Ida Mae have released their new album „Click Click Domino“ – Interview with Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean

Ida Mae shot by Dean Chalkley

Ida Mae – that’s the couple Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean. The British duo has just released their eclectic second album „Click Click Domino„. After moving to Nashville three years ago and releasing their debut album „Chasing Lights“ in 2019, the EP „Raining for You“ followed in 2020. For their new album, the band performed their nostalgic mix of soul, blues and Americana in spontaneous one or two-take recordings. Chris and Steph were back home in the U.K. for a short time, but as the couple is back in the US to perform at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, the interview had to take place via Zoom between London and Nashville. Phyllis Akalin spoke to them about their new album, songwriting as a married couple, the difference between the music scenes in Nashville and London and the two percent potential for controversy.

First of all, congrats to your new release. Just three days ago you released your new album Click Click Domino. I think it really shows how you’re not confined to one genre but mixing a lot of genres together: Blues, Americana, Folk, Soul… The album alternates between very quiet romantic ballads and quick-paced rough Blues. What were your main inspirations for the album?

Chris Turpin: I mean it’s gigantic. Anything and everything, in terms of what we listen to. A lot of my guitar foundation is in early country-blues music and Steph has a huge love of early females, 50s jazz.

Steph: Yeah, I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald growing up.

Chris: And then out here on the road, we’ve been out with a lot of rock and roll bands, like Marcus King and Greta (Van Fleet). And then of course living in Nashville, there’s a big Americana and country influence naturally, from listening to the radio and being around those musicians and those bands. We were really listening to a lot people like Gregory Alan Isakov from Hiss Golden Messenger, Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, John Martyn, J.J. Cale, Nick Drake… So we have a huge, huge influence on what we try and piece together.

You just mentioned Marcus King and Jake Kiszka from Greta Van Fleet, and they both have guest appearances on the album. “Click Click Domino” and “Deep River” are featuring Marcus King, “Long Gone & Heartworn” was done in collaboration with Jake Kiszka. What was that collaboration like for you?

Collaboration with Jake Kiszka

Steph: It was really natural, and it’s been great for us because we did six weeks on the road with Marcus and then we did a few months on the road with Greta. We’ve become very close friends and kept seeing each other as you do with musicians. And then when the pandemic hit, everyone was at home in Nashville, which is very rare. You have a lot of musician friends, but you never see each other, especially not at home. We were working on the record at home, and we thought it would be lovely to have some of the players that we were really close with round and it was very natural. They came over for dinner, each individually. We had a few drinks and went, do you want to play on this track? They’re both so gifted that nothing was complicated.

Chris: Most of it was recorded in two passes, three passes. What’s on the record is what you hear, we didn’t overthink it, just kind of improvised and kept it very natural.

You mainly recorded during lockdown, how did that impact your recording process but also your songwriting?

Chris: We were lucky in that we’d written the majority of the songs on the road. We’ve been on tour for two and a half years and we’ve been moving constantly between Europe and the US and the UK. So I’d be writing the songs in the back of a car, just trying to get as much material together as possible. When the pandemic put a stop to everything and we crashed off the road, we already had 18 songs. Whereas if we had to write from scratch that would have been quite difficult. We did have some songs that we wrote at the beginning of the pandemic which are on the EP that came out beforehand, “Stars & The Deep Blue Sea” and “Break The Shadows”. But the rest of them we just finished off when we started the album. We had plans to fly musicians out from the UK, out to Nashville and we were going to location record in this abandoned mansion that some friends of friends own here in Nashville. And of course, none of that was able to happen, so we ended up spending our pocket money on recording equipment and actually recording from home. It was an entirely different process, it was just me and Steph, self-producing, still working in live performance takes, but in isolation, which we’ve never ever done before. Normally it’s a larger studio and people coming and going, engineers, producers…

Steph: Even on a normal occasion, if we’d decided to self-produce, we would have at least had one engineer, or we wouldn’t have been doing it in the kitchen. We would have found a space. It was kind of great because we really had to think outside the box, try different things that we wouldn’t have tried. We also had more time. Normally you have a month-long window – if you’re lucky – to record. We probably would have only had two weeks to make this record in a normal situation. So, it gave us more time to really think about parts afterwards, which was good for us.

