Sue Foley: “Guitar Woman” Extraordinaire

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Photo credit: Scott Doubt
       

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 3 – Ladies Rock the Blues – June 2018

“I really love my work. So, l work a lot. It’s hard to pull me away from it.”

“Don’t worry about stardom or fame. Try to be a great craftsperson. Love the work.”

At age fifteen, after witnessing James Cotton perform live, Sue Foley felt inspired to pick up an electric guitar and begin what would become a lifelong devotion to the blues. In 1990, Foley sent a demo tape to Antone’s Records, was quickly signed to the label, and moved to Austin, Texas, from Canada. Performing with the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy, Foley swiftly solidified herself as a legitimate lead blues guitarist. Having also released a string of successful and well-regarded albums, Foley continues to contribute to the long legacy of hit blues music to this very day.

I recently caught up with the blues guitar woman Sue Foley. Sue is currently gearing up to tour throughout the U.S. and abroad in support of her new music release, The Ice Queen

At age fifteen, after witnessing James Cotton perform live, Sue Foley felt inspired to pick up an electric guitar and begin what would become a lifelong devotion to the blues. In 1990, Foley sent a demo tape to Antone’s Records, was quickly signed to the label, and moved to Austin, Texas. Performing with the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy, Foley swiftly solidified herself as a legitimate lead blues guitarist. Having also released a string of successful and well-regarded albums, Foley continues to contribute to the long legacy of hit blues music to this very day.

We chatted candidly about the making of her new release, the future of the blues, her music gear, her upcoming book Guitar Woman, and what’s next for Sue in her musical journey. Sue is by far one of the hardest-working women in the business of performing the blues. 

Tell me about the latest happenings with your new release, The Ice Queen.

We just released it officially a month ago. We did three weeks of release dates in my hometown of Ottawa. Then Austin, and also Toronto. I’ve been staying busy with a lot of radio and newspaper interviews. Gearing up to head back to Austin on a more permanent basis. I’m looking forward to touring.

Is Texas going to become home base for you?

Yes, within the month. I was actually just packing today, getting ready to head down there. 

You have a lot of tour dates coming up stateside and overseas, as well. 

Yes, the schedule continues to get updated. Not all the dates have been added yet, but we are in the process. Doing a fair amount of festivals over the summer in Europe. That’s generally what blues musicians do. I’m still working on my book Guitar Woman, and I’m writing a monthly column for Guitar Player Magazine. I finally found an outlet for these interviews I’ve been compiling for my book Guitar Woman. Guitar Player Magazine is printing excerpts from my interviews. It’s really motivating me to focus on that stuff again. I’m hoping within a year that volume one will be released. I did a lot of research and a lot of interviews. I think it’s going to be possibly two volumes.

How long did it take you to write the repertoire and select the tunes that you chose for The Ice Queen?

I started writing in the Fall of 2015, and we started recording in January of 2017. So, I was living with those songs for about a year, but I kind of needed that time to tweak them. I had a whole other concept I had started recording in the Spring of 2016. I did a whole session and had a clear vision for an album, and then I shelved it. I started talking to Mike Flannigan in Austin. He ended up producing the album. It started out with me playing him some of the tunes, and he decided I really needed to come to Austin and get everybody involved. It took a while – it was over a year. Then we did a Kickstarter campaign; to make an album that high-end, I needed to raise a lot of money. You know, record companies aren’t putting up any money anymore, much less that kind of money, for recording an album. Over forty grand! It’s hard to imagine spending that much. It’s a high-end product. Boutique!

Are you taking any of the heavy hitters that recorded with you out on tour? For example, Billy Gibbons? 

No, everybody has their own projects they are involved in at the present. I’ve got a core band up here in Toronto – really good band – and then I’m forming another band in Austin to work out of both cities. 

Do you anticipate doing any solo shows? More intimate settings while you’re touring?

Yes, I actually did one last night. Sort of a private concert. I do acoustic shows. I do shows based around the ‘Guitar Woman’ concept. A tribute to some of the historical figures, some of the people that have influenced me. For example, Maybelle Carter and Memphis Minnie. A one-woman show on my nylon string guitar in an acoustic setting. I love my nylon string guitar – almost as much as my Tele, at this point. 

Are you going to be on the East Coast at all?

Eventually, but probably not until the Fall. I’m not sure yet. We’re still posting dates and throwing stuff back and forth. Probably in the Fall I’ll be doing a run of clubs and theaters up and down the East Coast. 

Tell me about your performance rig. Your amps and effects pedals. Are there any other guitars in addition to your Fender Paisley Tele your audience will see onstage?

My nylon string, a Mexican model, it’s not a well-known model. My Tele and my Fender Bassman amp. I just got a Flint Tremolo and Reverb pedal which I’m quite enjoying. That’s about it. I don’t like to use a lot of pedals. 

