Gráinne Duffy is “a powerhouse of soul and inspiration mixed with desire and passion.”
Photo: Rob Blackham
She’s played Glastonbury, and concerts and major festivals in Europe, Africa, North America and Australia, and performed on stages graced by Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison. She’s a fine songwriter, a top-notch guitar-slinger and has a rock’n’roll voice drenched with the blues and Southern soul. She’s Gráinne Duffy, now with five excellent albums in her discography, and with Voodoo Blues, is winning new fans all over the world.
Ireland has given the world some top-notch blues and rock artists to enjoy over the years – think Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Van the Man – and in Gráinne Duffy from County Monaghan, we have another one. Her four previous releases are all worth your while checking out, but with Voodoo Blues, her talent bursts out big time in ten original songs that showcase the versatility and power of her vocals, her guitar chops, and the strength of her song-writing.
Down at the Crossroads got talking to Gráinne about Voodoo Blues. It’s had a lot of very positive reviews – Rock and Blues Muse, for example, hailed her as “an emerging blues star,” and said that the album “presents her to the world as a roots music creator with a fully-articulated vision that’s ready for the big time.” Rocking Magpie waxed lyrical about the “indelible impression” Duffy makes with this “powerful new release.”
Gráinne said that she was delighted with the positive attention the album has been getting, because she’d worked hard on this set of songs. The songs are co-written by Gráinne and her husband Paul Sherry, who is a sensational guitarist in his own right.
She said that the album was a return to her rock’n’roll roots. “I had done the blues album and the Americana album. And the third album was like a live album and the fourth album was a little bit of transition. We’d gone over to America to record it and it was a bit of a change of direction for us, so I feel like I was being pulled back all the time to my rock and roll roots. And it was very simple production this time, which suits me. We just went into the studio and played everything live, and it was just four of us – bass, drums, two guitars and vocals – just kinda the way rock’n’roll should be. You know, simple and straight up. And I think the fruit of the labour is that the tracks are not overly complicated, but they’ve got the essence of what I think really is me deep down inside.”
The album was recorded more or less live, produced by Troy Miller in his Spark Studios in London toward the end of 2019.
Said Gráinne, “We just had a really simple set-up. I’d been in touch some years ago with Troy Miller, who’s a brilliant producer, and also a really great drummer. He’d been Amy Winehouse’s drummer. And just recently, I thought I’d like to work with Troy again, so I got in touch with him to ask if he’d be interested in working on this album. He said, sure. So my husband, Paul – we write together, play together – and I, we boarded a plane and went over and went down to Troy’s small studio and we got it all done. Troy got Dale Davis the bass player who had played with him for years in Amy’s band on board.
“So we recorded for two days and then I came home and did another two days and it was all done. Yeah, it was great. We had to do some overdubs in Ireland because COVID came and we had been due to go over for a final session and with the whole madness, we weren’t able to travel for it. So the last track we recorded here in Ireland.”
I mentioned to Gráinne that I keep seeing reviewers who pick up on the Ireland connection and they refer to Celtic influences on her music. That’s something I never really hear and I said I wasn’t quite sure what they mean by that.
“Yeah, I’m in the same boat as I read that! I’d love to know what they’re hearing! I think it’s nice and it’s lovely that they’re hearing something Irish, but I’m wondering if nobody told them I was Irish, would they know it was Irish? But that has been mentioned quite a few times. Some people have even said, Oh, I get a sense of the Rory Gallagher here. But you know, that’s not intended. But it’s lovely that comes out – it must be just something in the sound, I don’t know.”
Gráinne Duffy’s music for me is very much American music – it’s grounded in the blues, and it’s got hints of soul and gospel, and that’s what you’ll hear if you check out (and you should!) any of her albums.
“Oh, definitely,” she said. “Because that is really the music I listened to growing up. Particularly the blues – I would have been listening originally to Fleetwood Mac and then from Fleetwood Mac I got into Peter Green, B.B. King, Albert King, and then on into Aretha and all of that sort of stuff. So, I mean, you keep backtracking. If you get into that style of music, you keep trying to delve further back, back until you find the roots. But I would definitely agree with you, it’s definitely coming from America, the style of music that has mostly influenced me.”
Some of the songs on Voodoo Blues, like the title track, Mercy, Tick Tock and Wreck It, are solid rock and blues rock, but there’s a nice variety to the album as well. Listen to the hints of soul, and bits of gospel in Don’t You Cry for Me and Shine It On Me.
Gráinne liked that I’d heard that. “Sometimes you when you do that, some people go, Oh, it’s too eclectic, there’s too much going on. But for me, I felt like it was still held together by the overall rock’n’roll sense of the album, even though there are other influences there. I do listen to a very wide range of music, but I think the rock’n’roll sound kind of underpinned the whole thing and that kept it together.”
Gráinne Duffy, over many years, has been a talented songwriter. But the evidence here in Voodoo Blues is that she is getting even better. These are well-structured songs, with strong lyrics, far beyond some of the simplistic song forms you get in a lot of blues rock. I asked her about her development as a song-writer.
“Well, it is a craft and I suppose craftsmen and women are supposed to get better the longer they’re at it, but sometimes it doesn’t work like that. You can start off on a high and you can just be like, the Mojo’s gone. But with this record, I was listening to a lot of old blues and I really tried to pare it back and make it really simple. And sometimes I think simple is best, but it can be hard to be simple! How often do you hear a big song and you go, that’s just three chords and it’s so simple, but it’s great. But sometimes it takes a long time to arrive there. Maybe with this record, I’ve finally been able to declutter and just try to go straight to the point. That’s what I tried to do. And, what helped the song-writing on this album was I had a good sense of where I wanted to go.”
