Chris Turpin takes us inside a record conceived on the road in America and brought to life in rural Norfolk
Since their 2019 debut Chasing Lights, Ida Mae have cemented their reputation as a band able to balance both the subtleties of folk music with the swagger of rock n’ roll. The husband and wife duo of Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward now return with their latest album Thunder Above You, again walking the line between genres, their bold songwriting and musicianship the steel rods that hold the 11 tracks together.
For this album, and with the help of Ethan Johns (drums) and Nick Pini (bass), the pair relocated to rural Norfolk where they turned a mansion house into a recording studio. Over seven days, a cast of characters and situations that they’d encountered while travelling across America was brought to life. Thunder Above You also marks the point before Turpin and Ward became parents, another factor that helped shape some of the record’s underlying themes.
Here, Chris Turpin takes us on the road with him before settling down in Ida Mae’s Norfolk studio…
MY WHISPER’S ARE WILDFIRE
Written from the perspective of an avaricious lover, in a haze of de-realisation, it’s kind of a response to the modern cacophony of fake news, clickbait and the circus confusion of social media and material gain. We felt we were living in the shadow of the American Dream, traveling 46 states, hotel to motel, meeting a wild array of characters; from boat captains, marines to gamblers. We’ve found ourselves sharing coffee with prom queens living on the fringes, divorcees in San Francisco cellar bars, and sharing stories about dead kings with bartenders.
This has all been duetted by the anxiety inducing craze of Tik Tok and targeted ads. We wanted to capture moments of these conversations, slam the flirtatious absurdity of the way we live into a musical cocktail somewhere between Ry Cooder and The Kills. It was all recorded live, on the second take, in a studio we built in a day in a mansion house in the English countryside with Ethan Johns on drums and Nick Pini on bass.
INTO YOUR RIVER
One of the most important songs on the record for us. I wanted to write it almost as some ancient Celtic prayer…rather grandiose! I wanted it to feel like it could have been written at any moment in history. The line, “the moon our constant witness,” was taken from an ancient folk song that has been adapted countless times over many years. There is always a water or river metaphor in so many of my songs. This may be the one I’m most happy with.
The improvised guitar solo and outro was a moment of deep significance on the record. Improvising with Ethan and Nick is a magical experience. Recorded on my solid brass National resonator, there was a beautiful conversation that took place between the guitar, drums and bass on this second take. We were all highly attuned to what each other were playing and the improvisation ebbs and flows, the parts dancing around on another. Ethan felt this track to be of huge importance.
A Bonnie and Clyde rock n’ roller. It’s about escaping the suburbs and the adrenaline-fuelled moments of falling in love for the first time. Against the odds and against good advice. It’s the deep inhale and scream, discovering a new world outside of your upbringing. Using a 1950s style Fender Stratocaster and a $20 plastic fuzz pedal, this song came to life.
Buried in the mix you will hear 1950s interviews and conversation about the state of ‘The Teenager’ and the sound of internet dial up. Like torn up pieces of memories from our own pasts. I can hear the influence of Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Meters, The Kills and The Beatles all churned up in there somewhere.
DOING IT FOR BADNESS
This was written as a folk song but with the direction it took in the studio you may not notice! Ethan on hearing the song programmed his Moog drum machine with this dark mercurial digital rhumba beat and we began to play. The title comes from a saying Stephanie’s mother from Northern Ireland uses, “You’re doing it for badness”, which as far as I know means you’re being cheeky and doing something naughty just for the reaction.
The lyrics took a darker twist. Sketching the image of a couple who are lost in secret acts of infidelity. It has some of my favourite lyrics on the record. All cut live, even the vocals.
LOST ON YOUR TIME
When I wrote Lost On Your Time I’d been diving deeper into the folk roots of my childhood. I was rediscovering guitar tunings used by Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and Martin Simpson. I’d ordered a guitar from Roger Fylde; a parlor guitar made partly of a piece of Sinker Redwood – cut from a 100 year old giant Redwood tree pulled from a river bed in Northern California. Lost On Your Time was the first song written on the guitar. The combination of the century old American wood and ancient British ballad melodies I was learning seemed to gently come together.
