For Blame Sally’s New Album, Speeding Ticket and a Valentine, it’s about Song & Spirit
There’s little argument from anyone to say that music is spiritual. Music expresses our deepest longings, passions, pains and joys. Those who go there find a stronger sense of self and others than without it. Especially gifted musicians are able to bring this sense of spirit to their audience. If there’s anything to that statement, Blame Sally is an excellent example. A band of four women, over 40, skilled instrumentalists, vocalists, writers and performers; they have defied the odds in finding the kind of success reserved for younger artists. With their decade plus of live performances and recordings they have established a legacy of song combining country, folk, rock, Celtic and strains of classical music, which has brought originality together with a roots sensibility and pop accessibility. The way in which each member is an equal contributor is reminiscent of the kind of skill and craftsmanship which made groups like The Band and The Beatles timeless. There is this same ageless, universal quality in the music being made today by Blame Sally. While they are largely acoustically based, they weave in electric instruments and find a drive that is uncommon in the world of folk music.
Their latest album, Speeding Ticket and a Valentine, just released on Ninth Street Opus is a consistent collection of song and musical production which brings a strong sense of who these musicians are, to themselves and to each other; their seamless exchange and the kind of instensity captured on this record is the kind usually felt in live performance. With songs that speak to the hardships of life and the joys that are found even in the midst of advsersity, they weave in Beatle-inspired production with sometimes country, sometimes Celtic underlying instrumentation. And through all of the beauty of the lyrics, their layred and crafted harmonies simply enchant with each listen.
What is most impressive is how they have become, over the years, in the truest sense, a band. In the interview that follows with writer, vocalist and keyboardist, Monica Pasqual and multi-instrumentalist, lead guitarist, Jeri Jones, there is a sense of unity and commonality which has served to help them develop as a band, as musicians, as artists and most important as human beings who derive a good deal of their own growth from their music. If there’s any testament to the healing energy created and supported by love, friendship and music, it is certainly found in the fact that Renee Harcourt, who was once treated for cancer, has now been cancer-free for the last five years. Making this kind of difference, in a weary world such as ours, is the essence of creative spirituality. Along with percussionist, guitarist and vocalist Pam Delgado and vocalist, acoustic and electric guitarist(and sometimes on mando), Renee Harcourt, Blame Sally’s latest release may be their finest to date. The band has also been using bassist Rob Strom on the road and also on the new album.
Terry: Tell me about the title of the new album.
Jeri: It came from one of Renee’s songs, “Living Without You.” We were driving in Oregon and Renee was speeding. We got pulled over and the officer came to the window and he was probably the most handsome gentleman we’d ever seen. The whole van was on fire. Renee had already written “Living Without You,” and we had recorded the song and Renee said, ‘that really was a speeding ticket and a valentine!’ We knew we had a great album title!
Terry: Tell me more about liabilities being assets?
Monica: Many of the songs from the albums were written as hard things were happening for the band. There are so many things that can stop you in life. But you can choose how to respond. I think we have the philosophy that with all the obvious things that could stop us as a band, you know, a band of women who are not in our 20’s or even in our 30’s, but the things that normally would hinder us, instead, inspired us. Renee got cancer and instead of giving up we said, let’s do this thing for real. The music, the songs are almost a kind of therapy.
Terry: On listening, you really get the feeling that this is a band, not just a collection of writers and musicians.
Monica: We’ve had our differences and there’s been strains, but it’s never crossed over into the music. I’ve never doubted the love we’ve had for each other and we love what we’re doing. We get along and we have fun together. Being more mature helps us appreciate it more.
Jeri: I think the hard things between us personally have actually made us stronger. We’re extremely frank with each other about our musical performance. We can be brutally honest with each other and everybody knows that it’s in the spirit of making the band stronger, to help get to our personal best. We all want to make this band as amazing as possible. And we love each other above all.
Terry: Your story is counter-intuitive. You’re not supposed to be successful in your 40’s in the music business.
Monica: It’s unusual to see four women who all act as front people and side people and there’s not a sense of competition. Instead, we hold each other and really love to let each other shine. There’s mythologies that we’ve shown to be untrue. Like competition. We really like to work with each other and support each other. The other myth is that you succeed in the music business in your 20’s but the truth is you get better as time passes. Who says you can’t be successful and improve into your 40’s and 50’s? To think you have to be young is just pop culture.
Jeri: Yeah, like Honeyboy Edwards is still performing and he’s in this late 90’s. I’m not sure how old Mavis Staples is but she’s great and Roberta Flack.
Monica: And Bettye Lavette. So many great musicians just started getting better in their 40’s and 50’s.
Jeri: I feel like I’m just approaching my prime.
Monica: It just seems that instrumentally and emotionally everything happened just the way it was supposed happen. We want to make the best music we can and do it as much as we can. Luckily, it’s all progressed in a way that allowed a record deal when we were ready to do it full time.
Terry: It does seem that you set your egos aside for the band.
Moncia: We believe in that. Sure, we fight, but we’re usually fighting for a musical idea. The conflict doesn’t come from ego. It’s from something that’s bigger than ego. And through that we come around to what’s better. We have passionate differences. We all come from such different musical backgrounds, but we’ve grown so much together, we know when someone else’s idea is better.
Terry: So are you really a singer-songwriter band?
Monica: Yes. That’s right.
Terry: Tell me about your songwriting process.
Monica: I think we each have a different approach. Renee and I do most of it. Pam came in as a singer and she creates music to be performed. Renee and I came in as songwriters looking to have an outlet for our songs. I’m an emotional songwriter. I write very much from inspiration. I’m not very disciplined; I’d like to be more so. The songs just flow out quickly. Renee and Pam will go over an idea for a long period of time and work something out from that. Renee may have five or six songs going.
Jeri: I write with the others. I have yet to find my songwriter’s voice.
Terry: When you help on the instrumental sections of songs does that work into songwriting credit as well?
Jeri: I’ve helped Pam develop songs and I’ve got credit on them. I actually wonder if I’ll find my voice as a songwriter. But, writing doesn’t super interest me. One day I’ll give it a try. Musically, every one brings something to the song.
Monica: We bring the song in finished form and then the arrangement is always up for grabs. The song is almost always better when the band arranges it together. We recently met the bass player from REM. He was playing their new album and talking about the songwriting process. They write their albums after they’ve recorded the music. Whoever ever is writing brings in the lyrics after the music. You can tell, the songs sound quite different. I think it’s true of Radiohead too. Music first. But, the lyrics are really interesting. Not written at the same time but beautiful!
Jeri: That’s something I think one day we’ll have to try. It seems like we spend our time catching up and don’t have a ton of time to do something like this, something more experimental for us. We’re always recording, touring, practicing.
Terry: Since you all come from such varied musical backgrounds, can you tell me about how your influences helped create your sound?
Jeri: I really love old country music. I grew up with Tex Ritter, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins. My mother was in these close harmony groups in college, you know, like four or five part harmony and I sang with her. I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of rock or soul music growing up till I was in my teens. My dad was in the military and it was the Vietnam era. I had a cousin who had these great guitars and he turned me on to Hendrix. But, my roots are really country.
Monica: I had a pretty different background. My father was a classical pianist. I always loved classical music. I spent time listening to piano concertos, going to symphonies. I wanted to be a classical performer. You know, I tried, but I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have the constitution for it. But, my dad had a lot of influence on me. I liked women singer-songwriters. And my older brother had The Beatles, The Stones and Dylan. I was listening to Dylan, Ronstadt and Peggy Lee when I was little.
Terry: How did you get into songwriting?
Monica: I was doing political work. I was at a conference and they held a talent show. With a friend, I wrote songs for that. From that point I considered myself a songwriter and didn’t turn back from there.
Terry: With your success up to now, do you find yourself resisting getting cast into a mold?
Monica: We are on a great label(Ninth Street Opus). They’re really great. We were very clear about the kind of songs that we do. They fit quite well with this label. We have a lot of say. They hardly ever say ‘you ought to change this.’ And then, it only happens if we believe it’s the right thing to do. We listen to our manager(Sara Mertz). We trust her. We handed the reins to her and she’s amazing.
Jeri: She’s a super human, I think. The label really encourages us a lot. The CEO, Wayne Skeen, was at both of our shows at the American Music Hall. He said the music we’re doing is tremendous.
Terry: What do think is the future for the Americana music movement. Do you see youth in your audiences?
Monica: We like to see more younger folks. I think that many of the younger people now are really open minded about all kinds of music. They seem to enjoy a broad section of music. Today, it’s not really about being cool. You know when we were younger, it was ‘you can’t like that group, but you can like this group.’ Young people today don’t seem as attached to that anymore. My niece Mara, choreographed, danced in and helped conceive the idea for the video of “Bird in Hand.” Also, Renee’s daughter, Kendall wrote the bridge for the song, “Back in the Saddle.”
Terry: Tell me how you got your name?
Monica: Jeri had this friend from England, Sally, who used to be a housemate. When were first starting out, we were having a meeting to name the band. Jeri and Sally were late which wasn’t like Jeri. She’s always punctual. When they finally arrived she said…you’ll have to blame sally. The name stuck(laughs).