I must admit my exposure to the Blues was once limited to B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Interestingly, Muddy Waters would in turn inspire one of my favourite metal/heavy rock groups Led Zeppelin, whose blues influence is heard on many of their classic albums. From that era I am also a fan of blues rocker John Mayall, in particularly, his classic album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966). That said, a long list of blues artists have followed since and more recently I have discovered admittedly by chance, Gráinne Duffy, whose strong passionate vocals and blistering guitar skills attracted me to pay her more attention.
These past twelve months or so, as the world basically folded on itself, Ireland’s own Gráinne Duffy traded life on the road as a touring musician for the safe haven of her hometown with her husband and young family. Life in lockdown afforded her time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life but it also gave her time to reflect on things that she quickly began to miss like touring. Seclusion if we can call it that wasn’t a total waste, Duffy worked on completing her new album Voodoo Blues.
As one of blues rock’s rising musicians, Voodoo Blues is Duffy’s fifth solo release. It is also my starting point of discovering the intricate workings of a young women who seemingly bleeds the blues. That said, I recently reached out to Duffy at home to talk about life as a musician and her latest album. Here is some of what we talked about.
Gráinne, why is music so important to you?
The reason why music is so important to me is because it’s given me a real focus and a drive in my life; and it provided me with a real creative outlook, especially when I was a teenager – it was something I was able to put my full focus and energy into. It provided me with a sense of mystery and something I was really fascinated by as a young girl, and then it became an absolute love and passion. It gave me years of focus whenever I started playing guitar and learning how to sing and learning other peoples songs, then the craft of songwriting and touring. So it just became a labour of love and something I’ve been taken with my whole life and it’s giving me such fulfilment.
When did you first fall in love with the guitar and who were the musicians that inspired you to play?
I really began as an acoustic guitar player just playing Tracy Chapman and things like that. But to be honest my real love came about whenever I heard Peter Green’s Need Your Love So Bad. That was really the thing which pushed me to learn to play lead electric guitar. I said if I’m able to play that I’d be happy and then of course your never happy when you reach that goal. There’s something about being able to play a song like that, but then there’s something else about being able to play it with feeling and understanding, and I’m not even saying I know how to do that yet, but that was the song that really pushed me. Of course there was a lot more people like The Rolling Stones, The Pretenders Albert King and BB King who all inspired me to play.
With Peter Green’s guitar work on Need Your Love So Bad such an iconic song, what is it about its mood and tone that gives you such pleasure as a rock/blues musician?
I think it is the honesty in his expression as a guitar player and singer. Whenever you listen to Peter Green you can feel the emotion in every note, you can feel the darkness and that genuine sense of the blues, its mystery and honesty in every note and every word he sings. And that is what really captured me about that song.
As flattering as it is to emulate the like of Green, what is it that you think defines you most from other acts?
I suppose one thing is being Irish…there’s not that many Irish blues artists in terms of world artists. But I think what really defines me is my love of rock n roll and blues mix and my Celtic roots. I think being a women in music in terms of the blues theme, which is definitely dominated by men, is also what sets me apart.
Do you have a go-to guitar that suits your style of playing? What do you love about its sound?
I love the big fat warm tone of a Gibson Les Paul and I generally like the sounds of the fender reverb. I really (also) like the Fender Princeton amp and the reverb on it. But it’s general that lovely fat warm round tone of the Gibson. But I will say I do sometimes love the sound of a scratchy fender or the racky sound of a telecaster when you’re doing rhythm. I go between all those classic sounds, but I’m starting to enjoy some experimental sounds that people can get. Recently I recorded something from my phone and then I recorded it again from my phone to my husband’s phone and it was just like a guitar part and it was amazing. Whatever went through the two phone devices sounded like an old resonator.
Can you recall the first time you heard your own song on the radio? How did it make you feel?
I’m not too sure I can recall the very first time I heard my own song on the radio but I think it was Radio Ulster’s Gerry Anderson who was first very supportive of me. He gave me some of my first radio slots and live sessions and he played tracks of my album quite often. I remember being buzzed up and enthusiastic because I just recorded my first album and it really was my first step, my first foray and it was really nice to have that exposure. I remember being excited and also a bit nervous and is it good enough up against all those other pop songs played on the radio. It was definitely that mixed bag of emotions. Thanks Gerry. Sadly he’s gone. But thank you very much.
On the subject of musical beginnings, is it true that you sent Classic Rock magazine a copy of your debut album in the hope that they would review it? That takes guts, especially for someone trying to breakout in the industry.
Yes that is 100% true. I did indeed. Obviously ignorance or innocence is bliss because I wasn’t even thinking that that was a gusty thing to do. I just love ‘Classic Rock’ and I just wanted to see if I could get a review and thank god Henry Yates did a very kind review of the album. It was something that I just did. I was just so eager.
Your latest album Voodoo Blues is a nice return to form for you. Are you pleased with the reception it’s receiving?
Yes a lot of people have kind of said that to me that it’s kind of like going back to the start. And I suppose in a lot of ways it is. It’s a mix of blues and rock n roll and I am very excited about how its turned out and the reception it’s getting because it’s always nerve racking putting out an album when your trying new things or even old things. But I’m really happy the fans are enjoying it and that its getting a warm reception. And I think people are listening to music more than ever because we are in this lockdown mode. It seems people are really taking it in, so it makes me excited about going back to playing it live on the road. But yes its great to see the positive reception it’s getting, especially for people who are saying that it’s a very optimistic album.
Has what is happening around the world at the moment changed your perspective of who you are as a musician and what you want to say?
I think yes the current situation has been quite challenging. The first lockdown taught me you could be very productive and I got my album finished and finalised. It gave me great focus and drive during that period when nothing was happening. But on the other hand it taught me to appreciate what we did have with music and brilliant audiences to play to. In general it’s also made me see how quickly the world can change and how much you have to appreciate what you do have. And it kind of made me lonely for the past year not being able to gig and play, stepping away from that for a year.
You’ve hit upon something both sonically and lyrically on Voodoo Blues that is very cathartic. Can you tell us a little bit about how the title track came to life?
The track Voodoo Blues came about from research I’m currently doing on old blues and listening to Rosetta Tharpe and the old guys like early John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. I really liked their messages and I felt like there was this sense of something mystical about their music. I liked how you could use their music to kind of disappear or be put under a spell. I think that is what is cathartic about it, it’s something that can be quite magical and spiritual like voodoo.
Do you have a favourite track on the album that is closest to your heart?
Oh that’s a hard one you know, I find it’s changing all the time. Some days it’s Voodoo Blues, other days its Mercy or it might be Blue Skies depending on my mood. I really am proud of the album in total. But I think the first three tracks are very special. A lot of people have told me that they have a great positivity and shine. While some other people love Dont Cry For Me and No Matter What I Do. They’re the songs that keep coming up.
It’s going to be a while until we can all truly enjoy live music again. As a touring musician what do you miss most about performing live?
What I miss most is the interaction with the audience. Just feeling that energy and looking at that crowd and sharing that musical experience. And meeting other musicians and going to new places and experiencing different cultures.
Finally, which of the new songs are you looking forward to eventually playing live and why?
I think the song that I am most looking forward to playing is Hard Rain. I don’t know why maybe because it’s the closing track on the album. I feel it’s a song we can have fun with, making it longer and jamming on it.