Juwana talked to musicweb.cz about almost everything – the power of music, future plans and The Blues Keeps You Alive album. Here you can get all the juicy details of all the responses in the original, unedited version in English. Don’t miss the complete inside story on how songs Married to the Blues and I Don’t Miss You came to life!
Juwana, what does the city of Prague mean for you?
Prague is the golden city in the Heart of Europe. It is the capital of a small country which means it is New York, LA and Washington all in one, i.e. commerce, entertainment and politics all in one location. Because Prague is so centrally located, anything my heart desires is never too far away whether it’s the calming beauty of Czech nature or the exciting diversity of other European capitals. Whether it’s to visit the familiarity of America to the West or to explore the exoticness of Asia to the East, Prague is my home base.
You started your music career with gospel. How is this genre important for you?
I began singing in church and grew up singing Gospel is music of the people. It’s simple and easy to follow so that anyone can sing and take part in it. Gospel is unifying. It is uplifting. It is powerful. In gospel, the songs are more about the openness and willingness of the heart to express the deepest feelings of the soul to take it higher. That deeply influences my approach to music, singing and songwriting.
You were born in Philadelphia, United States. How did you get deep to the blues from this city over gospel songs to the centre of Europe?
Blues came from gospel music.
In 1999, I performed with the Double Deckers, a pop group, and very briefly with Aftermath, a more alternative sound, who wanted me to write and sing songs. In 2000, I was invited to be the frontwoman for Tonny’s Blues Band, performing blues standards and covers of bands, like the Rolling Stones, that started out as blues bands. In 2009, I met Charlie Slavík who invited me to a blues jam he was hosting. Hanging out and jamming with other blues musicians, some old friends some new, just felt so right to me. It felt like I’d gone to a party, found and settled into deep conversation with people who had something interesting for me to listen to and made me want to share what I had to say. I’ll never forget the feeling of relief I had that day.
In 2010, Charlie proposed doing an old-school blues project to perform at Šumperk Blues Alive after Ondřej Bezr, the festival’s artistic director, invited us to play when he saw us jamming together at an event. Charlie very simply asked me “What do you want to sing?” and with that simple question I got deep into the blues. I really didn’t know what I really wanted to sing so I listened to early blues classics and masters to learn what moved me, what suited my personality, temperament, and my voice. I discovered that what the old lady played on the piano at my parents’ church when I was just a little girl was from the time when the blues was just gospel sang on Saturday night in a smoky “juke joint” and as Ray Charles said they sang “Oh, Baby” instead of “Oh, Lord”. Finding, writing and singing that type of blues is like coming home for me.
Could you introduce your own music for the listeners who possibly don’t know a lot about blues and could be your fans in the future?
People who come to my concerts typically say that they feel energized and full of positive energy when they leave because my music is “feel good” blues.
There’s a saying: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
You know how you feel when you are able to really laugh about what used to make you cry? You know how happy you feel when instead of feeling sad or bitter you feel wiser, smarter and grateful, knowing that you’re now in a better place–not in spite of it, but because of it.
The blues I write is about the unconquerable spirit that is not only able to endure, but go through a situation and come out on the other side. The unconquerable spirit that is able to not just talk about it, but sing about it and even celebrate it in song– because it is just that strong. We are just that strong, but we don’t know it until we meet the Blues.
That experience does not belong solely to one race in one country at one period of time, but resonates with, speaks to and belongs to everyone all over the world as part of the human experience, because that is life.
After opening for Mick Taylor at Lucerna Music Bar for III. Prague International Blues Night, a young Czech man came up to me after the show and said “I was feeling sad, but then I heard your voice and now I feel better.”
That’s why I sing.
What is your attitude of the blues scene in the Czech Republic? Is it good example of European blues?
The blues scene in the Czech Republic is a very small, close knit community of mostly Czech musicians, die-hard Czech fans, curious Czech visitors and international tourists–but mostly tourists. Tourists from all over the world come to have a good time, because the tourists associate blues with saying “Yeah!” (“Yeah!!”), singing along, clapping to the beat, getting up to dance and just basically having a good time without any thought about who is looking and what they might think.
In comparison to the Czech Republic, the blues scene in other European countries has more organized support from fans, associations, societies, record labels, touring agencies, agents and media who are committed to actively promoting the blues in their countries and their countries’ bands abroad.
