Robert Cray - In a Minor Key
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As well as the tales of love and betrayal that punctuate all his albums, guitarist and singer Robert Cray devotes the title track on his new joint Twenty to the story of a US soldier in Iraq, who goes out to serve his country in a morally dubious war.
Cray spent many of his early years moving from place to place as his father was a serviceman. Given this it is understandable he chooses to write songs from the seldom-heard side of the soldiers fighting the war, and his disgust has the weight of empathy towards the soldiers, who are effectively duped into an unjust conflict.
He becomes animated when he talks of his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq and his compulsion to follow the continuing events in the news and puts his views in the context of his experience: "My dad was in the service, and I understand that you didn't question authority. I wanted to bring an angle on that."
But this is much later in our conversation. For the first half hour of the interview I wonder if it would be possible for anything to rile Cray, who is composed, laid-back and reflective when he calls me from his LA home.
"You know what I like about BB King? He takes a note and he squeezes it. He plays like his personality, when you speak to him he speaks nicely and that's his approach." Cray is talking to me about how a guitar player's style goes hand in hand with his personality. Blues legend BB King is renowned for his large persona, his warmth to the audience, and to those he speaks to. And it's true his playing mirrors this... in places.
I like those kinds of songs or blues, desperate, heartbroken, lonely sad songs in a minor key
The light touch with which King often starts songs is usually soon replaced by screaming hard-picked notes he seems to have dug out from a frustration and anger deeply rooted. Hand in hand with this he is also known also for the uncompromising, hard and distant aspects of his persona.
Cray's playing style, hard-picked and sparse, is echoed in his speech, which is thoughtful and understated. His economy of style shows through in the playing on his albums where he is rarely flashy, just as his speech is rarely verbose, and he is known for giving short well-considered answers in interview.
Cray's songs lean towards the bleak side of the blues, love gone wrong, cheating partners and rough deals. I ask him what compels him to write about misery: "I like those kinds of blues, desperate, heartbroken, lonely sad songs in a minor key. To me nothing hits the spot like a blues in a minor key, that's my weakness. And it will always be something I try for, to try to get something that really touches you."
I ask him how he has seen the genre change over time, and whether the blues means the same to people as it has in the past: "It's not about the same thing it always was. Every single song was about a heartache, a love lost. In today's blues it's not the same kind of thing, which is a good thing. Times change, people are going to have to accept that you're never going to find another Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke or Otis Redding."
Despite this Cray talks enthusiastically of new players on the scene, but when I ask him what is on his CD player at the moment he replies with a grin I can sense all the way down the phone line: "Howlin' Wolf -- I just put on music that stirs me. But I'll also listen to The Paragons, or Sarah Vaughan, whatever I'm into."
It's something new, something different," he says, but admits to sometimes forgetting the words to his own songs as a result of the spontaneity of the method
This link to a blues rooted in the past, along with an eclectic ear that shows most noticeably in his trademark mix of soul and blues and a smattering of other styles is definitely in evidence on Twenty, due out at the end of May, it has hints of reggae, gospel, and jazz. As Cray says of the album: "It's good to step out of the box. I know for the songs I've written, there are all of these different influences, from Caribbean music to Jimi Hendrix."
I go on to ask him about the continuation of styles which get airplay only on specialist shows -- particularly given the decline (and age) of many big names in soul and blues, including most recently the deaths of Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker.
He pauses before answering: "It will continue with the performers. There was a hey-day for soul music on the radio, but blues music survived without the radio airplay. People who like that music will go to the shows.
"It's music for a certain group of people who like whatever it is in the lyrics, in the groove, that they can relate to. It would be a terrible thing if everybody was listening to the same thing."
I finish by asking how musicians who have toured together for fifteen years keep things fresh on stage: "We have the luxury of having worked together for all these years. We keep a list of songs at the ready, which basically keeps us on our toes."
He continues, rather than having a set list, the band play it by ear, 'mix things up' and decide pretty much on the spot what they are going to play: "It's something new, something different," he says, but admits he sometimes forgets the words to his own songs as a result of the spontaneity of the method.
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