Gold Connections Performs at Trim Tab Brewing Co.

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Rick Tarbell

Gold Connections, the musical brainchild of singer/songwriter Will Marsh, has supported acts including Car Seat Headrest, The Districts and Futurebirds. Now, with the recent release of its full-length debut Popular Fiction [EggHunt Records] – the band’s follow-up to its acclaimed, self-titled EP – it’s time for Gold Connections to take center stage. Bridging the ’70s power pop of Cheap Trick and Big Star with the ’90s indie sounds of Modest Mouse and Conor Oberst, Marsh has incorporated his musical influences into a style of his own. On Saturday, June 23, Gold Connections will perform at Trim Tab Brewing. Showtime is 8 p.m. and admission is free.

http://www.goldconnectionsmusic.com/

https://trimtabbrewing.com/

That Exhilarating Feel: A Conversation with JJ Grey

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Jay Simon

JJ Grey cites Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jerry Reed, Otis Redding and Run-D.M.C. as musical influences. Anyone who is familiar with Grey’s body of work won’t be surprised by such a diverse list as the singer/songwriter’s sound pulls from a bevy of styles. Wrapped in a distinctly Southern ethos, Grey’s songs pay tribute to his heroes but remain uniquely his when performed through his musical filter. Ol’ Glory [Provogue Records] – Grey’s latest release with his backing band, Mofro – finds the self-described “lived-in feel” that Grey was seeking when recording the album. On Saturday, June 30, JJ Grey & Mofro will perform at Avondale Brewing Co. Great Peacock will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Grey spoke with us by phone about Ol’ Glory, life at home in Jacksonville, Fla. and his approach to performing live.

Birmingham Stages: JJ, thanks for your time. How is the tour going so far?

JJ Grey: Last night was the first night. We’ve been hitting 10 to 14 days and then 10 to 14 days off and doing it like that.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk abut the body of material for Ol’ Glory.

Grey: Some of it was new, but a song like “Turn Loose” is probably from 20 years ago. In fact, after 20 years I still didn’t have the lyrics the way I wanted them. The music track was recorded when we did [2013 release] This River and we still had it, but lyrically I hadn’t finished the tune. That song was written when I was living in London in ’97 or ’98.

Birmingham Stages: Did you feel that “Turn Loose” would eventually resurface and appear on an album?

Grey: You never know. What happens is I forgot about it and stumbled across a demo of it. It popped back up again and we found it on tape and in a short time I had the lyrics and had everything worked out. I recorded the vocals at my home studio.

Birmingham Stages: The press release for Ol’ Glory states that you wanted the album to have a “lived-in feel.” To that end, how did you approach the recording?

Grey: All the other records, progressively, aside from from the first record – from [previous releases] Lochloosa to Georgia Warhorse – most of the music the band had never heard until we got into the studio and I played them a demo. We’d play in the studio, then we’d go rehearse it and play it live. I just didn’t want that to happen for Ol’ Glory. I used to wish I could re-record things, but I don’t have that feeling now because we played in Europe and really started settling into it. It’s been around the block a few times. In a show, you find out real quick where the weak spots are and what needs to work. You’ll hear it real quick.

Birmingham Stages: From what I understand, you live on a property that includes farmland and a recording studio in addition to your house.

Grey: Yeah, I love it. I wouldn’t ever leave permanently, but if I did leave I’d go to the West Indies to get warmer [laughs]. I live in Florida and people laugh when I say that. The studio I have now is a writing studio and I’m going to build one where I can put the whole band in there and rehearse and double as a recording space.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

Grey: It shows up when it shows up. Right now, my house flooded from Hurricane Matthew two years ago and I’m still not back in it. We just wound up lifting the house five feet in the air and redoing everything. It’s tough – I have to finish the house and I want to work on music and I have to go on the road. It’s a crazy time, but I’ve got a bunch of stuff and we’ll see where it lands.