These are some of the same bands I also saw earlier in Memphis, Tennessee (US) competing in and making a name for themselves while representing a blues society at the International Blues Challenges along with bands from the Philippines and Australia.
Only the organized, committed support of local blues lovers makes that possible.
What is a difference between Czech and foreign audience at your concerts?
In comparison to my description above of the foreign audience at my concerts, the Czechs are more conservative and reserved. So much more reserved that I actually wrote a song, “J’s Juke Joint “, because of it for the last album, The Blues Keeps You Alive.
The foreign audiences will let go and let loose after the 3rd or 4th song maybe because that’s just what you do on holiday anyway. The Czech audiences, on the other hand, many times wait until I say “And here’s the last song of the night” and, like clockwork, something goes off inside them and they now have to grab the moment, stand up, dance, sing, holler, join in, because “oh, no! It’s the end!?!? No, wait, I was having fun, but..but..but No! Don’t stop! Don’t go anywhere! JEŠTĚ JEDNOU! JEŠTĚ JEDNOU!”
“J’s Juke Joint “ is my invitation, my encouragement to the audience to not wait, to not hold back but seize the moment. We’ve all worked too hard all day every day not to jump up and seize the moment to let go and enjoy ourselves to our hearts’ content for a while.
Could you tell me more about your recording from the year 2010 – Ten After Ten with Tonny Blues Band?
Ten after Ten was an album with 10 songs recorded to celebrate my 10 years as the frontwoman for Tonny’s Blues Band. Of those 10 songs, I wrote my own original lyrics for 6 tunes that Tonny had previously recorded.There was one lovely instrumental , “Lucy’s Blues” which the guitarist Karel Barta wrote for his girlfriend at the time and then the rest were covers of tunes by The Beatles, Elmore James and Tonny.
How was the cooperation with this band?
As I said, after a life spent singing gospel, I began singing the blues as a frontwoman in this band, so I Iearned a lot. From Tonny, the most important thing I learned was to talk with the audience. A “bigbeat” man, Tonny helped me to hear the blues roots of modern music and hard rock , like in AC/DC. Tonny’s been such a figure on the Czech blues scene for so long that it’s hard to find a blues musician who hasn’t played with him at some time!
During the album recording, I worked with Jan Kares, a saxophonist and keyboard player, who wrote the melodies to Tonny’s tunes for me to write the lyrics. The beauty of his melodies inspired my lyrics to the songs “It Goes Wrong” and “A Long Way to Go.” Working with him to create the music and record my vocals was a tremendously rewarding experience.
In the autumn 2012 you released new CD – The Blues Keeps You Alive. Could you explain what does the title mean and why did you choose it?
The Blues Keeps You Alive was originally inspired by the name of the festival for which it was created, Šumperk Blues Alive.
Charlie had brought me the Bo-Diddley beat to this song and even though I couldn’t relate and didn’t want to use it, he was so insistent about how good it was that to be fair I put the groove on repeat and went about tidying up, washing dishes and thinking “Blues Alive. Blues. Alive. Blues Alive? How has the Blues kept me alive?” Washing dishes, I remembered what it felt like to go through some of the most painfully confusing and disappointing moments of my life before that one moment when I finally swore that the pain of loss would not break me, but make me.
Then I washed the last glass and began to write the story of how the Blues keeps me alive.
At Blues Alive, we were encouraged to record an album to represent the sound of this new blues project, so we chose this song as the title track.
You and the Czech harmonica player Charlie Slavík sound very good together. How were the preparations for the whole recording with this musician?
We perform well together because we’re both strong personalities that complement each other. Charlie knows me, my strengths and limitations very well and brought the grooves that would suit me best, half of the album’s songs. We were equally invested in the album’s production and had to agree on everything together and if we didn’t agree then one would have to work very hard to convince the other until we both agreed. A song didn’t get recorded or released unless we both agreed. Fortunately for us, Charlie was wise enough to bring in from the very beginning Jan Kořínek as the producer to be the cool level head who could kept the peace by blending the best of all options based on some basic rules that Charlie and I had immediately agreed on from the very beginning: absolutely no complicated, intellectual “art”, just old school blues, rough and raw with every song a good song – no bad songs.
