Q&A with talented musician Ralph Beeby, keeps the Blues at the core of his songs but uses that a building block to create soundscapes

"I am hopeful for the future of the genre. I think those purists are just a loud minority, and I feel like a lot of newer artists are driving a bit of a resurgence in the genre's popularity. Buddy Guy recently said that he felt the wider music industry treated the Blues "like a stepchild," and I hope we'll started to see a shift in those attitudes before much longer."

Ralph Beeby: The Darkest Blues Corners

Magnolia Smoke (2023), the first full-length album from Ralph Beeby & The Elephant Collective, has been a long time coming. After a slew of EPs and singles over the past few years, the UK-based guitarist/songwriter has finally debuted his first definitive collection, self-described as "where the Blues gets weird." And while Magnolia Smoke isn't necessarily that weird, the album does take some interesting twists and turns well outside of the 'traditional' Blues mindset. Whatever that is. Bracketed at the beginning and end by instrumentals that channel Ennio Morricone's scoring in assorted Sergio Leone westerns, and serve as mood-setting prologue and epilogue, the 10 songs between play out like a twisted sideshow adjacent to a Depression-era carnival - on its last legs but still with a great story to tell. If you're looking for a quick reference, putting Kurt Weil, Tom Waits and Nick Cave in a Robert Johnson/Skip James blender might begin to scratch the surface. Might.                           (Photo: UK-based guitarist/songwriter, Ralph Beeby)

"I've always been drawn to the darker side of the Blues," Beeby comments. "Howlin' Wolf was like a jumping off point for me. His songs speak from a place you probably don't want to go, but at the same time it's too compelling to tear yourself away. I'm certainly not Wolf, no one else ever will be. I haven't had those experiences; I sing from the third person more often than the first. I think a song needs to tell a story, and my songs tell stories and work with themes that are dark but, I think - I hope - people will relate to them." Beeby keeps the Blues at the core of his songs but uses that a building block to create soundscapes; they're sparse, yet there's a lot going on. "I like to give the instruments space to breathe. I've tended to play in small groups, and when they gel properly all the musicians get a chance to do what they do and be heard. I like the idea of giving each instrument space to do what they do. I don't want to crowd it too much." Beeby says his music is "where the Blues get weird," but Magnolia Smoke is proof the Blues is an ever-expanding universe.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I've found an awful lot of like-minded friends amongst other musicians and artists - and not just within Rock or Blues music! Obviously, it's not as if all musicians have a uniform set of identical values and opinions, but there's an open-mindedness, a sense of fairness and community, and an understanding that we all benefit when we support one another. For something that was once described as "the devil's music" and seen as a threat to public order, it's been a surprisingly wholesome scene to be a part of!

But then I dare say that some people's perceptions of the Rock Counterculture are a little way behind the reality. I still meet a lot of people who assume we're all just one lucky break away from becoming "rock stars," with all the excess and grotesquery that might have been true for a handful of hair-metal bands back in the 1980s. I've certainly collected a few anecdotes in my time, but they tend to be tales of endurance rather than of excess - much to some people's disappointment!

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

"Where the Blues gets weird," is the short answer. I adore the Blues, but I also recogise that a lot of the jokes about its clichés ("done woke up this morning", songs sounding very similar, endless guitar solos, etc.) have a ring of truth to them. Any genre of music runs out of road when people get fixed ideas about what is, and what it isn't. I've seen some people taking an increasingly narrow view of what constitutes "Blues music," and I want to change that perception. There is plenty of fresh, new territory to explore within the Blues, and I want to cover as much of those lands as I can.

