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Sue Foley: Keeping Her Promise

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue

She moved to Austin after just turning twenty. Honed her blues guitar chops at Antone’s by playing with the older touring legends who came through the famed club. She heeded her calling at the right place and at the right time: another younger local, Stevie Ray Vaughan, was taking the world by storm and putting Austin on the map. Since then, Sue Foley’s faithful love for blues has taken her to concert stages around the world, with multiple awards and critically acclaimed albums to boot.

I called the Canadian guitarist, singer, songwriter, and recent winner of the Blues Music Awards to talk about the new album she’s working on, the life-changing influence that Austin has had on her twice, and the rewards of digging deeper.

How is the corona pandemic affecting your work?
I’m putting all my efforts into a new recording project. We’re at the end of a cycle and were planning to record soon anyway. Luckily for me, I’m not in the middle of touring for an album, so I didn’t lose a whole bunch of work. Some got pushed back. So we’re just riding it out.

Austin has played such an important part in your musical and personal life. What was it like when you moved there the first time? Who were the key people that helped you?
I moved there in 1990, and it was pretty awesome. I think I was twenty-one. Clifford Antone brought me in from Canada to be signed to his blues label, and with everybody who came through his club, he made sure that the young players got to play with the older players. He put me on the road with Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, and Koko Taylor. When Albert Collins came into the club, I shot dice with him. I saw Earl King, Hubert Sumlin—you name it. The old way of teaching—to learn through direct transmission, was a big part of Clifford’s philosophy.

I feel honored and privileged that I got to have that interaction because learning blues is an oral tradition that happens through generations. It’s still happening. As blues artists, we pass down what we learn, but it’s harder to access those direct channels now because almost all of those guys are gone. I got there when they were around, and there was a very vibrant blues scene world-wide as far as touring goes. There was nowhere I wanted to be more than Texas—the sound that was coming out of Austin at that time was it for me. So when they welcomed me, it was like I landed in heaven. I spent all of my twenties there, touring with all of these artists, learning at the club, making albums for Antone’s, and really just honing my craft and learning how to play blues.

How did you start playing, and how did Clifford hear about you?
I started really young at thirteen, playing out professionally at sixteen, and by the time I was eighteen, I was touring around Canada. Angela Strehli, a fantastic and very important blues singer from the Austin scene, was helping Clifford with the label. She saw me at a festival and told him.

Were you always a solo artist, or were you ever a side player?
We toured behind Mark Hummel, a pretty well-known harmonica player in the Bay Area, and I played in the Antone’s house band. I like being a sideman, but mostly I’ve been a solo artist as a touring artist.

Didn’t you move back to Canada at one point?
Towards the end of the decade, I got pregnant and married and went home to Canada to have my son. But I took the teachings back with me and played up there and continued my career making albums while raising my kid because I wanted to raise him in my home country with my family close by.

And now you’ve returned to Austin. How did that happen?
I started returning when we were recording The Ice Queen (Foley’s latest album,) which is almost three years ago. Mike Flanigin, an old friend of mine who now is my boyfriend, contacted me out of the blue and told me that Antone’s had reopened (Clifford Antone passed away in 2006) and that I should come and play. I looked Mike up and saw what he had been up to musically. He had recorded an album, The Drifter, that I really liked, and then I started showing him tunes and asked him to produce my album. Somewhere along the way, we became a couple, and I started coming to Austin more regularly, and now I’m back.

What’s your impression of the city today?
There’s still great music in Austin, but everything in the whole world is more gentrified, more commercial, and more geared around money than it used to be. There’s less live music than there used to be, and probably less gigs on the road than there used to be. But again, that goes across world-wide, not just Austin.

What we were able to do as young people and the way that we were able to play and hone our skills is a lot harder to do now because you can’t play out that much. The generation before us had so many more clubs, which stayed open later, and there were more sets per night to play. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were used to playing three sets a night, six nights a week. Twenty years prior to that, you’d play four to five sets per night, six nights a week.

That’s great that you seized that opportunity when you were young.
I feel really lucky that I was able to do that because I don’t know if I would have learned how to really play otherwise. You have to play a hell of a lot to get there. I don’t play as much as I used to because there aren’t as many opportunities—I would if I could.

You’re also a great singer and songwriter. It isn’t easy to do those three things well. Who are your influences, and how did you develop your style?
My favorite singer is probably Bessie Smith. My basic philosophy is to strip things down to their bare bones—I was always curious about who came before what. If I liked somebody, I always wanted to know who they studied to sound like they did. To me, Bessie Smith personifies how American blues and even jazz singing developed. If you love Frank Sinatra, he loved Billie Holiday, and she listened to Bessie Smith. So I keep reducing things to their basic essence if I can.

Do you do this out of historic interest, or do you think it helps in developing your own style?
I think if you can hone in on some of those basic building blocks in really early stuff, it helps with your own style, and it makes your whole thing better. It’s like building a house on a strong foundation—you can go anywhere with that.

What about songwriting?
Songwriting is a little more complex because it developed differently, but early blues songs are really quite beautiful in their structure. Some of them are written so well, but there isn’t a particular writer that I would lean on—it’s the whole style. I would just go back to the early ‘30s and ‘40s when songs developed a bit more. But I also got into Dylan and people like that. When I started to think more like a songwriter, I really leaned on Bob Dylan.

With the blues songs from the ‘40s, you often have that structure of an intro and the AABA verses.
But that’s not a bad structure to learn. I basically don’t lean on anything modern, if you haven’t noticed! (laughs) But I do what I do, and I try to do it well. I don’t try to be everything to everybody. I’m just trying to focus on what I’m able to do.