You didn’t only sing on this CD but also wrote the lyrics and some of the music. What was the first – the words, the melodies or anything else?
That really depends on the song. Some songs were inspired by an experience so the lyrics to express my feelings came first.
“Never Say I Love You”, “Please Don’t Make Me Late”, “Yeah, Daddy,” “This Bed Ain’t Big Enough” and “Last Night in Memphis” are all examples of when the lyrics came first and we had to find a groove that expressed the spirit of the words musically.
With other songs, the music came first because someone brought an old-school groove for me to write lyrics. “The Blues Keeps You Alive”, “J’s Juke Joint” are songs in which Charlie brought me music which captured a feeling that inspired me to write words. Sometimes I had to completely change the lyrics to suit the music. Honza (ed.: Jan Kořínek) reworked a groove so much that my original lyrics “Just Can’t Get You Out of My Bed” didn’t match the mood anymore but the tune was so light-hearted, playful and whimsical, but funky, that “Silly Boy” was born.
Sometimes the music and words come all at the same time. The lyrics to “Cookin’ Out Doors” were written as a woman’s 21st century “answer” to Robert Johnson’s plea to “Come on in My Kitchen”. “Married to the Blues” is the response to a combination of musical influences that inspired the music and events that I respond to with the lyrics. While “I Don’t Miss You” was the first time for me when the song wrote itself and the words and music all came rushing in together.
What is more important for you – singing or the lyrics in songs?
Singing. Because sometimes there are no words. There’s just a groan. There’s just a moan or a sigh or a tune. First for me is always the impulse to voice something yet unspoken which is so strong that it is best released in song. But it’s the feeling and its tone, color, and tempo that give shape to the words.
What is for you the biggest inspiration for writing lyrics?
Pain. Confusion. Sadness. Disappointment. Frustration. Irritation. Annoyance. Really strong emotional responses to a situation.
Writing lyrics for me is a cathartic experience. It’s a way for me to process and make peace with a myriad of thoughts scurrying through my head and conflicting feelings running through my heart. From the chaos comes order.
What was fragmented becomes whole. What was ugly becomes beautiful. What was all alone becomes all one with anyone who has ever gone through the same. What was devastation becomes celebration.
The CD itself looks like a little vinyl. Do you like the look of old vinyls?
I like the look of old vinyls, but Charlie’s the one that’s crazy about them.
He’d just bought an old portable gramophone and was collecting records meant for that era and was playing them during the breaks at concerts so it was his idea to have the CD look like an old vinyl.
I wanted another style, so he really had to work to convince me about using the vinyl.
But now I’m glad he won that argument because now everything about the CD musically and visually says “old school”.
I chose two songs of The Blues Keeps You Alive and I would like to know more about them. The first one is Married to the Blues. The second one, slower one – I Don’t Miss You.
Like a parent, I feel funny about having favorites but you’ve just chosen my favorites out of the 12 songs on the album!
Both of them are passionate songs about enduring love.
Like I said “Married to the Blues” was inspired by very specific influences, both musically and lyrically.
Musically, there were three influences. I’d heard the tune “Mother Blues”, was working on a Koko Taylor tribute to the tune of “I’m a Woman and had recently performed on the show Jan Kraus, where during the sound check the house band played a slow blues tune to warm up with Charlie and Honza who accompanied me there. Jamming under the influence of this grouping of musicians, I started making up lyrics about “when the blues walks in”, “happy home”, etc. Sound check over, I knew I had picked up on something, so I wrote as much as I could remember and then, went on with the show.
Lyrically, the words to the song are my response to “Mother Blues”and to Jan Kraus’s line of questioning on the show. I remember hearing Sharon Lewis sing about Mother Blues and that while I liked the imagery, my relationship with the blues is very different and that I would characterize the Blues as a man. Then months later, Jan Kraus was really determined to dig into my private life, asking if I had a partner, if I was looking for anyone and more. While I tried to be diplomatic, I really didn’t say everything I was thinking and feeling
So out came this song from those experiences and feelings.
At first, I was nervous, wondering, “Do I really want to shackle myself to the Blues, till death do us part?” But the reality is that the Blues is ever present, ever constant, always there, whether I like it or not, so I’d better start liking it –even loving it and embracing it, because the Blues is not going anywhere. The Blues will be there by your side when no one else is and everyone else, including your mama, is gone.
