all the time. These were the first songs I’d ever written really and I definitely haven’t found the exact product that I want to make yet.
Finally, Your thoughts on the Blues Caravan thus far?
INA: We started talking about it a year ago so it seems like I’ve been waiting for it to happen for so long already. I think I was the first to sign up, so I was like waiting to hear who would be joining me for ages. Now it’s finally up and running. We all have our own very strong individual things but we also have a very strong connection onstage together – and that’s really something. You can’t fake it. It has to work naturally, and it really does. Which is a relief because we have a lot of touring together ahead of us! The travelling times will get longer as the touring progresses…
Maybe I can ask that question again in 6 months time Ina. Thanks for your time.
Turning to you now Layla, I covered your musical history in my previous interview at the time of ‘The Lily’. This time around I want to check out recent events and most obviously the break from Cable Car Records.
LAYLA: Well it was really the typical thing. After three records with Henrik my contract was up. He himself is focussed on getting back into his own music and it didn’t seem like he would be so focussed on working with other artists right now. It was a case of trying to negociate over the next record or seeing what the next step could also be. I’m still great friends with Henrik and he actually came out to one of the Blues Caravan shows in Dortmund (I point out that, as proof, Layla is answering my questions wearing a Freischlader sweatshirt). But I wondered what RUF might be able to do with my career as far as promotion. Also important was that I really wanted to make this album with my own band and that didn’t look possible with the other label, at the time at least.
So RUF became a strong contender for your signature…
LAYLA: I kind of negotiated with Thomas Ruf. He wanted me for the Blues Caravan and I wanted a CD made at the same studio as the Cable Car ones (Megafon in Arnsberg) and with my band. Thomas wanted me to record in the United States but I was adamant I wanted to make this one here first.
I must admit that when I saw the title of the new CD ‘Breaking Free’ I feared it was indicative of a major bust up with Henrik and Cable Car…
LAYLA: Not at all. For me it had to do with a lot of changes in my life. The songs themselves are mostly love songs too which suggest otherwise. A lot happened, a lot of changes in my life and when I looked at the song titles it was the right one to choose. When I look at the pictures and hear the music it was a great change for me to go to a new label. I was in a tight knit family label with friends making music which is completely different from being with someone whose been running a label for over a decade with many artists and a distinct wheel of promotion. It raised new questions too of course. Did it make sense for me to do the Blues Caravan? In Germany of course it didn’t make so much sense because I already have a name through playing many shows over here. But in other territories things are different.
It does make you something of a ‘Zügpferd’ (crowd puller) for the fans here though I guess.
LAYLA: Well of course you can’t choose and say ‘I won’t do Germany but I will do the United States. I won’t do Germany but I will do Sweden and Norway…’ You can’t choose like that, but for instance I’ve never played in Spain and we have ten shows in Spain next month. Even after all these years it’s still difficult to get agents that can book some of these Countries. I mean, my agent Florence (Miller) has been booking me in Countries that don’t even fit into her region. She does that for me.
So a travelling show like Blues Caravan really is worth its weight in gold where exposure is concerned?
LAYLA: Oh sure. And I think too this is one of the strongest Blues Caravans in a while. Not because I’m in it, but because all three women are so strong in their own rights. There’s also a great heritage of artists who’ve played these shows – women like Ana Popovic and Joanne Shaw Taylor. It’s hard to say no to the opportunity for so much exposure in so many Countries.
We spoke last time about your album ‘The Lily’ which is full of personal stories. The new one sounds a lot heavier to me. ‘Backstage Queen’ is almost Led Zeppelin. But, I notice that there are lots of ‘She’s’ rather than ‘I’s’ in the lyrics. Maybe not so introspective as ‘Lily’?
LAYLA: A lot of people have mentioned the Zeppelin similiarity. But I don’t agree in that I find the new record is also very personal in terms of what I’m talking about. I fell in love last year and a couple of the songs tell about that. I’m talking about the music business on the album. I’m talking (on ‘Highway of Tears’) about a really heavy issue that will probably come up in future interviews – the murder of women in Canada so that is my ‘Black Oil’ of this album. My political song. For me it’s important to have a song that I feel strongly about but is maybe stepping over the line. It’s certainly a very important one for me on the new record. There has to be some fun stuff too though of course to balance it so we have things like ‘Wild One’ with Sonny Landreth guesting.
Okay Layla. Then maybe when I heard ‘she’ in the songs the ‘she’ was you and was really a disguised ‘I’. You sound more content anyway…
LAYLA: (Laughs) Well that’s got to be good!
A contented Blues singer? Is that good?
LAYLA: I think my records have more range than that. If you listen to them you don’t just hear Blues. You hear Rock, you hear Gospel. And you hear I’m in a different place in my life than I was two years ago. This is my tenth album and each one showcases where I was at along the way.
At present along the way finds you on the Blues Caravan – for at least the rest of this year. What does that mean for your own band?
LAYLA: The Caravan will have some breaks along the way and my band all knew about it and were very supportive. Jan in particular worked very hard with me on the album knowing I would be doing the Caravan afterwards. There are some shows with my band already planned though – in March in Switzerland, so we are trying to fit it all in.
Finally, your thoughts on the Blues Caravan thus far?
LAYLA: Its been awesome! I honestly didn’t know what to expect but they’ve all turned out to be great people. We only had a few rehearsals but the band took only four or so shows to get really in the groove of things. It’s been super organized and gone well so far, I could for instance have gotten problems with my voice but we’ve had great hotels to stay in and packed venues. The girls all get along and the guys are all great guys. We have a ton of shows to do of course so who knows how we’re going to feel half way through the year!
Which is very much the answer I got from Ina to that same question. I will put an immediate note in my diary to ask you how things are at the end of June!
Let’s jump forward in time a lot further than half a year though for my final question this evening. Imagine I come back for a follow up interview on your careers when you are all 90 years old. My question on that day is “what was the most important thing that you got out of your musical career? What are you most glad to be able to look back on and say ‘Well, I’m glad I was able to do this…’ What do you hope you would be able to answer?
INA: I would be happy if I could say I was able to make the music I really wanted to make. Didn’t have to play music that I new would have to be playable on the radio or something like that. I was able to stand my ground and say “This is the music I want to make and I don’t care if it doesn’t sell” To make my music without any compromising. Then I think I’d be happy.
LAYLA: That I was able to connect with people. It’s therapeutic for me and something I need to do, but that I was also able to connect with people – even if I’ve been doing it for that long, after 90 years. That I had people feel things through my music. That’s always very important to me at my shows. Trying to pull out those deep emotions in people that they sometimes aren’t able to connect with in everyday life.
TASHA: I think, to touch, to move and to inspire people through my music. Really, to bring some inspiration into this world via music would be what I would hope to have achieved.
I hope you all achieve those aspirations ladies. Thank you for your time – It was truly a pleasure speaking to you all.
Many thanks to Ina, Tasha and Layla for their time and to Thomas Ruf for organizing the interview and Klemens Kübber for taking the group photo.