Interview, John Mayall, blues legend, Godfather of British Blues, Martine Ehrenclou, Rock and Blues Muse

Photo: David Gomez

By Martine Ehrenclou

John Mayall has served as a pioneer of blues music for over 50 years and is known as “The Godfather of British Blues.” In the 1960s, the England-born blues legend founded John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a band that had some of the most famous blues musicians as members, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandell, Aynsley Dunbar, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, Kal David and many more. That in itself is impressive. But there’s a whole lot more.

From there John Mayall recorded many albums, including the Grammy nominated Wake Up Call that featured Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins and Mick Taylor. Further album collaborations ensued with blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, Billy Gibbons, Steve Miller, Billy Preston, Steve Cropper, Otis Rush, Gary Moore and Jeff Healey.

At John Mayall’s  70th birthday celebration to support UNICEF in Liverpool, a concert was filmed, recorded and released as a DVD and double CD in 2003 that featured old friends Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Chris Barber. The BBC also aired an hour-long documentary about Mayall’s life and career entitled, The Godfather of British Blues. In 2005 he was awarded an OBE on The Queen’s Honours list. In 2007, John Mayall’s 56th album release, In the Palace of the King, paid tribute to the music of John’s long time hero of the blues, Freddie King.

In 2013, John signed with producer Eric Corne’s label, Forty Below Records, and since has been experiencing a true artistic and career renaissance, including a Blues Hall of Fame induction in 2015 and the release of several critically acclaimed albums.

John Mayall’s newest studio album, Nobody Told Me, out February 22nd 2019, boasts an impressive list of guest guitarists, including Todd Rundgren, Little Steven Van Zandt (E Street Band), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray, and Carolyn Wonderland who joins the band on tour. Also on hand are Mayall’s Chicago rhythm section of Greg Rzab on bass guitar, Jay Davenport on drums, along with Billy Watts (Lucinda Williams) on rhythm guitar, and Mayall’s regular horn section, moonlighting from their day job in The Late Show with Conan O’Brien’s house band.

Nobody Told Me is “a true labor of love for me and I can’t wait for people to hear the fireworks that took place,” beams John Mayall. Nobody Told Me is an apt title for the blues icon who suffered a recent health scare shortly after recording the album. After being given a clean bill of health, the ageless Mayall returns to his non-stop touring schedule to support the release. As with his last handful of albums, Nobody Told Me is co-produced by John Mayall and Eric Corne.

Martine Ehrenclou: Congratulations on your new album, Nobody Told Me, I really enjoyed it.

John Mayall: Yes, it was really great to have all those extra people on it. They all did very well.

ME: They sure did and I really like the songs too. Can you tell me about the album and how it came about?

JM: Well, it’s just the idea this time around to have some guest artists, only guest guitar players. We just put the word out and these were the results. The people who volunteered I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of but they were really keen to do it. So, it’s a very nice thing to happen and all the guys and Caroline, they did really well with this. Everybody was so happy. I’m glad everybody’s enjoying it.

ME: How did you choose the songs for the album?

JM: Every time I make an album, I just pick songs that I think are exciting and that have a fresh feel to them. That’s never been any different from now.

ME: The album has such great energy to it and it’s fun.

JM: That’s the intention to get people excited.

ME:  You have Carolyn Wonderland playing guitar on your album and in your band now. How did you end up choosing her?

JM: We’ve played professionally together so I was familiar with her work for quite some time. I thought it will be a nice idea and she was up for it. Before I got ill and was taken off the road, so to speak, we did a few gigs and it really worked out well. So, we’re looking forward to the next chapter.

ME: She’s a great player and a great singer.

JM: Yeah. She’s really something. She’s a bit shy at the moment but she’ll soon get over that. (Laughter)

ME: (Laughter)

JM: We’ll push her into high gear and we’ll have a lot of fun on the road. (Laughter)

ME: Did you make a conscious choice to choose a female guitar player this time?

JM: I think I did. I just thought it was a nice idea. We worked with Carolyn on various festivals in the past. I thought she’d be a good choice.

ME: The word is that you nurture guitar players, that you give them a lot of creative freedom.

JM: Regardless of what instrument my band members play, the whole idea is that we should create something that’s fresh and individual that doesn’t disguise their talent. So, whatever instrument they play, I give everybody full freedom to explore the music and that goes for me too. We have a great joy in creating music together.

ME: That sounds very spontaneous.

JM: That is how I’ve  always done it, it’s been no different from when I first started. I enjoy exploring the music.

ME: Speaking of you giving musicians a lot of creative freedom, there’s a beautiful song on your new album called “The Hurt Inside,” where Larry McCray plays beautiful guitar solos, and one extended solo at the end. Did you just let that happen? Did you direct him?

JM: In the case of the guitars – with the exception of Joe Bonamassa, everybody was sent the backing tracks which were complete except for what they would put on with their guitar and so I didn’t actually have them in the same studio. I left it to them–here’s the backing tracks, here’s the complete thing, all we need is for you to put your guitar solo on. So that’s what they did.

ME: Do you think that spontaneity has been part of the magic of your music through the years?

JM: That’s the thing I’m known for and I guess it’s just one of the factors that have been connected with my work.

ME: Do you rehearse before going into the recording studio?

JM: Yeah, when I selected what songs we’re going to play, we get together for a couple of days just to make sure we’re familiar with what they are and then we go into the studio to record it.

ME: Do you rehearse for live gigs? Is there that kind of spontaneity with live gigs too?

JM: Yes, there’s so much material to choose from when we go on the road. It’s a different show every night, we don’t play the same songs.  I make a new set list every night. It’s always full of surprises.

ME: You’ve been on the road for decades. What is it about live performing that you love so much?

JM: The interaction with the audience is really the most exciting thing about it as well as the music that we create on stage. The fact that we share it with people and we get the reaction and the feel for how it all works out–that’s always been a nice thing about live performance.

ME: You’ve performed and recorded with so many great musicians. I don’t need to go through the list, but from Albert King, Albert Collins—

JM: It’s a long list isn’t it?

ME: It is. It’s very impressive. Do you have a personal music hero?

JM: This could be a long list I suppose. I think that I’m lucky enough to have worked with just about most of them. I think the only big bluesman that I missed out on was working with Howlin’ Wolf. I’d have liked to work with him. Everybody else seemed to be right on board with doing something together. I think I’ve been very lucky in that respect.

ME: I read that when you were recording your 2016 album, Talk About That, that Joe Walsh wanted to come by the studio and play. He showed up and apparently this magic happened. I’m back to the freedom and spontaneity theme. Do you think that’s part of what contributed to the magic of that particular experience with Joe Walsh?

JM: Yeah, it did. It was quite a surprise there again. You see, he was somebody I wouldn’t have thought of but he really wanted to play with us.  It takes three days usually to record everything and he came on one of the days and he just fit right in. I think he did wonderful work on that.

ME: He sure did. Can you tell me about the experience of recording your newest album?

JM: Well, it’s the same people that we worked with, and in the same studio, and the engineer is Eric Corne–we worked with him for many years now and it was a very informal get together. We did everything except the lead guitar stuff, with the exception of Joe Bonamassa who was there in the studio with us. He came in and he was already in the studio for about four hours at the very most and I think it was his first take.

Listen to “What Have I Done Wrong” featuring Joe Bonamassa.

ME:  Do you interact with the players and give them input?

JM: There has to be a discipline. The song has to be mapped out, how many choruses and who’s going to play what’s on what, where the solos are going to be. It’s organized in that respect but you know what’s actually takes place is all very spontaneous.

ME: In putting this album together, you said that you chose songs, and you’ve actually written three of them, that were just fun and that really rocked it. How did you go about putting them into one album?

JM: It seems it comes about pretty quickly. I’ll just listen to certain songs that I haven’t recorded before by other people and if they seem like the right songs that I could relate to, it takes place very quickly. I choose the songs and we just go in the studio and play them, rehearse for one day, maybe just a few hours, and just to make sure that Greg and Jay are familiar with it as well and go from there.

ME: When you say you choose them pretty quickly, do you just rely on gut instinct or immediate reaction to the song?

JM: I have to like them but the thing I’m looking for is different beats and different rhythms so each song has its own identity. I choose things that have a certain character that sets them apart from other tracks that might be next to it.

ME: That is what really struck me about Nobody Told Me is the variety. That’s part of what makes this album so interesting and exciting.

JM: I like to do as many different keys as possible. There’s 12 keys I’ve got to choose from, and I try and cover as many of them as possible. Each song is different from the next one, both in the rhythm of it and the mood of it. I always think of it in terms of putting on a radio show perhaps and you choose all these different songs that have a different feel to them. I want to make it as interesting as possible.

ME: You have a big tour coming up along with the release of Nobody Told Me. Anything coming up for you after that?

JM: Well, we’ll be recording another album early next year.

ME: You are?

JM: We keep things moving. (Laughter)

ME: (Laughter) Yes, you certainly do. I did not expect that since you have an album coming out next month. Can you tell me a little bit about the next album?

JM: Well, I haven’t figured it out yet. Usually when I record an album, a new one, I kind of put it together a couple of weeks before, maybe only a week before.

ME: Really? Is that the spontaneity again?

JM: Well, I can’t read or write music. The only way I can do it is just to put the stuff together while it’s still fresh and then it takes place from there.  That’s always been the way.

ME: You play all by ear.

JM: Yeah. I’ve never been able to relate to sheet music or anything that’s written down like that.

ME: Like all the old blues masters.

JM: Exactly. We just play by ear and we get the feel right.

ME: That seems to be part of the magic sauce. I was looking for the secret sauce. (Laughter)

JM: Oh, really?  (Laughter) Well, that might not be the whole secret sauce but that’s one aspect and a lot of musicians that I know don’t read or write music. We just know what the songs should feel like and you just put it together the best you can. I just play with the right people that I enjoy their work and creating music together. That’s always been the way.

ME: I think I’ve taken up enough of your time today. Thank you so much for your time and for talking with me.

JM: It’s a pleasure.

Pre-order link for Nobody Told Me by John Mayall

For more information about John Mayall: