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Album Review, Interview, Blues In Britain, Issue 220 April 2020

Blues Of All Colours

THE REVIEW: This is ZSBC’s most accomplished and eclectic collection yet: from horn-rich Rude Boy soul to latinate tango, from swinging 50s shuffle to smoky late night jazz. The band have ample chance to display the sophistication Rob mentions in the stylish progressions and harmonies of ‘I Cry Just To Think Of It’ and the retro 70s funk of ‘Better Days’, with its loping, horn-bolstered riff and dead stop, and add a splash of invention to ‘I Hope I See The Day’’s jerky ska with an extended guitar /electric piano conversation. As always Rob’s guitar shuns the obvious, whether in skittering fusiony runs and Schofieldesque fluid phrasing, or in more restrained passages like ‘Tell Me’’s late-blooming Carltonish solo and the crying expressive lines on ‘When The Blues Come A Knocking’.

Zoë’s voice displays its usual range of colours and intensities: from low and slinky to punchy; from resigned purr to rafter-shaking belt. The gospel-tinged blues of ‘I’ll Be Here For You’ sees it build from mellow soul via gutsy emotion to tonsil-shredding power; the classic suggestive shuffle of ‘Come And Lay With Me’ reveals old school Maggie Bell grit, while the “hidden” cover of ‘Lover Man’ is vintage sultry Billie all the way.

The two singles epitomise the variety: ‘Hello My Old Friend’ sees dreamy acoustic guitar and an introspective-but-impassioned vocal delivering a caring/sharing message punctuated by two dark and urgent proggy bursts, full of Focus-like progressions, lead flurries, and meaty Hammond, culminating in a gritty rock climax and the finality of that major resolution. At quite the other end of the spectrum, the spiky ‘Amazon Woman’ allows Zoë to indulge her previously discussed punky side in a Lene Lovich-meets-Toyah anthem with some truly breath-taking power-screams!

To echo Rob, Chameleon is definitely NOT run of the mill blues!


Chameleon, released in April, is Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion’s eighth record in as many years. We spoke to Zoëand Rob Koral about energy, the birds ’n’ bees and the J-word.

This is the second album ZSBC have recorded at Wayne Proctor’s Superfly Studios,

[Rob] “The reason we travel all the way up to the outskirts of Nottingham is that Andy (Banfield) is such a great engineer: very unfussy in the studio, very decisive. It’s a completely relaxing situation, and you know that with Wayne mixing the sound is going to be great.”

[Zoë] “We‘ve made friends with him, he understands the sound we want, plus doing it all with a limited amount of time you don’t want to be taking any risks! And Pete (Whittaker) and Paul (Robinson) are happy there. The hotel we put them up at is just across the road: it’s nice, down to earth, no mobiles, proper John Smith’s beer… it’s all about keeping them happy. If it’s a real schlep to a dodgy B&B they wouldn’t be as happy!”

[R] “Apart from Andy getting the sound, we have complete control in the studio: nobody is telling us what to do. We took just two days tracking the songs, live. I chose songs at the beginning that we’d not have to concentrate too much on, just get settled in and play: ‘Give Me The Key To Your Heart’ was done within twenty minutes of starting the recording process! Because Zoë sings live with the band in the control room, Wednesday was dedicated to any vocals she wanted to do again (although she doesn’t redo that many) and vocal harmonies. Paul put percussion down on the end of that day, then the fourth and fifth days were adding acoustic guitar, changing the odd guitar sound (which you can’t do when you’re playing live very efficiently!) So it’s five days, then over to them for the mix. Going up there makes it into an event for us: I’m sure I’d love to experience the ‘home studio thing’, but it’s more exciting when you have a specific date in the diary: all your focus and adrenalin is focused on those few days, rather than drip-drip-drip spread over bloody months!”

The problem of getting horns onto the record was cleverly circumvented,

[R] “We couldn’t afford to take people up there, it’s not an efficient use of resources. On the way back home we’d arranged to drop in at the trombone player’s studio in Hertfordshire: those two guys were pre-prepped, the tracks we wanted horns on were sent electronically from Superfly so we stopped off and listened to the horns going down.”

Worth the detour, as the horns bring just the right vibe for several tracks, like ‘Better Days’,

[R] “Recording that we already thought it had a Hendrixy feel to it: that’s been played a lot by the independent radio stations, actually all the tracks have… even the reggae one ‘I Hope I See The Day. Zoë wanted to play that live at a blues club and I was really quite worried about it! But when we write we don’t censor the songs, we don’t go ‘Ooh, that doesn’t really fit into the mould’.”

