Born with the blues

Dave Woodhall talks to blues voice extraordinaire Lisa Mills.

I’ve been raving about Lisa Mills ever since I saw her fronting Big Brother & the Holding Company around fifteen years ago. Her voice and her stage presence electrified the audience and I’ve seen her solo shows many times since, but this was the first chance I’ve ever had to talk to her.

I’d say welcome to England but you’ve played here so many times you must like the place already.

“Yes, I love Europe, it’s like a second home to me. I’ve been coming over there for almost twenty years now.”

You have a devoted fanbase here. People who like your music really do love it; dare I say you almost have a cult following.

“Thank you. That’s very nice.”

The first time you played here was the tour with Big Brother. You played the old Robin at Merry Hill and it seemed that everyone in the room, their jaws dropped when you started singing.

“Aww, thank you. It was such an interesting time. The van we were driving in broke down twice on the way to the gig and we didn’t even make the venue until right before the show. We were in some kind of crazy back room area with a kerosene heater and a sign over the sink saying ‘This water is not drinkable’. It was freezing cold, I’m trying to get ready for the show and somebody says ‘Robert Plant’s in the audience’. Then the next day it was sleeting – I remember that too.”

Have you ever thought about doing another Janis Joplin set?

“No, no no, those days are long gone. It was fun working with the guys but it was an approach that’s not natural to me. I’m not a full-on screaming rock’n’roller. Not a blues shouter at all”

You had bass player Ian Jennings with you for a long while but you haven’t worked with him for a few years. Who are you playing with on this tour?

“I’ve been doing some solo work and a few gigs around Europe with different bands. At the Robin it’ll be just me.”

It is, as I say to virtually everyone who’s ever played there before, a venue where you’ve had some great night.

“I’ve played some great gigs there. The last time was a really good night, I had a great response and it was good to see everybody, so many people I’ve got to know.”

It’s all a bit different to growing up in Mississippi.

“I think most places are different to Mississippi. Even places like Alabama right next door are different. It’s like mixing up Birmingham and Walsall.”

You really are getting to think like a local. But where you did grow up, you’ve said you were rooted in gospel and rock’n’roll, although I suppose that in that area all the different forms of music – you can throw blues, soul and country in there as well – are much the same.

“It’s all part of the same style. I call it American southern roots music, it’s a combination of all those influences. I think there’s a spiritual quality to the music that transcends geography, race, sex, what have you. If it’s in your heart and your soul it doesn’t matter if you’re from Mississippi, or from Birmingham.”

It seems sad to me that the area where you’re from doesn’t seem to respect its own heritage particularly well. It’s the birthplace of Western music and yet it’s often overlooked by the local people.

“It’s true. As an American musician I’ve learned that coming over here many people in Europe know more about my musical heritage that I did. When I’ve been travelling with musicians I’d be talking about songs I remember from my childhood and they’d tell me who wrote them, who recorded them, when and where. Thousands of miles away, years later, I’d find out about the songs from when I was young.

“But, there’s a whole generation of young artists performing blues. Maybe it’s not the original Clarksdale blues but it’s a derivative. Music is a language, and language evolves. people create new words that have meaning today or change the spelling of words. Music is like that, it’s an organic, living thing that adapts to changes in experiences and people.”

Talking of change, have you noticed a change in the way audiences appreciate the blues since you first played over here?

“I guess that because I’ve been coming over so long I’ve become familiar, comfortable. When I first started playing in Britain one of the things that struck me was how quiet the audiences were. I was worried they weren’t liking it, they weren’t getting into it. Then when I finished the show they’d come up and tell me how much they loved it.

“The other thing I notice was that at first I would be booked to play a blues club and when I got there it was almost like a classroom. Everyone was seated and they were all watching intently, and they knew all the trivia about the music, whereas if I play blues in a club back in the South, everyone would be drinking and talking and enjoying it that way.

“I think over the years British audiences have relaxed into knowing they’ll get my music, or maybe I’ve relaxed. I dont know. I feel lucky, I’m at a point in my life when I look at it all and think ‘Hey, I got away with it for so long’.”

Lisa Mills plays the Robin 2, Bilston, on Tuesday 22nd January. Tickets