Birmingham Stages: What is the makeup of your live shows these days? Do you comprise your set lists from all points of your career?

Grey: It just kind of happens that way. I never sit down to make sure I include songs off every record – I just wind up doing a “best of” all the records. We bring out a light engineer now and he’s only done a dozen shows with us. I won’t vary it too much until he really learns it and then we’ll rotate in other songs. When we put out the next record, we’re going to rotate through some more songs.

The band I have now – these guys are phenomenal and they’ll write out charts. The first time they play it in a rehearsal is like they’ve been playing it for years. It’s really cool to have that, but I like a little bit of fast and loose, too. We keep sections of the show like that, but it’s also great to have some consistency. You have your anchor points and then we let go again. I think of it like climbing up a cliff when you hold on and have that exhilarating feel of letting go – it can be the same way.

Birmingham Stages: You have a large catalog of material now that spans nearly 20 years. How do songs – particularly older ones – stay fresh to you?

Grey: Every time I play it is the first time I’ve played it in that moment. I haven’t gotten tired of any of them. I still watch Gilligan’s Island reruns and I don’t get tired of them when they’re on TV [laughs]. The music is almost in the periphery – the thing taking center stage is being locked into the moment with the people onstage and the people in the audience.

Emporium Presents: JJ Grey & Mofro at Avondale Brewing Co. on Saturday, June 30. Great Peacock will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $30 and can be purchased at www.avondalebrewing.com.

American Aquarium’s New Era: A Conversation with BJ Barham

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Cal Quinn 

BJ Barham is a master storyteller, but sometimes – as the saying goes – truth is stranger than fiction. The singer/songwriter built a loyal following as frontman of American Aquarium, but literally found himself without a band in 2017. Doubting himself, his craft and his future, it’s unlikely that Barham could have foreseen himself in the creative and inspired state that defines him these days. Armed with a revamped lineup of Barham, Shane Boeker, Joey Bybee, Ben Hussey and Adam Kurtz, American Aquarium released Things Change [New West Records] earlier this month. Recorded in Tulsa, Okla. and produced by singer/songwriter John Fulbright, the 10-track collection includes cameos from John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson. On Friday, June 29, American Aquarium will perform at Saturn. Recently, Barham spoke with us by phone about Things Change, set lists and escaping negativity.

Birmingham Stages: BJ, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to the Saturn show later this month.

BJ Barham: It’s one of my favorite rooms in the country – it’s a special place.

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Things Change.

Barham: Thanks, man. It’s my favorite record we’ve done so far, but that’s coming from the egotistical artist side of me that thinks everything I’ve created is the best thing I’ve created and everything I’ve made before that is an effort to get to where I am now. It means a lot more coming from you than from me [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the evolution of the album. Are these all new songs or had some been around for a while?

Barham: All of these songs are brand new. In the last couple of years of the band, I didn’t write any songs. I was kind of in a creative wasteland and I wasn’t inspired to write anything. Most of that was being surrounded by so much negativity – nobody really wanted to be in the band in anymore. Everybody was showing up to collect paychecks – we weren’t inspired anymore and we weren’t best friends anymore. At a certain point you stop faking it and get onstage and deliver the songs enough to where people don’t complain. But, looking back, they were lackluster performances. The last songs that I wrote were for my [solo] record Rockingham, which I wrote in the fall of 2015. So from 2015 to February 2017, when the band quit, I hadn’t written a song at all. For somebody who calls himself a songwriter, that was kind of intimidating. Should I keep doing this? Am I really a songwriter? Then I get this band together in August 2017 and it was like someone walked over to a water spigot and turned it on. I wrote the record in a couple of months; We were in the studio for eight days and we made a record. In my opinion, it’s a record I’m going to be able to stand on for a real long time.

Birmingham Stages: How did you put the new lineup together?