The symbolism and imagery of those old songs seeped into the lyrics. The song echoes the night drives we’d taken through the mountains in the USA, moving from show to show. Those still moments when it was just me, Stephanie and the road. It was the first song we cut on the record. The whole band lived in close proximity. I can hear the nervous tension and excitement between the players as a static energy on the recording.
TO YOUR LOVE
To Your Love is probably Stephanie’s favorite track on the record. We’re fans of Richard and Linda Thompson and I had lived inside their album Pour Down Like Silver for several months. I wanted to have something on the record that reflected that British folk revival lineage. The lyric again is an almost dark-spiritual-hymn of a love song. From one lover to another. I wanted it to land somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Richard Thompson.
The guitar tone is a tip of the hat to later Fairport Convention. It’s one of the biggest guitar moments on the record after Wild Flying Dove. I wanted to do a clanky-British-Hendrix freak-out but the whole guitar is tuned to a very low folk tuning which forced me to play out of my comfort zone.
WILD FLYING DOVE
I pulled the line Wild Flying Dove from an old folk song found in a ballad book of the British Isles. It was a delicate and beautiful lyric that whispered of a yearning love. I wanted to re-voice the line into something tougher with a stronger female character punching through. A song more of love struck, runaway-esque obsession.
We’d been listening to a lot of later Rolling Stones records, Hendrix and early folk songs. This all seemed to spill into the recording. My guitar on this is my Gretsch White Falcon…certainly feels like Neil Young came in and grabbed it off me as we hit the solo! Steph’s keys solo is also a big highlight for us. The recording is a second take, captured in the hall of this British mansion, everything live including the vocals, all parts improvised on the spot. The take is a journey, each of us pushing the other musicians to keep up and follow.
FEEL THE WORLD TURNING
This was written as a kind of hymn. We wanted to share something of what we’d felt when traveling through quiet remote communities and stepping into other people’s worlds for a moment. It would give us a great sense of peace and appreciation…as well as being a little nervous…pulling into a motel or hotel on the edge of the highway and finding a bar or cafe of locals with incredible stories.
Ethan Johns has worked extensively with Emmylou Harris and we felt this song began to move in similar directions to something on Wrecking Ball. Although written on an acoustic guitar, it was cut live, late at night and our bass player Nick Pini wrote a beautiful bassline on his Rickenbacker along to a Moog drum machine, my Gretsch guitar plugged into a 1950s spring reverb tank and tape machine and we ran with it. Steph came in with a beautiful keys line, cut on a 1970s Hohner Pianet. We were tempted to cut the track down but the conversation between the instruments and players seemed to drift and flow just as our journeys had. We decided we wanted to keep that emotional narrative intact.
Landslide was a song written for several of my friends. In love with partners struggling with mental health issues. We’re big fans of Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt and I can hear some of that influence here. I’d also been listening to and learning a lot of Bert Jansch. I wanted something more traditional that anyone could play. This was a first take and the mistakes and delicacies just seemed to work in the context of the track so we left them. It’s a lyric I’m proud of and a song we’ll sing for decades to come.
THUNDER ABOVE YOU
This song slowly unraveled over 12 months. Written in part as a love song, but also as a record of what someone might want to leave behind when they’re gone, the words are being spoken from someone not long for this life. I was thinking of my daughter, who when writing the song wasn’t yet born.
The symbology of birds seems to have become a golden thread throughout this record. I’m not entirely sure why. This song at the time felt like a turning point in my writing and the line, “spinning in the thunder above you,” seemed to resonate across so much of what we had been living through that it felt appropriate to make it the album title.
HOLD YOU LIKE FADING LIGHT
I wanted to make Hold You like Fading Light sound like the dawning of day. For some reason it felt to me that the song was set in a coastal town, maybe Robin Hood’s Bay, and the couple in the song don’t want to wake up and face the outside world, scared to lose the dream they’ve found themselves in together…holding each other like fading light.
I’m particularly proud of the guitar tone. A unique deep Delta blues tone. Recorded on my Michigan-made Mule Resonator. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. I love it. There was no way we couldn’t end the record on this dreamscape.