Talking new blues, old guitars and Fenway Park franks with Susan Tedeschi

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is led by husband-and-wife musicians Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi.
Photo: Mark Seliger

Susan Tedeschi has a lot of husbands these days. That’s how it feels anyway, touring with her “roots music circus” of a band. She and her actual husband, guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks, had been leading their own outfits for years, but weaving their talents proved powerful. The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s debut, Revelator, took the Grammy for Best Blues Album and a Blues Music Award for Album of the Year in 2011. They followed it with a live compilation that won another Blues Music Award, setting the bar high for second studio album Made Up Mind.

Touring on the heels of that release this past summer, the band is looking forward to three nights at Brooklyn Bowl on the Strip. The Weekly talked to its sound-defining voice about summoning emotion, composing in the shower and how a flute solo can really knock your socks off.

Comparing it to Revelator, Made Up Mind sounds more playful—just as technically tight but in a different sort of groove. How do they compare for you? On a lot of levels, it was more fun and relaxed to make this record, because the band had really started to consolidate and to have its own sound. And we were also finally in a much better place personnel-wise. … We had some good luck in the studio writing with Oliver Wood and with Doyle [Bramhall] and with Mike [Mattison], and we just had some really great songs that came up out of the writing sessions, so it was really easy and fun to play when we were recording. And also, we were trying out a bunch of bass players when we were making this record, so there was a lot of variety that way, which I think spiced it up a little bit.

How did you settle on Tim Lefebvre? He’s sort of more known as a jazz guy who does tons of studio work, and he’s been on tour in the past with more jazz artists, but he’s really amazing. I mean, he can play anything. He can play rock or blues or whatever, and he can also play some of the new kind of club stuff, too. He’s really quite amazing. He’s a great fit, really creative, really sweet guy. … We had a bunch of people lined up that we were trying out, and he was actually the last one that we were gonna try. … Derek had always said to the band, “We’ll know when we find the right one.” And we tried, like, 10 bass players, and we’re like, “We haven’t found him yet!” And then we played with Tim, and we’re like, “Oh, we do know. Derek was right.” (laughs)

Your voice is unmistakable, but you also love guitar. You played on two songs on the new record, right? I don’t remember. (laughs) And it’s funny ’cause the stuff I play on now isn’t the stuff I played on on the record. I do that a lot. Like on Revelator I didn’t really play a lot either, and then I play on all the tunes live. Sometimes that’s just me trying to really focus on vocals because I don’t have the time. We write the songs and then you kind of want it in its bare, beautiful state, and then to add the other parts later.

When it comes to writing songs, do you usually have a guitar in hand, or is it ever just belting out a line while you’re doing the dishes? Sure. You can just sit in your car or get in the shower and make up a song, sing a whole melody and a lyric and it’ll just come out. A lot of those get lost, though. You don’t always record them when they happen and then it’s hard to remember what you just did. It seems like it would be easy to remember what you just sang, but a lot of times it’s like a muse, it just comes and then it’s gone. And you have nothing to do with it. You feel like you’re just kind of watching it go by.

One thing I’ve always noticed about your singing is the confidence, how the notes start in the sweet spot. I think knowing the song and being prepared is half the battle. … But I guess you don’t really think about it too much, you’re just trying to think about how to be most effective in getting the feeling of the song out there, and if it happens to be a real confident presentation and that’s what it calls for then that’s what you do. And sometimes it doesn’t call for that.

“Sweet and Low” seems to call for a bit of everything, from a chorus that has an almost doo-wop quality to these intense stops where all instruments suspend. You co-wrote the song. How did it come together? That’s a song that Eric Krasno brought in, and it was pretty well-developed; he had a lot of the melody down and some of the lyrics and had a bunch of ideas for it. When I went in and tried to start messing with it, there was no actual first verse, so I did just kind of spit that one out. It just came out naturally. I think it’s a matter of listening to the intention that the writer has and what they’re trying to encompass and then really trying to embrace that and get out your sound and your ideas mixed with what they’re trying to get out.

So, I don’t even know if we knew what the song was really about at first. We knew it was about a relationship, but actually, the first lyric I sang, I remember it was, “I wasn’t always around/When you felt so low down.” Something about that, I was actually thinking about our kids and how we’re not always around. And so I was thinking that at first, but then I started thinking about the relationship and how when you’re not there then it’s easier for people to find another relationship. So you just kind of build it from a couple different points of view and things that inspire you at the time. …

That’s the great thing about this band, there are so many players that can really be very emotional in what they do and bring a sense of emotion to the music as well as the beautiful melodies and the power.

Speaking of power, there’s a flute solo by Kofi Burbridge on “Idle Wind” that’s totally bananas. It’s just not something you hear very often Kofi is one of the best flute players we’ve ever heard, and it’s actually his first instrument. People don’t always know that about him. He’s an amazing keyboard player; he’s an amazing musician in general. … It does throw you off a little at first when you hear a flute. You’re like, “What?” (laughs) But then it is so amazing that you’re like, oh wow, it’s just a whole new breath of fresh air on the record, I think, where it really shows you some of the versatility that this band has, how moving it can be at any moment with anything. You’re just not even expecting it.

Does it ever feel like you’re married to the whole band? I feel like Derek is married to the drummers, ’cause they hang out a lot. (laughs) Honestly we all love each other, and it is very much like that. You definitely have a strong relationship with everybody in the band and there has to be a lot of mutual respect and admiration going on for it to work. So it definitely is like a big married couple. (laughs)

Has working with your husband Derek changed you musically? He’s made me more aware of the little things, of the subtleties in guitar playing or singing or just the overall dynamic level of the band as a whole. Realizing it’s not just all about what you’re doing; it’s about what everybody’s doing, and at any given moment to be open-minded to anything and be listening and ready to divert. ’Cause sometimes we’ll just completely divert the plan. (laughs) We’ll have the perfect arrangement, and all of a sudden it’s not going there, it’s going somewhere else. …

He’s really given me a lot of confidence in a lot of ways, too, because he has been so supportive, especially with my guitar playing, which can be kind of broken and not so perfect. … He’s good at knowing my strengths and when it’s important to play and when it’s when it’s good to, like, lay out. So he’s given me a lot of things, whether it’s confidence or support or ideas … things that maybe I didn’t hear or things I wouldn’t have thought.

I’ve heard you have a few “college-fund” guitars in the family. Derek has a couple guitars that are older guitars. Obviously he plays [Gibson] SG, and he has a couple ’61 SGs, which are worth a bunch of money, nothing like a Jimi Hendrix guitar or anything like that—nowadays I think college is going to cost that. (laughs) You know, just things that are definitely nice to have because you feel like not only are they an investment but they’re things that you would play. And that you are gonna love and genuinely would like to have around while you’re recording. And if you need to sell one, if times are hard, then it’s good to have instead of just having cash, which comes and goes and isn’t very solid these days. … I think he’s got an old 335, 1960. I think we have two of those. But nothing too crazy.

This spring, Derek announced he would leave his longtime post as a lead guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band, which will stop touring after 2014 without him and fellow lead guitarist Warren Haynes. Was it about focusing on your band, or was it just time after such a good run? Honestly, he’s been trying to leave the band for about five or 10 years. (laughs) And he just hasn’t been able to do it. They keep pretty much begging and pleading for him to stay. He really wants to focus on one band; he doesn’t want to be spread so thin. And I think he realized that in about 2007 when he was doing the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and his own band. He was doing three bands at once, and it’s really hard to focus and to put your whole heart into three projects. And also, he’s a father. He’s a great father, and he wants to be around his kids. I understand that, too. Our kids are growing up fast, and the Allman Brothers definitely takes him away from that. … It’s a big commitment, and honestly he works really hard in that group; he and Warren really help run a lot of that, and he just doesn’t want to see those guys fade and not be able to do their greatest. He wants them to go out on top.

You’ve listed some of your influences as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, because they could “get down to the bottom of it.” What does that mean? Getting to the roots of it, like, where does it come from? How does it hit you? What moves you? And is it authentic, and do you believe it? ’Cause you can’t go out there and just sing something and try to pass something off on somebody if you’re not feeling it or believing it. I think intention has a lot to do with it, as well as how much you’re emotionally charged by a song or maybe the artist. It can be a lot of different things. But a lot of those guys, they just had it. They had the whole package. They had great tone and great style and great showmanship or intention or energy—it’s kind of all those things. It’s just drawing from all those things and trying to learn all the time, and never being happy being satisfied. … John Lee Hooker said, “The day I stop learning is the day I’m in the grave.” I’m sure he was still learning, even right up till the end.

This will be the band’s maiden voyage at the Las Vegas Brooklyn Bowl. What are you thinking going in? For us it’ll be a lot of fun—don’t know exactly what to expect, but I think it’ll be more of that kind of party atmosphere that Vegas has along with the music. So we’ll be serious (laughs) musically, but I don’t know if the crowd will be. … We’ll think about songs from both records, or all three records, as well as some new stuff that we’re working on or some new covers and we’ll just try to make it fresh, try to make it exciting for the people so they’re not feeling like they’re coming to see the same show all the time.

Being on the road, you must occasionally indulge in gas-station snacks. I’ve heard you come from a family that owns some convenience stores on the East Coast. Do you ever go for the greasy hot dogs? I have a soft spot for Fenway Park ballpark franks, maybe, but definitely not at the convenience store, no. And being on the road, especially gas stations and stuff, nah. Not really much of a gas station food person. The good thing about Tedeschi Food Shops, though, is they do have a good deli. You can get a good sandwich. So I think I’d probably go with the sandwiches more than the hot dogs. (laughs)

Tedeschi Trucks Band with Soulive. May 29-31, 8 p.m., $35-$40. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

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