“Her journey from the coffee bars of Brussels to the stages of New Orleans and Mississippi has been, to say the least, untypical.” For Belgian blues-rock singer, guitarist and songwriter Ghalia Volt (nee Vauthier), travels in the US since 2017 have been transformative. “One Woman Band”, released in January 2021 and recorded in Memphis, is the third album she has made since venturing out on her first musical journey to the US in 2017. It has just been released by Ruf Records. Feature for International Women’s Day 2021 by Lola Reynaerts (*), originally published in French by Jazzaround:
Ghalia Volt was just 21 when she set off from Brussels with a backpack and a guitar and headed for the land of her inspiration. This would be a personal blues pilgrimage from New Orleans to Chicago, across the Mississippi, to Jackson and Clarksdale, Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri.
Ghalia Volt then wanders through the cities which are evocative of all the songs she listens to. She walks in the footsteps of her first loves: “Big Mama Thornton “, “Skip James “, “J.B. Lenoir”. She sings in the Juke Joints where her heroes had performed. She even meets the great Little Richard: “I decided to wait outside the Hilton Hotel in Nashville where he lives. When I was told that he would be back in an hour, I ran to my hostel to get one of his 45s. After 40 minutes he arrived by car. I was stressed out, broke my vinyl , but he agreed to autograph it nonetheless!”
She has set herself the goal of being on stage with musicians whom she meets along the way. And her keenness to learn from these encounters takes her to the venues where all musicians who love the blues dream of playing: The Balcony Music Club in New Orleans, Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale, Beale Street clubs in Memphis, Jazz, Blues & Soups in St. Louis, Hal & Mal’s in Jackson. It was here that she completely enchanted the regulars with her cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”. And all this in spite of the difficulty of convincing people of her authenticity.
As she says: “Being a young white European woman and singing Mississippi Blues in the USA was definitely a challenge. People are very surprised, they love to listen to you, to talk with you because they have never heard someone speak like you, with an accent like that… My debuts on stages in the Deep South took a lot of guts. Competition is tough and it takes a strong will to carve out a place for yourself. But the energy I put into it was noticed – and still is. It’s what has forged my character and pushed me to always do better.”
Meeting the musicians of the band Johnny Mastro & the Mama’s Boys, there is electricity straight away. Meeting Thomas Ruf from Ruf Records was another key moment in her adventure. Ruf agreed a contract and booked her on a flight to Crescent City to record an entire album – Let The Demons Out, mixed and mastered by sound engineer David Farrell for release in 2017. This first album was recorded in a single room where all the musicians are deliberately isolated, to encourage more spontaneity: “It was much more fun and stimulating. The sound of the album is much more original, more authentic and brings a ‘raw’ side to the music”. On the last track, “Hiccup Boogie”, there was an instruction: “I asked the musicians to play as if they had hiccups. That worked because this song gives off energy and moments of spontaneity”. Her first ‘American’ album, Let The Demons Out is as real as it gets.
In 2018, between her concerts in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic, Ghalia prepares a second album; she wants it to be innovative and organic. An album with her own musical influences: Hill Country Blues. She records it at Zebra Ranch Recording Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi. A studio founded by Jim Dickinson and taken over after his death by his sons Cody and Luther Dickinson, members of the band North Mississippi All Stars. The first guest in this mythical place is Cédric Burnside, grandson of the famous R.L. Burnside on drums, on tracks such as “Release Me” or on the cover of the famous Negro Spiritual “Wade In The Water”. Burnside wrote at the time: “It’s a pleasure to be on Ghalia’s next opus as she gives a new sound to Hill Country Blues and traditional blues. Her musical origins are the cause of these unique and innovative sounds”. Cody Dickinson on drums and SmokeHouse Brown, who was also on guitar on the first album, appears here as co-writer of the song “First Time I Die” as well.
Completing the team are Lightnin’ Malcolm, one of the most coveted guitarists in Mississippi and Watermelon Slim, a multi-talented character on harmonica and vocals (“I’m Watermelon Slim from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and I’ve been happily watching Ghalia’s progress for 5 years now, she’s one of those people who came into the blues world and appropriated this style. I was touched by the music she introduced me to, it’s a new look and not an imitation of traditional blues”) plus Dean Zucchero on bass /co-producer.
In 2020, with the coronavirus making its presence felt in New Orleans, where many musicians live thanks to the tips of tourists, artistic life is slowly dying out. Ghalia then decided to play as a “One Woman Band”. The period was going to be very difficult and uncertain for her, knowing that the artists were the first to stop their activity and would be the last to take it up again. She felt it was necessary to renew herself: “Solo concerts weren’t especially new for me, playing drums with my feet while I played guitar and singing was good. So I practised for a few months and then went to Mississippi and Louisiana to test the concept. With the constraints of Covid, the idea of recording alone was consistent. Ruf Records were supportive. Ghalia then spent a month travelling by Amtrak across 18 states, deserts, oceans, mountains, city lights, landscapes that will be inspiration for the composition of her new 11-track opus “One Woman Band”. In November, she leaves for Memphis to record at the Royal Studio where Boo Mitchell, son of Willie Mitchell, acts as co-producer of the new album.
Ghalia Volt says: “I already knew the sound I wanted: in the One Woman Band set up, it was obvious to me that the sound had to be as powerful as possible, to justify the absence of the band. So I decided to use 3 amps: a bass amp, to pick up the low frequencies of the guitar, a warm and “clean” guitar amp for the roundness of the sound and, finally, a 60s amp that you “crank” all the way up to get a natural distortion, like Magic Sam and Elmore James used to do. With these three amps, I got all the frequencies I expected in the desired sound spectrum. All that was left for me to do was to take care of the rhythm by playing bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat and tambourine with my feet while I sang and played guitar. A great challenge and a wonderful experience.”
In January 2021, Ghalia offers us a brilliant solo album, recorded in one take, with Old School and Mississippi Blues sounds. “Last Minute Packer”, the first track, plunges us into a life of adventure, from hotel to hotel, concert to concert and last minute packing… In this album we can also hear the sound of the train rolling in a Californian desert and the frenzied guitar of Monster Mike Welch who makes an appearance on two of the tracks, as well as Dean Zucchero on bass. A groove, a rhythm, a voice… This stunning young woman has always followed her desires and fulfils them brilliantly.
Having spent a bit of time on the road with her, I can confirm that Ghalia Volt is a passionate and curious woman… She can sit for an hour at the Blue Front Café, listen to talk and play Jimmy Duck Holmes, and then reproduce the notes she has heard by re-adapting them in her own way. The young woman learns from her inspiring musicians. She is determined to live from her passion and pass it on.
Her journey from the coffee bars of Brussels to the stages of New Orleans and Mississippi has been, to say the least. untypical.
She says “I’ve learned a lot from travelling. When you go to the Blues Front Café and a musician like Jimmy Duck Holmes sits down, takes the guitar from your hands and says: “Look, this is the Bentonia Blues, you have to add that little touch here”. He shows you, gives you the guitar back and you try it out. It’s timeless, we sit down, we exchange, he teaches me… He teaches me things that he learned from Jack Owens, that he himself learned from Skip James and so on and so forth. That’s what I like here, I’ve never watched tutorials on YouTube or in books, I’ve watched these musicians play. That’s the legacy of this music which is humble and modest on all levels.”
Finally, I wanted to take advantage of Ghalia’s unique experience to find out what she thinks of International Women’s Day on 8 March: “One day is good, but every day is better! In each person, man or woman, there is an inner beauty and richness. It will be altruism, but it could just as well be a talent, a trait of character, a sense of awakening, etc. Being of good nature is a work that is done every day. Anyone can be good-natured… Just as everyone can be beautiful. But judgements quickly catch up with us, and that’s okay. We have to get over it. To the women of 2021, I wish them to be courageous, to live from their passion, not to hold their tongue and to live fully. If the woman of the previous century was oppressed and could not show what she could do, the woman of today and tomorrow must be strong, powerful and, above all, free!”
This article has been published in the following magazines as part of an IWD collaboration to highlight young jazz and blues female musicians across Europe: Citizen Jazz (Fr), Jazzaround (Be), Jazz’halo (Be), Jazznytt (No), London Jazz News (UK). #Womentothefore #IWD2021
(*) Read the original interview in French on Jazzaround
LINKS: Ghalia Volt at Ruf Records
Ghalia Volt. Publicity photo.