For the patient (or slow to hit the stop-button) listener, Chameleon includes a hidden bonus track, Billie Holiday’s ‘Lover Man’.

[Z] “I’m not sure Rob was very keen to do that! We’ve had hidden tracks before: on This Is The Life I Choose we had two covers: one a nod to my start, ‘Feeling Good’, and ‘We’re Going Wrong’ as a nod to Rob’s inspirations. This is a big album for us, our sixth studio album after a year’s break so I thought, ‘Let’s have a reference to our jointbeginnings’. That was the very first song we played together. When I moved to Dartington I wanted to get back into singing properly. I went along to Keith Tippett’s jam and did a Billie Holiday number, and (although it sounds a bit braggy) people there said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do that again!’ I asked around if anyone knew an accompanist I could sing with and someone gave me Rob’s number. I phoned up and he said ‘Come round now!’ Well, my two kids were five and three at the time so couldn’t really, so he said ‘Alright, come tomorrow!’ When he asked what I wanted to sing I suggested ‘Lover Man’ so we played that within about five minutes of me clapping eyes on him. Then he’s all ‘Let’s do a gig!’ so within six days we had our first gig: I didn’t even know enough songs but he said, ‘No worries, we’ll just repeat one and say there was a request to hear it again!’ Can you believe it? That’s what he’s like! That’s his energy, that’s why I’m often playing catch up! So it’s nice to have that on there. We did that literally at the end of the session, the long journey home ahead, but we just said, ‘Ready, steady, go!’ Beginning to end, first take, no overdubs, no rehearsal… it’s exactly how it was played. That’s how good these guys are, and how lucky I am playing with them.”

Given the surprising variety of styles the title is highly apt,

[R] “Once we’ve written the songs we’re excited to take them into the studio to let the guys hear and record them. We don’t rehearse them beforehand, we just take them in, so we’re curious as to which direction they will go… and they can take on a life of their own which often surprises us! On ‘Better Days’ the addition of horns was almost accidental, but it works well. I put that first on the album as it’s a bit different: there’s no solos on it and has that repetitive beat-you-into-submission story with a nice groove to it. That wasn’t the original plan either, but we like to be surprised! Out of the twelve songs there aren’t two that are the same really, hence the title!”

There’s a sophisticated sheen to ‘I Cry Just To Think Of It’,

[R] “That song is a bit older than the rest. We used to play it several years ago before it kind of fell away, but we were looking for something we could play from ‘our past’.”

[Z] “That’s just the story of my time at a convent boarding school. Thinking back it all seems very Dickensian, particularly the years from seven to twelve! Yes, it was awful, but there were so many of us (we were the baby boomers after all!) we really all looked out for each other. So at the time we didn’t think of it as that bad…. we’re all still very close now, like sisters. Not being allowed out at all, we were all boy mad! So it’s about me sneaking out to meet boys in my last week at school: the door that I meant to leave on the latch closed behind me, so I had to climb back in through a window I assumed was my friend’s window but in fact was one of the nun’s rooms! She sat bolt upright in bed and I just ran out of the room. The next morning she came into class and said ‘I had the strangest dream…’ True story! Thinking back now I reckon she knew jolly well what had happened, but as it was my last week she let me off easy. So nothing deep there, it’s really tongue in cheek that one!”

There’s real emotion conveyed though in ‘I’ll Be Here For You’,

[Z] “Hopefully that’s quite tender, which is the whole point I suppose! I’m always nervous about doing more ‘soully’ things… I’m not sure why, because I really enjoy singing it. I think I’ve been frightened of doing that because I don’t have a typical ‘soul voice’, I would never try and do that Aretha thing that Alice (Armstrong) does so well. But it turned out nicer than I thought! I like the extremes, going from one thing to another: ‘Tell Me’, that’s really going the other way, it’s very pure. I’m better doing that kind of thing if I strip it right back and not force it, not try to sound like anyone else.”

That song was written by Rob with Sue Hawker, his former bandmate in Sketch and the only outside writer involved on Chameleon.

[R] “We’d written that together but it never got recorded, I thought it would be nice to try it out. I imagined it with big Hammond organ, like a Procul Harum thing, but Paul laid down a different beat on the drums so we all played it differently than I expected, as we discussed before.”

There’s no Pete Feenstra lyrics used this time, although ‘Hello My Old Friend’ captures his style,

[Z] “I guess maybe that has a ‘Call Of The Night’ or ‘Time Waits For No Man’ thing: if I try to write anything earnest and deep, ‘Let’s all be kinder, nicer people…’ it ends up sounding too cheesy, you know? Rob is very good at writing prose that doesn’t rhyme, which makes it sound less cheesy, less preachy. I really badly pooh-poohed that song to begin with: was it Lionel Ritchie who did ‘Hello’?, and that bloody Adele song… I couldn’t get those out of my head! ‘How can a song start Hello again, again? It’s such a bad idea!’ But I got past that eventually, and it’s ended up being Rob’s favourite and one of my favourites too.”

[R] “I love that with that track the vocal line is very tender, very melodic: then the prog kicks in with the two instrumental passages. Everything heaps up under those, the dynamic changes from the beautiful acoustic chords into the go-for-it prog section, and then to the climactic Hammond.”

And closes with a nice major resolution,

[R] “Yeah, the closing major chord comes as a surprise, it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the song. We did that before, in ‘Angel Of Mercy’ which is in Em and Dm but we ended it on D major to make it a really final chord. ‘Hello My Old Friend’ was presented to Zoë at the beginning of the songwriting process and wasn’t received terribly favourably I have to admit! Then just before recording she said, ‘What about that other song you showed me?’ Thank heavens she said that! We’ve released that as a single, and had a really nice video done for when it goes on social media. The other single is ‘Amazon Woman’, the novelty, almost cartoon-character of Zoë’s lyric… a superhero really! So that’s a bit different as well I hope!”

[Z] “Sometimes Rob can be adamant about something if i’m not sure, and sometimes I can be! He wasn’t at all sure about ‘Amazon Woman’ at first. You couldn’t see him but he was smiling just now when he was talking about that, because he thinks it is a bit crazy. That came about after watching one of those ‘Best male rock vocalist’ things: I adore Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, Ronnie James Dio, all those guys, I love that hard rock thing. I suppose it’s something to do with my classical background: they have more in common with that big, fat, Beethoven-type approach to music. It’s interesting arrangement-wise, timing-wise and harmonically… they’re not just covering some old blues format! Anyway I was trying to do something like that wailing thing that Gillan is so amazing at, that really high screeching, but when Wayne gave us the mix it sounded a little too earnest: because the song was slightly tongue in cheek already, I said, ‘How about we throw all the effects you’ve got at it in the chorus?’ We did… and it works!”

A long standing staple of blues (and ZSBC albums) is the “salacious sexy number”: ‘Come And Lay With Me’ fulfils that role here,

[Z] “I do like doing that live… people prick up their ears when I say, ‘This is a bit suggestive!’ I think it works because of the faster groove: it doesn’t swing or anything, but it makes it more light-hearted. If it was slower with those lyrics then I think it’d be playing with bad taste! That’s actually another of Rob’s lyrics! What he does when we’re songwriting (and I don’t know how much he intellectualises this) when we’ve had a couple of more ‘unusual’ songs he’ll bring it back to the blues. Almost like ‘Hey, let’s come back to our roots as a band’. So we’ll have all these strands that go all over but it all does start from that core. And just like it’s nice to come back to our blues roots, with lyrics it’s nice to sometimes sing about something that the whole world knows about: the birds and the bees, something that’s basic, earthy instinct, I like that.”

ZSBC’s idiosyncratic variety often draws the coverall shorthand description “jazzy”: is that a help or hindrance?

[R] “A hindrance probably, in many peoples eyes! There’s a predominance currently of quite heavy blues rock: that shreddy, pentatonic guitar playing we’ve all heard before. We’ve played to crowds who just want it straight-ahead, very loud through a Marshall, with all the licks they loved when they were growing up. I grew up with that too and loved it but I think maybe it’s time to forget about Rory Gallagher and all that: it holds things back a bit, possibly? When we go on after (or indeed before) their favourites we sound like we’re from a different planet! For instance, our track ‘Lucifer Is Blue’ changes back and forth between 5/4 and 4/4… that’s not run of the mill blues, more like Bill Bruford or perhaps Steely Dan. I don’t know what they think we’re playing! But with the Stevie Watts Trio (with Alice Armstrong and that lovely guitarist Nat Martin), the rise of Marcus (Praestgaard-Stevens), and ourselves too I guess, perhaps there is a trend now of the blues accepting things that have other, broader influences. I was going to say a bit more sophisticated… I don’t want to sound elitist, but it is, isn’t it? I sense a change now amongst younger guitarists, with more harmonically-sensitive playing, addressing each chord change with different note choices, so if you pulled away the backing you’d still hear the chords because they are implied by what’s in the solo. I play that way all the time, and so do Marcus and Nat, and of course Matt Schofield. It would be nice if there was a wider recognition and acceptance of music like that.”

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    • Words by: Moray Stuart