So it's a challenge to myself - to keep striving to create something new and unique - but also to my audience. I've stuck with the "Blues gets weird" tagline to give people fair warning that it might not make sense on the first pass! And I realise it will drive a lot of people away, but the people who are prepared to stick with it, and see where I'm going, are the ones I want to take with me. After all, I've seen so many artists get feedback along the lines of "oh, I liked your first album, but this one sounds too different." Or, "I really liked that song from three years ago; when are you going to write another one like that?" Well, fine: if you like the first album, or that one song, go and listen to it again. That's literally the point of recorded music. I refuse to keep repeating myself to placate one side of an audience, when I could instead appeal to a braver and more adventurous side of an audience with something fresh and imaginative.             (Photo: Ralph Beeby)

"I've found an awful lot of like-minded friends amongst other musicians and artists - and not just within Rock or Blues music! Obviously, it's not as if all musicians have a uniform set of identical values and opinions, but there's an open-mindedness, a sense of fairness and community, and an understanding that we all benefit when we support one another. For something that was once described as "the devil's music" and seen as a threat to public order, it's been a surprisingly wholesome scene to be a part of!"

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

It's changed over the years...I first started playing music as a teenager, and at that time I was quite socially awkward, and found it difficult to express my feelings verbally. Playing music became a valuable outlet as I could channel all those tense, anxious feelings through a piano or a guitar. It was very cathartic! But as I got older, and spent more time writing my own music, I reached a point where I couldn't switch it off. Almost any time of day, I have music going around in my brain, often some snippet of a new idea, or part of a lyric. I've tried to take a break from it, but I can't stop my brain from drifting in that direction. And I don't think I want to. Especially because I still get that cathartic feeling from playing.

The main thing I want to offer people is a challenge: musically and lyrically, I want to expand their perceptions of what Blues can be. Musically, the challenge is quite technical. I spend a lot of time playing around with different scales, different rhythms, bringing in sounds and ideas from other genres of music, and trying to find different ways to augment a lot of the more "traditional" Blues formats and song structures - while still, hopefully, making it enjoyable to listen!

Lyrically, I feel like there's also lots of room for the genre to expand. I don't want to talk down other artists; it's just I still hear so many songs about love and relationships, or drinking too much, or a very general "down on my luck, the weight of these Blues, etc"...and whilst I don't doubt that they're written from the heart, it does often feel like "safe" territory.

Here's the thing: the Blues has no shortage of great musicians, or excellent writers, but who are the genre's great lyricists? I've been encouraged to hear Jackie Venson bluntly addressing a lot of social issues on the superb 'Love Transcends' album, and it's great to hear Elles Bailey swing a figurative punch on songs like 'Cheats & Liars.' I'm not saying everyone needs to turn their songs into soapbox rants, or three-and-a-half-minute philosophies, but I think there's a ripe opportunity for some bolder writing.

For my own part, I've found that I write lyrics in the third person more often than the first or second - they often end up as strange, sad stories. And people often need sad stories: it's not about dragging everyone else down with you; more about exploring your own empathy and sensitivity; perhaps even relating to the characters within. It's an important part of being human. And for all the macabre, carnival-esque elements to my music, I'd like to think my lyrics still have that empathy to them - often harsh, but never cruel.              

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

My biggest fear is that the scene gets dragged down by a bunch of "gatekeepers." There's a (hopefully small) contingent who often crop up online, harrumphing about how certain artists don't play "proper" Blues music, or moaning about younger people not taking an interest in the Blues, while at the same time sharing that tedious meme of "I may be old, but at least I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan live."

I mean, what's that supposed to be - some exclusive little club that gives you a say on what should and shouldn't qualify for the genre? The guy was an incredible guitarist, and I'm sure it was a great show, but of course younger people are going to be turned off if you act like their opinion is invalid because they couldn't have gone to see an artist who - with all due respect - died more than 30 years ago. So much has happened since then; so many new artists have come through who have proven that they can acknowledge the roots and influence of those past masters whilst experimenting with new sounds, but there's always a handful of purists who won't be happy unless the same stale old ideas are being rehashed. If they had their way, the Blues would just become a museum piece - its own tribute act.

That said, I am hopeful for the future of the genre. I think those purists are just a loud minority, and I feel like a lot of newer artists are driving a bit of a resurgence in the genre's popularity. Buddy Guy recently said that he felt the wider music industry treated the Blues "like a stepchild," and I hope we'll started to see a shift in those attitudes before much longer.

