Juwana Jenkins took UK magazine Classic Rock Presents The Blues writer Henry Yates for a musical road trip through the U.S. when she talked to him about her album The Blues Keeps You Alive. They covered quite a distance (from the West Coast to the Mississippi Delta and all the way up to Detroit) to talk about Juwana’s inspiration as a performer and songwriter.
Juwana Jenkins and Her All-Star Mojo Band. Hit the road with the Philly songbird and her band.
Words: Henry Yates
The Blues Keeps You Alive isn’t just a record. It’s a musical road trip through the U.S., and Juwana Jenkins is your tour guide. “The album sounds like we’re travelling across America?” beams the Philadelphia-born singer. “Well, that’s absolutely one hundred per cent the idea! So Never Say I Love starts off with a Mississippi Delta vibe, and then it’s Memphis, Detroit… the point was to say, blues doesn’t all sound the same, and it’s not all twelve bar.”
This state-to-state travelogue works a treat, with the 12 tracks unified by Juwana’s belting vocal and the brassy grooves of Her All-Star Mojo Band. Fiercely loyal to her sidemen, Juwana gives particular credit to Czech harp-blower and co-songwriter Charlie Slavik for pulling her deeper into the blues, following a childhood soundtracked by Motown and her local Baptist church services. “I grew up singing in church,” she recalls, “and I wanted to have that energy and richness of singers such as Koko Taylor, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle, who are tremendous influences on me. I always had a dream about what I wanted my voice to sound like. So when you turned on the radio, you’d go ‘Oh, that’s Juwana’.”
She never looked back, piecing together an eclectic CV whose most exotic entry is perhaps playing her unabashed idol, Tina Turner, in a tribute outfit (“When I was a young frontwoman,” she admits, “and I had no clue what I was doing, I just thought, ‘what would Tina do…?’”) For all that, you sense that with The Blues Keeps You Alive, Juwana has found her raison d’être, as well as a previously untapped flair for lyric-writing. “I like to write Willie Dixon-type lyrics,” she grins. “So they’re these double-innuendos, using very simple language, but there’s a lot of subtext. For example, on Married To The Blues, y’know, it’s ‘When my house is dark, Mr Blues comes home and then he rocks me all night long’. They sound like one thing, but there’s a lot more going on.
“But,” she counters, “the subject matter is often something that’s touched me deeply, to my very core, and the only way for me to process those feelings and to make sense of them is to put them in a song. With The Blues Keeps You Alive, that’s a true story, and it was the case of my marriage coming to an end and not knowing what to do with all that sadness, that hurt, that pain. But the healing power of music, and its ability to express and touch and soothe… that’s how the blues kept me alive.”
Not forgetting, of course, the blues’ unrivalled ability to rock the house. “When I’m onstage,” laughs Juwana of her towering live presence, “I feel like that person who has to be polite and proper and respectable just gets to be herself. That the little girl who was teased on the playground is finally able to let her hair down. That’s what it’s really about. I get to be me.”
“My musical partner, Charlie Slavik, got me into this genre. When we started working together, he’s like, ‘You have to immerse yourself in the blues and have respect for the genre’. So he brought me over CDs, sat me down, and in the car on the way to gigs we just listened and listened. That’s how I found my own relationship to the blues, to Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor, and came to realise that out of the different forms that I’ve sung, it’s the closest to my temperament.”
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