Scruffily hirsute, slightly dishevelled, and sporting a look that some might call Bohemian Chic, 48-year-old DOYLE BRAMHALL II appears every inch the archetypal rock star. Except that he’s not – or at least not quite yet. But that situation could change if his new album, ‘Rich Man,’ gets the exposure it deserves. He’s been a diligent session-guitarist-for-hire for many years – he’s played with everyone from Eric Clapton, Elton John, Sheryl Crow, Roger Waters and Willie Nelson to Bettye LaVette, Meshell Ndegeocello and Erykah Badu – but now, after putting his own career on the backburner for well over a decade, he’s intent on establishing himself as a solo artist.
Bramhall is the son of the late Doyle Bramhall Sr, a songwriter and drummer who played with blues maven Stevie Ray Vaughan. He first made his mark in the late ’80s when he spent two years serving an apprenticeship on the road in Jimmy Vaughan’s band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He then became part of a cult Texas blues band called Arc Angels in the early ’90s and then released his first solo album in 1996, followed by ‘Jellycream,’ two years later. It wasn’t until 2001 when Doyle released his third LP, ‘Welcome,’ a searing blues-rock outing, that he really made some noise.
21 years later comes his Concord debut LP, ‘Rich Man,’ which shows Dallas-born Bramhall to be a gifted, thoughtful singer/songwriter as well as a talented fretboardist with a penchant for soulful, blues-infused material. The album ranges from searing, earthy funk – ‘Mama Can’t Help You,’ featuring the legendary R&B sticks man, James Gadson – to brassy R&B (‘November’), atmospheric blues covers (Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hear My Train A Comin”), African-tinged grooves (‘Saharan Crossing’) and deeper, long-form conceptual pieces (‘The Samanas,’ a tri-part suite). Norah Jones also lends her velvet tones to the aching acoustic ballad, ‘New Faith.’
On this evidence, then, he is certainly a man of many different musical facets, and they all glint brightly on ‘Rich Man,’ a well-wrought album that deserves to find a wide and appreciative audience. The fact that the guitarist is about to appear at London’s Royal Albert Hall for three night this week as Eric Clapton’s support act (on 22nd, 24th and 25th of May) will certainly help in familiarising the public at large with his name and music. Bramhall is also due to play at London’s Under The Bridge venue as a headliner on Saturday 27th May as part of his first European tour.
SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with the affable Texas troubadour, who talks in depth about his new recording and sheds light on his influences, history and what he likes to do when he’s not focusing on music…
What will you be serving up to UK audiences and which musicians will you be bringing with you?
Actually, it will be with my live band, the band that I’ve been with now for about a year and a half. In my opinion they’re incredible musicians. One of them is Adam Minkoff from Brooklyn, New York, who was also the string and horn arranger on the record as well as my co-producer. He plays guitar and keys and has a magnificent voice as well. Also in the band is Anthony Cole, who’s played with J.J. Grey for years. He’s an amazing jazz drummer as well as a rock drummer, and he also plays tenor saxophone. He has a great voice too. And then there’s Ted Pecchio, who I met in Susan Tedeschi and Derek Truck’s band. He’s playing bass. So that’s who I’m out with. We’ve pretty much been playing the new album, ‘Rich Man,’ in its entirety and then we usually add three or four songs from my previous album, ‘Welcome,’ and also, depending on how we’re feeling, we do some Isley Brothers and Impressions’ covers, like ‘Work To Do’ and ‘Choice Of Colours.’
It sounds like it’s going to be a great show and those guys sound very versatile as musicians.
Yeah, they’re incredible and they all play different instruments… like the drummer can get up and play keyboards and switch with the keyboard player. They are the best musicians that I’ve ever played with in my band.
What’s the story behind the new album, ‘Rich Man’?
