Interview: Robert Cray

Robert Cray

Robert Cray - Credit: Archant

Robert Cray Grammys to his name, and has shared the stage with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Stones. Back in Norwich with his best received album in years, he tells SIMON PARKIN about the enduring appeal of the blues and being inspired by chopping vegetables.

For thirty-plus years Robert Cray has laid down track after track of good-time, uptown, low-down blues. He's won five Grammy's and been nominated for 11 more.

The quietly-spoken, unassuming guitarist has constantly been known as one of the most popular artists in blues and soul music — but perhaps one of the most overlooked too.

He may have a whole batch of Grammys to his name, and may have shared the stage with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Stones to Eric Clapton, but he has also been around for so long, and plays so often, that he was in danger of being taken for granted.

It is a lot time since he was hailed as the future of the blues having burst on to the international scene in the 1980s and won rave reviews for his breakthrough album Strong Persuader in 1986. And while his soulful and creative guitar work has been an influential force in blues ever since, some subsequent albums, have come and gone without creating the ripple they deserved.

It's good news therefore that he arrives back in Norwich this weekend on the back of his best received album in years. Nothin' But Love, his sixteenth studio album, sees him with his mojo back.

Won't Be Coming Home puts Cray in the driveway watching his woman's tail light vanish, pitting weary vocals against stinging guitar. I'm Done Crying, a slow, soul-soaked epic with strings, has him testifying magnificently.

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Producer Kevin Shirley, who has previously worked with everyone from Joe Bonamassa to Iron Maiden — can be credited with keeping things taut and gritty — the sessions took just a fortnight — and as a result Cray burns the strings with an urgency he has not displayed in a decade.

'I've been really pleased by the reaction to this album,' he says. 'You know, I've been putting out records for a long time and sometimes they don't get noticed, so it's really nice when an album does get noticed in a way that puts a smile on my face.'

The album benefits from a deceptively simple, no-strings-attached delivery from his ace band which includes keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Richard Cousins and drummer Tony Braunagel.

'Over the years there have been a lot of different players,' says Robert. 'The one consistent for the longest time now has been Jim Pugh the keyboard player, he has been in the band since 1989. Richard Cousins, the bass player, he just came back to the band in 2008. He had left in 1992, but it was really him and I started the band in 1974. Then we have a new drummer who is coming over with us who is not even on this latest album, whose name is Les Falconer. He was previously playing with Keb Mo.'

The album takes in a wide variety of styles, but with a bedrock of the blues something that reflects the guitarist musical upbringing.

'Because having grown up in the early 1960s we listened to it all — blues, jazz, rock'n'roll and country — it's all in there,' he said. 'My parents had a great record collection, Sarah Vaughan to Ray Charles, people like Sam Cook and Bobby Bland, then the Beatles came afterwards and were huge. The radio at that time was also huge. I saw Jimi Hendrix twice, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. It was the same for the other guys too, so we just write songs and see what comes out.'

One stand-out track is the urgent 1950s rock'n'roll vibe of Side Dish. Robert reveals the inspiration for this came from a most unlikely source.

'That track actually comes from just being in the kitchen chopping up vegetables,' he laughs. 'A silly idea came into my head, so I rushed from the kitchen into the recording room and just put it down. You never know where inspiration is going to come from.'

A constant theme of Robert's musical career has been trying to avoid the clichés of blues music.

'Having started off on the club circuit, as most bands do, we've played those old blues songs and done those clichés; then we started writing songs. And when you write you really cannot rely on re-writing those standards. If you want to write songs that have any sort of timely meaning, you have to write songs that pertain to you and pertain to the day and age that we're living in and on a subject that means something to the listener.'

However, he never strays far from the blues. 'It's like the musical bedrock. It's like going back to the truth. You can go through all kinds of musical styles, but it always comes back to the blues, to those foundations. It can do into Jimi Hendrix style rock or into jazz but it's always coming from that place.'

It is advice he'd pass on to young players, including Norfolk's own highly acclaimed blues guitar prodigy Oli Brown.

'I got to meet him on the last tour and he's a nice guy,' he said. 'I have his album and he's really good, defiantly one to watch. Also Gary Carter Jnr is a good young player too. There are some of these young kids that have it in them. They have that feeling for the music.'

Robert's own heroes remain the blues greats many of whom he has played with. 'My heroes are still the legends for the most part. Those guys tended to be guitarists who played from their soul, you know. I'm not so impressed by a lot of flash, playing I prefer someone like Muddy Waters who speaks to me in a more basic but more fundamental way.

'A lot of young players get carried away that they can play fast but then you'll get one of these old guys who will do one simple thing and it'll be 'how did you do that!'.

'It's the BB King-syndrome, you know you can instantly tell its BB from a single note. That's what I appreciate — the simplicity.'

t Robert Cray plays Norwich Theatre Royal on March 10

t Nothin' But Love is out now

t Further listening: