Purple House Album Bio
Watching Robben Ford take the stage is equal parts gratifying, awe-inspiring, and challenging—a perfect storm of creativity and emotion that results in some seriously good music. As soon as he plays his first note, you realize that you’re in the presence of a bonafide guitar master. With five Grammy nominations, a three-decade-long solo career, and a resume that includes Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and George Harrison, his accomplishments reflect the versatility and musicality of someone who has pursued their true calling. During a live performance, Robben is acutely tuned in, feeding off of the energy of the audience, and fully prepared to throw you a curve ball at any moment. In other words, it’s an experience not to be missed.
The same could be said for his new record, Purple House (2018). This remarkable collection of songs features Ford’s enlightened approach to composition and improvisation. Exploring the range of the studio with a fresh approach to production, he weaves in and out of surprising musical moments, ear-wormy hooks, and thoughtful lyrical themes. His sophisticated approach to the blues is evident throughout, yet the record is far more diverse regarding song structure and style. “I was inspired to go past what would certainly happen on a traditional blues or R&B album, take more chances sonically, and open it up without loosing the essence of soulfulness or live performance.”
The record is thematically current and representative of the musical melting pot that is his new home, Nashville, TN. “I wanted it to sound like my current working band—two guitars, bass, and drums—so that I could take it on the road.” Alongside Ford’s incomparable guitar work, Purple Housefeatures co-producer Casey Wasner (guitar), Ryan Madora (bass), and Derrek Phillips (drums). “I invited Casey to co-produce the record after working with him on an EP with the same instrumentation. Casey is a jack-of-all-trades—he has played drums for Keb Mo’, engineered on the Grammy-winning TajMo record, and produced projects on his own. He has a great facility just outside of Nashville; it was a place where we could really take our time and dig deep.”
In addition to the core instrumentation, Ford wrote for two tenor saxophones, which joined the band during a brief stint in Japan. “I always loved the sound of the early 1960’s Chess records, Howlin’ Wolf’s in particular. He used two tenors, probably because that’s all they had, but that sound is something that I’ve always really loved.”
Preparation for the record began during a tour in 2017, with Ford bringing tunes such as “Bound For Glory” to the bandstand. “We were all instantly excited about playing this new material. As a rhythm section player, you’re often learning someone else’s part. When you get to createthe part, you have a greater sense of ownership in the song. The groove just feels better,” muses bass player, Ryan Madora. With an attention grabbing opening riff, this song tells the story of an underdog. Robben’s clever use of imagery describes a character that you both sympathize with and root for.
Recorded in early 2018 at The Purple House in Leiper’s Fork, TN, the band also traveled to the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “Casey Wasner suggested it. We took a day trip down there and it did not disappoint. The feeling of being there—working in that room—it was really exciting.” Among those recorded at FAME is the track “What I Haven’t Done,” written by the California based songwriter, Kyle Swan. “This is the second song of Kyle’s that I’ve recorded and it’s just a great sentiment—it’s just as often what you don’t do that will pave the way for a better life.”
As the sole writer for the rest of the album, Ford excels as a storyteller. “In the past few years, I’ve experienced more freedom with lyrics—I like to say that songs are full of truths, half truths, and lies. You open up a possible story, perhaps an exaggerated personal experience. I like to start a song with a really strong first line that instantly makes an impact. Once you do that, everything naturally flows from there. For instance, “Empty handed” started with just the two opening chords and a certain feeling of loneliness. Even if it’s intangible, there’s a feeling there, and given a lonely, desolate situation, the first words that came to mind were “Empty Handed.”
Amidst the poetic lyricism, the record features plenty of captivating guitar riffs, bluesy undertones, and hard-hitting grooves. “The opening track, “Tangle With Ya,” started as a slow blues and quickly became an all out rocker; our drummer Derrek Phillips played a groove that sounded so natural to him that I decided to see if the song would work with that feel.”
With guest appearances by two members of the Natchez, Missippi based group, Bishop Gunn, Purple Housealludes to Ford’s enthusiasm surrounding the southern musical landscape. Guitarist Drew Smithers performs a Duane Allman-inspired solo on “Willing To Wait,” while vocalist Travis McCready brings attitude and intensity to “Somebody’s Fool.”
“This song was so rocked out that I wanted someone who was more naturally a rock singer. Travis has that real gravely voice; he means it, he’s going to elicit some danger. In my mind, it became a duet with him singing and me riffing guitar. We literally mixed it side by side—equal volume, same effects—and I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
Another featured guest, Shemekia Copeland, brings her powerful vocals to “Break In The Chain.” “I felt like writing something akin to what Jimmy Page was doing with Led Zeppelin when he was using the acoustic guitar as a prominent instrument. I felt the need for another strong voice and having her on this song seemed like a great opportunity for us to work together.”
This notion of writing on acoustic guitar is evident throughout the record, particularly on the song “Wild Honey.” “A flat out, true to life love song, “Wild Honey” is a complete story, a complete experience. It’s the most musical thing on the record; there are more chords used and the melody is a bit broader—I’m very proud of it.”
And finally, another hard-hitting groove that features horns and an experimental approach to production is “Cotton Candy.” “It was an exercise in craftsmanship that turned into something really fun; I confess that the song was written because I needed something more. It was tongue and cheek, somewhat of a farce, but it was fun to write something that most people could relate to in terms of the story.”
With a greater emphasis on production, Ford elected to explore new sonic possibilities with Purple House. “This record is super unique for me and my fans, guitar heads in particular, in that I did not use my signature Dumble Overdrive Special Amplifier. Oddly enough, the Dumble took up too much space in the sonic spectrum and we wound up moving toward smaller amplifiers—a new reissue of a Fender Vibrolux Reverb and an early 60’s Pro Reverb. That was a big shift for me and it was all part of exercising the possibilities on the production side.”
Musically diverse and remarkably captivating, Purple House serves to be an exciting new chapter of the exceptional discography by Robben Ford.