By Martine Ehrenclou
Joanna Connor is known as the Queen of Blues/Rock guitar, an extraordinary guitar player, singer-songwriter who many discovered when her video of her playing scorching slide guitar went viral in 2014. Debuting at the Chicago club, Kingston Mines in the ’80s, Connor then shared stages with James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and A.C. Reed. She was asked to join Dion Payton and his 43rd Street Blues Band and then started her own band, springboarding from her regular Chicago gigs to clubs and festivals around the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In 2016, Joanna released the acclaimed, Six String Stories via M.C. Records.
One of the most powerful female musicians in blues-rock, Joanna Connor is a gifted songwriter, strongly influenced by greats like Luther Allison. She is known for her incendiary guitar playing, with a funky tight groove, and her strong, soulful vocals. Connor’s newest album, Rise, out Nov. 8th via M.C. Records, is No. 6 on Roots Music Report, blues-rock and No. 1 in New Releases Electric Blues on Amazon.
Martine Ehrenclou: Congratulations on your new album Rise. It’s fantastic. There’s a wide range of musical styles with great groove, which I loved.
Joanna Connor: Thank you. When we play live, we do switch it up. Even though we’re playing blues clubs, we cover every kind of like style like blues-rock, Memphis soul, jazz fusion, sometimes we’ll throw in a little reggae. People still want to hear blues, and I love blues but we go off on a lot of tangents. So, it was kind of a natural fit for me to go in the studio and do that. Plus, with the musicians that I have now, to me they are the best musicians I’ve ever played with.
Martine Ehrenclou: They’re incredible.
Joanna Connor: I know. I mean, I was blown away. They did most of the tracks in six hours, just boom, boom, boom. Those are the kind of musicians they are, so it enabled me to bring to the table whatever I felt like bringing to the table.
ME: Rise is getting rave reviews. Can you tell me about your vision for it and how it’s different than your past albums?
JC: I always feel like that and whatever record you made at least for me, it captures you at that time, your mindset, the band that you’re working with and your life in general, maybe what the world’s doing. Kind of like a portrait of a part of you in that time period. Being a musician, one of the things I always wanted to do was become a better musician all the time. So, when I hear my first record and compare it to now I’m like, wow, there’s a big difference and I’m glad because that’s like the main goal for me is to keep growing. I call it getting a bigger vocabulary as a player.
ME: How did you start playing slide guitar?
JC: I didn’t even really know what slide guitar was. I’d heard it, but I was not that familiar. And the one guitar teacher I did have back when I was 13, 14, I was playing fingerstyle kind of stuff with him, and he was like, I’m going to teach you how to play slide. I was like all right, whatever. He was an amazing slide guitarist and must have listened to a lot of Ry Cooder. He taught me the technique and I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. He was super tough on me. He was a great guy, but he’s like a nitpicker, on it with every little detail. So, he gave me a great set of skills, foundational skills.
ME: When did you start singing?
JC: I’ve been singing all my life. I love to sing. I started out as more of a singer and a rhythm guitar player. Then, when I moved to Chicago, I wanted to focus on being a guitar player more.
ME: How did you come to that decision?
JC: Well, I went to Chicago and I absolutely fell in love. I mean, I heard blues my whole life since I was a little kid and I loved it. And especially the Chicago blues stuff. I went there on vacation and knew I had to move there. I’m like, you know what … I mean I love the guitar, but I just couldn’t seem to crack the code of how to solo. But I was just so into the blues. I moved there and I went out every single night and went to every show that I could, just talking and jamming. I mean I always loved to play, just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the instrument what I wanted.
ME: You started performing in clubs when you were 17. Can you tell me about that?
JC: Yeah. There was a blues club in my hometown called Ralph’s Diner, which is still one of the wildest clubs I’ve ever played in. It’s still there and it was like a diner car with a two-level club and on the second level it had really premier punk bands, like Black Flag played there before they were famous. Also jazz and blues and R&B. I was in a blues-R&B band and when I was 17, I was playing rhythm and I was singing behind his harmonica player named Babe Pino. We played every weekend. So that was my first professional gig.
ME: You also played with James Cotton, Buddy Guy, AC Reed. Can you tell me about that?
JC: When I moved to Chicago, there was a player named Dion Payton who played with Lonnie Brooks at the time. Then he started his own band, the 43rd Street Blues Band, and he asked me to join his band. We were the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge, Buddy Guy’s club on the South side of Chicago. We were there every weekend. We backed up everybody, including Buddy. It was heavy and amazing. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was there and could do that.
ME: You were also good enough to do that.
JC: I guess so, I passed the test some kind of way. (Laughter)
ME: (Laughter) You said you had a hard time cracking the guitar code. When did you feel like you cracked the code of playing guitar?
JC: I was around 23 when I started to get a handle on it. I was kind of a late bloomer. I wasn’t like a kid phenom. I would say when I hit around 30 is probably when I started becoming a decent player, in my opinion. When I hear people say, “I’m too old, I’m 25.” I’m like, listen, (laughter) you don’t have to be a teenager to know music. You go to music whenever. I taught a guy that was 75.
ME: You did? That’s cool.
JC: I used to teach guitar and he was a retired businessman and always wanting to learn the guitar. So I taught him, it was wonderful. He’d never played in his life.
ME: I love the song “Flip” on your new album. Your bass player is insane. I mean, all of your musicians are. But on “Flip,” there’s that opening bass line, slapping bass.