„Making a record is a bit like a kid in a sandbox“

So do you think that the fact that you were self-producing this album made it more intimate or gave you more freedom?

Chris: Both, it was definitely more intimate and gave us more freedom, and also time to experiment. I think the album is a lot more interesting and textured, because we were allowed to experiment with these different sounds and textures and take time. You know, making a record is a bit like a kid in a sandbox: You’re just playing, throwing things together and it allowed us more opportunities to do that.

Chris, you just said you wrote a few songs on the road in the back of a van. I think you can really hear that in the first track of the album, Road to Avalon. It sounds very dreamy and almost reminded me of some Sufjan Stevens songs. Avalon is a legendary mystical island, but what does it represent for you?

Chris: We were looking for a place name, because being on the road all the time, there’s always a sense of a destination. But especially in our career and being a musician, you never quite know what you’re aiming for. You’re making music and you’re traveling and something’s coming together, but you’re always on the move forward, towards some something somewhere.

Steph: And that’s always moving.

Chris: It’s always a moving target. So me and Steph, travelling on our own in a car, it felt like it was just us against the world, Bonnie and Clyde. Avalon was picked because of its UK British folklore, its connotations with King Arthur. But also it’s a name you see a lot out here (in the US), there’s an Avalon, Mississippi, there’s cars and branding… It’s a word that has been adopted and changed especially in European and Western culture, so we thought it was an appropriate name to tie up that kind of transatlantic thing.

Remembering Kill It Kid

The eponymous track, Click Click Domino, reminded me of your very old Kill it Kid songs. Did you have a specific inspiration for that song?

Chris: Yeah, I kind of wanted to do a Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac-British thing, but it was really Pops Staples from The Staples Singers we’ve listened to for a very very long time. Pops is one of my favourite guitar players. He plays a Telecaster with a lot of tremolo, or Jazzmaster Fender Guitars. He plays very simple, slow, groovy riffs, with a lot of this tremolo sound, and that’s what I initially wrote the song as. Then it slowly morphed into this larger, heavier jam, which wasn’t really the idea. I just wanted to write something that felt a bit like social media and Twitter statements and that barrage of information on your phone. I wanted the lyrics to clash like that. And I don’t know where “Click Click Domino” came from, but it sounds good.

It does, yeah! Do you guys have a favourite track on the album?

Chris: It changes a lot, we’re very proud of all of them.

Steph: The last track on the album, “Has My Midnight Begun”, is a little different for us. I feel like it’s something that we’re growing into. I find that one quite interesting on there, but we like them all for different reasons.

Chris: Yeah, I like the song “Calico Coming Down”, which is more on the British folk side, some strange guitar tunes, because that one seems to fall together really beautifully.

Steph: But we don’t have favourites, even then when I said I had a favourite I felt bad for the others, like they’re my children.

„Jack White, and this burgeoning rock’n’roll scene“

As you just mentioned, you moved to Nashville. How come, is that a long-term thing?

Steph: We moved three years ago, so we were here three years. Then we went home for half a year, and just got back to Nashville. I think we’ll be half and half between Nashville and the UK going forwards, so semi-permanent.

Chris: It was just the first record deal we signed, we managed to get visas, and we have management in Nashville. We were living in London at the time, in Holloway. And we were hearing a lot about the Nashville scene, about rock and roll bands, Jack White, Dan Auerbach, Aaron Tasjan, Lilly Hiatt, and this burgeoning rock’n’roll scene, so we just thought, stuff it, let’s go and join in.

What’s the biggest difference between the Nashville music scene and the UK music scene?

Chris: There’s a vast difference.

Steph: Where to begin? There’s more sense of community Nashville. A lot of the time in the UK, it’s almost like everyone’s in a band and everyone’s trying to be the coolest band. If you say in London, I’m in a band, everyone’s like, Oh yeah, well, aren’t we all? Whereas here, you say, I’m a musician, everyone’s like, Oh, that’s amazing, congratulations, we should write together, I know someone that’s a writer, you should write with them… It’s much more celebrated as well.

