Q&A with Oregon-based singer/songwriter Rae Gordon - serves up a potent stew of gritty blues and heartfelt soul

"I really wish that music got as much emphasis in our schools as math and language do. When I was in elementary school, music class really grabbed my attention and I enjoyed it so much, but then the school decided to discontinue the music program and I was so disappointed."

Rae Gordon: Blues & Soul Experiences

The multi-award-winning Rae Gordon Band serves up a potent stew of gritty blues and heartfelt soul – soaring vocals with searing guitar counterpoint, high-energy horns and a hard-driving rhythm section with the power of a freight train. Following their 3rd-place finish at the International Blues Challenge in 2017 (finals judge Walter Trout said afterwards, “I gave her a score of 10, the best score you can give. She made an incredible impression.”), the band released its third CD Better Than I Was, which has received airplay in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK. The CD also won a Muddy Award for Best Northwest Recording from the Cascade Blues Association and the band received the Best Contemporary Blues Act Muddy Award.       Photo by Alex McDougall

Winter 2019 brings the release of the band's hotly-anticipated fourth CD, Wrong Kind Of Love, produced by Kivett Bednar and engineered and mixed by Jimi Bott at his studio Roseleaf Recording. The CD's ten original songs cover a wide gamut of styles, from lowdown barroom blues to dance-worthy funk, from heart-tugging soul ballad to slide-drenched rage rocker, from minor-key blues angst to uplifting soul anthem. Rae began her singing career in the piano bars and comedy clubs of Los Angeles, where she honed her ability to relate to any audience – from a small wine bar with a few people sipping libations, to a big festival attended by thousands. Rae’s approachability and onstage charisma are as well-known as her multi-octave range. She has won the Cascade Blues Association’s Muddy Award for Best Female Vocalist five times, landing her in their Hall Of Fame. Her first recording, Blue Lemonade, hit #10 on the Billlboard Blues Chart; her second offering, Dirty Flowers, has enjoyed extensive airplay in the U.S. and beyond. In 2017 the Rae Gordon Band released its third recording, the award-winning Better Than I Was, produced by RGB guitarist Kivett Bednar and featuring songs co-written with RGB keyboardist and musical director Pat McDougall.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I love how music can make strangers into friends. Music brings people together from different generations and backgrounds and can be a relationship healer. I’ve seen for myself that people can connect with each other on a deeper level using music as a conduit. I have always loved the lyrics of blues and soul songs; they offer some of the deepest and moving words that evoke real feelings in the listener. Recognizing yourself in a song can help you feel not so alone anymore.  When I’m onstage singing one of my original songs and I see someone in the audience singing along to it, maybe thinking, “Yeah, me too” – there’s nothing as sweet as that!

How do you describe your sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

The sound of our band is always swaying back and forth between blues and soul, often creating a potent mix of the two. We try to be fun, danceable, emotional, gritty – but always focusing on a strong groove and attitude. For the songs on our new CD, “Wrong Kind Of Love,” we wanted to deliver a lot of different styles, the same way we do in a live performance. So, we put a lowdown barroom blues on there, a funk tune, a soulful ballad, a slide-drenched uptempo song – the whole range.

My drive to create comes out of my life experiences and having something to say about what I’ve been through. I used to feel like I needed to prove something, but more and more now I realize that I have just as much to say as anybody else, and that my stories are worth telling. So, I try to tell them, and with the songs on “Wrong Kind Of Love” we tried to maybe go deeper and more thoughtful than we had on previous albums.

"The biggest lesson that I learned in my musical path is that I don't walk it alone.  I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing and living my dreams without people who took the time from their own experiences to share with me and help me learn and grow. And I’m always learning." (Photo by Alex McDougall)

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

In 2017, our band found ourselves on the stage of the historic Orpheum Theatre in Memphis during the International Blues Challenge finals. We’d spent three days watching incredible performances by acts from all over the world in both intimate and big venues on and around the renowned Beale Street. We made new friends, became new fans and experienced the wonderful camaraderie of a community that knows no borders. It was a surreal experience, and placing 3rd is a memory that I will cherish forever – not just because I got to perform in front of an international crowd, but also because I got to experience it with some of the best bandmates I have ever worked with.