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

The most important event was my friend insisting that I had to come and watch an Ian Siegal show. This friend and I had bonded over a mutual love of Classic Rock and Blues, but I was at a stage where I was doubtful about the future of the genre. I'd heard a few modern Blues artists who were writing their own stuff, but it all seemed very derivative, very formulaic - it was only a couple of groups, but it was enough to make me slightly despondent! (This was in the early 2000s, so whilst you could find some music online, it wasn't as easy as it is these days!) But Ian Siegal gave me hope. He was so different from these other groups I'd heard: so much more inventiveness, so much more charisma. And he was talking quite openly about trying to do something different with the Blues - he reassured me that the genre had a future.

There have been a couple of highlights: before the Elephant Collective, I played bass for a Blues/Rock group called Cherry White. We certainly collected a few stories along the way, but we reached a peak in 2015 when we played the Planet Rockstock festival - it was quite surreal seeing our name on a poster alongside artists like The Darkness and Joanne Shaw Taylor (though of course, our name was printed much, much smaller!)

So far, I haven't reached quite such heights with the Elephant Collective, but I am quite proud of the new album, Magnolia Smoke. It feels like a milestone, as I recorded and produced the whole thing myself. I had other people do the mastering, the cover art, and a couple of session musicians to add violin and cello, but everything else was a one-man operation. Doing a whole album this way felt like quite a mammoth project, but I'm glad I did it - and I'm very pleased with the results.

"So it's a challenge to myself - to keep striving to create something new and unique - but also to my audience. I've stuck with the "Blues gets weird" tagline to give people fair warning that it might not make sense on the first pass! And I realise it will drive a lot of people away, but the people who are prepared to stick with it, and see where I'm going, are the ones I want to take with me." (Photo: Ralph Beeby)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

When you listen to some of the early artists, particularly people like Lead Belly or Son House, you hear a lot of songs about the hardships of being treated very much as a second-class citizen, and it's easy to understand why those songs would have resonated with predominantly black audiences at the time. Fast forward to today, and - well, going back to my earlier point about lyrics - there seems to be a reticence to confront contemporary problems and issues in the same way. A lot of people dismiss the Blues as being an outdated or irrelevant genre, and perhaps that's because a lot of it doesn't speak to people in the same way. Obviously the issues will be different these days, but the Blues grew partly as a way for people to deal with their grievances, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be able to do that again in nowadays. It would certainly help to prove that it is still - and has always been - relevant.

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

Thinking about it, I could reel off a long list, but it probably wouldn't be all that interesting. So I'll stick to the more entertaining ones, which I'm glad to say I learned from watching other people's mistakes rather than my own...

  1. Nobody is impressed by your loudness. This is not the '60s: loud amps are really easy to buy these days, and very few people think it's cool to go home with tinnitus. While you're at it, remind your drummer that they're supposed to be keeping a beat, not building a shed.
  2. Don't insult the audience. They've (probably) paid to be there, and they're under no obligation to stay.
  3. Don't insult the sound engineer. You'd think this one was obvious, but I've seen it happen. (And yes: when they finally got their act together and played, the band in question were truly terrible.)

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

Yes to both. The internet has been a real boon for more maligned genres of music...obviously the idea of "social media" must be 20-odd years old now, but as things have gradually shifted towards user-generated content, so other services and platforms have sprung up to help people create that content. It's so much easier now to release your own music, to stream your live shows online, or to broadcast your own radio show or podcast about an obscure musical backwater that interests you. I completely understand that nosing around on Facebook or YouTube doesn't have the same glamour or mythology as Iron Maiden jumping in their van after work every Friday to cram three or four shows into a weekend...but then times have changed. Venues are dropping off the map - and dedicated Blues venues are particularly sparse around the UK. But there's an audience for our music online, if we can find them. Most of the Blues artists I see succeeding have a healthy relationship with their followers online, and I think that's where the future audience will come from.

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