The Ice Queen’s Blues – Q&A with Sue Foley
Photos curtosey of SueFoley.com / Feature image by Scott Doubt
Old man winter may have put a lock on her heart but Sue Foley’s new album Ice Queen is a sizzling sampling of blues with tundra melting guitar licks and the Juno winners signature sultry thermostat raising vocals. The heat is on! Still, perhaps a fitting title considering for this Goddess of the guitar who once called the often coldest capital city on the planet home.
On her Stony Plain Records label debut, the musician has come full circle in a journey that saw her returning to her career roots in Austin, Texas. “I learned and grew more musically in my years in Austin than at any point in my life,” she says of her early days playing clubs like Antone’s.
The album hits all the right beats you’d want in a blues album from the Bo Diddley stylings on “Come to Me” and a title track that gives a nod to John Lee Hooker. But this landscape isn’t always a familiar one as as heard in the hybrid melding of flamenco and blues on “The Dance”. Foley’s walking through some new territory. Coming on the heels of a breakup, it’s not surprising that there are tunes here that find her examining relationships from a few different sides, refusing to paint them in one particular brush or shade. Deeply personal themes of lost love, anguish, the struggle to release, forgiveness and rebirth are all laid out bare and raw.
“I prefer to let the songs tell the story,” Foley tells Ottawa Life on putting all these emotions into the music. “I’m really happy with the writing on this album. I think it’s rich and I appreciate your observances.”
Ahead of her February 22 show at the National Arts Centre, we talked more with Foley on the new album, her time in Ottawa and why she keeps singing the blues.
Ottawa Life: You grew up in Ottawa before heading Westward. What are some of your fondest memories of the Capital?
Sue Foley: My fondest memories are growing up in Hintonburg/Mechanicsville. It’s such a colorful and cool neighborhood. We were a large Irish Catholic family living in a very small house so things were kind of crowded and a bit crazy. Music brought us together.
Now, you picked up that first guitar here. What was it about the instrument you feel you drew you in?
My father played traditional Irish music and my older brothers all played rock and roll. There were guitars everywhere so it was very natural for me (the youngest) to play guitar too.I was drawn to the guitar through my father and brothers. It’s our family instrument and was just what we did. I always knew I would be a musician and the guitar was my avenue.
Didn’t take you long to make some waves in the local music scene. Can you share a little about that first gig you played when you were still in your teens?
When I was in my teens I played locally with Drew Nelson, Guy Delvillano, Back Alley John, Terry Gillespie and more. I was taught blues guitar at sixteen by Tony D, who I consider one of Canada’s greatest guitarists.
You found a lot of these kindred when you got into the Downstairs Club. In an interview you did last year, the Citizen’s Lynn Saxberg describes this as a “sweet-faced girl with a guitar in the middle of a ragtag bunch of older men”. How would you describe your days hanging out there?
Lynn describes it pretty accurately. I was a young girl in love with blues music, and blues is mostly the domain of older men. Fortunately I had many older brothers so I was comfortable in the company of males. They were always so protective of me and supportive of my playing.
What’s it like for you when you come back to Ottawa now?
I love coming back to Ottawa. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities I the world. I have a large family and many old friends so it’s always great to connect with everyone. I can’t wait to come back and play my latest music for everyone.
I think it’s far to say that not many of the age around when you started were really into the Blues. What was it about the genre for you that really made you want to pursue it?
Blues is the most real and honest music there is. I fell in love with it at fifteen and have never been the same. Playing the blues is a calling and a passion. You don’t get into it because you want to be a millionaire or a house hold name –although if that happens, bonus! You get into blues because you love it and you want to follow the path of deepest expression, and you want to honor the great blues men and women who came before you.
Early on, you sat in with a lot of blues artists. Now, I read you didn’t actually feel comfortable asking them for advice. In retorspect, though, what do you feel you learned from them as mainly an observer?
