STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Philadelphia’s Deb Callahan has established herself as a top-notch vocalist with a top-notch band. She has toured throughout the East Coast, the South and Midwest and has appeared at numerous blues festivals, as well as at festivals and clubs in the Philadelphia area, including Steel City in Phoenixville.
She just released her fifth album “Sweet Soul” (Blue Pearl Records) in September, her first album since the birth of her son Elijah. Of course having a child changes things for every new parent, but Callahan had already been juggling her career as a social worker with her musical career. Though she still continued to perform, there were fewer shows and much less traveling.
“Elijah has to be my priority” said Callahan in a phone interview from her home.
“Sweet Soul” is Callahan’s first release in 5 years. And it was certainly worth the wait for this new album, which is beginning to garner rave reviews from as far away as Canada and airplay from as far away as Denmark. This project is a departure from her previous releases; she recorded with a new producer and a new band.
The album was produced by Tony Braunagel, noted producer and drummer for Robert Cray, among others. Callahan explains how she made the connection with Braunagel.
“We were playing at SteelStacks [in Bethlehem, PA in 2011] on the big stage that they have outside and I saw that Robert Cray was playing inside… The next day I got an e-mail from (Tony). He was on that tour with Robert and he heard us play and he really liked my voice. He said ‘I really like what you’re doing, I love your voice, I like your style. Let’s make a record together someday.’ I knew who he (is) because I am a Robert Cray fan… and I knew that he was producing some on-the-rise artists in the blues world. He had just produced Trampled Under Foot.”
Though Callahan was skeptical whether it would actually come to fruition, she corresponded with Braunagel over the next 3 years.
“I had been sending him songs that I was writing and he’d give me feedback,” said Callahan. (We were) talking about ideas and production concepts. Writing for the follow-up to ‘Tell It Like It Is’ (Blue Pearl Records, 2010) was a slow process, especially this time with having Elijah (and) just not having that down time that I used to have for writing.”
Finally it all came together and plans were made to record.
“I worked my butt off toward the end of 2014 into early 2015 and we got the songs done and we got the concepts together and I got my budget together. And we went out [to Los Angeles] in February.
Not only was it an opportunity for Callahan to work with a new producer, it was an opportunity to work with new musicians, other than her current guitarist and writing partner Allen James.
“We had talked right from the beginning about (recording) in (Los Angeles). He lives in LA and… he has a crew of studio musicians that he works with.”
Callahan’s band of James, Garry Lee (bass) and Tom Walling (drums) have played together in numerous projects and have been playing with Callahan for several years. The cohesiveness and professionalism of the band is a major part of what makes them so tight. What would it be like working with a new producer and new musicians with whom she had no rapport?
“Right in the beginning I was definitely a little anxious,” Callahan admits. “I was outside of my comfort zone, which I think can be great, honestly. I didn’t know these musicians; they didn’t know me.
“I had talked with Tony over the phone for 3 years; he’s very warm, he’s very encouraging, which I really liked… (He was) very supportive. He knows this genre really well so he had really good feedback. But still I didn’t know what it would be like to be in the studio with him. And I’d only actually met him in person once so it was kind of a leap of faith. It was exciting and a little nerve-wracking at the same time.”
Callahan said it was a great experience, and it shows when you listen to the CD. The lack of being a fully-rehearsed band was replaced by new and exciting energy.
“(The band members) were very warm, very welcoming (and) very excited to be involved in a new project. By the end of the first day I felt really comfortable with them. And they really got involved in thinking about the songs, (questioning) ‘how can we make this a better song? How can we take this to the next level?’”
Callahan was excited to be playing with musicians who have so much experience in the blues and R&B world. Some of the other artists they’ve played with include Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Otis Rush and B.B. King.
“We had Mike Finnigan on organ and piano and he played with Jimi Hendrix on that ‘Rainy Day’ song [‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ from the ‘Electric Ladyland’ album], and I knew that he had played with Etta James and Crosby, Stills & Nash and Dave Mason. (He) had a lot of input and had some really good ideas arrangement-wise.
“And Reggie McBride on the bass… he comes from Detroit and… he has that Detroit DNA in his blood. He has that James Jamerson type soulful/funk kind of approach. I really like what he brought to the album.”
And then of course there was Braunagel, who she said was also supportive and had good ideas.
“Musically it felt like there was a good energy and connection happening pretty early on. It felt fresh. There were no pre-conceived notions.”
She added: “They gave me a lot of feedback right away because they didn’t know me. They hadn’t worked with me so they (were) hearing me for the first time.
“Overall it was different (than my previous experiences recording). We weren’t rehearsed as a unit. But these guys play together a lot so just like Tom and Garry and Allen have a certain way of communicating… these guys have a way of communicating so it didn’t feel disjointed. For them, Allen was probably the unknown factor… and it was great to have (him) there… I felt like he was my bridge musically.”
Callahan said she is ready to get to “the next level,” which for her means selling more CDs and performing at more festivals and in more concerts, especially in the summer when Elijah is not in school.
IF YOU GO
What: Deb Callahan Band CD Release with April Mae
When: Concert is at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 17.
Where: Steel City Coffee House, 203 Bridge St., Phoenixville.
Ages: All ages.
Tickets: $15 – $29
Info. and tickets: Call (610) 933-4043 or check www.steelcitycoffeehouse.com.
For more information on Deb Callahan visit www.debcallahanband.com.