Ida Mae sind Chris Turpin und Stephanie Jean. FOTO: Joe Hottinger

Chris: Yeah, there’s a community. Nashville was set up as a music hub. It’s two hours pretty much from anywhere in America. Bands could tour throughout the week and then drive back on the weekends, see their family. You could have some family life, living and working in Nashville. And it’s just set up: the publishing companies, the record companies, the labels. It’s a working town, so much of its industry is based in music. And they are excited to push genres and to see new things happen right now. It wasn’t always that way, but right now it feels that way. We were last signed in the US and the music industry is changing so quickly that I can’t speak for it now. But when we were getting signed, there was a lot of competition, there wasn’t much camaraderie. I mean, how many bands are playing in London every night?

It’s tough.

Steph: Yeah, and the trends change incredibly quickly. Here, everyone still wants a guitar solo in every song.

Chris: Country music is huge here. It’s bigger than hip-hop, it’s the main radio, which is hard to imagine. So that means guitar solos, like Steph was saying, and people singing in harmony. I play guitar and we sing in harmony, and that’s part of the genetic makeup of what has become Americana music. That’s quite well respected here, as opposed to the UK, which is more focused on new sounds, new shapes, new production, new ideas, new scenes… which the UK always has been, since the 60s. But it’s different here.

Your voices harmonise perfectly

Exactly, you’re singing in harmony and what really struck me the first time I listened to you guys – actually, even back when you were still with Kill it Kid – was that your voices harmonise perfectly. You both have really amazing voice, but when they come together, they create something really special. Did you realise that immediately when you first played together or was that something you had to develop in the process of playing together?

Steph: When we were at college, we had one singing lesson together and we sang in harmony, and our teacher was like, your voices go really well together. And that was 10 years ago. It just happened and I guess we’ve got more fluid with each other’s voices because we’ve been singing together for so long now. But we were lucky in that our ranges and the tones for some reason, they go together very well.

Chris: Yeah, we’re lucky in that respect.

I feel like your music and also the lyrics are often very personal and feel very intimate. What does that songwriting process look like, do you write them together or separately?

Steph: It’s mainly Chris that writes and then I come in afterwards. On this record, I’ve helped with a bit more of the piano-based stuff, but Chris does all the lyrics.

Chris: Yeah, a lot of the songs were based in some reality of us being on the road, but also we do adopt a lot of kind of persona in our writing, so it’s dramatised. Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. But we kept the vocals intentionally very raw and very live, just because I think doing lots of takes in vocals and ironing things out, moving things…you lose a lot of that personal communication, intensity, that we naturally have, so we’ve just left it raw.

„We just tend to agree on the majority of everything“

Yeah, and I think you can really hear that. So, you guys are married – how is it to work with your partner every day, especially in a field like music that’s constantly on your mind and constantly in your lives?

Steph: We get asked that a lot and it’s fine, we just tend to agree on the majority of everything.

Chris. 98%.

Steph: I mean, sometimes we have to be like, let’s have a day when we don’t talk about music. Especially now, in the music industry, you could just never stop, there’s always something you can be doing. It’s not like you come off tour and you relax, you have to do social media. I think that’s the only tiny thing, trying to stop working constantly together. But we always have been on the road, so it’s all we’ve ever known. Maybe ask the question if we ever come off the road.

You said you agree on 98% of things, what’s the 2% you don’t agree on? Does it have to do with music?

Chris: Normally when we were rehearsing. We squabble like teenagers.

Steph: Probably just me not concentrating. (laughs)

Chris: Because we were in a band beforehand, so we kind of flip between work and relationship…

Steph: …and squabbling. But never anything dramatic.

„Some of our wildest shows have been in Germany“

I’ve been to a few of your shows and I think they always have a very intimate atmosphere. What do you personally enjoy better: playing really intimate love songs live or the louder bluesy tracks?

Steph: It depends on the audience and what’s going on. I love those theatre shows where it’s pin-drop silence and everyone’s listening, and you can do the quieter, more intimate songs.

