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Blues Matters - Issue 74 October/November 2013

Interview, A Blues Commotion

verbals by Clive Rawlings, visuals by Roy Cano


Ah yes they go out in multiple formats, as a duo as Zoe Schwarz and Rob Koral, or as Blue Commotion, a six piece or even now and then eight or nine piece outfit, now that shows some elements of musicianship on many layers and this outfit can deliver in whichever format they go out in.  A new album entitled  The Blues Don't Scare Me is about to be delivered so we thought it a good idea to catch up with Zoe and Rob and BM's Clive Rawlings went along to the studio where they were recording, had lunch etc and here is an insight into what a Blue Commotion is all about. "

BM: What's your musical background and how did you get into the Blues?

Rob: When I was a schoolboy I saw the omnibus documentary of the Cream farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall and it had that indescribable affect on me, it sent shockwaves through my system. Funnily enough, having not heard the music for twenty years, when the re-masters came out – it had the same affect on me all over again.

I'm completely self-taught, I just wanted to somehow emulate the sound that had moved me so much. Fortunately I had a friend at school who was very talented and already playing very well.  He wasn't that keen on giving it all away, but over a period I started to get the gist. After a few years I broadened my net and became interested in people like Jan Akkerman who at the time was in Focus, and after that people like Wes Montgomery who had a strong blues strain but of course was a jazz player.  That was very important to me personally though, to get away from solely just the pentatonic scale and think about playing on the changes.  I still have that approach now.  Even when it's a low down dirty 12 bar.  By this I mean using target notes from the next chord, sorry if this all sounds a bit technical but what it means for the listener is that if you take away the backing from the solo you can still hear the form/melody of the music.   Jan Akkerman of course was one of the first virtuoso players in rock, and it's good to have a few extra gears if and when you need them. 

Another big earlier influence for me was Allan Holdsworth – but let's not go there for now, except for to say that he appeared at 2013 Crossroads festival – so check it out.

Clive – Zoe - what were your early influences or your musical background?

Zoe: My beginnings were the complete opposite to Robs, they had to be, I was sent to convent boarding school at the age of 7, so for a start I was not exposed to what was happening out in the real world.  Hence I guess I'm a late developer, better late than never though.   You can imagine being at boarding school, and being part of a religious musical family (my mother is a pianist and was head of music in a school), my early singing was sacred music/church music etc.   However, I have always had a desire to be expressive, and when I was as young as 7 or 8 I'd find a quiet place at weekends (usually behind the stage) and thrash around on my guitar playing camp fire chords, I loved to wail away making songs up as I went along. 

Later on I heard a Billie Holiday recording, which was my turning point. In case people don't realise this, she is a Blues singer, albeit mostly 32 bar tunes, not 12 bar.  The relaxed, free phrasing and the lilting, yearning, pain in her voice, it was a revelation to me… from then on I knew all her songs.

After A levels, which included Music, I went on to do a performing Arts degree at Middlesex University.   Although by this stage I wanted to sound more like Tina Turner and Etta James, my voice was too high, pure and light-weight, so I didn't have the confidence to go out and sing the blues.  With my inclination towards improvisation of dance, drama as well as music I went on to do a Performing Arts Degree.   Great fun, but was not very employable by the end of it.  For periods I'd have interesting theatrical projects but was mostly out of work.   So for my sins I started temping in the city…. and ended up being good at it. 

BM – Is guitar your only instrument?

Rob – Yes. I only believe in doing one thing properly.

BM (to Zoe) – Do you play an instrument?

Zoe - I can play guitar to accompany myself singing, however, since I met Rob I don't play at all – not surprisingly!  At school I did all exams to grade 8 on piano and clarinet, but for some reason got too nervous to perform in public on an instument.  I have to say I am good at sight reading music, so that was one 'plus' from my early classical music education.

BM – The majority of your work is self-written, is that all from personal experience then?

Rob – It's always been that way for me.  Musicians have to create new music in the same way that we have to create new ideas in 'life'.  The alternative to this is that it all stagnates – and eventually people would loose interest and the music would die…. Or I guess just have tribute bands.

As a song writing team, Zoe and I are bursting with ideas, so on 'The Blues Don't Scare Me' album, 11 of the 12 tracks are originals.  We're not writing to a musical template, we're not creating a sound to a musical template, we're just letting the music be what it needs to be by not censoring the natural flow of ideas.  We've cherry picked the players that we want to use, so of course this means that we trust them, we love their sense of taste and style and therefore their contribution.  I can honestly say I've never once asked anyone to play in a certain way. 

Zoe has an incredible voice and a passionate yearning delivery, so our song writing is an outlet and vehicle, not only for Zoe, but all 6 of us.  It's an amazing experience being on stage and feeling the effect that Zoe, Pete, Si, Paul and Pat have on the audience, especially when we're playing at a venue for the first time.

Zoe – Our song writing is very spontaneous and organic…. Rob will have a riff and a germ of an idea and we'll sit and just sing/play until it starts to take shape… … or I'll have a story line and ask him to come up with something to go with it.  The songs can take either hours or days… but we don't fight it… we let them un-fold as they need to.  And they often won't have taken final shape until after we've gigged them.

