Interview: Ida Mae’s Chris Turpin on “Thunder Above You”

English folk and American roots music with improvisation and tour support from a nanny.

Ida Mae are husband and wife Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward who play an indie folk americana mix that they’ve worked on since meeting at university and forming their first band Kill It Kid. They moved to Nashville in 2019 and started Ida Mae and ‘Thunder Above You’ is their third album which was recorded in a Victorian mansion in Norfolk. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Chris Turpin at home in Wiltshire to discuss ‘Thunder Above You’  and the effects of moving back to the UK from Nashville due to becoming first-time parents has had on their career. He also explains the pleasure they had recoding in a Victorian mansion with producer Ethan Johns and bass player Nick Pini, and how they used the ambience of the building to enhance the music. Ida Mae have toured with Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, and Chris shares his pleasure at being asked to play at a Nashville festival that was supporting Emmylou Harris’s dog charity. While Ida Mae are clearly influenced by folk and roots music from the UK and America, Chris shares his love of improvisation, and why a duo format is ideal for such an approach. Finally, Chris explains that with their daughter now walking a nanny will have to be added to the tour budget.

How are you, and where are you?

We’ve just made it home to Wiltshire after a tour of Germany so we are in pieces. We took our baby with us to Germany and the States but she is now starting to walk so things are getting more difficult. We are loving it though, she is really great.

Where did the band name come from?

 It came from the first song that Steph and I learnt to sing together. It is an old blues song done by lots of people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Terry, and the name has all sorts of American and European nuances, and we thought it was romantic because it was the first song we learnt to sing together. It also looked good on a T-shirt, and it confuses everyone and will continue to do so.

Your influences in roots rock are quite deep, what has drawn you to such older music?

I think it was just the music I grew up with. I grew up singing in church choirs and I always appreciated the music was older, and the melodies were very old and the lyrics were almost sacred, some of the music was religious music and some of it wasn’t. That was pretty influential, and my mother was, and still is, a piano teacher and I guess there was a sense of moving around old songs, we would look at this piece and then that piece. I grew up around a lot of John Martyn, Nick Drake and J. J. Cale because my dad had a very good CD collection at the time. He was a member of the Britannia Music Club and there was always a lot of music coming into the house. I then had a moment when one of the kids at school was learning the guitar and I thought it was just the coolest thing ever, and I then realised I could do it myself.

That immediately led me through a path of discovery with bands like Free and the Rolling Stones, and we had this perfect storm when I was 14 or 15 with great American rock and roll bands like the Kings of Leon, BRMC, and The White Stripes at the same time. So, I was listening to ‘Pink Moon’ and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and ‘Elephant’ by The White Stripes all at the same time. All those albums and artists were citing much earlier references and I would go to HMV and buy everything Blind Willie McTell or Robert Johnson had recorded. I was just intoxicated, I think, with the escape provided by those early recordings. It was pure escapism from the world I was living and existing in, to this pure intense world of one-time live recording that was captured in the dust of this incredible piece of American history. It was the same with a lot of the early folk stuff, I’ve recently been rediscovering a lot of the source singers of English folk, people like Harry Cox, these early folk singers who lived where my family lives in Norfolk, and realising these songs would have been passed around my relatives.

What has coming back to the UK meant for your music and career?

 We spent just shy of five years in Nashville which was an incredible experience for us, and it had a huge impact on my songwriting and performance. We learnt such a huge amount from just travelling the country and playing with those bands and acts everywhere from bars and clubs to arenas. It gave us a huge perspective on what we want from our music and what we care about in our live performances. We have only been back in the UK, off and on for eighteen months, and we’ve already been back to the States five or six times. Most of our fan base is American because we started the band in Nashville, which is ironic given we now live in Wiltshire. We’ve just come back from our first headline tour across Germany and Switzerland, which was a test run to see if we still had fans. We do, which is really exciting, and then we start our UK tour and we are just going to see who comes out.

There are more folk influences on your third album ‘Thunder Above You’, is that a fair view?

 Yeah, I’ve been experimenting with some of those open guitar tunings, those DADGAD tunings, and that really lends itself to some of those earlier melodies. So yeah, it is more to the fore and ‘Thunder Above You’ is one of those songs, but I see it more of the same really, American roots music and old British folk

What did recording in a mansion mean to the sound of the new album and how did that come about?

Artwork for Ida Mae album "Thunder Above You"Stephanie was seven months pregnant, so we didn’t have time to discuss with record labels and redo deals, and what have you to get an album together, and we’d previously done our last album during the pandemic and we’d partially produced it ourselves, while still working with Ethan Johns and Nick Pini on bass, and this time we decided we wanted to play live in the studio with the musicians rather than the remote pandemic type recording. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I met an incredible gentleman who owns this astonishing house. It is Victorian, sort of from the end of the arts and crafts era, and every detail is amazing, from the oak panelling to the way the wood is turned on the staircase. It still has the original wiring and it is an astonishing very special homely space, and he is a huge music fan.

