Q&A with Illinois-based singer Mary Jo Curry - electrifying, engaging, entertaining, powerhouse blues performer

"Music is a great platform to share important messages and it does bring people together in a very deep way."

Mary Jo Curry: Modern Old School

There’s a sincerity to Mary Jo Curry’s singing. She’s not trying to show off her voice, she’s not trying to sound like someone else, she’s here to make you believe something – to feel something, to know in your soul the truth, the joy, and the pain she’s singing about.  This is music that is able “to find that line between old school blues and modern songwriting,” where tradition brushes up against R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and funk. It’s blues that move you, songs that take you for a ride. Mary Jo and guitarist, Michael Rapier, started performing together nine years ago. Five years later, they enlisted Chris Rogers on bass and Rick Snow on drums. This powerhouse rhythm section provided that magical component that propelled the band’s sound. The four core members have grown, beyond being a tight live band, into a quality recording and song writing unit. Mary Jo’s first album, simply titled “Mary Jo Curry,” debuted at #1 on the RMR Classic Blues Chart! Mary Jo’s first big push came from international touring artist, James Armstrong. Armstrong was so confident in Mary Jo’s ability that he volunteered his time and talent to produce her debut album. The album allowed Mary Jo to be introduced to an audience outside of Central Illinois. Great artists like Albert Castiglia, Johnny Rawls, Andrew Duncanson and Tom Holland have sung the praises of the band.

The Mary Jo Curry Band plays regularly in the Midwest and has developed a strong following in the western states after two tours through Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Northern Idaho. At the close of 2019, Mary Jo Curry was named the Best Female Vocalist of the Year by the Illinois Times, and her band was runner-up as the 2019 Best Original Music Band. Mary Jo Curry, a powerhouse vocalist from Illinois, started her musical career as a classically trained singer, pianist, and actor. Nine years ago, she was struck by the blues. While out with a friend for the evening, Curry heard music coming from a little club down the street and was “pulled” in. “Front Porch” (2020) the new album from Mary Jo, is made up of ten original songs and one cover. Nine of the originals were penned by the members of the band, and the tenth original was specifically written for Mary Jo by legendary Chicago drummer and composer, Andrew Blaze Thomas, that showcases the talents of a woman born to sing the blues. “Front Porch,” you hear the evolution of a tight working band and you are able to get a view into the blues heart of The Mary Jo Curry Band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

As a late comer to the blues, having discovered it by accident, I felt like I was home. This music was something that felt so familiar to me, like it was in my bones, but never had a chance to get out. The sound, the grit, took the lid off of who I really am. Blues captured my heart and soul straight out of the gate. It was an instant obsession. As if I was dying of thirst and blues was water. I think the blues, especially the female artists, helped teach me that I was relevant. My life story, like everyone’s life story has worth, it is valuable. I can so relate with the story telling of Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, Big Mama Thorton, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ida Cox, Francine Reed. I liked their strength and sass and it finally felt like it was ok to be me. I was raised in a prim and proper home, the youngest and only girl with 7 older brothers. I think I was raised to be seen and not heard, but I was never good at those things. So, the blues to me means home. It means freedom. It means strength. I found myself, who I really am through the blues. And I also found my husband! Ha!

How do you describe Mary Jo Curry sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I guess I would say that I strive for quality, and substance. By studying music, I’ve developed a good ear, and I like that my voice is adaptable to many styles and it remains authentic. I’m not striving to sound like anybody else. I have been influenced by many great artists, but I work to keep my sound my own. I really enjoy interacting with an audience and love songs that allow me the space to do that. I would say my songbook ranges from comedic sass and attitude to heartbreak and longing. My music philosophy is quality on all fronts and it has to come from a place of authenticity. Professor Johnny P’s Juke Joint reviewed my previous album, and said “She manages to find that line between old school blues and modern songwriting.” I think that’s a pretty good description. And I’m not going to try and sell a gimmick (a certain look) or box myself into a certain sound that’s not authentic to myself.

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I try hard not to be judgmental. I try to remember that I don’t know someone else’s journey, or what they’ve been through to shape who they are. I guess the arts world is a comfortable place for me, instead of influencing me, it provides familiarity.

"It’s really about honesty, and when blues music, (whether a strict blues style or one of the blues offspring like soul, blues rock, or R&B,) is delivered with honesty, I think it’s open to be accepted as blues by the listener."

How do you describe "Front Porch" sound and songbook? Are there any studio sessions memories which you’d like to share with us?

It’s definitely heavier than my first album. It’s a truer reflection of what this band sounds like live, and it touches on many of the blues sub-genres that we enjoy, and it reveals our versatility.