This particular story that’s on the record began for me around 2008. It started with me going through a really tough breakup and the beginning stages of that. Then I left home and went on a spiritual journey and cultural quest just to see how the rest of the world and different cultures worked. I was always immersed in western culture and so I wanted to see how the rest of the world worked.
It’s been sixteen years since your last solo album. Did you accumulate a lot of songs in that period?
No, I started from scratch. I’ve always felt this way. I feel that the music I’m doing in the moment which scores my life and scores what I’m going through right now. A lot of the songs that I had written, like 10 years ago, weren’t really that relevant to me now because I’ve lived so much life and gotten a lot more knowledgeable. I feel like I have a more sophisticated musical approach now – even if it’s simplified, it’s still more sophisticated to me and I can hear that in the music. So I like to start from scratch every time and make new music.
The album’s opening track is the infectious ‘Mama Can’t Help You.’ It features the legendary west coast funk and R&B drummer, James Gadson (pictured playing with Doyle). What was it like working with him?
I’ve known him for a long time, he’s a really good friend. We’ve actually done a lot of different sessions together and we just became friends and had a mutual respect. Any chance I can get him in the studio to do something with him, I want to take the opportunity to do that, so I invited him to come in and play on the record. I had him booked for about two weeks but the day before he came in I realised that I hadn’t got any songs that I thought would suit him. I had recorded all of the songs for the album at that point and I felt that I didn’t have anything that was really in the wheelhouse for him and I to do together. So I just woke up the morning that I was supposed to work with him and wrote ‘Mama Can’t Help You’ in about an hour and a half. I took it in and we recorded it and it was done. A lot of the lines that are in the song I sang just as we were putting it down for the first time. It was a lot of fun.
Another highlight of the album is ‘New Faith,’ which Norah Jones appears on. What circumstances led you to work with her and what is she like to collaborate with?
She’s an amazing person. I’ve always really loved what she did as a musician as well as a singer. It just so happened that when I was recording that song, which was one of the last songs for the record, I felt like the song really needed to be a duet. I was hearing that in my head and when I was talking about it with, Andy Taub in Brooklyn, who helped me co-produce it, he said, ‘why don’t you call Norah?’ He knew that Norah and I were friends and he said ‘she lives just a few blocks from the studio and I think she’s home, so what about her?’ I said that sounds like a great idea, that would be awesome, so I just called her up and asked her if she would be interested and within an hour and a half she was in the studio singing with me. I already had the parts in my head so I just sat down with her and showed her what the parts were and she sang it with me live. It was a lot of fun.
You’ve recorded an eerie version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hear My Train A Comin,’ which closes the album. What drew you to that song in particular and how much of an influence was Hendrix on you?
He was huge for me when I was growing up because I felt that Hendrix had everything. He was in my opinion the best rock guitar player of all time and he was the most innovative sonically. He pushed the boundaries with songwriting – with song structure and what you could say on songs…like he brought mythology into his writing. But he just pushed the boundaries in every way. And then, on top of it all, he was the best rhythm guitar player, the best lead player, and he could convey a message, even though he used to say that he didn’t really like his voice at all …and yet he could convey a message in a lyric like nobody else.
What’s the story behind the album’s longest song, ‘The Samanas’ … and what does the title refer to?
The Samanas were three travelling monks referred to in Herman Hesse’s novel, Siddartha. Siddhartha hooks up with and tries to follow them because he wants to be one of them. I felt that the song reflected my spiritual journey and me travelling to the east, to open myself up to as much as I could. The song also has three movements to it, which I thought was a cool thing to do as the three travelling monks are having three journeys.
Was it inspired by your journey to India?
Not just India but Africa too. Because I originally had the calling to go to Egypt and Mali and other parts of Northern Africa first and then I went to India after that.
There’s an African influence on your song, ‘Saharan Crossing.’
I had gone to Mali, which is at the bottom of the Sahara, the Western bottom, the south part, and then I had also gone to Morocco, which is on the north-west side of the Sahara. I had many different experiences around the Sahara. It’s just such a vast mystical place and definitely the sounds that come from the region, in and around the Sahara, are things that I’m really attracted to.