I very gently managed to convince him that if we popped into his house for a week we could probably record our album there, and he very graciously said yes. We built a control room for the studio in half a day, me and Stephanie own quite a lot of vintage recording equipment that we’d bought over the last decade, and we had a great engineer, Fraser Latimer, who lives down the road who had his own equipment, and the bass player had some equipment. When we got everything together I think we had 26 channels which is a good number of channels, and some of it was analogue, and they said they were game. So, I had to find 30 microphone stands, and we drove up to Norwich, where I’m from originally, and built the studio in a day, and we had Ethan Johns on drums, Nick Pini on bass, me and Stephanie on keys and vocals, and we cut everything more or less live in three or four takes. We started on the first night and had everything done in a week, and it was quite an experience.

Ethan Johns may have more renown as a producer but he is also an excellent drummer. What was it like working with him again?

 He is an astonishing drummer, and I don’t think he will mind me saying this, but he is very unique in that he plays to the vocal of a performance. Many of the songs that we had for this album I sent through maybe a week before we were due to record it. There was no pre-production, no rehearsal, I just sent them the songs and so what you hear on the album is Ethan and Nick, who are a great rhythm section, just playing off me and Stephanie, and it is the first time those songs have been played in any form. That is why working with Ethan every take is open and different.

We are really trying to hone in on the emotional character and performance of a song, more than we are on the technical detail. He is such fun, because on songs on the album like ‘Wild Flying Dove’ you get four and a half minutes into the song and then you rip into a guitar solo there is a huge amount of risk involved because we are improvising, there is no structure. Ethan is a drummer and Nick is a bass player who can handle that and they will go with you. That’s why so many of the songs are as long as they are. He is a joy to work with, it is always an honour and pleasure to work with Ethan, and he is a great presence in the studio

Did you know what songs you wanted to record or was that decided in the studio?

 Most of the songs were written before we went into the studio, scrapes of songs and ideas written on bits of paper that were written on tour as our daughter was on the way, so Steph and I knew what we wanted but we didn’t over think how we wanted it to sound. We talked about microphone choices and placement, and how we wanted it to happen, but we thought the house would provide some energy and we just thought we didn’t want too many pre-dispositions for Ethan and Nick and that we should just let the record become what it was going to become. It is a very deep moment in time, that deep breath before you have your first child, and I think you can feel some of that thoughtful moment of beauty, calm and pressure wrapped up in the recording of the album.

What does ‘Thunder Above You’ mean?

 That song just sort of wrote itself. It was written over the pandemic, thinking of people losing loved ones and the stress that it was causing, and the idea was to write something like a hymnal, a song you can leave behind. There were also a lot of birds coming out from me for some reason, there are a lot of lyrics attached to the symbolism of old birds like nightjars and sparrow hawks, and I think that comes from reading a lot of these old folk lyrics. The title ‘Thunder Above You’ just popped up and it also felt right for the album title. I always name our albums after songs on the record, which I always sort of hate because it means you put so much pressure on a single song. It just felt right at the time, that sense of what’s going to happen next in our lives is contained in ‘Thunder Above You’.

What are the dynamics within the band between you and Steph musically?

 We are very lucky in that we are very much on the same page a lot, also, because we have been working together for so many years, it is almost all we know. We also have a similar creative compass in the sense of what’s good and bad. I tend to typically write lyrics and music, Steph will bring some music to the table on the piano and she tends to take more of a dictator role in that if she doesn’t like something she says so. I know if she isn’t immediately receptive to something it isn’t good enough and I will have to fight my corner or rewrite something to get it to where it is. She will also spot things I don’t think are very exciting, from the last record ‘Click Click Domino’ for example, I wasn’t wild about the song at first, but then it became one of our most important songs on that record. So it is interesting, we are on the same page most of the time, and we love writing and recording, and I’m incredibly excited about our next album, even though we haven’t started writing it, and I think it is going to be important.

You have toured America with Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, what was that like?

 It is a great honour, and it is surreal growing up in Norwich in my back bedroom with a guitar in a two-up two-down with my single-parent mum teaching piano in the front room. As I said listening to those old records and the escapism involved in discovering all those old albums and then to be living in Nashville and being caught up accidentally in the rock and roll scene that was around in Nashville. Marcus King was the first tour we went out on, and Greta Van Fleet came into Nashville at the same time, and with all this, we were just constantly playing. One of our earliest shows was a festival in Nashville, it was Emmylou Harris’s charity festival for her dog charity, and we were invited to play. We turned up to this thing and it was a star-studded event and Emmylou Harris introduced us, and we haven’t even line-checked we are still moving amps on stage, and she is buying time for us with the audience. That was a tremendous experience for us, and we found we were graciously accepted in parts of that scene.

