Frazey Ford blends folk approach, soul roots
By Ron Wynn
Sometimes all it takes is a pair of great ears to make something special happen. In this case they belonged to ace filmmaker/critic Robert Gordon, whose extensive knowledge of soul and blues music has been evident in critically acclaimed volumes on Stax and Memphis music, as well as an equally lauded film on Muddy Waters. He heard the tune “If You Gonna Go” from Candian vocalist Frazey Ford’s 2010 debut LP “Obadiah,” and instantly thought of something that most other observers wouldn’t: an earthy R&B influence in what was otherwise tabbed an alt.-folk project.
Ford, a founding member of the Be Good Tanyas, visited Nashville Friday. She gave Gordon lots of credit for instantly hearing something in the song and her voice she wasn’t sure had really come across in the song. He also spearheaded the eventual session that featured her working with the Hi Rhythm section.
“He called the radio station that played the song and asked them about it,” Ford recalled to the Scene. “He told me later that he could hear the soul influence. He told me what he was doing (working on a documentary on soul music and Memphis musicians) and that he knew the Hi Rhythm people, and wanted to see about getting us together to do something. That was an incredible thrill, because they were musicians that I’ve listened to for a long time and were truly happy to get a chance to work alongside. He put everything in motion and it was a magical occasion for me.”
Ford’s spirited blend of old-time folk and country, infused with the urgency of classic R&B, has made her work with the Be Good Tanyas one of the more unusual and distinctive sounds on any circuit. The collaboration with the Hi Rhythm Section flourishes on the 2014 LP “Indian Ocean.” Organist Charles Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and guitarist Teenie Hodges provided a dynamic energy that is underpinned by pivotal contributions from several other musicians. They ranged from Be Good Tanyas member guitarist Trish Klein and pianist Phil Cook to other guitarists Darren Parris and Craig McCaul. Longtime Memphis ace saxophonist Jim Spake joined Scott Thompson and JP Carter doing the arrangements, while Debra Jean Creelman and Caroline Ballhorn added buoyant backing vocals.
“Indian Ocean” defies easy categorization, which is just what Ford enjoys. She and co-producer/drummer John Raham sought to get the kind of easy, yet exuberant energy that was the hallmark of the great albums the legendary Willie Mitchell produced at Royal Recording studios. But they also didn’t want to have any rigidly prescribed notions about what would occur.
“I’ve never really thought so much about genres as I have about feeling and about music and the musicians who’ve influenced me,” Ford continued. “Growing up in Canada I didn’t really listen so much to the radio as I did the music that my parents had. My mother had a real country/Cajun and soul thing going. I loved and still do Otis Redding. But Emmylou Harris is also a big influence on me. Al Green for sure. Neil Young is another person who’s a big influence. What I wanted to do with “Indian Ocean” is find a way to get all these influences into one place, make them work, and not have it sound disjointed.”
She acknowledges that while always enjoying singing, she didn’t really initially view it as a career path. “It was really kind of a surprise,” Ford said. “I was planning to do all this other stuff, looking at different occupations, but music kept getting in the way. It was really not just something to do on the side, but a passion, a drive, and that was what really made the decision for me. Plus I really wanted to explore more of that musical culture from America. The things that I heard growing up, I really wanted to get out and hear and see where it came from, see how I could incorporate it into my own music.”
Those seemingly disparate, yet interconnected influences, are seamlessly integrated throughout “Indian Ocean.”
Some numbers like the disc’s first tune “September Fields” feature edgy vocals and a stirring beat. Others like the brisk number “Done” are more declarative, lyrically direct and shorter tunes fortified by enchanting vocals from Ford and precise, on the money backing from either the Hi Rhythm crew or the other musicians. Ford is at her strongest vocally on the assertive number “You’re Not Free,” while the lighter, softer approach she takes on “Three Golden Trees” probably comes closest to a straight folk tune.
“My only regret about the project was when I heard that Teenie had passed,” Ford concluded. “Working with those guys was so incredible, and he was an unbelievably warm and friendly guy. One thing we’ve been doing on this tour in a lot of cities is working with horn sections, which is a lot of fun. I would like to do some more recording like that in the future. I’ve really got some other influences that people probably wouldn’t associate with me either. I really like Afrobeat for instance. Neosoul is another one, and also both contemporary and traditional country. I’d love to do some albums where I could expand into those areas musically.”
“For me, it really is all about experiencing all types of music. That’s something that always excites me. I don’t want to do the same thing with every album, and all the people I admire are those who keep searching and aren’t afraid to experiment, while maintaining the special quality that makes them stand out.”
(This originally ran in Nashville Scene’s “Cream” blog).