Diary Of A Songwriter: Ida Mae’s Chris Turpin
One half of British duo Ida Mae reflects upon their new record, reliving moments on the road when inspiration struck
Like all the best duos, Ida Mae (husband and wife Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean) bring together their considerable talents and influences in order to make music that belies their limited number. Their 2019 debut, Chasing Lights, contained elements of blues, rock, folk and punk, held together by the pair’s songcraft and tongue-and-groove harmonies. It’s no surprise that it went on to earn praise from fans and critics alike, all of whom will welcome the group’s return.
Upcoming album Click Click Domino was inspired by the time they spent on the road promoting and touring their debut. That time was cut short by COVID-19, after which Turpin and Jean hunkered down in Nashville to write and record their second LP. Handling production duties themselves, they welcomed the addition of guests Marcus King and Jake Kiszka (Greta Van Fleet) and Ethan Johns and have put together a collection of songs that shows the full breadth of their ability.
In these diary extracts, Chris gulps down some Yorkshire Tea and looks back on the creation of the album…
01 MARCH 2021, STEP BACK IN MY MIND
This week I’ve been tasked by our team with writing a track-by-track for our forthcoming album Click Click Domino. Under the current lockdown constraints here in the UK, it’s surreal to step back in my mind and relive the moments these songs were created. It feels like we must have been lucid dreaming. The songs feel like apparitions at the edge of my subconscious that I can feel in my bones before I can hear them. It’s as if it never happened.
We’ve been living in Nashville for three years and have travelled home to stay with family during the pandemic. On the release of our debut record, Chasing Lights, we had travelled over 250,000 miles by plane, train, boat and car across Europe, and the UK, but mainly the length and breadth of the USA. We navigated everything from snowstorms and tornadoes, to mountains and desert, to playing in honky-tonk dive bars, to shop floors in Tennessee and stadiums in New York City. All of this experienced under the heat of the political and social pandemonium the US was facing.
These songs were picked up off the tarmac, stuffed into suitcases, mumbled into a phone on planes, scribbled down with motel pens and on phone notes with one hand on the wheel, hummed in the backs of taxis, tested at the top of our lungs on endless drives and cornered in basement dressing rooms in decaying American theatres.
I’m having another cup of Yorkshire tea (important to make that distinction I feel), a bowl of muesli with UHT milk and am looking out the kitchen window at the incessant drizzle and grey skies here in Sussex and am trying to remember how I wrote Calico Coming Down. In late September, we drove through a small town on the border of Arizona and Utah at dusk. We’d been driving for 10 hours from LA to Telluride through California and Nevada, following the Colorado River. As we hit a place called Grand Valley the light began to change. The red dust over the Mesa hung in the air and glowed for hours as the shadows on the mountains stretched out further and further into the desert.
Pulling into a town on the outskirts of Grand Junction we started to see people emerging from their homes dressed in everything from black tie to fancy dress. It was prom night and we watched young couples and groups of friends laughing and spilling drinks from their porches and the local restaurant to the dance. It was a tender moment to have stumbled upon after driving through all the nothingness of the desert for hours, adrenaline drained from two solid years on the road.
The sun continued to set as the road twisted into the hills, the desert opening up to lush green lakes and the air began to cool. That night we stayed in a hotel provided by the festival we were playing in the mountains in Telluride. We laughed, as it was an old Swiss-style Ski lodge with a gigantic heart-shaped bath in the middle of the hotel room that had seen better days. We’d been listening to Nick Drake on the journey and I got my 100-year-old parlour guitar that travels on the backseat with us everywhere out of the case and re-tuned it to one of Nick’s tunings. I tried to slip back into that moment, imagining myself as a teenager getting ready to go to that dance. By the morning the song presented itself, seeming to capture some of the longing, love and emptiness we both felt on that road.
I drink the milk dregs of my muesli, put the bowl in the sink and sit down as I write this.
4 MARCH 2021, RATTLING BOTTLES
Today we took a trip to the post office, masks on, and carried handwritten lyrics and signed 12-inch vinyl. They’ve been bought on our Bandcamp by fans in Norway, Kentucky and LA. Afterwards, like all good Brits in a pandemic, we don our wellies and go walking. We trudge through the woods, sharing a crumbling digestive biscuit from a coat pocket and a flask of tea (Yorkshire Tea) and discuss the live-filmed show we’re planning with producer Ethan Johns and bass player Nick Pini, musing on what guitars and keyboards to use and the running order. It’ll be the first show we’ve played in almost 12 months and the first time performing the songs other than tracking them for the new album.
I worked on the track-by-track when we got back, thinking about our new song Long Gone & Heartworn and how it happened. We’d opened up for Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss in Texas and after watching Willie on those shows I’d remembered him picking up Trigger [his famous guitar] and playing On the Road Again, pulling the chords roughly out of those old nylon strings. That song had been in the back of my mind for weeks.
We had been travelling alone for most of these shows, driving and selling merch without any crew. For a few tours, we took our friend Albert to drive and lend a hand on the road. Albert is a Donovan-obsessed tech-wizard Beatles fan from California that we had initially met ‘beatnik-ing’ around London. He’d spend the morning smoking out of the car window with his AirPods in and playing us Mississippi John Hurt and Bert Jansch through the car stereo and stopping at every other Dunkin’ Donuts.
I’d pull up my hood and curl up in a ball in the back of his Kia, surrounded by guitar cases and rattling beer and water bottles taken from last night’s rider. I’d dig through voice memos on my phone with my headphones on and match them with lyrics I’d collated, snippets of conversation, adverts and things I’d read. I wanted to write a road song, nothing like Willie’s but something that sounded like what Wilco Johnson and Dr. Feelgood or Johnny Kidd & The Pirates might have played, like I’d have heard played at all the sweaty pub gigs my dad would take me to, growing up. I wanted it to sound like all of our pre-show nerves just before stepping out on stage had been captured in a beer can that had been shaken up and was just about to be opened. Seems like a thousand years ago.
This evening I’m sure we’ll both be thinking about tomorrow, talking about being an independent artist in 2021. But later tonight I’ll be scrolling through lyrics on my phone ‘til 2 a.m. and piecing together fragments for another record that I’m already excited about making.