Sue Foley Ice Queen album cover

You have an interest in flamenco guitar, which we can hear in some of your songs, like “The Dance” (on The Ice Queen.) Is there any other new area that you’re exploring as a guitarist right now? When we play lots of shows, we don’t always have time to practice.
Right now, we have time to practice! (big laughs) Basically, I’ve been going back to the things I talked about. I’ve been listening to a lot of Chicago blues and the Texas stuff that I grew up with, as we’re planning our next album project. I’m leaning towards doing a blues album. You can’t grab it all; sometimes, you have to go back to keep learning it. I just try to be specialized in what I do and stay focused. It’s a personal choice of what you’re into. I don’t go in a lot of different directions. You’re not gonna hear me trying to be a funk player. I will study some jazz, but I usually study a certain line so that I can keep my original focus. I love the flamenco and the Latin stuff and really enjoyed adding elements of that into my playing.

Your recent live shows have a great structure, with the solo acoustic segment in the middle, and then you gradually bring the band back in. It’s not your typical blues show. How did you learn to create a good set?
By watching a lot of shows, watching my favorite artists, and deciding, ‘what do I like?’ I’ve almost always toured as a trio since my twenties, even though I’ve also played with a four-piece and with big bands. For a guitarist, playing in a trio can be really freeing and stimulating, but if you’re having a bad night, man, you have nobody to lean on. But as you play more and get older, your consistency level gets better. To get better, you’ve got to play out a lot, and learn how to work every kind of audience in every kind of venue. And I’ve played from the smallest places to some pretty big venues, but every time you’re at a gig, it’s a different animal that you’re encountering, and you’ve got to figure out how to get that particular audience to come with you.

Some performers are naturally extroverted and move around a lot on stage, while others would feel really awkward doing that.  You have to find out what works with your vibe, right?
It just takes time. You’ve got to do a lot of it and for a long time. That’s why I love blues because I’m fifty-one, and I’m just like ‘prime time, baby.’ In blues, the older you get, the more you have to give your audience because you’ve lived more, you can empathize with them more, and give them a personal experience on stage and make them happy. I wasn’t always an expert performer; I don’t even consider myself that now, but I feel very comfortable and confident with performing. I feel like I’m at a good age to express the deeper elements of this music, and I have a really good time.

How do you move an audience?
It’s got to start with you. The more you dig into yourself and express something real, the more the audience will be attracted to you. But I’m speaking specifically about blues music. This doesn’t necessarily translate to every other style. In blues, there’s nowhere to hide. I think if you can explore blues music as a lesson, without necessarily having to be a blues musician, it’ll make everything you do better.

You also do solo shows. When did you start doing that, and why?
I probably started with those when I was sixteen, since I’ve always played a lot of country blues, and I did that before playing electric. I learned how to accompany myself right away because I liked the independence of it. But I’m still developing that side of my thing. It’s all about just hammering away at it, practicing, and doing it a lot until you get comfortable with it. Put yourself into every kind of situation—that’s how you get skills.

It’s also good to be able to play a solo show or house concert in between the club gigs.
I really think that to survive now, you’ve got to do a lot. You’ve got to play in a lot of different combos and do different collaborations and projects. The more skills you have . . .

Photo by Alan Messer

What do you do to diversify?
I play with my trio, and play with bigger bands and hire horn players at bigger shows or events. Sometimes I go out and play with Jimmy Vaughan, or do a solo show every now and then. I can also do a  workshop. I write a column (“The Foley Files” for Guitar Player Magazine); I’m developing my Guitar Woman project (book with hundreds of interviews with female guitarists), and I attend school—the question is what the heck am I not doing? (laughs)

What’s your current rig?
Fender Bassman ‘59 Reissue, with 4×10’s, of course. Fender Telecaster—got several of them—but I mainly use the pink paisley one, the Japanese model. And then I just use a BOSS reverb, a Strymon tremolo/reverb unit, and an RC booster. I try not to use too many pedals. I don’t like things to interrupt my tone, and I think pedals kind of wash your tone out.

Do you turn up pretty loud then and just control things with the volume knob on your guitar?
Yeah, I turn up to a healthy volume. When you play in a trio, you’ve got to have some balls.

And you play maple neck Teles, right?
Yeah, I’m not a big fan of rosewood. I find them sticky! (laughs) I don’t know—I could be wrong—it’s just my thing!

Here’s the last question: some blues artists try to branch out to broader audiences, like the rock or soul crowd. Are you aspiring to that as well?
I’m going to do the opposite. I’m gonna be the best blues player I can be, and let them come to me. I applaud everybody for wanting to do what they want to do, but I’m not a rock artist. I just want to play blues. That’s what I’ve been taught to do. There’s not a lot of us around, and there’s not a lot of us that got the education that I had, so I just want to continue to share that message that we got handed—it’s part of my job, you know. There’s nothing that turns me on more than slow blues!

Nikki ONeill

Nikki O’Neill is an Americana singer, guitar player, and songwriter with a deep love for soul music. Her records have been played on many blues and roots music stations in the US, Canada, and the U.K. Based in Los Angeles, she performs actively with her band.

Nikki ONeill
Nikki O’Neill is an Americana singer, guitar player, and songwriter with a deep love for soul music. Her records have been played on many blues and roots music stations in the US, Canada, and the U.K. Based in Los Angeles, she performs actively with her band.

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