Barham: I didn’t know these guys. I knew a few of them in passing, but my drummer came to an Austin show on my solo tour and waited in line and said, “You think I can put a band together for you?” So he put together  a shit-hot band of Texas guys and my pedal steel player lives in Nashville. We got together and practiced twice and went on the road for two months. That was a trial period of a getting-to-know-each-other phase. Can we tour together and get along? Can the songs stand up still? We took those songs to a bunch of our main markets to see if our crowd would accept a new band. The resounding answer was, “Yes.” This band is the best lineup I’ve had the opportunity to play with and that’s not knocking anybody in the past. It’s just a true statement and anybody that’s seen this band live will agree.

Birmingham Stages: When you’re surrounded by negativity – as you were in the previous lineup – I assume you start to see the world through that lens.

Barham: I learned very quickly that if you surround yourself with negativity, you can’t help but look at the world through a negative filter. We weren’t always negative – when we started the band, we were on the same page. We were a bunch of kids in a van traveling around the country and playing songs that we all believed in. But – just like any marriage – when you’re with the same people for eight or nine years and you grow as people, you grown in different directions than the other people in the band. With the culmination of five or six [people] growing in different directions, there had to be a breaking point. That breaking point came in February 2017.

Birmingham Stages: With several albums in the American Aquarium catalog, how do you go about comprising your set lists these days? How have the new band members approached the older material?

Barham: Man, these guys are so open-minded about going back into the back catalog and trying to find some of the gems that have been forgotten. I’ll bring a song from the past that I like and my pedal still player will say, “That’s a terrible song – we’re not going to play it anymore.” We’re eight studio records deep right now and that’s 111 songs that we have to choose from any night and most nights we play 24 songs. Realistically, we should be able to mine a lot of the back catalog and get a pretty revolving set list every night to keep fans on their feet.

American Aquarium will perform at Saturn on Friday, June 29. Travis Meadows will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Review: Southern Avenue at Zydeco 5-31-18

By Brent Thompson

The Memphis-based quintet Southern Avenue plays a hybrid Soul style that is retro and modern at once. Toss in a captivating vocalist – Tierinii Jackson – and you’ve got more than enough to hold the attention of an audience. On Thursday, May 31, the band performed to an enthusiastic crowd at Zydeco. The set offered a mix of original songs – the group released its self-titled debut album last year – and a reverent-yet-reimagined cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Alabama native Lamont Landers opened the show and – like Southern Avenue – will continue to make a name for himself in this market and beyond.

We Can Break Our Own Hearts: A Conversation with Andrew Duhon

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Hunter Holder

You have heard break-up songs – and even break-up albums – before, but you haven’t heard them through Andrew Duhon’s musical filter. That will change on May 25 when the New Orleans-based singer/songwriter releases False River, the follow-up to his GRAMMY-nominated [Best Engineered category] album The Moorings. Produced by Eric Masse [Miranda Lambert], False River is a collection of personal songs that finds Duhon reflecting on love and relationships in a style that has found him described as “A soulmate of Van Morrison, lyrically and vocally” [No Depression]. On Thursday, May 31, Duhon will perform at Moonlight On The Mountain. On the eve of his album’s release, he discussed False River, recording with his touring band for the first time and the influence of his musically-driven hometown.

Birmingham Stages: Andrew, thanks for your time. If you will, catch us up as you’ve been preparing for your tour and the release of False River.

Andrew Duhon: New Orleans Jazz Fest is a time for all the locals to exhaust the market with too many shows and – if you have a new record out – it’s a great time to let everybody know that you’ve got new music. We did something special for the CD release party – we did a listening party in the woods. I set up a turntable in a forest and had a chandelier hanging from an oak tree – it was kind of surreal. Only the people really anticipating the release found out about it through the newsletter and social media. I had no complaints about it – it went really well.

Birmingham Stages: In addition to enlisting Rayland Baxter for background vocals, you recorded False River with Myles Weeks, G. Maxwell Zemanovic and Jano Rix. If you will, talk about the chemistry and familiarity in recording with them.