You’ve been playing the blues for a long time. What do you feel have been some significant changes in the blues music scene?

Well, I think the most significant is people are dying. All the true bluesmen are dying off, and that’s pretty drastic. Turning up the earth kind of thing. It’s a huge hit, I think, to the whole art form that’s drastically changing the way the music is played and even the way people are interpreting history. When those guys were here, you couldn’t deny this music that came from that. That’s a huge deal. It’s a really important thing, you know? We can all sit and watch on YouTube Albert Collins’ videos, but that’s not the same as going to an Albert Collins show. Not having that direct transmission with those masters, I think that’s pretty drastic. It remains to be seen how it will evolve. 

With the up-and-coming generation of blues artists, do you feel they are going to strive to capture some of the traditional aspects of the blues’ sound and format?

I think people still study it. Like I said, without being able to directly get it from those true bluesmen, I think it’s going to have a different sound and vibe, probably. 

Do you think it’s more hybrid crossover?

It’s probably better if it is. I think it’s exciting. Like Jack White interprets blues his own way. And he’s a huge blues fan. But he’s not tied down to having to be a traditional guy. He’s playing rock and he’s mixing it with whatever’s interesting to him. That’s interesting to me. Like Gary Clark, Jr. is really interested in hip hop, but he’s a great blues player. So, it’s nice to see how things will evolve. It’s great to have traditionalists, but I’m not sure it’s that necessary. 

In comparison to when you first got into the blues scene in Austin, do you see a lot of new up-and-coming female guitarists pursuing careers playing the blues throughout the U.S. and abroad?

Yes, there are a lot of young, up-and-coming females. Not necessarily guitar players, though. There’s some great instrumentalists. Great example. There’s a girl named Lindsay Beaver who’s also Canadian but lives in Austin. She’s a great drummer and singer. I think in blues, it’s always been pretty acceptable to have females on instruments. Even when I was researching my own stuff for Guitar Woman. In the blues, there was quite a few. There’s some good young people coming up for sure. 

So, what’s in the future for Sue Foley? New music, writing, in addition to continuing to work on your book?

I think my book, probably, will be my next focus. Unless something surprises me in the middle, I’d like to go right into the Guitar Woman project. Also, work on a one-woman show and finish volume one and market that. Do something a little different. The immediate future is touring and trying to figure out how to finish that other project while I’m on and off the road.

I know that you were teaching at a college in the Carolinas for a bit. Are you still doing that? 

No. I’m actually in school getting my Ph.D. So, I think maybe eight to ten years down the road, I might plant myself at a college somewhere when I’m tired of running around. That’s kind of my long-term plan. Right now, the album, the book, maybe volume two, and solo guitar woman shows. Maybe a few collaborations, and in the process, get that Ph.D. Down the road, I can do some teaching. I enjoy teaching, but I wouldn’t want to do it only. Right now, I’m still pretty driven to play. In regard to teaching, there was a time I didn’t think I would want to do that. But after a year of teaching, I realized I enjoyed working with young people in that setting. And I feel I have a lot to offer based on my knowledge of the business – enlightening up-and-coming artists. You get a lot of wisdom after doing this for a while. And then you’re like, ‘well, what can I do with this, with what I’ve learned and experienced?’ It’s a really good outlet, especially at a college level when people really need that. They need to figure out how to enter the world from school and from college. And a lot of kids don’t know how. I feel that’s where I can be of service. To share something that you have. I mean, what else is all of this for? 

Music is a 24/7 love affair for you. But I know there’s got to be some downtime for Sue, too. Now, I’m not talking about you packing and relocating to Texas! But what do you like to do when you have a day off?

I like to get in shape. Go to the gym. Go to yoga. Sometimes I go to a meditation class. I like to get a good meal. Catch up with friends. I’m pretty low key, actually. I really love my work. So, l work a lot. It’s hard to pull me away from it. I’ll work until 1 A.M. Even if I’m not on the road, I’ll be doing stuff. So, anything that pulls me away, in a healthy way, I think, is great. I’m pretty basic. I practice, too. But I consider that part of my work. 

Do you have any suggestions for up-and-coming musicians trying to break into the industry, regardless of the genre they’re pursuing? Any words of wisdom you’d want to pass along to them?

Love the work, and you’ll be fine because it’s nothing but hard work. Practicing is hard work. Learning new stuff is hard work. Get better at your craft, and also, think of it as a craft. That’s another thing I like to think of. That takes your ego out of it a lot if you’re thinking like a craftsperson. For example, I’m a carpenter, and I get to be better at my craft every year. By the time I’m an old man or woman, I’m going to be an expert at my craft. Because that’s how expert carpenters are. They know everything about wood. So, it’s kind of like that. Don’t worry about stardom or fame. Try to be a great craftsperson. Love the work.