Q&A with Blues lady Eden Brent, a modern-day piano-pounding, juke-joint hollering powerhouse of Roots music

"Music brings people together and can bridge cultural and political differences. If people with conflicting interests can discover a common interest, like music, this common interest might encourage communication and thus understanding."

Eden Brent: Getaway Blues

Blues lady Eden Brent is a modern-day piano-pounding, juke-joint hollering powerhouse of American music. A legendary performer and southern songwriter, she spent the first two decades of her career under the tutelage of Abie “Boogaloo” Ames, before winning the Blues Foundation’s Blues Challenge and bouncing onto the international scene. Since then she lands steady honors, three Blues Music Awards among them. Her new album "Getaway Blues" presents nine original songs recorded in London with a four-piece band and will be officially released June 21st, 2024. Laid down in London. Mixed up in Memphis. Made in Mississippi. Produced and arranged by Brent's husband, Londoner Bob Dowell, "Getaway Blues" presents nine original songs recorded live in the studio with Eden on piano, Bob on bass, Rob Updegraff on guitar, and Pat Levett on drums. An intimate soundscape lends the perfect backdrop to Eden's vocal lines, allowing the essence of the song to cut straight through.              (Eden Brent / Photo by Rory Doyle)

Born and raised in Greenville, Miss., Brent grew up the daughter of a family of riverboat captains, notably father and “River Legend” awardee, Howard Brent, and her grandfather, a key figure in the development of the region’s waterways and namesake of the Jesse Brent Memorial Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River into Arkansas. A precocious child, Eden took to the piano before preschool. That fascination led to a degree in music theory at the University of North Texas, yet back in the heart of the Delta, Eden also immersed herself in the area’s revered blues scene. In clubs and at the town’s venerable Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, she got to hear one legend after another, from Koko Taylor, Albert King, and Bobby Bland to Memphis Slim, B.B. King, and James “Son Ford” Thomas.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the music influenced your views of the world? What does the blues mean to you?

Mississippi is my lifelong home, and blues fans from all over the world travel to Mississippi to see the place where folks like Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie were born. So I’ve met a lot of blues lovers from all over the world here at home. At the same time, being a blues artist has allowed me the opportunity to travel to many far away places and meet a lot of music lovers in their home countries. I’ve performed all over the world in places far remote from my Mississippi home, places like South Africa and Thailand and Egypt, places that I might never had the chance to visit otherwise. Traveling and meeting people from other places opened my mind to different cultures and ideas and made this vast world seem much smaller. My world view has expanded as the world itself seems smaller and more accessible.

With this new album, “Getaway Blues” I made the bluesiest album of my collection. My husband Bob Dowell produced the album, and we co-wrote all of the songs. This is the first album that I’ve ever released of all original music, so that is exciting. The chord progressions are simple but interesting, and we focused on making the melodies unique and memorable. For instance, in “Watch the World Go By,” the haunting melody falls for nearly two octaves in the first phrase before resolving upward, and the vocal performance is dynamically expressive. We also wanted there to be plenty of space on the recording so that the listener feels relaxed as he takes in the song, like breathing air. We only used a four-piece band for the album: piano/voice, electric guitar, bass, and drums. Even the guitar solos offer lots of open space to breathe after each phrase. The band was marvelous, and it felt so good playing this music together in the studio.

The Blues to me is a way of life. I grew up with the blues because I was surrounded by blues people my whole life. The Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, and I’ve lived here my whole life. My hometown of Greenville hosts the oldest blues festival in the world, the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, formerly known as the Delta Blues Festival, and it’s been hosted here every year since 1978. As a teenager I attended that festival where I saw legends like Memphis Slim and Koko Taylor. Over the years I saw B. B. King perform annually at his Homecoming appearance at Club Ebony in Indianola. I hung out with internationally acclaimed bluesmen like Eugene Powell (also known as Sonny Boy Nelson), and T Model Ford. I apprenticed with local piano legend Abie “Boogaloo” Ames and performed with the likes of Eddie Cusic and Willie Foster. Blues to me is music for everybody. It doesn’t require lessons or an education to play, sing or write the blues, but it does require honest emotion, and the more intense the feeling, the better the blues! This new album is really the culmination of all of my blues experiences here at home and in my travels.

