Interview with Tampa Bay area vocalist Lauren Mitchell - a true student of the blues and soul music

"I think all music, not just blues, has a duty to speak the truth. We need to stand up for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, our country, our God, and so on. The only way we can do that is to be honest."

Lauren Mitchell: Soulful & Honest

The year 2016 was one of large-scale and unexpected change for Tampa Bay area blues and soul vocalist Lauren Mitchell. During a tumultuous time in both her personal and professional life, she was given the opportunity to rise from the challenges she was facing and make the album of her career with producer Tony Braunagel. Mitchell took the leap of faith because she is a true student of the blues, a music that's all about finding a way to transform difficult experiences into something cathartic. The timing was perfect. She had an album to record. Another artist might have withered in the face of such complete and simultaneous changes in her professional and personal life. But Mitchell is a student of the blues, a music that at its core is about taking difficult experiences and finding a way to transform them into something cathartic, about finding deep truths in a sea of raw-nerve emotion. She had an album to record.

That album, “Desire” (Release date: March 31, 2017), is the most fully realized musical statement she's made to date. Through a bold mix of her own original material, songs she hand-picked from the repertoires of her friends, and select covers of tunes first performed by Etta James, Bettye Lavette, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Betty Davis, Mitchell tells a blues story that's been a lifetime in the making. It's a stylistically varied, musically rich set of 13 songs expertly recorded by drummer and Grammy-winning producer Tony Braunagel, whose work with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Robert Cray have made him one of today's most in-demand blues industry professionals. Recorded during a ten-day trip to Los Angeles, Braunagel brought out the best in Mitchell, highlighting every nuance in her powerful vocals and helping her craft an emotionally resonant album that's destined to go down as one of the highlights of 2017. Besides Braunagel, the band features guitarists Johnny Lee Schell and Josh Sklair, keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Reggie McBride, sax player Joe Sublett, and percussionist Lenny Castro. Mitchell was born in Columbus, Ohio, and spent her early years there and in Canton, in the state's northeast region. She grew up singing in her grandmother's church and was taking voice lessons by age 9. Despite her father's interest in the soul music of the 1960s -- he'd frequently play records by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin, among other artists -- Lauren gravitated toward musical theatre and opera in her studies. After college -- and an especially thorny romantic breakup -- Mitchell decided to join her father in Florida. It was there that she began digging through her father's record collection and discovered blues musicians like Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee -- artists whose careers aligned with the more soul-leaning music she'd heard as a child.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Soul music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The blues & soul music ARE the journey. The blues chose me, I didn’t choose it. It’s been a very long road for me to get where I am today and ALL of the music I have listened to have brought me to this place - right here. Right now.  

How do you describe Lauren Mitchell sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Soulful & honest. You (or at least I) can’t sing these kind of songs and not fully understand the emotions behind them. Blues & soul music comes from a place that HAS to be honest. If you’re going to sing about heartbreak and make your audience or listener FEEL what you’re singing about, you have better experienced some heartbreak in your life. Otherwise it’s going to come across as empty.  

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I’ve been very fortunate to have made many friends over the years, to have had some beautiful relationships, and to have worked with some incredible musicians. Off the top of my head, I would have to mention my former organ player, “The Professor” Michael Hensley. He encouraged me to start this project at what could have been a terrible time in my life. He believed in me and my talent and helped me put my first band together. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, but I truly feel that because he believed in me he gave me wings, in a way. Really believing in another person’s talents and abilities is one of the greatest gifts anyone can ever give. The most important advice I’ve ever been given has come from many sources, the first being my Grandmother (who will be 97 this year and is still getting it done!). She always told me that anything worth doing is worth doing right. I was also given some advice a couple of years ago from a very well known female blues/soul vocalist who was generous enough to make some time to chat with me during a sound check. She told me not to take any S&#%, but to remember to not take S#$% with GRACE. I’ll carry that one around for a long time.

"There are so many places and people I’d love to see and experience… Woodstock… Paris in the 1920’s when Hemingway, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein were there… Clarksdale Mississippi somewhere in the early 1900’s so I could hear and see Robert Johnson play… Any Etta James live show… Any Ray Charles performance…" (Photo by Gail Gerdes)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open act and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Man… there are too many to list! I’ll share a story from the sessions when we recorded “Desire” though. This is actually about the title track itself … I had been working on that tune for more than 2 years. I would go back to it over and over trying to finish it but I wasn’t able to get it done. I had a verse, a hook, half of a chorus, three more pages of what my writing partner Sheri Nadelman & I call our “controlled chaos”, and a not-so-great a cappella recording of a possible melody. She and I worked on it several times, but couldn’t figure out where to take it. So there it sat … this idea that was terribly important to me, the thought that no matter what life hands you, you CAN and WILL recover if you just keep “walking through the fire”. It literally nagged me for over 2 years! I didn’t think it would get finished and had just about given up on it. On a whim, I sent the bits and pieces I had to Tony Braunagel (my producer for the album) telling him that I’d really like to finish the song and put it on the record. He liked the idea and hooked me up with a song writer friend of his, Jeff Paris (Keb Mo, Dorothy Moore). Jeff and I tried to connect via email before I went to LA and it didn’t work out. Once I got to California, we talked on the phone that day (a Sunday) & decided to try to get together the following day (Monday) to write since I didn’t have to be in the studio until Tuesday. Monday’s plans didn’t work out due to some unforeseen circumstances, and I basically figured this song would have to wait because I was scheduled to start the recording sessions the next day. I went to the studio as scheduled and we worked from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. I was exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically … and then we got a call from Jeff. “Come on over! Let’s work on this song.”

