An Interview with bluesman Robert Cray, who plays the Kent Stage tomorrow

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It’s been a busy year for Robert Cray and even as the veteran bluesman begins to wind down his touring in support of his latest album Nothin’ But Love, he’s already looking ahead. When the tour wraps at the end of this week, he’ll hunker down and get set to record his next album, which is tentatively planned for release in April of next year. Cray says that the band will enter the studio in early December, and it's just beginning to plot things out, working on new material and looking at possible cover songs for the album as well. We spoke with Cray via phone prior to a recent tour stop in Riverside, Iowa to ask him a few questions in advance of tomorrow’s show at The Kent Stage.

This latest album seems like it really benefited from the fact that you worked fairly quickly and didn’t get too hung up in the studio.
No, we never really spend a lot of time in the studio. We do tracking which is probably about a week to 10 days and then that’s about it. Then [all that’s left] after that [is] if I have to come back in and redo some vocals or something like that and whatever time it takes to do mixing. It’s normally finished that quickly.

You’ve worked with a producer, but you’ve also self-produced as well. What are the helpful elements that a producer adds to the mix for you?
The easing of pressure. Somebody else to take care of all of the day-to-day things like coordination and just that — coordinating everything basically is the best part about having a producer. But then also, it depends on the producer as well. Some producers are really hands-on and some producers are just there to do the job.

You worked with Kevin Shirley producing the last album. Kevin seems to bring an interesting ingredient into the mix of nearly everyone that he works with. How was that experience for you?
Well, it was our first time working with Kevin Shirley and I found that he works really quickly, which I enjoyed. I wasn’t sure what to expect when working with Kevin. Because I think that musicians do their best work when it’s really spontaneous and you don’t dwell on anything and that’s what Kevin brought to the table.

Will you work with Kevin again on this next record?
Actually, this next one we’re going to be working with Steve Jordan, who we have worked with before.

I just saw Steve at the recent Rolling Stones Music Masters tribute that the Rock Hall put on here which he helped to put together the band for. It was fascinating watching him work, the way that he orchestrates and coordinates everything that is happening onstage. He assembled a great lineup of folks.

That’s the joy of working with Steve Jordan. He’s the great organizer.

He seems like he has a great Rolodex.
[Laughs] He does.

Your bass player Richard Cousins has been along for most of the ride, both as a member of your band and a collaborator. He probably knows the really good Robert Cray stories.
Yeah, I’m sure he does! [Laughs] I know some good Richard Cousins stories as well. Richard and I started the band in 1974 and then Richard left the band in about ‘92 and we had Karl Sevareid with us for a long time. Richard came back into the band in the latter part of 2008.

I know that both you and Richard are both still music fans to the point that you’ll hit up record stores while you’re out on the road. At this point, you both probably have sizable collections. What kind of stuff are you still looking for?
I’m looking for old R&B, blues and jazz. I just go through the records and see what’s there. More recently, I found an old Johnny Nash record and I found some Sarah Vaughan and some Johnny Hammond Smith — an eclectic mix of stuff, you know.

What do you enjoy about the process of listening to music?
You know, what’s cool is listening to the arrangements that people have on their records and how well the musicians interplay with one another and just listening to what they’re saying to one another as they’re playing — especially on the jazz records. Because you can tell when the guys are really doing it and when they’re having fun and when they’re playing off one another and that kind of thing. It’s that way with the old blues stuff too, Muddy Waters’ music and stuff like that. It just seems like there was so much musical interplay and thought that went into making the records back in those days. Then you listen to some of the ‘50s and ‘60s pop records too where they have the background singers. If you listen to Sam Cooke’s stuff when they had like four or five background singers or the old Bobby Bland Duke stuff. People worked a lot on the arrangements and the music back in those days. It was a big deal.

How difficult was it to find your groove with songwriting? You have a very comfortable feel to your songwriting style, but there seems to be an evolutionary process for everyone as a songwriter to find that.
Well, thanks. I picked up a lot from a guy who used to produce and co-produce us, Dennis Walker. He wrote some of the earlier tunes for us like “Porch Light” and “Right Next Door (Because Of Me)” and stuff like that. In his songs, he painted pictures with very visual lyrics. So we try to remember that in the songwriting and also to remember to keep it simple. Don’t get into your head when you’re writing stuff. Just let the emotions and the story flow.

Do you find yourself getting hung up in that process with songs that you’re working on?
That’s the thing, like I was just mentioning — don’t get into your head — just let it flow and keep it simple. Because you can spend forever trying to be slick, funny, serious and trying to pretend like you’re going to write some major opus or something like that and then never release it because you don’t think it’s good enough! [Laughs] It’s the same thing when you’re in the recording studio — don’t spend a lot of time on something, because you’ll never be perfect — it’s just going to be what it is. That kind of attitude is I think a better attitude than being over the top.

I know you’ve said in the past that you’re fine with the blues tag, but at the same point, as you point out, it doesn’t cover everything that you do. Famously, when the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark album came out, the label put a sticker on the first pressing that said “place in the pop/rock section.” Like most musicians, you’re not one who wants to be boxed into one particular thing. Has it been frustrating over the years for you, or are you able to exist in a space where you’re happy?
I’m not frustrated by the tags. Wherever you want to put us! That thing with the record company, they put that on the albums back in those days because they wanted to sell records. [Laughs] So with me, it’s fine. People can look at us any way they want to — just as long as they look at us.The ‘80s, you had some MTV and radio play. The MTV thing was a new boost for folks making music in that era. But at that time with everything else that was happening around you musically, it seems like it could have been a difficult time to be in a band and get attention doing what you do. All of that stuff was going on, but at the same time the door was wide open for bands like ours and Los Lobos and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Blasters and Stevie Ray Vaughan and all of that. Everybody had a shot and the Americana movement was just as big as the stuff that was coming from England at that time, so it helped us out. We got a lot of MTV play, so it was good for us. Strong Persuader was huge and we were touring like mad and building an audience in a lot of different places, so it was good.

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