14 Nov 2017

Frazey Ford: folk roots and Memphis soul

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 14 November 2017

On the eve of her first New Zealand visit, Be Good Tanyas singer Frazey Ford talks to Nick Bollinger about her soulful solo turn.

Frazey Ford

Frazey Ford Photo: Publicity image from music company

Frazey Ford made her name with Canadian folk trio The Be Good Tanyas. But she’s now made a couple of solo records, Obadiah and Indian Ocean, and these have taken her into a territory that is more soulful and funkier.

Ford’s most recent album, 2014’s Indian Ocean, opens ‘September Fields’, and to anyone familiar with Al Green and the classic records he made in the 70s, there will be something immediately recognisable. It features the core of the Hi Rhythm section, Al Green’s great studio band of that period. In fact they play all over Indian Ocean, bringing their inimitable smouldering groove to Ford’s  originals.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean Photo: supplied

Rather than the woody acoustic tones of banjos, mandolins and guitars that defined the Be Good Tanyas, there there are horns, kick-arse grooves, and the bass, organ and slinky guitar licks of Hi Rhythm’s legendary Hodges brothers.

Sadly the album is also notable for containing some of the last recordings of Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges, the late guitarist who co-wrote such Al Green classics as ‘Love and Happiness’ and ‘Take Me To The River’, and whose cool, understated but perfectly placed licks are icing on tracks like these.

As this is a long way from the rustic folk of The Be Good Tanyas, I asked Ford – who plays Auckland’s Tuning Fork on November 21st what are her musical roots?

“My mom would sing a lot, and she was from a Cajun-French-Irish – from the States – long tradition of kinda country French music. My parents escaped into Canada during the Vietnam war, and my mom just sang all the time, played accordion. My voice is similar to hers, almost a genetic thing. My parents were hippies so there was a lot of folk – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell – but also a ton of African and soul music and all that kinda stuff too. I was always really drawn to soul and gospel. I never really sought out country. I’d say the only country influence I had was Emmylou Harris and my mom’s voice.”

How did the collaboration with the Memphis-based Hodges brothers come about?

“It’s just very synchronistic. I basically had an Al Green cover band when I was like twenty. I’ve been studying what those guys do for so long because something about the way they play together is just absolutely brilliant. And even in the context of the Be Good Tanyas, it’s a different genre but a lot of the principles are the same thing, like space and interaction and how do you have all these instruments and still have it be really subtle and emotional?

“Before John Raham, my producer, and I did Obidiah we had a meeting and discussed what we were going to go for and I said ‘I think I want to do something that is between the vibe of Neil Young’s Harvest and Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You, and try and find some middle ground between classic kind of folk-rocky and classic Al Green soul. That’s what we were sort of going for subtly with Obidiah.

“Then coincidentally one of the songs on Obidiah was playing on a radio station in Memphis and this guy Robert Gordon heard it, and he knows all those guys. He’s a historian, and he just recognised right away the vibe and that there was this huge and very specific influence, and he looked me up and said ‘I heard your song on the radio do you want to work with these guys? Because I know all them and they’re still around.’ And that’s how it started.

“It was a collaboration between my band and their band, because I needed my band to bring in the part of the style that is me. Some of it was easy and came together really quickly and some of it was really difficult, to find like what is the middle ground between what they do and I do?

“They were so lovely, and interested in the collaboration themselves because they could see that my bass player and my drummer - we’d all studied them our whole careers and we had so much respect for what they did, and reverence, and to interact with that group live and see where that went was so exciting and so terrifying.

“And they were so honoured to have us come to them with so much reverence for what they do, and make something new, not something old, but make something new of what they did.”

Frazey Ford plays at Auckland's The Tuning Fork on 21 November