So off we went. To some guy’s house I’ve never met, where we walk in like we own the place because he and Tony have been friends for ages, and without much of an introduction Jeff starts asking me some pretty personal questions. After about two hours of what felt like a combination of a therapy session, an interview, and a musical brainstorming get-together, Jeff told us he had some good ideas & that we could go.  I left thinking “Did that just happen?”. Tony assured me that it was likely Jeff would stay up all night working on the song & send us an email with a demo the next morning.  I went to bed, wondering what in the hell had just went down, and sure enough, there was a demo in my email the next morning. It was more than I could have hoped for. Jeff had captured the exact feeling I was trying to convey. When we went to the session that day, Tony played the demo for the musicians, we took a few minutes to talk about how the song should feel and sound, they chose the right instruments for the recording, we rehearsed it once (I had never even sang the song before!), and pressed record … other than a few minor fixes & the addition of the background vocals & slide guitar, we all knew it was finished. When we quit recording that first take & listened back to it, everyone knew we had done something special. I couldn’t believe that we had just cut a brand new song in one take. Let alone a song I never thought would get finished!

What do you miss most nowadays from the Blues/Soul of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?                               (Photo by Billy Elkins)

I miss Etta James. I wish I could have seen and heard her live. I also miss the fact that artists used to dress up to get on stage. In the South, years ago, the two best dressed men in town were always the Preacher on Sunday morning, and the Bluesman on Saturday night! I hope that the blues genre will continue to grow. That it will grow to include all types of blues and soul music. I understand, there are some purists out there who don’t think anything other than what came out of Mississippi and Chicago in the 1940’s and 50’s is called “blues”. And that’s fine … but what are we going to do when all those guys from that era are gone? Are we going to sit around and try to reproduce something that’s already been done? Not me. Those cats were innovators for their time. They left their mark and they did it better than anyone else will ever be able to. So why don’t we let them have their glory, look back on what they left for us with reverence and respect, and take the lessons we learned from them, and be innovators ourselves? Create something relevant to this day, this age, this world. That’s my duty as an artist: to take in everything around me, and with respect to those who have paved the way for me, reflect what I see and feel. That’s what will resonate with today’s population. My fear is that if we keep rehashing the same old stuff, the blues won’t be relevant anymore! Our audience will get smaller and smaller if we don’t start to create something new, that will draw the younger generation in.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Complacency. From musicians, from booking folks, from our audiences and listeners. Try something new! I get it, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it … but come on! My Grandmother would always make me TRY one bite of whatever she had cooked even if I said I didn’t like it. And more often than not, I would end up going back for seconds. You don’t know if you like it until you’ve tried. I’m also trying to decide how I feel about live music venues streaming their shows online. If you’re trying to sell tickets and get people in the door, why are you giving them the opportunity to watch what you’re asking them to pay for, for FREE? Unless we can figure out a way to blackout the “home games” in that area, like the NFL does in certain markets, I don’t really think it’s a good idea.

Make an account of Tampa Bay's music scene. What touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

The scene here is great. Plenty of venues, lots of great musicians, and a beautiful sunset every night. What more could you want?

What are the lines that connect the legacy of music from Lavette, Ross and Aretha to Betty Davis and Etta James?

It can be summed up pretty simply... SOUL. Bad-to-the-bone-dig-deep-from-the-inside-soul. Period.

"The blues & soul music ARE the journey. The blues chose me, I didn’t choose it. It’s been a very long road for me to get where I am today and ALL of the music I have listened to have brought me to this place - right here. Right now." (Photo by Rick Lewis)

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I’ll leave James Brown to answer that one himself… “It’s a Man’s World… But it’s NOTHING without a woman or a girl.” Gentlemen… Take notice.

What is the impact of Blues and Soul music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think all music, not just blues, has a duty to speak the truth. We need to stand up for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, our country, our God, and so on. The only way we can do that is to be honest. So really, this goes back to where we started this interview… We have to be truthful and honest. If we, as artists, cannot express ourselves honestly, then what good are we? What good are we to ourselves? To our friends and families? To our society? We have to reflect the good, and sometimes the bad in this world so others can see themselves and find their own way. I hope that someday a song I’ve written will touch someone in a way that inspires them to make a change. Whether I know about it or not. Maybe someone hears one of my songs and it helps them dust themselves off after a major letdown. Maybe I can make someone smile who had a really bad day. Maybe that song starts a difficult conversation they’ve been wanting to have, but didn’t know how to open the discussion. That’s the way I hope my music impacts the world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

That’s tough, because there are so many places and people I’d love to see and experience… Woodstock… Paris in the 1920’s when Hemingway, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein were there… Clarksdale Mississippi somewhere in the early 1900’s so I could hear and see Robert Johnson play… Any Etta James live show… Any Ray Charles performance… But honestly, as wonderful as it would be to experience all of that, I’m working on staying in the present. The past can, and will, inform my creativity, but I won’t be able to create anything if I’m not here. NOW. Living the life I’ve been given instead of longing for one I may have missed.

Lauren Mitchell - Official website

Photo by Kevin Tighe

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