Two proud moments for us when we realised we’d achieved what we’d hoped to when we moved to Nashville was when we opened the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival, which for me having watched Reverend Gary Davis and Muddy Waters, and all those great folkies and Dylan at Newport was an astounding moment for me and I could have retired at that point even though I would have been broke. One of the last things we did when Steph was pregnant was play a festival called Cayamo, a songwriters festival, and Richard Thompson was there who is one of my heroes. We felt that we’d been slightly accepted in that community, which is a huge thing because when we were in the UK for so long playing in different bands we never felt that we were part of a community. When we left America we felt for the first time we’d had some impact and we were a little piece of that community.

The Willie Nelson shows were incredible because that outlaw country was outsiders making their own community, and Willie Nelson in particular because it’s Willie Nelson and Family on the road, and we were immediately accepted into that touring party because they are such genuine, open, and lovely people who really care about music. The main things that helped us was there was a lot of guitar playing and guitar playing is huge in American culture, we are married which I think helps, and we sing in harmony. Those are three pillars, for want of a better term, of American traditional music and I think the audience and the bands we were playing with understood us. Also, we came without a lot of the baggage of growing up with bluegrass, blues, country, soul, or whatever it might be, and we were happy to clash it all together into something else. As long as it was pure and we meant it they were receptive to it. We’ve had an incredible time, being asked to sing on stage with Willie Nelson every night was bizarre, really incredible, something I will never forget and a truly great honour.

How do you approach the harmony vocals?

 Steph is the best harmony singer, she has a natural ear for it. When I used to sing in church choirs I was always a treble so I always sang the melody but I’m getting better. if we are joining someone on stage I normally hide behind Steph.

Who normally tours with you?

It depends on where we tour and what we are doing. Sometimes we’ll play with a band, sometimes we will play as a trio with our bass player Nick Pini, who I think is one of the best bass players in the UK if not the best. For the UK tour, we are taking a band out, and sometimes Ethan will drum for us, and this tour we have a guy called Mikey Sorbello coming out with us who is an astonishing drummer. That’s typically how we tour, sometimes we will have a driver and a TM, but with just the two of us we don’t really need anybody, but we need a nanny now so a nanny or grandparent would be great, and that’s where the budget will be going now.

You’ve mentioned your love of improvisation, where did that come from?

 I think it’s just that I get bored, especially when playing live as a duo. Typically we recorded with a band, and we love playing live in a duo format because you can change so much every show, night after night the show can be wildly different. As an example, we played a Rolling Stone Festival just outside Hamburg and it was a Saturday night with a packed club and it was the most rock and roll show we’ve played in a long time. The next night we played a silent theatre with really respectful listeners in Bremen, and the wonderful thing you can do as a duo is to intimately adapt and change the dynamic and performance to each environment, and that’s why we improvise a lot.

I love the risk of being in front of an audience of 12,000, when we went out with Greta Van Fleet, and it was just me and Steph out on stage. When you leap into that moment and the audience realises you don’t know what is going to happen there is real excitement and energy in that because the audience realises they are seeing something that has never been done before. I might fall on my arse, but there is a real energy you can’t get any other way, and we are lucky that we often play with musicians who can do that. With the industry like it is today with more and more acts playing to backing tracks with set tempos, I think it is more and more important to take those risks and play like that.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

 I listen to anything and everything at the moment, as long as it’s good. One of my favourite records is Bob Marley’s ‘Live!’, recorded at the Lyceum in London, and I’ve recently discovered the deluxe edition of that record which has loads of alternative versions and extended middle sections. I hadn’t realised on the released version they’d cut middle sections, intros and outros, and I think that show has such a raw intensity. I’ve been trying to work my way back into jazz a little bit more, so I’ve been listening to Charles Mingus and I’ve really enjoyed his ‘Mingus Ah Um’. That is such a dangerous record, the intensity, ferocity, and just the electricity of that record has been a bit of a gateway. I’m always knocking on the door of jazz, and trying to find ways into something that I will really love. Another one I’ve been listening to is ‘Abyssinians’ by June Tabor, which is a really interesting record. I got to talk to Martin Simpson a little bit over the years, and I’ve rediscovered his work with June Tabor and I then discovered that record. Wow, what an astonishing voice, I don’t know too much about her history and biography, but I’ve been diving into that record and trying to sing like her, which I can’t.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

 Just thank you, and I hope you enjoy diving into some of our records, I know anyone who is a fan of Americana UK is a serious music fan, and we need more of them than ever at the moment. Keep listening to records, keep coming out to shows and keep supporting your artists. Keep in touch because we will be nearby at some point, and keep in touch next year because we have a secret project on the boil which is going to be wild and interesting.

Ida Mae’s ‘Thunder Above You’ is out now on Vow Road Records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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