Your travels seem to have informed and influenced your music, haven’t they?
Yeah, definitely. I think life in general, wherever you are and wherever you go, influences what it is.
On the cover of your album you’re holding some kind of gold disc. What does that mean or symbolise?
From what I’ve been told, it’s an old Berber piece from Morocco and the Berber people are the indigenous people of Morocco. So I guess that particular piece was one that a woman would wear for protection and bring her prosperity in her life.
So does the title ‘Rich Man’ refer to spiritual wealth rather than material things?
Yeah, that was the whole point. For me, spirituality is an action and in my case, an action to help others – that’s where my spirituality is. It can be as simple as that. It doesn’t have to be anything else really. And I could be a rich man and have everything I need and not have any materialistic things – and not have money or any of that stuff, which I didn’t really have. (Laughs). I had enough to get by with food and I like having money to travel so I can see more of the world but, other than that, I don’t really care. I like things that bring me joy and a lot of the things that bring me joy are getting to know other people and a feeling of oneness with other people or really connecting with people that normally find differences in others.
Did you take any music with you on your travels?
No, I didn’t even take a guitar or anything because I just like to immerse myself in whatever music is in the region that I’m going to. I just like to take it in and listen, I like to hear and feel it, absorb it all and take back with me. It then stews inside of me and comes out in my music later.
You’re supporting Eric Clapton on his current UK tour. You’ve had a long association with Eric, haven’t you, as a guitarist, a songwriter and a producer. How did your paths first cross?
The first time was when he called me out of the blue and said he had been listening to my ‘Jellycream’ record, which was my second album and said he had gotten my record from my manager and he had fallen in love with it. He said that he wanted to do two songs off of that record on the record that he was working on with B. B. King called ‘Riding With The King,’ and he invited me to come down and play on those songs. When I was in the studio, after I had recorded those songs, he just invited me to play on the rest of the record because he liked what I added to it and then it just kept sort of snowballing from that. He would invite me for the next record and the next record and then a tour (laughs), and then producing. It just kept going. So yeah, I’ve had a really long career with him.
Going right back to the beginning, what drew you to the guitar?
I grew up in a family musicians and a lot of them were drummers. So I think it was more out of convenience that I was a drummer when I first started out. Then I switched to bass and I played bass in our band and after I got as far as I could on the bass I picked up a guitar. It just really spoke to me and I was able to express myself on the guitar more than I could on any other instrument. I was 14 when I picked up the guitar and I started writing almost immediately on it.
Which musician has had the biggest influence on your own development as a guitarist?
It’s hard to say one really because I grew up with Stevie (Ray Vaughan) and Jimmy Vaughan, who were incredible guitar players. When I was first growing up, Stevie was the biggest influence for me and then later it became Jimmy Vaughan. He would become the other biggest influence for me for guitar. But even playing with Eric for all those years and being around him, has really made me a better performer and a better guitar player and musician. I’m a more thoughtful accompanist. So I couldn’t say that Eric wasn’t as important as Stevie was to me growing up, even though I emulated Stevie growing up.
You played alongside Jimmy in the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a couple of years back in the late-’80s. What did you learn from Jimmy that helped your own development as a player?
Before I played with Jimmy, I played more for myself. I waited for my turn and went as hard as I could and played everything I could play in the shortest amount of time. So I pretty much just thought of myself and was self-centred but I think playing with Jimmy I had to think outside of myself and be part of an ensemble and learn to accompany him and play off of him and listen. So I really had to listen to all of the musicians and figure out what the best accompaniment was for them or how I can accent them and play off them with counter melodies or counter rhythms and all that. So that really helped me, I think, more than anything else ever because it helped me be a better team player, which helped me with my playing ability with Roger Waters, with Eric Clapton and with Arc Angels. I knew how to be a better team player because of that experience with the Thunderbirds.
Your late father was an accomplished musician, wasn’t he, and what musical imprint did he leave on you?
He was my biggest influence growing up. I wanted to sound like him vocally and I wanted to play music like him. Everything he did, I wanted to be just like him. Everything that I do is rooted in all of the stuff that he taught me. Without even sitting down and teaching me, he taught me everything by just being near me and me being in his presence, I was able to get all of the things from him, like any craftsman. It was like growing up on a farm with your father who was a farmer. If you’re around it and you grow up in it, it rubs off on you.
As well as touring with Eric Clapton and having your new album out, you’re also on Sheryl Crow’s new album, ‘By Myself,’ aren’t you? What she like to work with?
She’s a real professional and really talented and creative and a powerhouse as well in her own right. But I think the thing that a lot of those people have – her, and Eric, and Roger – and what sets them apart is that drive. They are so extremely driven. That’s something that I haven’t had as much of, especially on that level. I think to have that sort of success you have to have a drive that’s sort of otherworldly (laughs).
Do you live, eat, and breathe music 24/7 or do you have any other interests away from the stage and the studio?
I love travelling so I think the music gets me to all these places that I want to go to. Right now, I’m currently touring in Europe and it’s my first solo tour and headlining tour in my life. I love travelling, I love immersing myself into different cultures and I love nature and I love hiking. I just love travelling the world. I love old world cultures and old world foods and experiencing things that haven’t been westernised. So that’s the stuff that I like.
Have you got any unfulfilled ambitions, musical or otherwise? Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
There are different projects that I think about doing, like there’s one project that I have wanted to do for a long time with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. There have been collaborations with Gnawa musicians and jazz musicians, like a fusion type thing, but there hasn’t really been a Gnawa-blues fusion thing and that’s something that I’m really interested in doing. I would have to travel to this remote village where all the Gnawa groups meet and see if I could hook it up where we do some kind of collaboration together and make a record. I love collaborations on every level. I want to experience as much as I can in my life so wherever that takes me I’ll go. I’d like to write and record some stuff with Paul McCartney, just because I’m a huge fan of his and I grew up where Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were my favourite song writers and musicians, so it would be fun to do things with them (30:44) but, I don’t know, I’ve had such a charmed life, and I played with so many amazing musicians and singers along the way that… I mean I don’t know (laughs). I can’t really say because I’ve already done what most people dream of doing.
But you’re not going to let another ten years or so pass before your next album, are you?
No, I’m starting to write for it now. So by September I should have something. September/October I’ll finish my record, hopefully.
Just finally, you’ve worked with all his illustrious names in the music business, what’s been the biggest highlight so far of your musical life?
I feel that every experience that I’ve had along the way has led to the next and it just keeps growing and leading to the next thing and they’re all really big experiences for me. Me growing up with my father led to my relationship and playing music with Stevie Ray Vaughan and leading me to Jimmy Vaughan. Those experiences led to me playing in Arc Angels and then that experience led to people knowing about me to me making a solo record. And that led to Eric Clapton hearing that and becoming a fan and me joining Roger Waters’ band because they had heard one my records I put out, my first record, and then Sheryl Crow calling me up. And then years later when I had done this film project, Erykah Badu had seen some footage of me and called me up and wanted to work with me. Really, it’s been a charmed life where all of those people had sought me out – I did not seek them out. I think it makes it really interesting. I don’t think it could have happened the other way, like if I just called Eric out of the blue and said ‘hey, I want you to listen to my stuff, I think you’ll like it.’ (Laughs). I don’t think it would have happened. The fact that it’s always happened that way, where people find me and call me and like what I do is a blessing.
SEE DOYLE BRAMHALL II LIVE AT UNDER THE BRiDGE ON SATURDAY 27TH OF JULY.
‘RICH MAN’ IS OUT NOW ON CONCORD RECORDS