Considering it took Doyle Bramhall II fifteen years between 2001’s Welcome and 2016’s Rich Man, one might not have been expecting another album from the Texas guitar player so quickly. But the creative juices were flowing and Bramhall left the spigot wide open and while he has been out touring these last couple of years, the songs were flowing. And what a batch of songs he has crafted. Whereas Rich Man was an exotic exploration into the deeper regions of his soul and the journeys it took him on, Shades finds the artist closer to the skin, more on a cerebral quest than a spiritual one; although that part of his being is always not far away from his work. “I would say I’m more peaceful than I’ve ever been in my life and I know what my purpose is and I know why I’m here and what my existence is and what it means and what it’s for,” he told me during a 2016 interview. “But it is a lifelong journey, it’s a lifelong practice, so I practice my music and I practice my spirituality and whatever that is. And through the practices that I do, my life becomes more peaceful.”
Growing up with the Vaughan brothers – Stevie Ray and Jimmie – as de facto uncles, and a father with a reputation as a go-to drummer on the Austin scene, the blues is very much ingrained into the younger Bramhall’s DNA. But on Shades, Bramhall has let his Soul music light shine out more, adding more seventies groove, while continuing his love of musical experimentation, avoiding a staleness that can often permeate into a long-time musician’s new material. Here on Shades, Bramhall is anything but stale and lazy. He shows anger on “Love & Pain,” sensitivity on “Break Apart To Mend,” sensuality on his duet with Norah Jones, “Searching For Love,” and expresses such a pure open passion on the Bob Dylan penned “Going Going Gone,” that it outshines even the heartbreaking version Gregg Allman recorded on his last album. Shades is definitely an album of human connectivity.
Glide connected with Bramhall last week while he was in New York doing some press for his album, which was released on October 5th, and after playing two shows with Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden.
When Rich Man came out in 2016, you told me that you had to take a very long journey into yourself to gather the things you needed to put together what you were feeling to create those songs. What did it take for you to create these songs?
I think with this record I just wanted to start recording the songs that I was writing every day on the road. I had been touring quite a bit, since maybe a year or two before Rich Man came out. I had gone into some really interesting places live with my band and felt like I was in such a flow with what I was doing as a performer and a guitar player and a songwriter. Basically, I wanted to record things that I was coming up with on the road while I was touring and just start getting as much music out there as possible because I have music running through me all day long every day. So if I can get into a place where I can actually record and actually share that music as it comes that would be a really cool thing, you know; to one day look back and have a really large body of work would be really cool.
You must have been listening to a lot of soul music because that really seems to come out on this record.
Yeah, I mean I grew up on soul music and R&B and the blues and classical and flamenco music and all kinds of music. But when I was really young, I can remember listening to Al Green and Sly Stone and Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, and those were really like some of the most memorable records and music to me growing up, that had the biggest impression on me, especially stylistically. So the first song that I came out with on this record is called “Everything You Need” and I had Eric guesting with me on it and that particular song, when I wrote it, just felt like a classic kind of soul tune to me. I know that Eric loves a lot of the same types of music that I like and a lot of the same bands I like and I just thought that would be a perfect fit for him to do some playing with me on it.
The car in the video is really cool
(laughs) I just asked the engineer that recorded a lot of the record, his name was Michael Harris, and that was his car and I just thought it looked much better in the video than my Highlander Hybrid car. I thought it was a much cooler look and fit for that video than what I actually drive right now.
With Rich Man, it was very much a spiritual journey whereas Shades seems more of a cerebral journey, like you’re looking at things closer to the surface of the skin than digging down deep.
I think that’s a good assessment of it. I mean, a lot of the songs I wrote for this record, and actually a lot of my songs, I love to collaborate with different lyricists, and I feel like I always try and choose lyricists that can come from a really deep place. So even though if I’m talking about a simple love song, if there’s any way that you can sort of tap into your deepest place when you’re speaking about these things, because everything in life you can be very deeply connected to those things in life; even if it’s just picking a flower and smelling it and looking at a meadow and listening to the wind blow through the meadow and it sounds like a symphony of wind or something. There are so many deep beautiful things around us all the time, and they can just be little things, but if you tap into it and you’re open to those things they become much deeper than the experience if you’re open.
“Going Going Gone” you’ve given a real hymnal quality to it yet it feels like a more human-to-human connection instead of a human-to-spiritual-being connection.
Well, I know what you mean because it does have that thing where you just want to sing along with it and that’s a really good example of a song being very connected. Like Bob Dylan is one of the greatest masters of songwriting of all-time and when I first was asked to perform that song at a Gregg Allman tribute in New York, that was the song that I was asked to sing. Gregg Allman had recorded that on his last record before he passed away and when I performed it, it had such a powerful feeling to it; like it felt like I was singing it and playing it but it also had something else, like it had a spirit of it’s own almost. And it really moved me, so much so I just wanted to do it as sort of a tribute to Gregg on my album and sort of close out the album with that song. Then I asked Tedeschi Trucks, Derek and Susan, if they would do the song and collaborate with me on it, which gave it even more of a special kind of experience to it because of Derek’s connection to the Allman Brothers and Gregg. It’s just one of those songs that has just a beautiful spirit to it.
Can you tell us more about the song you do with Norah Jones?