I learned by watching and playing beside greats like BB King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Ronnie Earl, Lou Ann Barton, Jimmie Vaughan…and so many more –that blues music is about self discovery and finding your own sound through your story. It’s an entire life’s journey. You get better with age, more seasoned, because you have that much more experience and story to share. After over thirty years, I’m just coming into my own as a blues artist. It takes a long time.
You have a sound I’d say is pretty signature. You kind of know when you’re in a Sue Foley tune. Was this something you tried to create or did it come naturally over time?
This has been coming over time, but I do think it’s gotten better and more defined as I’ve aged.
Multiple albums now recorded, what comes to mind these days when you think of the person who recorded that first release,Young Girl Blues?
I’m just really happy to be playing and making music. Returning to Texas to make my latest CD, The Ice Queen, was a full circle journey and it really brought me back to the early days. I haven’t changed all that much, I still play basically the same way with the same spirit.
That said, did you approach The Ice Queen any differently than some of your other more recent releases?
We recorded The Ice Queen live in the studio. It’s the way I’ve made most of my albums but this was even more live. What you hear are untouched performances, you hear the full intensity of the band playing together in one room. All the vocals and guitar solos are live off the floor. It was magical!
This album has been advertised somewhat as representing a full circle journey for you. You just mentioned that yourself, actually. Obviously, much of that is heading back to Austin and working with Mike Flanigin again. What else do you feel has come full circle at this point in your life?
The Ice Queen is a full circle journey. The title refers to my northern roots and my Canadian identity. However it was recorded in Austin so it brings me back to where I started my recording career, so it ties these two identities together. I reconnected with all my friends in Texas. Having my heroes Jimmie Vaughan, and Billy F Gibbons guest on it was a dream come true. I mean, wow!
First and foremost, personally, I really think The Ice Queen is just a kick ass guitar album. There’s so much going on here. Was that something you were trying to stress when going into record it?
We just wanted to make the best Sue Foley album we could make. I have my good friend, and producer, Mike ‘The Drifter’ Falnigin to thank for that. He really pulled everyone together and kept the focus of what we were trying to do. And I love playing my guitar, what can I say?
You did explore another sound here, too. How did you find adapting to a flamenco style for “The Dance”? I think it’s one of the standouts on the release.
“The Dance” is based in a style I love to play. It’s played on nylon string acoustic and in a flamenco style. I studied flamenco guitar with Ottawa’s James Cohen some years back and adapted the techniques to my blues playing. It really changed me as a guitarist and broadened my musicality.
Nice to find another Ottawa connection on this release. You have many amazing collaborators on The Ice Queen .Two stick out, you have said, as being particularly influential. What was it like working with Jimmie Vaughan and Billy F Gibbons?
Jimmie Vaughan and Billy F Gibbons are the most amazing musicians. They both have such signature styles and sounds and I learned so much working them recently, on the album and on the Jungle Show where we all play together. It’s the greatest honor to play along side them.
Since 2001, your interviewed many female guitarists from around the world. What have been some of the more surprisingly revelations you have discovered from these talks?
Since 2001 I have interviewed over a hundred female guitarists from Bonnie Raitt, to Sharon Isbin, Nancy Wilson of Heart and many, many more. Guitar Played Magazine is starting to publish excerpts from my interviews in a monthly column called “The Foley Files” and eventually there will be a book. It’s a study of strong and unique women who’ve taken a different path in life. There are some amazing stories and quotes. I felt the need to interview other women to find out what their experiences were like. I was just curious. What I found were some great insights, philosophies and anecdotes from some super cool women. It’s a labor of love.
What advice would you give to young women who want to pick up that first guitar as you once did and head into the music industry?
I always tell young people (men and women) to love the work. If you love the work, you’ll be able to sustain yourself. I still get up every day excited about my job and excited for the next adventure. I work non-stop at my craft and my business 24-7. In music, you never stop working. It’s an obsession. But it’s also a whole lot of fun when you’re work is playing.