American blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Robert Cray is originally from Georgia. Before forming the Robert Cray band and establishing a musical partnership with Curtis Salgado and the Cray-Hawks, he spent his formative years savouring and soaking up the talents of blues giants like Albert Collins and Muddy Waters.

His fourth album, ‘Strong Persuader’, put him on the map as a versatile songwriter, evocative electric guitarist and convincing interpreter of soul and blues genres. Cray has made several appearances in film - firstly in National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House’ and also in 1987’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ about Chuck Berry where he played with Keith Richards. Overall, he is known as a sensitive player who can subtly provide a strong foundation for bold singers such as Tina Turner and many others.

With John Lee Hooker, he contributed to ‘Boom, Boom’, ‘The Healer’ and ‘Mr. Lucky’. He has toured frequently with Eric Clapton and at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. Cray’s additional awards include a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album and Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Songs like ‘Smokin’ Gun’ and ‘Chickin in the Kitchen’ underscore his natural knack for irony and humour, but in interview with Pennyblackmusic, he also discussed some of the original material that tugs on our conscious.

To create his seventeenth studio album, ‘In My Soul’, Cray rekindled his musical relationship with keyboardist Dover Weinberg and embraced his ongoing relationship with childhood friend, bassist and fellow songwriter, Richard Cousins, who contributed choice material.

Before Cray and his band begin touring the US and then the UK and many European cities, he talked about the production of ‘In My Soul’, the secret behind effective songwriting and the value of true friendship.


PB: You and your band are going to be doing a really comprehensive tour of the US in March and April and then Europe and the UK starting in May. Are you excited about it?

RC: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

PB: Will you be performing in places you’ve been before or some new cities?

RC: A lot of places that we’ve been to. We’ve been going to the UK since 1984, I think.

PB: You cite a number of musical influences, but you say that it wasn’t until hearing the Beatles that you bought your first guitar.

RC: Well, I was about ten or eleven when I watched the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and, me, just like a bunch of my friends, got excited about it and got caught up in the hype and persuaded our parents to get us guitars. We listened to everything on the radio, the Beatles and whatever because we were young kids and we wanted just to play guitar. I was a huge fan of the Beatles. I went and saw ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ like everybody else did back then and wanted to be a Beatle.

PB: A movie about the Crossroads Festival will be screening this summer. What’s it like to play with so many high calibre musicians in one event and how does the process work? Is it exciting or nerve wracking?

RC: Well, this was the fourth one that we’ve been a part of, so I’m not going to say that I was a little bit more comfortable but I knew what to expect being there. Still my jaw’s always on the floor listening to different players, or to be standing next to someone that I admire, that kind of thing.

It’s a combination of everything. You’re nervous and you want yourself and the band to perform well. You don’t want to be shown up, but also it’s a great opportunity to meet some of these other people and to see old friends. It’s all kinds of things.

PB: So how does this work? Do you know ahead of time when you’ll rehearse? Do you get a lot of time to rehearse?

RC: Everybody knew that there’s a twenty-minute slot. That’s the directive that’s given to you before you arrive. We’re there days before, and people schedule rehearsals in the venue. Madison Square Garden was the last one, so I did a song with Los Lobos who I’ve known for thirty odd years. So, I talked with them. We decided what we were going to do and we worked that out. We rehearsed five or ten minutes (Laughs). That’s it, you know. You don’t need to do anymore and over rehearse it. If you do it any more or try to get too much in our heads about the whole thing…it’s all about having fun.

PB: Regarding your new album, ‘In My Soul’. Here is a quote. “We don’t come in with a direction. We let the producer Steve Jordan listen to the songs.”
RC: Yeah. That’s how it worked out. Steve doesn’t want us to over rehearse. The main objective is to get a good feel, get a good take. It’s not about perfection, it’s about soul.

And that’s one thing we’ll always remember in the recordings that we do. You can’t get perfection. And what is it? And with Steve having heard the material before going into the studio? He comes in. He’s got his sheet. He knows what the song is about. He comes into the room. He grabs a conga or stands there and dances and it just gets us going. It gives us the flow. We start playing the tunes.