The songs are all written by Gráinne and her husband and fellow band member, Paul. Gráinne is responsible for the lyrical content and they both collaborated on the music, as they have done for some considerable time. As usual on the album there is great guitar work from Paul, who is a very accomplished player. If you go to one of their live shows, you’ll see him really cut loose, with long solos and fast runs up and down the fretboard, but here on this album, he’s very supportive of each song. It’s restrained, tasteful, and works really well.
“Yeah. I have some friends who love guitar and, they were like, come on, give us more guitar! We want to hear more guitar! We did that in some of our previous records. But this album was maybe a little bit pared back. Maybe in some places we could’ve thrown in an extra guitar solo, but I think the guitar parts which are put down are just perfect.”
I asked if Gráinne had any particular favourites in the mix of the songs.
She mentioned Mercy. “It was one of the first ones that kind of kicked off the album and let me know where I wanted to go.” This is a great showcase for Duffy’s vocal power and control, with the lyrics articulated against an insistent guitar riff and some tasty organ work. “But,” she said, “You know, another one that I particularly like is Hard Rain,” referring to the track that finishes the album, a terrific rocker, which features some mouth-watering backing vocals supporting Duffy’s soulful singing. The song obviously gives a nod to Bob Dylan, a particular hero of Gráinne’s, who told me that Bob could do no wrong in her eyes and that she’d even named her son in honour of the man. She told me she loves Dylan’s current sound and style, which for her is a bit TexMex. “I love the sound that he’s gone for recently. I think it’s brilliant.”
I mentioned another song on the album which I really enjoyed, Roll It, and suggested that it recalled for me Sheryl Crow.
“You know what, I am a big Sheryl Crow fan. I think she’s a great.” But although Roll It might possibly recall Crow’s All I Want to Do, Gráinne suggested she probably had more Gerry Rafferty in her mind with it. Others have heard John Fogerty here. Mention of these other artists and songs simply gives you an idea of the sort of influences swirling around in the background, but Roll It stands on its own two feet. Said Gráinne, “Roll It was supposed to be kind of a fun chillout.”
I said to Gráinne how much I’d loved the organ work on the album, particularly in songs like Mercy, Shine It On Me, and Don’t You Cry For Me. It’s classic-sounding rock Hammond and works really well.
“It’s fabulous. That again, is that mega-talented man Troy Miller. He plays drums on the record, produces it and plays the organ and piano as well! I don’t know how that man fits all that talent into one body, but he’s brilliant. But I love that organ work too. It’s not over or under played, it’s just, to me, spot on. But it’s lovely to hear it being appreciated by somebody else, because sometimes that can just go a little bit unappreciated.”
The great thing about this album is how very upbeat and positive it is. It puts a smile on your face. I wondered if this reflects the sort of person that Gráinne is?
“I think so. My first album, Out of the Dark, was a lot slower and sedate and reflective, and people thought I was the most depressed person in the world! And I used to think, how do people think I’m a really sad person? And Ronnie Greer, a great guitar player from Northern Ireland, lovely man, whom I collaborate with, he would always say to me, Gráinne, this record is nothing like your personality! So, I think, yes, this record is more reflective of what I am actually like as a person. I want to get up and at it, I love playing rock’n’roll and have that positive outlook in life. But it’s funny you say that it’s upbeat because I read one review where it said, this gives us hope that the blues isn’t all sad!”
That the blues is depressing is a misconception that many people not familiar with the blues often have. But the blues singer is usually singing him or herself out of the blues. A song might bemoan the state of the world or the singer’s life, but actually singing the song is a way of getting beyond the bad state of affairs.
“Exactly,” said Gráinne. “And so often if you listen to the early singers, like Ma Rainey or Mama Thornton, any of those people, they usually have an awful lot of humour in their lyrics as well.”
“Yes, it is. When the album came out, we were like, all right, what can we do to celebrate the release of the album? Normally you do press that day or that week. And you’d be going up to do a gig, a launch night, and then a few more shows. But this time it was just “Right, will we light the fire?” This is so strange. And, because we feel like we’ve arrived at a nice place with this album and it is quite up tempo, we felt it would have been exciting, fun to go out and play. So it really felt like a bit of a disappointment. But we’re hoping there has to be some sort of a silver lining to the cloud. We’re hoping that maybe people take time to actually listen to the record and get to know it, and when we go to play they’ll really appreciate us.”
I wondered if the band has any major events planned, at least tentatively, given the ongoing pandemic situation.
“Yes. Well, bookings have come in for festivals for this year, but they’re all saying with that they are still unsure. So we think it’s going to be the summer or September by the time we get back to play. We’re a wee bit nervous about booking things because we’ve had to cancel so many travel plans. So we’ll just take it one step at a time.”
One final thing I wanted to ask Gráinne about was that I noticed on the album sleeve they were supporting a charity called We C Hope. What is that about?
“I lost my sister-in-law to cancer,” she said. “So we decided to put We C Hope on there if people wanted to donate towards cancer. It’s a foundation we support.” We C Hope aims to help children who suffer from retinoblastoma, a highly curable form of eye cancer – unfortunately every 85 minutes, a child dies from curable eye cancer, mostly in economically less developed countries, where awareness and access to timely, appropriate medical care is very limited. We C Hope seeks to “create a bright future for all affected by childhood eye cancer.” Check out We C Hope at https://wechope.org/
Voodoo Blues is one of the stand-out rock and blues albums of 2020 and ought to bring Gráinne Duffy to the attention of music fans all over the world. She is a quite special talent, and you ought to hope she has the opportunity before long to demonstrate that on a stage near you.