Early this year, scores of radio listeners fell under the sway of a white blueswoman's gritty, potent voice, and the immediate reaction was: did Janis Joplin come back from the dead? Did someone uncover a goldmine of unreleased Joplin material? Radio stations got call after call, always explaining that no, it's someone new. And her name is Susan Tedeschi.
Tedeschi says she doesn't mind the comparisons, although she doesn't completely understand where they come from. "I'm flattered, because -- the thing that people don't realize is that there aren't many white female blues singers for people to compare you to. And the thing I've learned about this industry is that they need somebody to compare you to," she says.
Tedeschi has pointed out that people may be hearing Joplin in her voice because both women looked to some of the same blues singers, like Big Mama Thornton, for inspiration growing up. And while the comparisons don't exactly hurt as they often attract new listeners, Tedeschi says there are some important differences between the two singers.
"She's a legend. She was very full of emotion, she had a certain presence about her, a certain energy that I thought was very beautiful. I think of that as the connection they [see], not really my singing voice. Whereas a lot of her stuff seemed to be very intense all the time. I kind of take pride in being a diverse singer when it comes to dynamics," she explains.
Tedeschi's latest release, "Just Won't Burn," (Tone Cool) reveals just how diverse Tedeschi actually is. Educated at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, the musician spent her post-college years playing in clubs around Boston, building her chops and assembling an ensemble with whom she could flex and expand her blues muscle. From the melancholy swoon of "Looking for Answers" to the blazing "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," Tedeschi reveals herself as a musician capable of subtlety and balls-out blues belting.
"Just Won't Burn" is full of music inspired by the blues greats, and Tedeschi's live show is all the more potent. Her guitar work runs the gamut from smolder to shred. Her understanding of dynamics is remarkable, but she doesn't let her know-how get in the way of down-and-dirty blues sexuality. When she sings I'm gonna show you how to rock me right, you know what she means.
Her skill is all the more remarkable given the fact that she didn't even discover blues music, or pick up a guitar, until she was in her twenties. Her childhood did involve music, she says: "When I was six I started getting into theater. I've been on a stage really ever since [then], and even before that, my father has always played guitar and harmonica and always hung out at home, and played along with records, everything from the Beatles and the Everly Brothers to Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly. There was always music in the house. My mom used to sing and do acting, and she was also a director."
In school, Tedeschi was precocious; she sung, acted, played clarinet and piano. She performed in musicals, sang with gospel choirs, and worked with rock and country bands. "I always knew that [music] was something I was going to do. I didn't really know that I was going to be doing what I'm doing now," she laughs.
During that time, however, she was unable to find a genre of music she could identify with and claim as her own. "When I was younger, I was always very frustrated by music. Because I loved music but I couldn't find anything that I really, really liked. I grew up in Norwell, [Massachusetts] where most of the kids listened to Madonna and Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones and the Who, and Led Zeppelin, a lot of British invasion rock bands. I like some of that stuff, but it wasn't like my strongest passion. I was always searching for music I felt incredibly passionate over," she explains.
"When I got older, I realized that there was even cooler music out there. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I discovered people like Etta James, Coco Taylor, Big Mama Thornton and. Mihalia Jackson, and Otis Rush and Freddie King and Magic Sam and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. They actually changed my life," she says. Discovering the blues, Tedeschi says, was a surprise. "It was a very large awakening. I was like, 'These records have been out all this time and no one told me?!' In Norwell, they didn't have a blues section, and if they did it had B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, maybe a couple of Lightnin' Hopkins records," she laments.
"And when you live in the suburbs you don't really venture to the city to go look at the record collections, which I should have done, but I just didn't go to the city. It was pretty neat. It was a very big awakening. I didn't realize there were so many amazing singers and soulful musicians out there."
She graduated from Berklee in 1990 at the age of 20 and began playing with Boston blues groups. Within two years of her graduation, she began to make a serious effort to learn to play guitar and found herself to be a natural. She says the musicians and audiences in the Boston scene were very open to her presence, even though women in blues are rare.
"I think for some women it probably is an issue. I was just very lucky. I never really had a lot of resistance. I always had more support. People would hear me sing and come up to me and say 'why don't you come out to this blues jam and sing here?' and people were very supportive. I actually think that being a woman has probably helped. Just 'cause it's not as common to see women play and I think it's exciting for audiences to see women play guitar and sing."
After eight years building a following in Boston, Tedeschi and her band were approached to record "Just Won't Burn," a collection of songs penned by Tedeschi and drummer Tom Hambridge. The album also includes some notable cover tunes, including Junior Wells' "Little by Little" and John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery."
Tedeschi says there's no single method for creating her own songs; most are born of mood and circumstance. "I just have to be in an emotional state where I can write and the stuff just comes out of me, and it's either on piano, guitar, or it's just driving in the car singing."
"There's usually three different ways for me to write a song. And it usually has to do with when I'm emotional, either in a really happy way, really inspired, or I'm in love, or I'm going through something really difficult."
Tedeschi's equipment standbys, she says, are pretty simple. I don't have any standard microphones. I just use whatever I get at the gigs, she laughs. Her guitars are exclusively Fender American Standard Telecasters, including the blue-green model, coated with Winnie-the-Pooh stickers and autographs, she posed with for the cover of "Just Won't Burn."
Her amplifiers include a 1964 Fender Deluxe reverb and a four-ten 100-watt Victoria. Armed with her songs, Tedeschi began getting invitations to go on the road with other blues musicians, including a summer 1998 stint opening for Buddy Guy. But she couldn't have asked for more acceptance from the greats. "Halfway through the tour [Guy] started bringing me up, every gig, to sing with him. And it was just the most beautiful, awe-inspiring thing."
Tedeschi describes the surreal experience she had when Otis Rush invited her onstage to sing with him: "I felt like I was in a dream, like I was in a movie and I could look out at the audience and all these people were talking but I couldn't hear them. It was so weird, I swear. He just held my hand and we started making up slow blues. I just started crying. It was just -- it's weird, you can't even really express the emotion you feel."
She's had the chance to meet and play with younger musicians who are often heralded by critics as carrying the blues torch into the next millennium, including Jonny Lang. She says while Lang is a great musician, she's not so sure he should be considered a bluesman. "Jonny is one of the sweetest people you'd ever meet. And he's just such a good soul that you realize that that's what the blues community is all about. It's all about being open and being a loving person and embracing the music and embracing where it comes from," she says.
But for Tedeschi, being true to the blues is more than that. "I don't even look at myself as a pure blues musician. I think that all of my music has blues roots, and actually I think I have a lot more history of blues, and understanding and respect for where a lot of that comes from, than maybe someone like Jonny. I think that he respects the music a lot, but I don't think his major influences in music, come from Albert King and artists like that as much as you think."
Her own sense of musicianship, she says, can't be considered pure blues because her knowledge of the genre is filtered through so many years of listening to more modern songwriters, including Lennon and Dylan. "I really respect a song for being a song that tells a story that has emotion or something that really rocks. Something that has a whole purpose behind it. For me, blues was the first form of music that I discovered that I felt was the best of all those worlds put together. You could really be an individual and express yourself."
Tedeschi says she feels blessed to have gotten to know some of the musicians she's considered idols since she first discovered the blues. Many have become friends, and she admires their courageousness and devotion to a genre that isn't known for its financial perks. "The artists over the years have just been so incredible. They're not in it to become famous. They're in it because they love the form of music, they love to express themselves through it," she says.
"[In] the blues industry, the people that you meet are very loving people. You'd take them in as your own family," she continues.
Her sudden rise to popularity, Tedeschi says, has taken her a bit by surprise. "It's so funny, you're doing what you're doing for so long, and then all of a sudden with a certain amount of radio play and press and television things, once the music gets out there -- that's the thing that's shocked me is the audience response," she says.
The best part for Tedeschi is sharing this genre she loves with her listeners. "I'm just blown away by the fans. They're awesome. It's so amazing to realize that other people like to listen to stuff that you like. I've been really overwhelmed by the support, and very thankful. Cause there's so many great people out there, and to be somebody that can make a living at doing what I love to do, it's an honor."
This article was originally published in ROCKRGRL.