So I’m married. Yeah, I’m married to the blues. In good time and bad times. For better or worse.
“I Don’t Miss You”, on the other hand, was completely different, because it literally came to me and through me in about 30 minutes while I was sitting at home one day.
“I Don’t Miss You” is very special to me. For the first time in my life, I heard the lyrics, melody, harmony, accompaniment and parts for the guitar and Hammond organ all together as I was writing the song, because “I Don’t Miss You” is a love song for my gay best friend, Bogdan.
We used to talk or hang out all the time when I was newly separated and Bogy was living in Prague. But since he moved to Amsterdam for new work and a new love, we hadn’t been able to connect as often or as deeply as we used to. Too much time had passed since we had called, emailed, or chatted. I kept wanting to post Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer for You” on his wall, at the very least, but was too busy to find the time to do even that simple little gesture.
At the same time, a journalist had asked me to give my thoughts on Czech men for a magazine. It was very clear that she was bitter and furious with men at work and at home and was looking for quotes to justify her feelings and I just simply could not relate, no matter how hard she tried.
I couldn’t roundly condemn someone’s behavior on the basis that he behaved that way because he’s a man, because of Bogdan. If he, or any of my gay friends, has a fight with his partner, it’s never because “Oh, he’s just a typical man– a male chauvinist!“ Doesn’t happen, because he looks at his partner as a person, not a gender.
I’m not afraid of, angry with or obsessed over men anymore, because of my relationship with Bogdan.
When I understood that and the impact that that’s had on me and how it’s transformed my life, just like right now, I started to cry and ran to the computer to write what I felt and to express how grateful I am for his presence in my life and the gift of our friendship. If I had never said it before I was saying it now. If I never said it again, he would always have these words and he would always know they were true. He could play them whenever he wanted, if he ever had any doubts. At the beginning, came the words, then the rhythm, by the second verse came the melody so that by the time the lyrics were written I could hear the harmony, the guitar accents and the Hammond organ accompaniment.
This song really is Bogdan’s Blues and I thought it would be really cool if it we could transpose it to the key of B, Bflat would be even better. So I sang the song a capella in the studio for the band, then asked Honza what key I was singing in. Imagine how I felt when he told me Bflat.
While writing the song was effortless, explaining exactly what I heard in my head to Honza, the producer, so the band could record what I heard was the real challenge for me as an untrained musician. But Honza is amazingly sensitive, generous and patient and personally recorded the guitar on the track to make sure it was exactly as I explained it.
“I Don’t Miss You” sounds like what I heard in my head that day, but with old school Motown male vocals a la the Pips from Gladys Knight and The Pips. Nobody understood what I wanted for the backing vocals no matter how many times I showed them a video of “Midnight Train to Georgia”! They thought the vocals sounded cheesy and Charlie questioned whether it was worth the studio time to record them. But Lee Andrew Davison, the jazz singer, immediately knew what I meant and when he laid down the tracks Charlie and Honza got it too.
“I Don’t Miss You” is very special to me, because I didn’t grow up listening to blues. I listened to Motown and groups like The Temptations and The Supremes. I sing the greatest hits by the Queen of Rock and Soul, Tina Turner. I have very strong roots in old school pop and soul and am just starting to explore those with my own original songs.
Most importantly, “I Don’t Miss You” was just a song in my head inspired by love. I had to explain it, argue for it and defend it every step of the way. For every disagreement, doubt and question anyone had about the song, I had a very real, clear and compelling conviction about that song in my head and I knew, even if no one else did, what it sounded and felt like. Now that dream is a reality that touches people’s lives and expresses their feelings too.
NEVER give up on your dream.
You are playing with All-Star Mojo Band in clubs, you performed at United Islands. What are you planning for the summer? Could we see you at some festivals here or abroad?
We just headlined a festival in Poland and kicked off the start of the spa season in Mariánské Lázně for a private event, but I’ve just wrapped up a major 2 year project, so I’m basically taking the summer off to refresh, reflect and regroup to plan for fall 2013 and 2014 when I’ll celebrate 15 years of singing as a frontwoman by launching a couple of new projects and putting on some events that I am very excited about.
You can find the Czech version on musicweb.cz