Q&A with Philadelphia’s blues-soul singer Deb Callahan, the songwriting reflects the impact of world events over the past few years

"American roots music is so steeped in the rich and complicated history of the United States. Listening to this music and trying to understand how it relates to the times in which it was written or performed offers so much insight into the history and people of the US. It’s the sound track to a lot of movies and is woven into our lives."

Deb Callahan: Backbone of Blues & Soul

Philadelphia’s blues-soul singer and songwriter Deb Callahan releases her 6th CD “Backbone” on Blue Pearl Records. The CD, produced by Philadelphia producer, songwriter and guitarist Chris Arms was recorded live at Morningstar Studios in Norristown, PA with overdubs and mixing completed at Arms’ Studio 501 in Philadelphia. Deb recorded this album with her road tested, all- star band of Allen James on guitar, Garry Lee on bass and Tom Walling on drums. The CD features London’s producer and songwriter Danny Schogger on keyboards and Arms on slide guitar. There are guest appearances by Philly’s Jay Davidson on sax, John Colgan Davis on harmonica and Charlene Holloway on backing vocals. The core bands years of playing together creates a unique chemistry and an ability to play with an easy, nuanced improvisation.

(Deb Callahan / Photo by Heidi P. Roland)

Deb’s previous CD, “Sweet Soul” was released in 2015 and produced by Los Angeles based producer-drummer Tony Braunagel. This CD, which received great reviews, was written in the years after Deb became a new parent to her son with a focus on love, connection and family. “Backbone” has a blues, funk, soul, rock, roots vibe and includes a range of styles. The songwriting reflects the impact of world events over the past few years exploring themes of uncertainty, vulnerability, being comfortable with and showing up for yourself, taking a stand, polarization in beliefs, freedom and letting go. Deb worked with Arms, Schogger and James to write the original material and chose two covers that fit in well with the material including Percy Mayfield’s Danger Zone and Sean Costello’s “Anytime You Want”.

Interview by Michael Limnios                 Archive: Deb Callahan, 2015 interview

How has the American Roots Music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

American roots music is so steeped in the rich and complicated history of the United States. Listening to this music and trying to understand how it relates to the times in which it was written or performed offers so much insight into the history and people of the US. It’s the sound track to a lot of movies and is woven into our lives. It has encouraged me to journey into understanding some of these artists musically and where they were coming from both musically, personally and socially. It has inspired me to write songs in this tradition as well. 

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I am inspired by other people’s art of all kinds, music, books, painting, movies, dance, etc. I am introspective about myself and curious about people’s stories and the societal and cultural influences that contribute to who they are. I have a strong drive to create both visual and sonic art. With music, I am always aware of a groove, beat or melody in my head. When I’m feeling a lot or have a reaction to something I often write down my thoughts or sometimes a few lines come into my head about this. I sing ideas into my phone often and sometimes these ideas end up being a song. I hope that people will take away from my songs, a feeling of connection in some way. Some songs are fun, humorous and joyful and others might be thought provoking or sad. For me music is incredibly healing and I hope to create music that contributes to people being seen, understood or curious.                                              (Deb Callahan / Photo by Heidi P. Roland)

"One of the most important lessons I have learned is to stay true to myself, my vision and not compare myself to others. I want to create and perform music that I love and feel proud of. I’m not interested in pleasing someone else or fitting into a formula of what’s popular or most interesting to record labels. This may not have brought me as much fame or material gains from music but as long as I’m growing and learning and able to share my music with others who appreciate it, I am satisfied."

Do you have any stories about the making of the new album "Backbone"? What characterize album's philosophy?

I had been gathering ideas and had written a handful of new songs but not clear what I wanted to do with them. In the summer of 2021, I began getting together with Chris Arms who I have written with before and who had produced 3 of my CD’s previously. He helped me write the bridge for the song “Rogue” that I had written and also to complete the song “What I’m Workin With”. We discussed ideas for other songs and he and Danny Schogger, a British keyboard player, songwriter and producer who he often writes with, came up with a handful of tracks that they shared with me. I wrote the melody and lyrics to three of these songs and another that Chris and Alan Glass, another British songwriter producer had written. I wrote one with guitarist Allen James, Chris and I finished a few other songs together and I finished a few that I had been writing as well. I chose two covers that fit in well with the material including Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone” and Sean Costello’s “Anytime You Want”.

When we started really working on these songs, we had been dealing with the Worldwide pandemic for almost a year as well as political and social justice uprisings here in the United States. The songwriting reflects the feelings that were coming up given the intense impact of these world events over a few years and explore themes of uncertainty, vulnerability, being comfortable with and showing up for oneself, taking a stand, polarization in beliefs, freedom and letting go. I think the idea of being comfortable with who you are and showing up for yourself and your beliefs is a core philosophy on this album. Sometimes this means letting go of what’s not working and this idea shows up on the record as well. I wanted to end the song on a positive note about love and connection prevailing despite all the challenges that life might bring.

It was natural to work with Chris Arms again on the production side of things because we had been writing together and he’s easy to work with. I recorded live in the studio with my long time core road band of Allen James, Garry Lee and tom Walling with the addition of Danny Schogger on the keys. There was a lot of ease and familiarity so the process was fun and we got the tracks in 2 days. We then took some time with overdubs and adding in other instruments, etc. Overall it was a great experience.

"I am inspired by other people’s art of all kinds, music, books, painting, movies, dance, etc. I am introspective about myself and curious about people’s stories and the societal and cultural influences that contribute to who they are. I have a strong drive to create both visual and sonic art. With music, I am always aware of a groove, beat or melody in my head. When I’m feeling a lot or have a reaction to something I often write down my thoughts or sometimes a few lines come into my head about this." (Philadelphia’s blues-soul singer and songwriter Deb Callahan / Photo by Heidi P. Roland)

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

There have been a few moments like this for me. Growing up I always loved singing and performing in theater. I had the opportunity to sing in choirs, chorus, acapella harmony groups. Musical theater and a swing band. I knew that I loved listening to soulful musical artists such as Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, but  when I  joined a blues-rock band in college I knew this was the type of music that I felt deeply and wanted to sing. That was really important for me and the path I would take. Performing at blues festivals around the country have been a highlight of my musical career. I have met so many other talented and wonderful artists along the way. One of these fests was The Monterey Blues Fest in Monterey, CA. Every time I have been in the studio and recording music I feel really at home and excited as well. The biggest highlight of my life so far has been being a mom to my amazing 12 year old son!

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

One of the most important lessons I have learned is to stay true to myself, my vision and not compare myself to others. I want to create and perform music that I love and feel proud of. I’m not interested in pleasing someone else or fitting into a formula of what’s popular or most interesting to record labels. This may not have brought me as much fame or material gains from music but as long as I’m growing and learning and able to share my music with others who appreciate it, I am satisfied.

Do you think there is an audience for Blues/Roots music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

I do think there will always be an audience for this type of music. I think we need to support younger artists who are interested in performing and embrace how they may want to change and put their own stamp on this type of music.

Deb Callahan - Home

(Deb Callahan / Photo by Heidi P. Roland)

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