But then for example, when we opened for Greta, playing the really bluesy, heavy ones and the energy that that creates, that’s amazing.

Chris: Especially here in America, if someone’s enjoying the set, they just will just go, Wooh! They will just shout, and that energy is really infectious, especially when you start to go into sly guitar and blues territory, especially with the harmonies. Everyone just gets on your side, which is quite exciting. So, it really depends on the venue.

Would you say that’s different, the audiences from the US and the UK, or for example Germany?

Steph: Yeah, definitely. We grew up playing in Europe first and then coming to America. I think if you did it the other way around, you’d be like, everyone hates me! I mean, I wouldn’t whoop at a Holloway gig, even when I’m really enjoying it. I’m like, (politely claps).

Chris: Yeah, I’m a whooper. Especially when it comes to Americana Folk music, the British audience wants to study what you’ve done, suss you out. Richard Thompson said that within three songs, they’re working you out, do they think you’re any good, will they clap… whereas in America, they’ll buy tickets to a show, especially here in Nashville, just to go out for the night and see their friends. So, there might not be pin-drop silence the whole night, but they’re there to enjoy themselves, and they’re there to support it. Culturally, it’s quite different. But then in Germany, they go pretty wild as well.

Steph: Some of our wildest shows have been in Germany.

Ida Mae shot by Dean Chalkley

So, you would still come back to Europe, although you love the American audiences?

Chris: Definitely, we missed Europe a lot. Travelling through it as well.

Before lockdown you were constantly touring, are you excited to go back on the road soon or are you happy to have that break?

Steph: We’re on the road now, in America, things are sort of just happening. We did two shows last week and then we have Newport Folk Festival at the end of this week and three other shows. And we have one London show and a few tentative shows in the UK, so we’re getting back into it now which is really nice.

Chris: That time off was actually really, really important. Not only did we make this album, but it actually allowed us to dive a little deeper into other genres of music and production styles, and to kind of study again, which we haven’t really had the time to do on the road. So in that respect, I think the next album is going to be much better for it.

So the next album is already in the works?

Steph: It is, which people keep telling us off for, because this one just came out two days ago.

And the shows you played this week, where they socially distanced or just normal shows?

Chris: The first two weren’t. Newport will be socially distanced, but the first two…we were told that they would be and they didn’t seem to be. A lot of America, pretty much the week after we got back, it was just open for business again.

Steph: It was actually quite strange because we came from London, with our masks and everything. We’ve been vaccinated, but here everything is normal. I know at home, things are not quite open and restaurants are closed, whereas here it’s normal.

„Newport Folk is the reason we came back out to the US“

Actually, today is the day that everything opens up here in the UK.

Steph: Is Freedom Day still happening?

Yeah, that’s today.

Steph: Even though Boris’s mates have Covid?

Yeah, he has to self-isolate. At the moment, in the UK everyone’s self-isolating because there are so many cases but everything opens up. If the pandemic was over for one day only and you could play one show in only one city, which one would it be?

Chris: Good question. To be honest, Newport Folk is the reason we came back out to the US, because we got a slot… which is incredibly hard to do because it’s such a part of American culture, from Bob Dylan going electric to the coffeehouse scene, Reverend Gary Davis and Skip James playing it… Some of the most well-regarded folk artists of America have played it. So for us to be a small part of that patchwork of artists of Newport is a huge moment. It’s on Rhode Island in New York, it’s beautiful. It’s a very small festival. It’s a nonprofit festival and it’s still really highly regarded, so we’ve been working for years to play this festival. So, probably Newport right now, because it’s been such a focus to get back out here to play it. Steph: I’d like to go to Berlin.

Chris: At the same time, being in a basement in Berlin would be pretty cool.

Steph: To be wandering around Berlin as well.

Well, that’s amazing, that it’s actually happening, and it doesn’t have to stay a dream.

Chris: Or Montreux Jazz, I’d love to do Montreux Jazz.

So that one’s next on the list. I think that’s it for me. Thank you very much for your time and good luck with the album, and the tour coming up.

Thank you for having us. Yeah, we appreciate it. Yeah, and enjoy your new freedoms in Holloway.