AD: They came along as hired guns for the last record four to five years ago. We enjoyed making that record and we enjoyed each other’s company and musicianship, so we decided to hit the road together. A year into that, we found out that record was nominated for a GRAMMY and that was a nice boost. We just kept touring and, in the back our minds, we all knew that we were making music together in a way that, personally as a songwriter, I hadn’t made music that way. I hadn’t let other pieces inform how I was writing songs so it was a new venture for me to write songs with the trio in  mind. We got into the studio about a year ago and for the first time I made a record not as a songwriter with hired guns, but with a band that was well familiar with the tunes and had pushed the tunes themselves towards what they would ultimately become. That’s a nice feeling, to have a record that I think represents the miles that we put into it.

Birmingham Stages: Even though you were touring together and collaborating, did you and the band road-test the songs onstage prior to recording them?

AD: For sure. I think some of our more familiar fans would be only be unfamiliar with about three songs on the record that we didn’t play regularly. The rest of them were part of the set.

Birmingham Stages: There is a saying that an album is a snapshot of your life at that moment. I won’t ask that you bear your soul in this interview, but there seem to be a lot of personally-relevant songs on the new album.

AD: I’ve been bearing my soul for months trying to promote this thing. The Moorings – the record before – I think the title track was the sentiment I was feeling and that snapshot was, “I’m leaving but I hope to return. I hope the winds will push me back your way.” I think this one is more resigned to the fact that love was going to be imperfect. The fairy tale isn’t what we’re shooting for – sometimes you just miss no matter how bad you want it to work. Sometimes it just misses for reasons you can’t explain and some of these songs are the last letters that I’ll write her trying to explain that.

Birmingham Stages: In writing and recording these songs, have you found any healing and have you come out on the other side, so to speak?

AD: Sure. I was doing an email interview and I remember thinking, “Do I want to tell this story in prose or do I just want to let the songs be the songs?” In the end, I do want to tell that story even away from the songs. It’s my version of dealing with the way that love can just miss and be a lot different than the fairy tale might make it out to be. I think that’s important for all of us – we can let ourselves down and we can break our own hearts by expecting too much from companionship and relationships and we have to let each other be human. The best that I can do is be honest about those things and, artistically, it’s about figuring out what I have to say and what do I have to say that connects to the human condition in a way that other people might find useful.

Birmingham Stages: Given the time span since your last release and the collaborative nature you mentioned, does False River feel like a debut album of sorts?

AD: I feel like I’m growing every time I put out a record or anytime I write a song. It feels like fresh fuel in a tank and I haven’t felt that for four years. To tour, like you said, is a snapshot and to have a snapshot that is so fresh and so vivid to where I feel right now about songwriting – that’s invigorating. I can’t wait to share that with people.

Birmingham Stages: Even though you aren’t playing the style of New Orleans music that is associated with Dr. John and The Neville Brothers, you can hear a New Orleans imprint on your sound. If you will, talk about the city’s influence on you as an artist.

AD: I think you can hear a more overt intention in some music that we recognize as New Orleanian music, and for others it’s an involuntary osmosis of a place that’s so special. It breathes – you can feel New Orleans breathe and I like to think that there are cracks in the roads and the sidewalks because it moves and it moves you. When I hear people say that the music sounds like New Orleans, that works for me but I can tell that you I’m not trying to make it sound like New Orleans – I have no intention of mentioning red beans and rice or gumbo or a parade necessarily. But there’s an involuntary bleeding in from the city to the artist, no matter what kind of art you make. Artists in New Orleans are going to have that city painted on them somehow.

Andrew Duhon will perform at Moonlight On The Mountain on Thursday, May 31. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. and showtime is 7:45 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.musiconthemtn.com.

Listening Station: New Music from Brent Cobb

By Brent Thompson

It’s easy to categorize Brent Cobb as a Neo-traditionalist, but the singer/songwriter’s music has more in common with Tony Joe White’s swampy sounds and The Band’s countrified R&B than the music of Ray Price and Don Gibson. In fact, there’s even enough loose swagger in Cobb’s music to make Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker fans happy. Cobb’s latest, Providence Canyon [Low Country Sound/Elektra], is rife with soulful grooves and lively characters. In comparison to Cobb’s 2016 breakout Shine On Rainy Day, Providence tracks such as “King of Alabama” (a nod to fallen musician Wayne Mills), “Sucker for a Good Time,” and “Mornin’s Gonna Come” reveal a more confident side of his storytelling skills. Cobb’s cousin, in-demand producer Dave Cobb, keeps the songs thankfully relaxed and rather un-produced along the way. Ultimately, Brent accomplishes a difficult task – giving the listener familiar and fresh sounds at the same time.

I Can’t Do Anything But Me: A Conversation with David Bromberg

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Doris Joosten

Some artists have a style that makes categorization next to impossible and David Bromberg fits that profile. Like Randy Newman, Frank Zappa and Leon Redbone, Bromberg is a truly unique musical figure. As a solo artist and sideman, he has recorded with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, John Prine and countless others – while producing John Hartford’s groundbreaking Aereo-Plain album – in a career spanning more than 50 years. Aided by producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Bromberg’s latest album, The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues [Red House Records], includes original material alongside renditions of songs by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Ray Charles. On Monday, May 21, The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay. Recently, Bromberg spoke with us by phone about his latest album specifically and his musical legacy in general.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to having you in Birmingham next week.

David Bromberg: I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to Birmingham.

Birmingham Stages: With your large catalog of music, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

DB: Well, I’ve never in my life had a set list. Before we go onstage, I decide what I want to start with and then the tunes just come to me as we go along. Our band has a repertoire of what is getting close to 100 tunes now and we go in any direction we feel like. The band appreciates it – they never know what’s going to happen and every night is different.

Birmingham Stages: Of all the classic blues songs available to you, how did you select the ones that made it onto The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues?

DB: Some of them came from what seems to work the best when we play it live and some of it is stuff that we just wanted to put together. For example, I wanted to do a Howlin’ Wolf tune but all of my favorite ones had been done to death. So, we took an old country tune and made up a lick that sounded like one that Wolf would’ve played and made a Wolf tune out of it.

Birmingham Stages: When you cover classic blues songs, is there a delicate balance between placing your own stamp on the material while staying respectful to the original versions?

DB: There’s usually something about a tune that attracts me, that I really like, so I try to get that in my performance. Truthfully, I can’t do anything but me.

Birmingham Stages: How did you and the album’s producer, Larry Campbell, first cross paths?

DB: I knew Larry from way, way back. When I was doing some production work in New York City, I got Larry to play on the recording so I was producing him. I started doing some of Levon’s [Helm] Midnight Rambles and Larry was the one who was pretty much responsible for anything at the Midnight Ramble. I did a CD called Use Me where I called up a number of people and asked each of them to write a song and then produce me doing it. I had stuff with John Hiatt, Los Lobos, Keb Mo’, Dr. John – there were a lot of people. Levon was one of the first people that I tried to reach, but the hardest thing about doing the CD was getting times when these people were free and when I was free. The time that Levon and I had set aside to do the recording turned out to be when he was post-operative recovering from an operation on his vocal cords, so he couldn’t talk, let alone sing. So Larry produced the sessions and he did such a wonderful job that I asked him if he wanted to produce a blues album with me and he said, “No.” He wanted to do an album like my old albums with everything but the kitchen sink and maybe even the kitchen sink. I didn’t even know he’d listened to those but we did one like that called Only Slightly Mad and then we did the blues album.

Birmingham Stages: You and Larry seem to be kindred spirits in that you’ve both contributed to numerous projects and neither of you are defined by any one genre.

DB: We kind of went to the same school in different years. Back in the day, I was first-call guitar player on a lot of records – I was on over 150 records. Larry is that on steroids. You name somebody really famous, they’ve hired Larry. He’s a fantastic musician and the more I work with him, the more I see his musicianship. He’s phenomenal.

Birmingham Stages: You went through a long spell in your career without releasing any new albums. Why did that happen?

DB: I stopped performing altogether for 22 years. I was burnt-out and I was too stupid to realize it was only burnout. When I wasn’t on the road, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t practicing and I wasn’t jamming. I just figured that I had to find another way to live my life that I could enjoy, so I did that. I went to violin-making school and became a violin expert. Now I’m doing that as well as playing.

Birmingham Stages: Do you ever feel overlooked or underappreciated given your enormous body of work as a solo artist and sideman?

DB: The truth is I stepped away for 22 years. That I have any following at all is phenomenal – it’s really amazing to me. There’s something called the Americana Music Association. Back when I was performing, that word didn’t exist. I was Mr. Miscellaneous – nobody knew what the hell to do with me. Nowadays, they have this thing called Americana but the people who run that organization are all young and they’ve never heard of me. I understand why – I disappeared for 22 years. I’m on the other side of this and I’m amazed and delighted that there are so many people who still want to hear me play – that’s the best.

The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay on Monday, May 21. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $30 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

 

 

In A Deeper Way: A Conversation with Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

“The Philadelphia Sound” was once synonymous with ’70s Soul hits produced by Gamble & Huff. But a new “Philadelphia Sound” has emerged and it’s rife with raw guitars. Alongside The War On Drugs, Waxahatchee, Dr. Dog and Beach Slang, the quartet Hop Along – Frances Quinlan, Mark Quinlan (Frances’s brother), Tyler Long and Joe Reinhart – is turning The City of Brotherly Love into a bona fide Rock hub. Earlier this year, the quartet released Bark Your Head Off, Dog [Saddle Creek Records], a nine-song collection of anxious, restless songs led by Frances’s vocals and guitar. On Friday, May 11, Hop Along will perform at Saturn with Saintseneca opening the 9 p.m. show. Recently, Frances spoke with us by phone from her Philadelphia home on a rare day off between stops in Boston and Baltimore.

Birmingham Stages: Frances, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Were these mostly newer songs or had they been around for a while in bits and pieces?

Frances Quinlan: Oh, both – it’s a little on the messy side, the way that songs come to be. On some of them, the concepts were older with ideas we’d been working on since March 2016. “How You Got Your Limp” was written just a couple of months before we started recording. A lot of songs are formed by pieces of other bits of writing where put two ideas together.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve after you take them into the studio?

FQ: Absolutely and we try to allow for that to happen. That is the blessing and curse of recording – you have all of these opportunities to make it better but you’ll always be wondering, “Have we done everything? and “Is it really done?” So if someone has an idea to switch parts or bring in an instrument that no one has thought of, that’s exactly what the studio is for in my opinion.

Birmingham Stages: Philadelphia is making a great name for itself in the music world these days.

FQ: It’s a city with so much character. This is my tenth year living in Philly and I’m starting to feel like a part of the community in a deeper way. It’s financially still a viable place for artists which a lot of cities are not becoming anymore. I think we’ve had a lot of people move here for that reason.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

FQ: Personally, it’s messy and all over the map. I write pretty much everyday and there are always pieces lying around that could be good.

Birmingham Stages: Your recording career has spanned 13 years to this point. How do songs stay fresh and relevant to you even after you’ve played them literally hundreds of times by now?

FQ: We’ve brought out a couple of old songs that we haven’t played in a while and there are a couple of songs we put to bed on this tour because we’ve played them so much. Whenever we take a break and come back to something, we realize we’re playing a little differently and performing together a little differently so I think that in itself refreshes it. We’ve added a fifth member for this tour and that’s refreshed all of our material.

Hop Along will perform at Saturn on Friday, May 11. Saintseneca will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Always Showing Up: A Conversation with Jillette Johnson

By Brent Thompson

Photos by Anna Webber

“I really wanted to make a record that sounded the way that I sound live,” Jillette Johnson recalls when asked about her latest release, All I Ever See In You Is Me [Rounder Records]. Enlisting the help of Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) for the recording, Johnson accomplished her mission. The singer/songwriter/pianist’s sophomore release is an 11-track collection of songs so well-produced that it sounds loose, natural and, well, rather un-produced. On Tuesday, May 15, Johnson will return to Birmingham to perform at Saturn as the supporting act for Parker Millsap. Recently, Johnson spoke with us by phone as she drove across Texas to join Millsap for their current run of shows.

Birmingham Stages: Jillette, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of All I Ever See In You Is Me.

Jillette Johnson: We recorded that record two years ago in April. Some of these songs were floating around for a while because I had four years between my first release and All I Ever See In You Is Me, not because I didn’t want to make another record; I just had a lot of shifts in my team. My record label was bought by a larger label and dissolved by that label. The beauty of that is I had a long time to amass a lot of work. I made this record with Dave Cobb and I had a folder of songs – I think there were like 80 songs or something. He only got half of them [laughs] and I didn’t realize that until we were far into making the record. The songs that we chose were from an older period of time and that was because of a technical error, but I think we made a beautiful record that represented myself at that time. Sometimes it’s nice when those things happen because it’s hard to pick from a large catalog – it’s pretty overwhelming.

Birmingham Stages: Obviously, Dave Cobb is associated with a number of respected artists and successful releases. Given his high-profile status, it speaks highly of you and your songs that he chose this project.

JJ: My last record [2013’s Water in a Whale] was like going into a lab to piece together everything. When I took that record out on tour, I was giving different representations of the songs. So, my goal was to make the most honest-sounding record that I could. In my research of trying to figure out who would be the right person, Dave’s name kept coming up. I noticed that he was making records with artists that sounded like the artists. I sent a list of producers to my A&R guy with Dave’s name at the top and Dave listened to a bunch of my homemade demos and I flew to Nashville to meet him. We had conversations about artists that inspire us and we agreed on a lot of them. Looking back, it was a lot easier than it should have been because he’s so in-demand. Recording with him was really easy – he just captures who you are and where you are. He’ll fine-tune it in a really brilliant way, but I didn’t feel like I was being told to be anything other than who I was.

Birmingham Stages: Even though the piano isn’t an obscure instrument, it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront enough these days. It’s nice to hear it as the lead instrument on All I Ever See In You Is Me.

JJ: I agree and thank you. I listen to a lot of artists that write on piano and I think that’s why I listen to a lot of artists that aren’t my age or aren’t putting out records right now. There’s a lot that’s available to you harmonically and that’s exciting because I love being challenged and also feeling safe within a song. Randy Newman does an amazing job at that – his chord progressions are beautiful but you always feel like you’re in on the joke, too. I’ve been writing on piano for 20 years so it’s such an extension of me it’s hard to get away from. Sometimes I write on guitar but I always come back to the piano.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your writing process.

JJ: Even though there’s a lot of material floating around and I feel really strongly about a lot of it, this industry is really hard and I have a lot to prove to myself and it doesn’t have to do with a level of success. I want to be the best artist that I can be. To me, that means always showing up and writing more songs because I think it’s easy to count the songs and think that you’re done, but I don’t feel that way.

Jillette Johnson will perform with Parker Millsap at Saturn on Tuesday, May 15. Doors open at 7 p.m. and showtime is 8 p.m. Advance seated tickets are $16 and advance standing tickets are $13. Tickets to the 18+ show can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com. 

True Blue: A Conversation with Devon Allman

By Brent Thompson

Duane Betts (left) and Devon Allman

Few surnames in rock music history carry as much weight as Allman and Betts. And though we can never see Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts together onstage again, we can now watch as the next generation shares the same stage. Devon Allman – the son of Gregg Allman and Shelley Kay Jefts – and Dickey’s son Duane Betts forged an early friendship while learning their crafts from two legends. During his career, the 45-year-old Allman has recorded as a solo artist, fronted Honeytribe and has been a member of the supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood. His latest album, Ride Or Die, was released in 2016. On Thursday, May 3, The Devon Allman Project and opening act Betts will perform at WorkPlay Theatre. Recently, Allman spoke with us by phone from the tour’s stop in Asheville, N.C.

Birmingham Stages: Devon, thanks for your time. This tour is your first ever tour with Duane, correct?

Devon Allman: Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for 10 years or better and now was the right timing so here we are. We are two weeks into doing it.

Birmingham Stages: Though you two are lifelong friends, how would you describe the experience of interacting on a musical level?

DA: It’s amazing – we’re living our dreams. When we were kids out on tour with the Allman Brothers, we wanted to end up doing the same thing. To have it happen is pretty wild.

Birmingham Stages: What is the performing order on this tour?

DA: He’s got a brand new EP out – a six-song EP that just hit the market a week ago – so he comes out as the opening act and plays that new record and a couple of others. I come out and do a headline set  – [the set list] runs through the Honeytribe era, the Royal Southern Brotherhood era, the solo records and a couple of covers. I’ve got like nine records out now so I really try to do at least one [song] from each. Then he comes out to join me on the encore and that’s where we tip our hats to our heroes and the encore is long [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you select the songs for the encore numbers?

DA: If you came out and did “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” every night that wouldn’t be any fun because they’re the obvious ones. Not to say they shouldn’t be done and they have been, but there’s a bunch. So I just go by the feel of the room and the feel of the band and I’ll throw it together a few hours before the show. When it comes to the encore and playing the Allman Brothers songs, we’re doing them true blue – we’re not doing our own interpretations. We’re trying to replicate for the listeners the original songs they fell in love with.

Birmingham Stages: As fans, we connect to those classic songs on a musical level. But for you, it has an added emotional component.

DA: I have to just think about the work. I have to think about how I can sing this song to the best of my abilities. I can’t think about missing my dad. Sometimes it creeps in – I can’t help it – but you really still have to do the work. I think that’s the thing that keeps me from having an emotional breakdown [laughs]. Last night in Charleston, there were six or seven people I saw in the front row that were weeping, so I think we must have reminded them of something.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve started your own record label, Create Records. If you will, talk about the evolution of the label.

DA: I started getting into production about seven or eight years ago and I wanted to be able to find new talent. Out on the road I’ll see some bands opening up, at festivals or I’ll go out to a late-night bar and see a band. I thought it would be cool if I had a vehicle to take in a band every year and a half and work with them and put their record out and have them come on tour and open for me. If I can launch 10 to 15 careers in the second half of my life, I would feel like I had given back. [The label] launches in the fall and the first release is by Jackson Stokes.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

DA: I’m really grateful for the iPhone with the Voice Memo because I can just sing into my phone if I have an idea or I can grab a guitar and play it into the phone. I typically catalog things that hit me. I pull out maybe 20 seedlings and then take three or four that are real strong and develop them into songs. It’s really like note-taking on the road.

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the musical climate in this day and age?

DA: Having the tools at your disposal, you can make a record on an iPad and you can market yourself from your iPhone and connect with people. At the core of it, you still have to write good songs and you still have to go play a good show. As much as the peripheral thing envelopes the industry, that will change and tweak and get more savvy but the core of it is still playing. I think it’s a good time. I think it’s a very self-empowering time and you can dictate your own terms. As long as you’re writing good music and playing in front of people, the word will spread.

The Devon Allman Project will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, May 3. Duane Betts will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $25 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.