“Change that snare drum. I want a bigger snare drum.” “Nah. Let’s see what this is going to sound like. Robert, play through this amplifier here, maybe change that guitar.” We play it and see what it sounds like and then he goes, “Okay, let’s take it.” And that’s how we do it.

PB: Dover Weinberg is back on keyboards. Why the change?

RC: Change just brings out a different feel, and Dover used to play in the band back in the 1970s and has a great feel. He’s got a great sound and a great musical sense of humour too.

PB: You recorded several times with John Lee Hooker. He seemed like such a personality.

RC: He was a personality. He was really funny, really down home and really a sweet man. He’d call me on the telephone sometimes and go, “Robert, I’m just thinking about you,” or he would call and he would do his Geraldine impersonation from ‘The Flip Wilson Show’. He was just that kind of guy. He was fun. He was just a beautiful man.

We did a lot of touring together because we were with the same booking agency. I went with John and his band by myself on one of the first tours of Japan that I did back in ’84 and his band backed me up. I got to watch the reactions of the Japanese audience with John Lee Hooker. It was just amazing.

The kids were throwing themselves at his feet. When he would walk across the stage and do that boogie that he always did at the end, it was amazing. In one situation, John was pacing back and forth across the stage with a microphone in his hands, and the kids were reaching out just to grab his feet or his pants leg, and the bass player, who kept playing, laid on his back and he was kicking people away from John, while he was still playing. That was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen.

PB: Robert, you’ve written so many truly deep songs. You often write about the guy who tries really hard, but gets knocked down despite his efforts. I think that’s why we relate to your songs so well. I’m thinking of ‘No One Special’ and ‘Twenty’ where the main character is a young man who really deserves recognition. On ‘Twenty’, you sing, “When you’re used up, where do you go?” Where do you get your ideas for story lines?

RC: For ‘Twenty’ – my dad was in the army. He always told me, and this was kind of the way I grew up, in a sense, you take your orders and you don’t question them. Knowing that, and at the time that the war was really heavy, getting started and all that, reading the names of the ones who didn’t make it back alive, reading their ages. I’d read it in ‘The Times’ and see their ages. These were young boys who couldn’t question why they went over. They went over there with the right intentions, but got over there and saw what it really was, and they don’t make it back alive, and I’m thinking about their parents.

And my dad went to Vietnam. I knew that somebody had to speak. I read it, and I got a bad attitude, and so I started writing that song.

PB: There’s a video on your website which shows a moment in the studio where you tell your team, “It’s hot and humid” to get your lyric across. You’re trying to get them to understand what you’re thinking about. Does that work?

RC: Yeah. It works. It’s a visual. It’s a feeling. It’s being there. It’s understanding the way the tempo is there. It’s the way people speak; how their tempo slows when they speak because of the humidity in the summertime.
The Memphis groove is a whole lot different than the groove in Detroit or Philadelphia. It’s a whole different thing to it. It’s the blues. The blues is that way because of the tempo down there. It’s a whole different feel.

PB: That’s a great point. ‘In My Soul’ has some very romantic ballads. You don’t rush. You take your time when you sing ‘You’re My Everything’. Your voice carries that emotion whether you use the high end of your range or the low end. We’re really feeling in the moment there. Was that a performance that required rehearsal or did it just happen?

RC: We didn’t rehearse it a lot. We probably ran though it a few times before going into the studio because once again Steve didn’t want us to over rehearse. I don’t know how many takes we did - probably just one or two and we just went about singing it. But it could have been towards the latter part of the session where we felt the comfort of being in the studio for so many days – we weren’t so hyped up about it.

PB: There was some excellent solo work on especially ‘I Guess I’d Never Know’. I call it a heart breaking guitar solo. It went so well with the lyrics.

RC: I listen to it and I think to myself, “I think I paid attention to what I’m supposed to do in that song.” But Steve also is directing. Steve also hears. We have a selection of amplifiers. We have a room of amplifiers for different sounds for different songs. “Let’s try this amp over here for this particular song.” Then we’ll try it for a little bit. “Nah, let’s try this one. This will sound better.” And then you just listen to the song and that’s the thing about playing a solo. For the most part, a lot of the solos are recorded after the fact. It gives you a chance to kind of digest the story and play around.

PB: And yet I imagine you feel some pressure because you only have a short amount of time in which to tell that story instrumentally.