Joyful was a fun song in the studio. Michael wrote the music and had one lyric and a chorus. We decided to go into the studio and record the instruments only and it was really organic how all the parts evolved, including the backing vocals. Rick then developed a couple more lyrics and he and Michael tweaked and shaped those and then gave them to me. I spent a little time working out some ideas to make it my own, but I really hadn’t sang it all the way through.  The next day, we went into the studio. I went into the booth and sang, (in my mind doing a practice run.) The guys called me into the control both and said “that’s it, that’s the one.” I’m still a little stunned.  A fun memory for a fun song.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I believe its both. Although some music isn’t blues regardless of state of mind and You've heard bands that have the formula down, but it doesn’t make you feel even though the music is solid. It’s really about honesty, and when blues music, (whether a strict blues style or one of the blues offspring like soul, blues rock, or R&B,) is delivered with honesty, I think it’s open to be accepted as blues by the listener.

What would you say characterizes Illinois blues scene in comparison to other US scenes and circuits?

Central Illinois is a great place to be for the blues. Being on the historic route of the great migration and our geographic location, we are influenced by Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, Kansas City, kind of a stylistic melting pot if you will. We have a number of blues societies all working to bring in touring acts that are crisscrossing the Midwest all the while promoting our local scene as well. We’re also home to some incredible artists in the blues world.

"It’s a great time to be a female artist in the blues and I love it. There are a number of terrific blues women doing well and they are showing up all over the charts." (Photo: Mary Jo Curry with James Armstrong and Johnnny Rawls on stage, The Rockin’ Blue Soul Revue 2016)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

First, even though I admire the greats and have learned from listening to the greats, past and present, it’s still most important to be who you are. We admire them, because they were one of a kind, I think you should try to be one of a kind as well. Second, don’t step on toes so you can shine. You shine brighter when you find a space, regardless of its size in a song, to simply serve the song. Third, don’t be a jerk. Not cool at all.

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

In regards to this album, first & foremost, the great James Armstrong has been a major influence on me and the catalyst to get recorded and look to a bigger horizon. He believed in me so much that he committed himself to seeing that this project happened. He took me under his wing, and I trusted him to show me how to get this album recorded. He was relentless, “you’ve got to get recorded!” Without James I wouldn’t be here.

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

There’s been so many great moments performing with great artists that have become close friends. Those moments are always special. There are a few experiences that really stand out though. I had the incredible honor of having Albert Castiglia perform at my wedding reception. The night evolved into a great jam, and at one point during the night I was on stage singing with Albert and James Armstrong on guitar. An incredible experience. Another great moment, Johnny Rawls was playing at a club, The Alamo, in my hometown. He was singing this great song, and started strolling through the audience, he held the microphone up to me, I guess because he had heard I could sing. (he may have been testing me) I didn’t know the words so I just started riffing. After a few measures he pulled back the microphone, and said to the audience, “she’s good, I mean really good” and then he gave the microphone back to me, to continue singing. A few months later I did a show with James Armstrong and Johnny Rawls, The Rockin’ Blue Soul Revue.

One of my favorite songs to perform live is, “Wait for Me”, made famous by Susan Tedeschi, and written by Felix Reyes. A friend of ours, Luca Giordano, was performing in Springfield for our blues club, and by good fortune, he had Felix Reyes playing bass in his band. I was invited up to sing the song with Felix and the band and it was incredible. The next day he complimented my performance on Facebook, and he tagged Susan Tedeschi on the post. Very exciting and humbling at the same time.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Blues has to come from a place of authenticity. I think in the past, they were less concerned about technical perfection, and more concerned about sharing what was on the inside. I hope blues artists continue to remember to feel it and make the audience feel it, and not let their blues evolve into a slick rock show.

"Blues has to come from a place of authenticity. I think in the past, they were less concerned about technical perfection, and more concerned about sharing what was on the inside."

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

If you have to use auto-tune to record or to perform vocals live you aren’t a singer, and you should take up tambourine instead.

How has Billy Holiday, Etta James, Bessie Smith and Koko Taylor influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

They were all strong women and they said it like it was through their music. They weren’t concerned about fitting into societies mold, and they delivered their songs from a place of strength from a woman’s perspective. I am also influenced by Francine Reed, Denise LaSalle, Susan Tedeschi, Janiva Magness, and the male greats as well. Especially Albert Collins for his great sense of humor in music.

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

It’s a great time to be a female artist in the blues and I love it. There are a number of terrific blues women doing well and they are showing up all over the charts. And personally, I grew up with 7 older brothers, and a strong father, so I am very used to living in a man’s world. I love pushing back against the stereotypes without being strident, always keeping a good sense of humor, when I want to a make a point.

What is the impact of Blues, R&B and Soul music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Music is a great platform to share important messages and it does bring people together in a very deep way. I don’t have a lofty political or social agenda. Connecting with people through music on a basic personal level when we are together or when they hear my songs on the radio is my agenda.

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

I’d go back and spend a day with my Mom in Pensacola Beach, Florida. We’d walk along the beach, talking, singing, laughing, looking for sand dollars. That is where I’d be.

Mary Jo Curry - Official website

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