"Women always had a voice in the blues and we continue to. It seems to me that women have a lot more reasons to sing the blues than men do! Women are often paid less for the same work, underrepresented in positions of power in government and the corporate structure, and increasingly repressive legislation threatens women’s rights to self-determination." (Eden Brent, Mississippi 2020/ Photo by Bill Steber)

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

I am a piano-pounding, juke-joint hollering, modern-day Mississippi blues lady. My sound is authentic so will make the listener laugh and cry and think. It is my job to entertain people and to help them feel the things that they need to feel, whether those feelings are joyful or sorrowful. It is my job to write songs that express the feelings that people have inside but have difficulty expressing themselves. Often, human feelings seem beyond words. Music helps bridge the gap between emotion and intellect, bringing feelings into better focus. On the new album, we recorded a happy-go-lucky song called “Just Because I Love You.” In the song one partner is saying to the other that “just because I love you, baby everything will be alright.” The song is a New Orleans-style song like something Dr John might do, and it really expresses the words so much better than the music could do without words or than the words without music. I have many songs in my repertoire, some that I have written and others that I have interpreted in my own way. But with every song, I give my all. I immerse myself into the song to express it as completely as I can. Songs are like living things to me. Songs grow and evolve just like living things. When I first write a song, it is new and unfamiliar, but over time, we become good friends, and I begin to understand and perform the song better and better. I grow from the song and it grows from me. I often think that my relationship to a song is probably much like an author has with his character. Authors develop characters as they write, and the characters come to life. I like to develop a song in much the same way. I draw from my life experiences when I’m writing and performing songs, and this gives the song authenticity. Songs move me to laughter or to tears, and I share this raw emotion with the audience. For example, although the new album Getaway Blues was recorded live in a London studio, I re-recorded the vocal part to “You On My Mind” during the mixing session in Memphis because when I originally sang the song in London, I started crying during the last chorus. But during the re-recording, I cried again during the same part of the song! The song moves me in such a profound way, but I didn’t want my vocal line to waver or my intonation to be affected! I was surprised at my own reaction!

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?         (Eden Brent & Abie “Boogaloo” Ames, 1999 / Photo by Anne Rayner)

Many experiences and people have influenced my music, but none greater than the piano player who tutored me for almost 20 years, my dear friend Abie “Boogaloo” Ames. He taught me so much about how to play piano and also how to carry myself professionally and how to entertain. He loved life and loved people, and I learned a lot about the joy of living from him. Knowing and working with Boogaloo was a highlight, and I try to honor his memory with my music. Since Boogaloo’s passing more 22 years ago, one of the highlights of my career was winning the International Blues Challenge in 2006. Overnight, blues fans from around the world were introduced to my music and have since recognized me with many nominations and three Blues Music Awards. I am invited to perform festivals and events all over the world and am a frequent performer aboard the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, which is where I met my husband Bob Dowell in 2008. Currently, I am releasing my best blues album ever, produced by my husband Bob Dowell whom I met aboard the 2008 Blues Cruise just two years after winning the International Blues Challenge. The blues definitely changed my life!

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

I miss the sound of music recorded between about 1948 and 1978. During these years the recordings had plenty of clarity, unlike the early blues recordings of Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith and others. The earliest recordings lack clarity because of the limitations of the recording techniques at the time. But during these middle years, much of the music had very little production that prevented it from being replicated live in concert. These days many artists are making records by putting them together in the editing process. That is an art all its own, but I am much more intrigued by music that happens simultaneously in a moment. Although live recording might reveal slight imperfections, it sounds more alive. For instance, the “Watch the World Go By” piano solo begins with my fingers slipping on the keys, creating a very beautiful riff that I will never be able to play again! Imperfect, but it is so genuine that I wouldn’t dream of trying to correct or edit it in any way. With digital technology we have become accustomed to hearing music that is so squeaky clean, it’s almost unreal. I like my blues barbeque served with a little grease left on the plate!

My hope is that the blues will continue to inspire people of all ages to pick up an instrument or a microphone and express themselves. My fear is that the increase in digital technology will lead to a further decline in acoustic instruments and acoustic sounds. I have been approached a number of times over the last several years inquiring whether or not I knew anyone who wanted a piano because the owner no longer wanted or had space in the home for the instrument. I even witnessed a man demolishing an upright piano with a sledgehammer because the instrument was too large and heavy for trash removal otherwise. This trend is heartbreaking to me. There are fewer music stores and record stores sprinkled around our towns and cities. These days folks get most of their music and entertainment from their phones. In addition to this, with advances in digital technology, anyone can record themselves at home. While these advances make music more accessible, it also lowers the audio standard that the general population is willing to tolerate. I fear that digitally enhanced music will replace authentic sounds. Blues is music for everyone, but everyone shouldn’t try to become a touring blues act or a recording engineer. Almost everyone knows how to cook dinner, but not everyone should open a restaurant! Music is the same way. Everybody should play and sing but everybody doesn’t need to be a stage act or record producer. It adds to much water to the gravy.

"Mississippi is my lifelong home, and blues fans from all over the world travel to Mississippi to see the place where folks like Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie were born. So I’ve met a lot of blues lovers from all over the world here at home." (Eden Brent,  Greenville, Miss. 2023 / Photo by Rory Doyle)

Why do you think that Mississippi Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Mississippi roots music is music for the common man, music for everyone. Blues is world music; it is music of indigenous people for the people, and that kind of roots music connects directly with the deepest parts of our basic humanity. The music is outwardly simple but is very expressive so can effectively communicate very complicated emotions. Anybody can play the blues. Some blues songs only have one chord! Many of the songs of R.L. Burnside for example are like chants, remaining on one chord for the entire song, but in their simplicity, they convey an intensity of emotion. The blues continues to attract audiences worldwide because the music is very relatable and easy to mimic, and it is authentic. To me the blues is like watching somebody smile. It makes me want to smile right back. With Getaway Blues, we made the music spacious and easy to listen to. The words are simple but expressive. The first line of “Rust” for example says, “My man don’t ever leave me. He sticks to me just like rust.” Those are simple words but they communicate how complicated love can be.

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

It might be a “man’s world” as James Brown sings. But, in the second part of the lyric he sings that “it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.” The first blues recordings were of women singers, the very first being Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” Women always had a voice in the blues and we continue to. It seems to me that women have a lot more reasons to sing the blues than men do! Women are often paid less for the same work, underrepresented in positions of power in government and the corporate structure, and increasingly repressive legislation threatens women’s rights to self-determination. Thankfully, there are lots of women leading bands and singing songs about these issues and I am proud to be among them, carrying the tradition that I learned from the earlier generations of women who sang the blues. I am fortunate to participate in “women in blues” events around the country, and I am thankful. However, when women finally achieve equality there will be no need for “women in blues” events. It is my ambition to be listed among the leading blues artists of my generation, not necessarily the blues women of my generation.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?                (Eden Brent, Mississippi blues lady / Photo by Rory Doyle)

Much of the world conflict seems to emerge from misunderstanding. Music brings people together and can bridge cultural and political differences. If people with conflicting interests can discover a common interest, like music, this common interest might encourage communication and thus understanding. I hope that my music will bring people together. It seems that blues and jazz music have a long history of bringing all kinds of people together. I hope this new album Getaway Blues makes people smile and laugh and cry if they need to, and I am confident that “He Talks About You” will make people want to dance!

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

My whole life I wanted to be a musician because playing was so much fun. I always loved performing, but I hated practicing. Music taught me that hard work is rewarded with good times. A lot of work goes into writing songs, rehearsing and recording albums. But this new album Getaway Blues is my favorite album I’ve ever recorded, and I am so excited to perform these new songs for the whole world!

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