RC: Yeah, because you’re standing there and everybody is in the control room and they’re looking at you to see what you’re going to come up with. It’s not thought about in advance. It’s like ad lib.

PB; How did you decide on the CD cover?

RC: The record company tossed these photos at me, and some of these photos are from the sessions we did for the last record. Jeff Katz, the photographer, is a friend of mine. So, they tossed that one photo at me and I said, “Yeah, we’ll see if that will work.” They took that photo, and put a lot of different shadings behind it. I picked out the blue. I thought the blue would look good.

Then the stereo and all the info could also be played on mono equipment, which I thought was great because what’s been going on more recently with Richard Cousins, our bass player, and myself, is that we go on the hunt whenever there’s a vinyl shop in town. It kind of goes along with that idea, and we thought it would be great to have one on vinyl when it comes out.

PB: Who wrote ‘Hip Tight Onions’?

RC: Richard Cousins and his writing buddy (Hendrix Ackle - LT) came up with that one. I think it’s the first instrumental that we’ve done and Richard didn’t think that we’d want to do it, but everybody just flipped and we had a really good time with that. The thing is if you hear it the guitar is out of tune. We kept it. The thing was we were getting the sound for the song, and Steve was in the room and he was dancing. Finally we got the right tempo and everything for the song, and Steve said, “Cut it.”

I think it was the first song we cut. I had my headphones on, but I didn’t have the volume on my guitar up because I could hear my guitar in the room where the amplifiers were in the main room we were standing in. I thought, “Cool.” So, he said, “Cut it,” and we started playing.

Progressively that guitar goes out of whack and out of whack more and more and more and when we went into the room, Steve could hear it. He’s the one at the end of the song who goes, “Whoah!”

So, we went into the room and listened to it and I said, “Steve, this is horrible, man.” He says, “No, man. It’s a great take. Believe me, Robert, it’s great,” and I said, “No, let’s cut another one.” So, we cut another one and the feel wasn’t the same. So, we said okay and gave it a shot. And the more I listened to it, the more I think Steve was right. The take was a lot better than the one we tried to do afterwards.

PB: In ‘What Would You Say’ you’re hoping for some peace.

RC: It’s the same thing that’s causing it. It’s always war going on, and I was thinking about the children in Syria when we saw the kids being gassed over there, or just the thing about kids trying to sleep with bombs going off. It’s rough. My wife and I have a six-year-old boy. We think about that. We’re lucky to be where we are at this particular time.

PB: On the song ‘Pillow’ the band used some unusual instruments.

RC: I have a Fender Telecaster that has a big chunk of wood in front of the bridge that presses up against the strings that gives me that electric guitar sound. So, that’s what I’m playing on that, and then Steve was percussion on the conga drums and he’s also playing an instrument that goes…I forget what they call that. A jawbone?

Steve got part of the music from his family, a former session player that Steve knew, Jerry Freedman. Steve sent me a little snippet of a partially written tune, and then we put the rest of the song together and I wrote the lyrics.

PB: ‘You Move Me’ relies a lot on the same lyric and it really works. I think it’s very, very hard to write a song like that. Do you feel the same way?

RC: Yeah, because it is, “You move me/Oh, yeah, you move me/You move me.” But it does. It works and that’s the thing. That’s the thing that’s fun about it because those kinds of ideas I get from listening to the blues music that I enjoy listening to, and I’ll cite somebody like Howlin’ Wolf or somebody else. When you write a lyric it doesn’t always have to rhyme. It’s about the groove, and that’s one thing that you can never let by you, and don’t become too heavy about your song writing. There’s a time to write a song. It’s got a serious verse. It’s got a serious chord. It’s got a serious bridge. Not all songs have to have a bridge, and they don’t always have to be some kind of epic creation.

PB: One final question. You have such long-standing relationships with your musician friends. How do you do that?

RC: We spend a lot of time together in the submarine (Laughs). On the bus. The submarine. You have to be good friends and that’s how you make good music. You have to be friends first. So, everybody’s paying attention and sharing in the songwriting and that kind of thing, and that’s what it’s all about.

PB: Thank you.

More information about Robert Cray and his forthcoming European tour can be found at www.robertcray.com.











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