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

I hear from local musicians who started in the profession way earlier than I did that they once could make a really good living. They owned homes, had families and were full-time musicians. These days, though, most people say that you can’t do only music and still survive; you have to supplement it with other work. A bass player friend of mine calls it the "crazy musician quilt" – odd jobs patched together so that you can afford to do your music. It would be great if local musicians could make ends meet solely by playing music. I’m grateful for my own "crazy musician quilt" to be able to do this as my main living, but I hope that in the future there will be more opportunities to do solely music and survive.

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

I really wish that music got as much emphasis in our schools as math and language do. When I was in elementary school, music class really grabbed my attention and I enjoyed it so much, but then the school decided to discontinue the music program and I was so disappointed. As a result, I ended up embracing music much later in life. I know that there are a lot of passionate people working hard to bring music back into the schools, and I’m grateful for the kids who do get to discover the magic of music earlier on.

"My drive to create comes out of my life experiences and having something to say about what I’ve been through. I used to feel like I needed to prove something, but more and more now I realize that I have just as much to say as anybody else, and that my stories are worth telling. So, I try to tell them, and with the songs on “Wrong Kind Of Love” we tried to maybe go deeper and more thoughtful than we had on previous albums." (Rae Gordon on stage with horn section / Photo by Laura Carbone)

What does it mean to be a female artist in a "Man’s World," as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Well, women are frequently at a disadvantage compared to men, and the music industry is no exception. There are unfortunate stereotypes about female singers and players, it’s tougher for women to get signed, festivals often don’t book many female artists, things like that. But in the blues world, we’re lucky to have advocates who help showcase women in blues locally, nationally and internationally. I became a board member of the National Women in Blues organization last year. I was so inspired by Portland musician and club owner Sonny Hess and her work to support and showcase Oregon women in blues that when the opportunity came from Michele Seidman at the national level, I took it!  Don’t forget, we also have had tough, courageous icons like Etta James, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton and so many others who really blazed trails and showed us how to get it done. So, I’m inspired by their success, and then I look at younger artists like Annika Chambers, Shemekia Copeland, Lisa Mann, Samantha Fish, Terrie Odabi, so many others I admire – and I feel like things are just getting better and better for us all. I’m proud to be part of that trend. It may have been a “Man’s World,” but “it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl!”

How would you describe the state of the blues in Oregon? What characterize the sound of the local scene?

The Portland, Oregon blues scene has an amazing variety of players, people who are great at traditional blues, contemporary, soul music, R&B, funk – they’re all here. Our blues community has such a solid reputation that we see a lot of top-notch players relocating here from out of state to be part of the scene. Any night of the week you can find a good music act to dance to at multiple venues in the Portland metro area; and if you need inspiration, the professional blues dancers of our community can often be found on the dance floors of small and large venues.  But most importantly, our blues community is made up of good-hearted people who welcomed me when I first moved here and helped me find my musical footing in the Northwest. When I travel out of state, I frequently meet musicians who tell me the great things they’ve heard about the Portland blues scene. Maybe it’s something in the rain?

"I love how music can make strangers into friends. Music brings people together from different generations and backgrounds and can be a relationship healer." (Rae Gordon / Photo by Alex McDougall)

What are some of the most important you have learned from your experiences in your musical paths?

The biggest lesson that I learned in my musical path is that I don't walk it alone. I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing and living my dreams without people who took the time from their own experiences to share with me and help me learn and grow. And I’m always learning.

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

Commenting on something like this can take you into pretty sensitive territory, but I would just say this: People are feeling a lot of strong emotions these days, and there’s a lot of division and very negative commentary over current events. We tried to touch on this a bit with the song “Get Right With The World” on our new CD; it talks about the importance of taking action over the things that matter to you instead of only talking about them. There's an emphasis on acting NOW and coming to terms with the world: "Reach out a hand to those who can use it; live your life before you lose it." I go back to what I said earlier about how music can be a healing force, and a way for people to come together over a common love for what moves and inspires them. That’s what we’re trying to do as musicians.

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

There is a video out there of Janis Joplin singing “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.  It’s a gut-wrenching, emotional roller coaster of a performance that you can see and sense from her head down to her toes. It was a pure example of everybody in on it, from the audience to stage, one big ride everyone is on together. I wish I had been born early enough to be there. But Janis' performance isn't why I want to be there. It's Mama Cass Elliot sitting in the audience with her mouth wide open, unable to contain her amazement. Look it up and check it out. I would love to board that time machine and hang with Cass.  How cool to experience the moment when a musical legend become an über-fan!

Rae Gordon Band - Home

Rae Gordon Band / Photo by Alex McDougall

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