BM – Do you use an instrument (i.e. sit at a piano) to write a song?

Rob – The riffs, grooves and feels and mood of songs come from the guitar, although this is also dictated by the lyric which may or may not come first. 

BM – How did you two meet?

Zoe – My stint in the city lasted than I care to mention… I ended up as Associate Director of a dept within UBS.  I headed up a large global team,  I took clients to Ronnie Scott's and would be seething with jealously that I was on the wrong side of the stage.  On Millennium night I was working at my desk checking for the Millennium bug (which didn't exist), and I decided enough was enough, I had to get back to some singing. 

So moved out of London, by then I had two small children, and moved to Dorset.  At a summer school in Devon I went to a blues/jazz jam hosted by Keith Tippett, and sang a Billie Holiday ballad.  Keith Tippett was extremely complimentary and said that I should stick with it and that I should be out there singing this stuff.   Elated and very excited I asked people in Dorchester, where I'd moved to if anyone knew an accompanist…. Someone introduced me to Rob, who had coincidentally recently moved down from London too. Within a week of meeting Rob, we had done our first gig! And within a couple of years we had our first week at Ronnie Scott's.  That gives you some idea of Rob's energy, passion and drive.  We are now partners and our little Cassie is 7.

BM– (Zoe) Does having your name in the band name add extra pressure?

Zoe – Not really, I love being on stage doing my thing, and of course the truth is, all of us who get 'up there' want to be noticed.

BM – Have you ever thought of getting into brass sections?

Rob – On the 'Good Times' album we had a brass section on three tracks, and it's the same for our new album 'The Blues Don't Scare Me'.  In a  'live' situation, we already have a 6 piece band, which is hard enough to pay, so to get a wage to cover an 8 or 9 is not practical at the moment…..  one day!

BM – Web-site bookings – are there any requests that you dread receiving when playing at gigs? Any songs you hate?

Zoe – with our Blue Commotion band we only really play theatres, clubs or festivals so people have the good sense not to ask.  We do from time to time get asked to play at a private party and we're not against accommodating a special request if it fits.

BM – I find more and more younger people are going to these festivals/gigs – do you notice that?  Are you pleased by it that there is more to it.

Rob – There simply has to be younger people going to festivals/gigs otherwise the music wouldn't survive.  I really hope you're right about that.

BM – How many guitars do you use?  Have you got a favourite?

Rob - I basically play an Ibanez Artist.  I have 2.  One of which was given to me as an endorsement artist.  I'm left handed by the way.

BM – Zoe – other than the people you work with now, what would be your dream band, living or dead?

Zoe – I'd love to rub shoulders with some of my heroes; Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, Oh and I'd love to gig with Jeff Beck… he's nearly as good as Rob.

BM – What would you be doing if you weren't a musician?

Zoe – Done my penance outside of music….. There's no other option for me.

Rob – A sports reviewer or something?  I don't know, I love sports, cricket, football.

Zoe – He's one of those people who're good at everything.

BM – What do you listen to in your down time, if you get any?

Rob – I try to search out people I haven't heard before. I play guitar, so I like to find players who have great sound, great rhythm and an ability to play on 'changes' properly, and above all else individuality.

Zoe – Apart from Billie Holiday and Ray Charles being permanent fixtures in the CD player in my kitchen, I also love to listen to Robert Plant, The Who, more recently Beth Hart, and the Tedeschi/Trucks band.  I still listen to classical music, especially big oratorios such as Rachmaninov's Vespers and Handel's Messiah.  I also try, when we're not gigging, to tune into the many digital blues radio show's to see what else is out there currently… there certainly seems to be a thriving scene.

BM – Your web-site is the best way to keep up with you, notably we'll see you on the Blues Matter stage at Skegness in January.

Zoe – - we have a brand spanking new site…. I'm thrilled with it.  Very slick, modern, easy and informative.   Of course with links to the all important FB and Twitter etc..

BM – Your favourite biscuit?!

Zoe – Flapjack. 

Rob – I agree with flapjacks, I could eat a bucketful (home made are the best!)

Zoe – That's why we get on, we like the same biscuits. I prefer soft and chewy, Rob likes firmer, but not crunchy!

BM – any thing else you specifically want to raise, important, cutting edge comments about anything.

Rob – I think we've touched upon all the important parts of being a performer, running a band, and creating original material.  It's important to have confidence and trust yourself. By being true to yourself the enjoyment and satisfaction is never-ending.  I've realised since I've moved back to my hometown that I am thought of as someone who has never compromised.   I'm proud of that reputation.  My enthusiasm and desire is as strong now as it was in the beginning, and I think it's because I've refused to be blown off course by commercial or practical considerations.

BM – any thing else you specifically want to say…

Rob - I've realised since I've moved back to my hometown that I am thought of as someone who has never compromised.   I'm proud of that reputation.  My enthusiasm and desire is as strong now as it was in the beginning, and I think it's because I've refused to be blown off course by commercial or practical considerations.

words by: Clive Rawlings