The five-time Grammy winning blues guitarist talks to us about telling stories with his music and songwriting in the kitchen
Widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, Robert Cray is a five-time Grammy award winner who was credited for helping forge the blues “renaissance” of the 1980s. The Georgia-born singer-songwriter began his music career by leading his first band in 1974 and his since released 20 acclaimed albums, peaking with 1986’s Strong Persuader which sold over one million copies and earned his second Grammy.
Robert has written or performed with everyone from Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan to John Lee Hooker, becoming one of the most popular artists in blues and soul music in his own right, and helping steer and shape its course along the way.
As he prepared to tour the UK in support of a new album recorded with the famed Memphis session band, Hi Rhythm, we took the opportunity to catch up with the six-string smoothie…
When you first appeared on the scene, you cited soul and blues masters like Bobby Bland and O.V. Wright as influences. What did you learn from them?
“They were masters at delivering the story, taking the time to take you, welcoming you into their world, and convincing you. That’s what I appreciated about both of them. And as time went on, I started to feel that same conviction in one of the partners, Dennis Walker, who produced us back in the early days. He painted pictures in the way that he wrote, songs like Porchlight and Right Next Door and things like that. So they were great people to learn from.”
Do you think it’s about simply painting pictures with the lyrics, or equally with the music and the emotion you’re delivering?
“I think it’s all a combination. You can’t have one without the other. The music sets the scene and the lyric tells the story.”
Does that still ring true and apply to your songwriting to this day?
“I would like to hope that it still works that way. I’m sure not all the songs that I do can always get there, but that’s the approach that I try to take.”
Talking of masters, you’ve worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and John Lee Hooker. Are there any moments when you were co-writing that you recall being particularly special?
“Y’know there’s a song that’s called On The Road Down and I had the opportunity to write that with Steve Cropper. He’s been around for the longest time and it was a joy to write with him. We just sat in a room, across from each other – we were in my kitchen, actually! He had the title and we went back and forth, line by line, putting the song together. And as we were putting the music together, I noticed something pretty cool in a musical line, like ‘duh-duh’, that Steve has in a lot of his songs – it just cracked me up. He has a certain approach to the way he writes songs and his ‘trademark’ is always on there.
Do you prefer collaborating with people, rather than writing alone?
“It all depends on the opportunities when they present themselves. In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to write a lot with Dennis Walker, and I’ve done some co-writing with members of the band, like Richard Cousins. But a lot of the time I do it on my own because a lot of times the music is really personal, so you do that on your own.”
Is it the lyric-writing side that is a personal process?
“Yeah, it’s definitely that, it’s the lyrical approach. Because sometimes you’ll tell a story about something that’s happened to you in the past, and only you can know that story. I mean, if it comes from that place. It’s not that you can’t do it with somebody else, but it comes from that place then that’s what it’s all about.”
You’re highly regarded as a guitarist, but when it comes to songwriting at home are you sat there with your Strat or do you ever turn to other instruments?
“No, it’s basically with the guitar. It can be an acoustic that I have around the house, too. Sometimes it’s an electric guitar that’s not plugged in and sometimes it is. It all depends on when you get the idea and where you happen to be.”
Where do you find inspiration tends to hit?
“Sometimes on the road, but I write mostly at home. I sit in my little room and when an idea comes… Or if I’m in the shower and I can hear music, then I get out real quick, run to my practice room and try to get it before it’s gone!”
What was your approach with the new album?
“Steve Jordan – who’s the producer and plays drums on the record – and I have been friends for a while and we were trying to come up with an idea, knowing that we were going to work together. Then I got an email from him that goes, ‘I got it: Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm! We’ll go to Royal Studios and record,’ and I go, ‘That’s great, that’s fantastic!’ That was the plan and he goes, ‘You better get some songs together!’ So I started working on some songs and he was shooting ideas at me on email, I picked out some of those that I liked, and we into the studio and started working on them.”
Do you thrive on the discipline of a deadline and writing for a band?
“I don’t like the strictness. When I put songs together, I put them together very loosely because I want the musicians to have their own interpretation. I don’t write lines out for the bass player or tell the drummer what to do – I don’t tell Steve Jordan how to play drums! I give them an idea and then it’s for them to take it from there, and it worked out beautifully. The guys from Memphis I know from their music and I know their sensibility, so just I’ll just throw an idea out there and it’s already in their head – they know where they’re going.”
How do you give them those initial ideas? Are they rough demos with just vocal and guitar?
“Oh no we don’t do any demos, I just recorded them on my phone.”
You’re on tour in the UK this month. What can we expect these shows?
“It’s going to be fun. We’re going to do some of the older tunes and some of the new ones as well. We’ve got a new drummer, Terence Clark, who has just joined us in the last month or so – he’s a very fine drummer. So we’re excited; it’s a new chapter for us.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
The album Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm is out now and you can still see the band live across the UK in May. For details, go to: robertcray.com