Interview: Robert Cray

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Sometimes an opportunity presents itself that is very hard to refuse – so when I was asked if I’d like to interview blues and soul legend Robert Cray, despite the fact there is no tangible link between him and country music (apart from the entwined histories of the blues and country), I said ‘yes’. And once I’d heard his new album, In My Soul (which I’ll cover separately), there were even more reasons to say yes. So here are my 15 minutes with Mr Robert Cray …
I’ve been swooning listening to your album – has anyone swooned in real life at one of your shows?
I can’t recall, really. Thank you, though.
Do you consider singing to be your vocation or is guitar just as important to you?
I enjoy doing both. Both of them are equally as fun. And then it will all depend on the song, too. If it’s a nice ballad then the singing takes precedence. If it’s something [else] then it’s the guitar.
And when you’re songwriting do you tend to pick it out on a guitar first or do you have a melody in mind and then you work from that?
It goes both ways. Sometimes there’s a story that comes to mind – you know, I could be in the kitchen or anywhere and just some story comes to mind so I’ll try to put that together, then grab the guitar and finish it up. And then sometimes it’s a nice riff or a nice melody and then I’ll start that way.
Do you have much time for songwriting? Obviously you tour quite a bit. And one of the challenges of being a successful artist seems to be that you can run out of time to create the very music that won you an audience in the first place.
Well, I’ve been known to be the last-minute person when it comes to songwriting. And actually a lot of the stories get finished up in the studio. Because it’s that time when you’re under pressure that makes you hear what you need to hear and get it done. So it works that way for me. But I normally do my writing when I’m off the road and at home.
The instances when you turn up to the studio without songs – does that make your other musicians a little bit nervous?
[laughs] Well, you know, I put the pressure on them because I like them to come up with some material equally. And then also we try to keep things backed up by having a cover or two.
And you have some covers on this album.
We do.
And I have to ask: what are ‘Hip Tight Onions’?
The ‘Hip Tight Onions’ is taken from three songs by Booker T and the MGs. And the original title of the song was ‘Hip Tight Onions for Booker’ but we shortened it. So the first part, ‘Hip’, is from a song they called ‘Hip Hugger’, and then ‘Time is Tight’, which is another song they did. And ‘Green Onions’.
Well, it sounded like it might have been a new type of restaurant dish, and in Australia we love our restaurants … I thought maybe there was something I didn’t know about.
[laughs] Now you know.
Going back to something you said a little earlier about stories – you talked about songwriting in terms of writing stories – as a songwriter, as a singer and a guitarist, do you think of yourself primarily as a storyteller?
No, I don’t consider myself a storyteller. There are some really prominent singer-songwriters who will get on stage and take you through their life or trials and tribulations and things like that. My songs are all over the place. There might be some stories and there might be some tales but I’m not like that kind of person, I think.
There’s a lot of different ‘feels’ to your songs, even on this album, which is primarily a soul record. You’re very good at expressing emotions and that comes back to your voice. When you’re selecting songs for an album, is it the feeling of the song that you’re connecting to?
First of all what happens with us is that we decide if we like the tune or not, and then you go into the process – because you have so many songs – to really spend time with each and every song and make that song its own in the studio. And that’s why, I think, a lot of credit goes to our producer, Steve Jordan, who really set the tone and set the mood for each and every attempt that we did for each song. To the point that one of the songs that is a bonus track on one of the releases, called ‘Pillow’ – so what we did is we worked up the tune and then Steve asked us into the control room and he put on Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly album. And we played a couple of tracks from that and we had it cranked up really loud and we were all getting all giddy and everything about the ’70s, and laughing and all. And then he said, ‘Okay, good – let’s take a little break, go have some lunch, then come back and we’ll cut it.’ And then we came back into the room and Steve got out the conga drum and the vibraflap and we were in the mood. I took out the guitar that sounds like an electric sitar and we were right in the mood that we needed for that particular song. Steve was really good at trying to put everyone in the frame of mind for each song. So that’s what sets the tone for the record.
In that song I heard something in your voice not unlike sadness or yearning, despite the Superfly influence.
The sad songs are the ones that you really have to take your time with, you know. And there’s a lot of space. Those are the hardest ones for me to get to. And being a big fan of singers who can do that, I’m trying my best [laughs]. And I give credit where credit is due. I’m a big fan, just like everybody is, of all kinds of music but I’m really particular to gospel singers and soul singers that sing ballads, because I know it’s really hard.
Is it hard for you to connect to those emotions because you’re not feeling that in your own life, or is it just not your inclination to sing those sorts of songs?
It’s not that so much. First of all, I enjoy it and then if there is something to grab hold to, I will. But first of all it’s the enjoyment of the songs.
The voice is such a fascinating instrument – and you have your voice and also your guitar, but the voice always seems less tangible because it’s not something you can hold in your hands and it is so affected by things in your life, what you eat, how you slept … Your voice is such an extraordinary instrument – at which stage of your life did you discover it?
We always sang to music at home as kids, when my mom and my dad were doing the Twist back in the ’60s [laughs]. And so everybody sang around the house. We’d make up songs too and sing them. But it wasn’t until basically we’d started the Robert Cray Band in 1974 that I took on the role of being the singer, because in earlier bands that I was in, we always had a lead singer.
I find that quite extraordinary, that you started singing out of necessity, but maybe that was how you found the voice you have, because it’s such an outstanding voice on the album – but I have to say the instruments match it, and that doesn’t always happen in production. Sometimes there can be a great singer but you can just tell that the other musicians weren’t up to it. On this album, though, everything seems balanced, and I guess that’s down to your producer.
Yes, you have to give a lot of credit to the producer and the way that they did it and the mood they set up. The sound of the record is really good – it doesn’t sound digital.
Is it difficult to hand over the reins to someone else to produce the album?
No, not when it’s Steve Jordan [laughs]. We’ve had the opportunity to work with Steve in the past – he’s done a couple of records for us. This time it was a lot different because we had made a couple of personnel changes. We have our drummer, Les Falkiner, who’s only been in the band for maybe sixteen months, and then our keyboard player, Dover, joined the band in November and we recorded back in December. Dover used to be in the band in the late ’70s for a while. And then Richard Cousins, who I’ve known forever, had taken a hiatus and wasn’t in the band when we’d worked with Steve in the past. So those three guys had never worked with Steve before. So I thought it would be great to have Steve, because he’s such a great organiser, to put the band through its paces in the studio. And once again Steve puts emphasis on the mood to create each and every song and makes everyone feel a part of everything. So it was great just to hand over the reins to Steve and watch him work his magic, and he did.
When you’re on the road do you essentially have to act like the producer and keep everyone going and be the organiser?
Oh yeah. I have to do that [laughs]. And it’s great. But everybody also has that lasting impression of how it worked in the studio. So it’s great because now that we’re doing songs from the new album we just revert back to that kind of … It’s training, the way he taught us in the studio.
I’m thinking that for you making an album must be kind of like a holiday – you can show up and perform and get someone else to do the organising.
Yeah, it is – it’s that. It’s great that I don’t have to organise that stuff – it’s wonderful.
I have one question left … This is a soul record so I was wondering what soul means to you or how do you define soul?
Soul is when somebody really puts their emotion into the music but that’s not unlike blues music as well. But the soul music musically has a different feel than the blues and I think that it’s more accessible than blues music is in the fact that the music might have a sweeter melody than the blues music will. Even though the stories may be the same you’ll gravitate towards the one with the more beautiful book cover [laughs].
 In My Soul is out now.

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