Ghalia Volt | One Woman Band | Ruf Records
Four out of Five Stars
It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when the idea of women who would rock—really rock—seemed to some to be an alien concept. That changed, of course, with the emergence of groups and artists like the Runaways, the Go Gos, the Bangles, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, and Samantha Fish, individuals who surged to the forefront of the contemporary soundscape while achieving an iconic status, rivaling that of their male competition.
Belgium-born blues guitarist Ghalia Volt also reached that high bar. She achieved special distinction with her last album, Mississippi Blend, a collaboration with such iconic all-stars as Cody Dickinson, Cedric Burnside, Lightnin’ Malcolm, and Watermelon Slim. Once a busker on the streets of Brussels, she’s now an up-and coming contender who capably plies her wares within contemporary roots realms.
With her latest effort, One Woman Band, available January 29, she carries her ambitions several steps further by opting to operate almost entirely solo. She eschews all but minimal instrumentation, sticking instead to slide guitar, snare, a kick drum, hi-hat and tambourine, with only occasional assistance on a handful of songs from guitarist Mike Welch and bassist Dean Zucchero. Nevertheless, Volt manages to render the music with fullness and finesse, her sizzling fretwork filling in the spaces and ensuring a consistent dynamic throughout. Recorded last November at the legendary Royale Sound Studios in Memphis, the hallowed setting for classic recordings by Al Green and Willie Mitchell, the new album is nothing less than a tour- de-force.
“Recording with Lawrence Boo Mitchell at the Royal Studios in Memphis was a magical experience,” Volt recalls. “What a great time we had. Making a record is always stressful because there’s never enough time to do everything you’d want to, but everything went great and quite naturally. There was a natural welcoming vibe and warmth to the studio. I was thinking about the amazing Hi Records tracks recorded there. We used the same board and instruments. Being that I’m from Brussels made it a dream come true.”
Prior to initiating the project, she road-tested the songs during a journey through the American heartland, an experience that allowed her to absorb the array of influences that would eventually impact the songs.
“In August, I left New Orleans to do a one month Amtrak train trip,” the current Crescent City resident remembers. “For someone used to traveling all the time, five months at home felt like five years. So I decided to go for a solo adventure, cruising the oldest routes in the USA. I crossed Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi in only one month.”
Volt says that the goal of the trip was to create an entire set of songs based on her encounters. “Most of the material was inspired by the experiences of the journey, while some are the fruit of my imagination after witnessing the sight of the deserts, ocean, mountains and city lights. A couple of songs sat in my scratch book for months, so that whole month spent by myself allowed me to reconnect with some precious forgotten lines and melodies.”
Having spent so much time on her own, it seemed only natural to mine the proceedings as a one woman endeavor. In fact, she says that the process came quite naturally.
“I have always used a foot tambourine on my right foot to add some rhythm to my solo guitar and vocal performances, whether in clubs or busking in the streets,” she notes. “People always seemed to love it. So one day, I thought, ‘Why not complete the rhythm and use a stomp box to hit the bass-y, low frequency sound on the first and third beat while complementing the tambourine. So I built a stomp box using a regular pick up and a cigar box, and then I had my homemade rhythm section. I eventually stopped using those little accessories and substituted a real drum set, including a kick drum, a snare drum, and a hi-hat fitted with a tambourine which I played simultaneously while singing and playing slide guitar.
Still, Volt admits that the set-up did take some adjustment. “Playing everything at once is a lot of work,” she insists. “It’s hours and hours of practice. Everything’s got to be tight, so I practiced the arrangements that I wrote for my songs day and night until everything came together. At the same time, I still managed to keep a natural raw feel to it.”
So too, the lack of real collaboration provided a different perspective as well.
“If you listen to my previous albums, you can tell how much I dug collaborating with the amazing friends and musicians I recorded with in the past,” she says. “I sure miss them all. But this year, the adventure is so strong, and it is such a passion for me that I’m loving every minute. Of course, it was hard to resist the input of other players, and so I did invite some friends to join me. Monster Mike Welch contributed some mean guitar solos on top of two of the songs of the album. I love the guy, both personally and musically. I also invited Dean Zucchero, who played bass on my last two albums, to record bass tracks on a pair of songs where I thought more bottom would be like the cherry on the cake.”
All it takes is a perfunctory listen to the album to hear the obvious influences—that of swampy delta blues and the rustic yet riveting sounds borne from the likes of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Hound Dog Taylor, Fred McDowell and Son House in particular. The original material—“Last Minute Picker,” Can’t Escape,” “Reap What You Sow,” “Bad Apple,” and “Evil Thoughts,” in particular—find Volt varying the pacing while shifting from blustery boogie to insistent shuffles. Naturally then, the music is propelled with drive, confidence, conviction, and determination.
Likewise, her cover of the blues classic “It Hurts Me Too” manages to capture the earnest emotion of that essential standard, while also bowing to Volt’s uniquely sassy style.
“I discovered the blues listening Skip James and J.B Lenoir,” Volt explains. “As a teen, I listened to punk and garage music—the MC5, the Cramps and English bands like the Damned. Then I got into Psychobilly, which led me to rockabilly music. I finally began to realize that rock’n’ roll actually originated with jump blues, boogie, and rhythm’n’ blues, which, in turn, came from blues, gospel, jazz, ragtime, spirituals and country. When you dig something, you try to know more about it. I was also fascinated by the ladies—Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Ma Rainey, Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, etc. Vocally, they are my main influences. Then I just needed to add a bunch of Little Richard and Little Willie John to make the music complete.”
That begs the question—how does one manage to heed tradition and at the same time also inject original elements and personality into the mix?
“You could say that everything has pretty much been done,” she muses. “I’m not a purist and I’m not trying to strictly play blues, rock or anything else. I just write my songs the way they come, with my own influences and my own sound. I know what I like, and I know what I wanna share. The feel and the sound is what matters to me the most. I don’t care about how many notes you play in one chord and all the chords you can play. Likewise, I just don’t get why people keep writing about the same things over and over. We know your baby cheated on you…And we know you like your whisky. Let’s talk about real things. So too, if it feels good, then that’s what you should look for.”
American Songwriter is premiering Ghalia’s new video for “Last Minute Packer,” featured on One Woman Band. Watch below:
Photos by Kaelan Barowsky