Yeah, that was a very deliberate song I wanted to actually write with her from scratch. She had guested on my previous record, Rich Man, on a song called “New Faith” and I loved the way that her voice sounded with my voice. And, you know, I just think she’s a brilliant piano player and musician and singer and songwriter and I thought that our styles would sort of go together really well. So I asked her if she’d be interested in writing a song with me. I would fly to Brooklyn to do overdubs for my record and she lived fairly close to the studio I was working at so I would just go by her place every time I would come to town. I think it was maybe three trips and I would go over to her house for about an hour and we would chip away at writing the song until it was finished and then just called a few musicians to go in and record it. We basically went in and recorded it live in the studio. It was the same for “Going Going Gone” as well.
Which of these songs would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
That’s a good question. I think maybe the two I’d have to pick would be “Consciousness” and “London To Tokyo,” mainly because of the horn arrangements and the string arrangements on them. “Consciousness” was a song that I just had as a demo when I made Rich Man. I went in the studio and just cut the idea with the guitar, an acoustic guitar, and then I put drums on it and I overdubbed the bass on it, and it just sort of stayed in that acoustic form of that song until I was making this record and I wanted to finish that and started adding different production ideas to it and a lot of instruments and arrangements on it and it turned into this, I don’t know, almost like a journey in a way. And you can tell, even lyrically, that that song is more connected to the Rich Man era because it was inspired by Rumi, a Persian Sufi poet, and I guess transcendental meditation as well.
Touching more on the technical part of the record, is there something new you explored in the studio, either with instrumentation or technology, on this record?
I think I always experiment and I am always looking for different sounds. It’s all based on the songs for me, like whatever the song calls for, whatever I feel like the direction should go. It’s usually based on what the story is or what the emotional content or the emotional quality of the song is, and will dictate, for me, where it should go sonically. So it’s like a painter just having every color on the palette to color with. So as many kind of things I can get, they will get different sounds and different colors for each song.
Does it help by knowing a lot of instruments that you’ve had your hands on or can you do it by ear?
Well, I can hear what instrument could be best for the song just in my head or what I know that instrument to sound like. A lot of times, because when I produce I can hear that it needs a harpsicord in a certain section or it might need something on the Oud, an Egyptian instrument, or I’ll know a specific piano sound that it should be. Those things sort of just come to me now. And then sometimes you just experiment too with different things. But I think it’s sort of a little of both. It’s experimenting and it’s also things and ideas you get along the way that you might know will work.
Will you be adding more dates to your tour than what you have listed on your website?
I’m not sure actually what’s listed at the moment but I’m touring basically October/November and then I have maybe a few things in December and then we’re not picking back up until next year. But I should be touring all of next year, really, starting in probably February or end of January.
Don’t forget to add New Orleans. Have you played Jazz Fest?
The only time I think I played Jazz Fest was with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the main thing I remember is hearing Dr John sit in on guitar with the Neville Brothers and I was just blown away by how great of a guitar player Dr John was, cause obviously I’d only knew him as a keyboard player and a piano player. So when I heard him playing this otherworldly guitar, it was just amazing. But yeah, I played there with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in probably 1989.
To you, what is the most powerful line or lyric on this record?
Well, it’s the kind of thing I would probably have to look at but I know there are definitely some powerful lines. I actually love the beginning sort of intro to “She’ll Come Around.” It just feels like a really sweet sentiment, it feels really visceral to me. But “Consciousness,” I think the message is really powerful in that one as well. “Parvanah” is a really powerful and deep but tragic kind of lyric too. So I don’t know. “Love & Pain,” to me, has really powerful lyrics as well and that was about the Las Vegas mass shooting. It’s hard to say because they are all expressions, you know. People ask me, what’s your favorite song on a record and I’m like, well, they are all expressions and it’s hard to just pick one expression that doesn’t show all sides of it.
Did the “Love & Pain” song come soon after the shooting in Vegas?
I think we were recording that particular song. It was just an instrumental song we recorded and then the next day, maybe, or within a couple of days of recording that music for that song, the mass shooting happened and it just sort of took the air out of it for everybody, you know, everybody around me, everybody in the country. I even think it affected people around the world. I was talking to people in Europe and London and everybody was sort of devastated by it.
Did your heart skip a beat when you heard about that?
Yeah, it probably skipped more than a couple. I mean, the first thing you think about is how many different families and people and those families that are affected by that. You know, I’ve lost people in my life and to take out that many people at one time, it’s just crazy. And the crazy thing is that there is nothing even being done about that or even trying to be done about it. It’s just crazy that we as a country, anybody, any civilian, has access to military-style weapons and can take out that many people at one time, say on a whim or angry in the moment, that they can just go get those, and it’s just insane to me. So that is really what that song is about.
What makes music so special to you?
Music, I think, is special to me because I feel like music is the sound and vibrations of the universe. You know it’s talked about by Sufis that it started with music. The Big Bang started with a bang, you know, and the energy that traveled, the sound that traveled, the vibrations that traveled through the universe since it was born has been musical. When you listen to crickets chirping, you hear a symphony, it’s musical. When you hear Tibetan chimes or when you hear anything in nature, even in the bustle of the city, you can hear rhythms and it becomes musical as well. So I think organized music, like with instruments, it’s almost like it’s tuning all of these vibrations and sounds and becoming this really harmonious thing that almost tunes a human in a way; it almost calibrates a human. I know it does for me. Like when I listen to music that moves me, it really sort of calibrates me to this existence in the universe.
Photographs by Danny Clinch