Joanna Connor photo

Photo: Allison Morgan Photos

By Martine Ehrenclou

Chicago-based Joanna Connor, slide guitar virtuoso, singer-songwriter is a fierce musician known as the Queen of Blues/Rock Guitar. With 13 albums to her name,  her most recent, Rise, (2019) was released on M.C. Records to critical acclaim. Connor has played with just about everyone of note, including Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Junior Wells. Debuting at the club Kingston Mines in the 80s, she played there three nights a week ever since, in between gigs at larger clubs and festivals, before the onset of the pandemic.

An aggressive blues/rock guitarist with a tight groove and flavors of jazz and funk, Joanna Connor is one of the most powerful female musicians today. Joe Bonamassa produced her upcoming album, a release that’s generating a lot of excitement.

Martine: You have a new album coming out produced by Joe Bonamassa. I wanted to talk with you about it before it’s released.

Joanna: I’d love to talk about it. The whole series of events was pretty amazing. I first tweeted a video of my guitar solo. Vernon Reid shared it, then Tracy Gunn, then Joe Bonamassa. I thanked them all, and Joe texted me back and said how incredibly intense I played and that I should be a household name. That began our conversation. He said, “I’d like to talk with you about making a record. I want to come see you at Kingston Mines.”

Joe and I talked and he said, “Listen, I have a vision for you. I want it to be a really tough record. I want to make a Joanna Connor record that I want to hear. I want to take what you do best, like lightning in a bottle, and I want that in every performance. And I want your vocals to be as strong as your guitar playing.”

I said, “I’ve produced a lot of my own records. I’ve worked with some producers. I’ve done what I wanted to do, so whatever your vision is, I’ll do the best I can to fulfill it.” Joe goes, “I’m going to put a band together for you. We’re going to record in Nashville.”

I went to Nashville at the beginning of February. Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith started to play songs and asked me if I liked them and they worked on the arrangements. I’ve known Josh since he was a kid. He used to come sit in with me when I played down in Florida. He’s just a great guy and of course, an amazing guitar player. On the second day, Joe starts to pull out guitars and amps of his, which, oh my goodness, you know what that would have been like. (laughter)

Martine: Oh, yeah, a guitar museum (laughter)

Joanna: Talk about a kid in a candy store. Joe can tell you every string and every pick-up and I don’t even know what I was playing. (laughter) We were in the studio the next day. All the songs on the record are obscure covers from various blues greats. Joe put the band together with Reese Wynans on keyboards, which had me in tears because the only show I ever went to see of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s was his last show. Then look at what happens. I’m sitting in the studio right next to Reese. Joe was playing rhythm guitar for me and so was Josh. I said to Joe, “Do you think you’d like to play a solo?” He said, “Would you like me to?” I’m like, “Well, yes…..” (laughter)

The thing with Joe, we all know what kind of a musician he is. I mean top-notch, and a great singer, but an amazing producer. I worked with a couple of good producers before and Joe has the technical know-how. He had the vision. He could literally paint a scenario as to how he wanted me to approach the songs. He thought he was tough. He said, “I’m the benevolent dictator.” He was laughing as he said, “I know I was hard on you.” I said, “You really weren’t.” (Laughter) I was loving it and I learned so much from being with him. He said, “This is the best vocal performance you’ve ever done.” He made it so I could tap into the emotion of the song, the emotion that was inside me.

Martine: I hear your vocals were outstanding. Tell me more about your singing.

Joanna: I’ll tell you what. It was the hardest I’ve ever pushed my voice ever. The good thing was that I had a couple of weeks off before so my voice was pretty fresh. Usually, I was singing every week, hours and hours in the clubs. I thought I would be more inhibited. I was in the room with everybody and usually you’re in a booth.

I don’t know if it’s the vibe of the room or what. The studio is not a place I usually feel so comfortable in. I’m a live musician and going into the studio might be a once a year thing for me. It can be a sterile place, especially when you’re a person that’s used to the interaction of the band or particularly interaction of the crowd. Being in the studio is a whole another beat.

I really did feel like I was tapping into something that I had never tapped into with my vocals. There are some things about my voice that I like but sometimes I just want to sing to get to the guitar solo. (laughter) I actually started as a singer and became a guitar player later. Singing was more of a mountain to climb for me, especially in the studio.

Martine: Is this new album similar to your last album, Rise?

Joanna: It’s blues. It’s the most blues-y record I ever did but in every song, there’s a little twist. A little twist in the chord changes, a little special effects on the slide or the vocal.

Joanna Connor photo

Photo: Nate Dow

Martine: Recording your album sounds like it was an incredible experience.

Joanna: It was a highlight of my beautiful life, I must tell you. In the top three. I got to jam with Jimmy Page many years ago in Chicago in the 80s, so that’s definitely a highlight. I jammed with Buddy Guy and then doing this album with Joe.

Martine: Are you playing slide guitar on most songs?

Joanna: Yes, 98% of the record is slide. It sounds real raw and rough, but the sound just unmixed was incredible because it was in a top studio with just great engineers.

Martine: You must feel proud.

Joanna: I do. After that was all said and done, I was proud because I was really nervous about it. (laughter) Because being around the greatness. I know I’m a good player, but those guys are like on that other level.

Martine: I think you’re right in there with them.

Joanna: That’s what people tell me. I asked Joe that too. I said, “Joe I’m going to ask you point-blank, out of all the guitar players in the world why me?” And he said, “Because you have an intensity about your playing that most people don’t have. As a matter of fact, I wish I had some of that in myself where you just let it go, and you don’t even think about it.”

I also said, “No diss to any of the young women that are playing because there are some fantastic young women, but you could have chosen one of the hotties and it would have been a marketing ploy but you chose me so that I thank you for being about the music.”

Martine: To shift gears a bit, how’s it been for you with the pandemic? It’s been pretty rough for musicians not being able to tour.

Joanna: Yeah, I think we all are having somewhat similar sets of mental circumstances, I guess you’d call it. It’s been a roller coaster ride. When it first happened, it pissed me off. I’m like, what do you mean? It’s just like the flu. Maybe it’ll be two weeks without gigs. And then I realized, this isn’t like the flu. Then it was like, so when are we going to go back to work? I applied for everything under the sun immediately. Nothing was happening. I had to literally wait ‘till May to get anything from unemployment. And meanwhile, people were just sending me money and that’s literally what kept me alive. Because I was always living close paycheck to paycheck. I thought I didn’t have to worry because I had so many gigs coming up.

I was supposed to go to Russia. I was supposed to do all these European tours. I had all these gigs in Chicago. I wasn’t worried because I thought I had all this money coming in. And then when my daughter came home (she’s an athlete), she was either going to try to play in Europe or become a coach. That bothered me even more because the NBA was the first to cancel the season. To see her dreams crumble, it was really an intense time. And then my mom–I had moved her into a senior building that I knew was safer for her–there were meals there, activities, because I thought I was going to be gone so much. Then she’s on lockdown and I can’t see her. It was just so intense.

Martine: That’s awful.

Joanna: It was awful. We just buckled down, played board games, watched tons of Netflix, listened to music and ate a lot of food. I didn’t even want to pick up my guitar. I think I went into a depression for a while. And then there were days I would just be happy because I’m home with my daughter. There were some days I didn’t want to get out of bed. Eventually I started to teach online and that brought a new perspective. Some gigs started to happen with my band once the warm weather came and we could play outside.

But recently, I got a job at Trader Joe’s, so this has been a whole new life because I haven’t worked a job in four decades (laughter). That’s been a learning experience. I cannot depend on teaching online. I feel like it’s a good bridge to whatever comes next. I just don’t want to be another one of those musicians begging for money, you know?

Martine: I understand.

Joanna: Here in Chicago, the cold weather is coming. I was being proactive because I know there’s going to be really no gigs. The House of Blues has not opened at all. The Kingston Mines hasn’t opened. Buddy Guys hasn’t opened. I just went with what I thought was right.

Martine: Do they know who you are at your new job?

Joanna: Actually it’s funny. One day I was there and I asked, “Do you have any job openings?” The manager said, “Would you like an application?” And the lady at the cash register was like, “Wait a minute, you’re Joanna Connor!” And she said to the guy, “Do you know who this woman is?” A couple of people working there knew who I was. A girl who works there came up to me today. She’s really young and she’s cool. She said, “I heard you’re really a great guitar player. I’m going to look on YouTube.”

Martine: She’s going to be blown away. I think it’s important for people to understand what’s happening to musicians now with COVID.

Joanna: Yes, thank you for bringing awareness. A lot of people are just completely unaware of it. And it’s hit the whole industry. It’s pretty frightening, you know?

Martine: It is.

Joanna: I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but what is going to happen? When you read about Live Nation laying off all those people, oh boy.

Martine: I know. Hang in there. Thank you so much for the time. I really appreciate it.

Joanna: Thank you. Take care. Be well.

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