JC: He’s insane. I mean, I’m musically in love with this guy. I’ve connected with him harder than any musician I’ve ever worked with.
ME: I can see why.
JC: He is incredible. I mean, he’s got some really big gigs–he was on Brian Culbertson tour last year, he played with Snoop Dogg, he played with R. Kelly. He played with Tyrone Davis as a trombone player when he was 18. He calls himself Jay Red but his name is Joewaun “Jay Red” Scott. He’s been with me the longest. He brought along the keyboard player, Delby Littlejohn.
ME: Another incredible player.
JC: Incredible. He did everything (recording) in one take. Never heard anything like it. He plays two keyboards at the same time. We call him the octopus. And he does it live.
ME: You seem to attract really talented musicians.
JC: Thank you. I think I have a good ear for talent.
ME: You’ve been doing several Chicago gigs for years. Are you touring all over the world now?
JC: Well, we’re going to start. I signed with Intrepid Artists and that is starting to take off. And we’ve already got a lot of things booked for Europe. We did a couple tours this past fall. We were in Las Vegas, in Colorado, we went to the East Coast. We’re going to be on Joe Bonamassa’s cruise in February.
ME: That’s fun.
JC: Yeah! I’ve never been on a cruise, so this is going to be amazing.
ME: Speaking of which, I hear Joe Bonamassa is going to produce your next album.
JC: Yes. This is in development.
ME: Can you tell me about it? It’s pretty exciting.
JC: It’s really exciting. It’s funny, one night my brother played bass with me because my bass player was out of town. One of his friends filmed part of something I was doing, and we put it on Twitter and it went crazy on Twitter. The next thing, Joe Bonamassa was tweeting about it on his page. So, I messaged him. He got in touch with me in like two days and we started to talk and we exchanged phone numbers.
He (Joe Bonamassa) works like crazy, talk about somebody on the road every day, practically. I picked up an extra gig on a Wednesday at the Kingston Mines, and Joe’s like, “I have Wednesday off, I’m going to come through.” He told me, “I would like to do record with you.” He came down, filmed a video of me and put it out there. He just came in for the hour and brought some people with him that are going to work on the project. We hung out for a bit on the set, on the break.
ME: He came to listen to you play.
JC: Yeah. He loved it. I’m thinking, why of all the people in the world…and he said, “You have an intensity most musicians don’t have and that’s what I want to capture and put it out there.” He was really nice, and he says, “By the way, you have a really good voice. You always downplay it, we’re going to make a record with it all.”
ME: Excellent. Tell me how you managed a music career and raising kids at the same time.
JC: (Laughter) Now that I look back, I was like, wow, I did that.
ME: I mean, were you always performing 200 club dates a year and raising kids?
JC: I was.
ME: That is impressive.
JC: Thank you. (Laughter)
ME: I don’t know how you did it. (Laughter)
JC: I never slept basically. (Laughter) I was sleep deprived for 30-something years I think. It wasn’t easy, but I had two good kids too, so I was fortunate they weren’t really hard to deal with. They were both great athletes. One’s still an athlete, they both play music. They never really got into trouble.
ME: I read that you took some sort of a break to raise your daughter. She was doing basketball and now she has a basketball scholarship.
JC: I never took a break. I just took a break from the road. I just didn’t travel. I got the like four nights a week in Chicago and I’m like, well, I don’t really need to travel. So, I never stopped playing. I didn’t really record. I was still doing like a million shows a year. (Laughter)
ME: Yeah, not really a break. (Laughter) Congratulations on your daughter getting a basketball scholarship.
JC: Thank you. She’s a senior in college now. Full ride. I’m down here in Austin. I saw her game Saturday and another one tomorrow.
ME: It must be really exciting to see her play.
JC: It is, I mean she was a really great player in high school and she’s a really good player in college. She was always a super athlete, so it’s always great to see your kid play.
ME: That’s awesome. You wrote “My Irish Father,” a beautiful acoustic song on your new album and it had special significance for you because you did Ancestry.com and you found your birth father. Can you tell me about that process and how it’s related to the song?
JC: It’s funny because, my whole life I kind of had this strange intuition that I didn’t look like who I thought was my father. I don’t look like these people. I’m like, am I adopted?
I had this strange intuition that something was just not quite right. I went and did my daughter’s DNA. I saw this Irish stuff. And I’m like, wait a minute. I was supposed to be half Russian and Hungarian and there was none. And I was like, what’s going on? And then I did mine and I put my DNA out there. I found out that my dad had been a professional basketball player. There’s my daughter (basketball player).
I traced my genealogy tree, back to the 1600’s in Ireland. It’s funny because I always loved the Irish music and we even found the village where my family is from and it was very happy, you know.
ME: What a moving experience.
JC: I wrote that song for him (dad). He was like 20 years older than my mom and my mom’s like 90 so he would have been 100 and something. So, he’s obviously gone. I have pictures of him and some of his basketball stuff. So it’s kind of cool. I’m like, well, here’s my daughter, how crazy is that?
ME: That is crazy. What’s coming up for you?
JC: Staying at home in Chicago, and the Joe Bonamassa cruise in February and then Intrepid Artists is getting our tour together, looks like we’ll be going to Europe a lot, which is fine with me. I love playing in Europe. We have Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, Belgium, something in Russia. I know Intrepid is working hard—they just signed me three weeks ago.
ME: Congratulations. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. It’s been so much fun talking with you.
JC: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
For more information on Joanna Connor: