Husband-and-wife duo Ida Mae is making the most of a working vacation across America. While the trip is more work than leisure, the couple is taking in as many of the sights as they can.
Ahead of Ida Mae’s second visit to South Florida this year, New Times spoke to guitarist Chris Turpin over the phone. The duo is touring alongside Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Turpin could not sound more delighted. He calls while visiting from a cowboy museum in Oklahoma, and says that the band’s journey through the American west — which has included stops in Arizona and Utah — has been a fantasy come to life.
This fascination with the rawer, more rural side of the country can be heard in Ida Mae’s brand of Americana alt-folk. Although the musically inclined couple resides in Nashville, they originally hail from England. Stephanie Jean Ward is from Crawley, an area in South London, while Turpin is originally from Norwich. Their origins beg the question: How does an English musical act become not just infatuated with the American South and its signature sounds — roots rock, folk music, and the blues — but also quite adept at it?
“For me it was that Detroit rock ‘n’ roll scene,” Turpin says. “Everything from the Stooges to early Von Bondies, to the Gos and the White Stripes. I was reading an interview in Mojo magazine when I was 15 and someone mentioned Robert Johnson and someone mentioned Son House, and I went out and bought those CDs in the little town that I’m from.
“I’d never heard anything like it in my life — the ferocity, the rawness, the passion of these single guitar guys. Before that, I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, who I was obsessed with. And Eric Clapton, and John Mayer, and early Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin. And if you’re into those bands, it’s only a short hop, skip, and a jump to the blues.”
Turpin imported CDs from Germany and borrowed vinyl records from a neighbor down the road, obsessively pouring over these “astonishing” new sounds. He subsequently taught himself how to play guitar. In a pleasant bit of confluence, his wife Ward — who serves as the band’s primary vocalist — did the same.
“She got a free CD from a newspaper which had some Bessie Smith on it, some Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald; she kind of followed a similar path on her own, with a female blues singer environment,” Turpin explains
At least to Turpin, it makes sense that they would become “enamored” with these musicians.
“One, they’re singing in English; two, it’s completely foreign, in terms of how it sounds; but also, the folk music in America in the 1800s is all Irish, Scottish, and English and they’re all singing about towns we grew up in.” They found this rich blend of musical history to be “intoxicating.”
They turned that adoration into a fairly successful career with their first band, Kill It Kid, which dissolved a few years ago after a record deal turned sour. As Turpin puts it, “rock and roll bands famously explode.”
In many ways, Ida Mae represents the couple sonically starting over, a scary proposition for anyone kickstarting a new career after years of doing something else. Fortunately, they have two things to see them through this: each other (he says it feels like they’re always “home” when they’re together), and the important lessons they learned along the way.
“No compromise and keep it as independent as we can,” he says when describing their philosophy. “We have our own little record label within Thirty Tigers and we call the shots. Thankfully, in doing that and keeping it as pure to what we want, it seems to be resonating with people more than anything we’ve done before. That’s pretty cool.”
Although the band reveres blues masters across the spectrum, from both the genre’s inception to the more modern-day players, Turpin is quick to caution that Ida Mae’s debut LP, Chasing Lights is not a blues record.
“We didn’t want to stick to one genre necessarily,” he says. “It was all about clashing textures… there was a mind to keep the record eclectic.”
While Chasing Lights boasts heavy influences from the various names Turpin mentioned, the album leans more towards the folk-rock of the Civil Wars, albeit in a much grittier manner, resembling something you might hear in a country dive bar.
“Chasing Lights is a poignant metaphor for anyone that tries to make money out of art,” Turpin explains, noting the “all or nothing” nature of his marriage and lifestyle where neither person in the relationship has a stereotypical 9-to-5 day job.
Nonetheless, the situation seems to be working for them and has even fostered a fair share of the material Ida Mae are sharing on the road now.
“We got married, I think, a year before doing the record, so if there was a time to write love songs, it was on this record.”