It’s been a couple of years since Doyle Bramhall II’s last solo release, Rich Man and it’s an album gap that he’s much more comfortable with than the previous 15-year break he’d experienced. Though he kept busy throughout those years (mostly recording and touring with artists like Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Susan Tedeschi, Elton John and more—no big deal), Bramhall was anxious to get back into the studio and focus on his own original material. That eagerness only grew after his 2016 release. “I’d already broken the ice,” Bramhall recently told Blues Rock Review of rediscovering his voice as a solo artist. “I was much more in the flow of things with Shades because I’d been on the road for five years, I already had one record under my belt that I had produced and now I could just go in the studio and my sound was there, built in.”
Bramhall has already begun writing new material for his next solo album, but before he gets too far along on that project, he’s focusing on bringing Shades’ material to the stage—and sharing some of the stories behind the album with those interested in listening.
You’ve worked with so many musicians throughout your career. What do you look for in a collaborator?
Simply put, I look for inspiration. I look for things to inspire me by other collaborators. That’s in life, too. In everything I do, I look to be inspired. Hopefully, when I collaborate with somebody I can inspire things in other people that I can play off of or write to.
I like new experiences; usually I work with people that I have long-lasting relationships with. I’m attracted to very talented people, people that are really, really good at their craft. Because of that, these are people I can collaborate with forever. I keep building on that pool of people that I work with. I’m gathering more and more collaborators, but I’m still inspired by people I worked with 20 years ago.
I don’t think there’s really one set way of doing it. I work with Eric [Clapton] on a lot of different types of records. I was recently asked to come into the studio to play on a Christmas album he did. Eric usually likes getting musicians that he’s inspired by and loves, and he’ll just get people in a room and, as a band, we’ll start doing whatever song he wants to work on. We’ll listen to it if it’s a cover, or if it’s an original we’ll listen to what he’s doing and learn it. We just play it the way we play it as a band, together.
I have a really good thing with Eric where it’s very easy for us to have a musical conversation on guitar. I always seem to play on the opposite side of where he plays. That makes for really good collaboration, because my guitar always fits between where his is playing; it complements and accents it. I feel like I’ve become a pretty good accompaniment as a guitarist.
What has changed for you musically since the release of 2016’s Rich Man that influenced the direction in which you took Shades?
With Rich Man, it was the first record I’d made in 15 years. It was the first time I’d produced my own record on my own. As a producer and an artist, I needed to establish what kind of sound I had, what I wanted to put out there. With Rich Man, it was a much more experimental record as I tried to find my sound and see what that was. For this album, because I’d already broken the ice with Rich Man, this one I took song by song to figure out what the sound was for each. I established what my sound was on Rich Man, but then I didn’t really have to find anything with Shades; I didn’t have to experiment, it was just happening automatically.
It doesn’t mean that my sound was going to go in any one direction. I knew how to make a record with my sound and I knew how to get what I wanted when I made a record. I was much more in the flow of things with Shades because I’d been on the road for five years, I already had one record under my belt that I had produced and now I could just go in the studio and my sound was there, built in.
One of the songs on Shades that’s been getting a lot of attention is “Love and Pain.” How did that track come together?
Me and Akie Bermiss were in the studio and we were just coming up with song ideas, recording little ideas here and there. We ended up writing and recording that, and in the few days after we had cut it, that’s when that Las Vegas mass shooting [from October 2017] happened. It just sort of took the air out of everybody. It seems like such a huge, kind of ubiquitous thing now, in our current state of culture. Akie wrote most of the lyrics to that; I think I came up with a few of the lines. I knew I wanted it to be about that; we discussed it. The lyrics and that event really matched the visceral aspect of that song. It felt like a really dark, ominous, emotional feel in that song. We wanted a lyric that matched it.
I’ve talked about things before that some people might think were political, but in my mind, this is a song about humanity, not politics. I will dive into those topics of humanity and can do so, because I am a human and I know what it’s like to be human, and I know what it’s like to be humane with other people. A lot of times, what’s missing from the world is people’s ability to be humane with other people and treat them like [they would treat] themselves. It’s really not a political song. I usually keep neutral on politics because I’m a musician—I want my music to connect with a lot of people. I don’t have anything against people that differ from me in political opinions listening to my music. I guess if there was the right movement and I felt attached to it, I would do it. But I don’t really think in those terms. I’m not ready to pull my Dixie Chicks move out yet.
Obviously this topic in particular does cross into politics, but it is utterly ridiculous that anybody can get a military assault rifle on a whim and go and take out that many people all at one time. I spend a lot of time and have spent the last 20 years in Europe, Germany, the UK, and there are such strict gun laws there for civilians that are monitored. If you are a gun owner—this is just for handguns or shotguns, mostly for hunting—they have organizations that come in that monitor people with guns. If you have a gun, you have to be monitored. They check on your ammunition at home, you have to keep it in glass cases and nobody else can get to them. If any part of that is not in line, you don’t have the right to have a gun. It’s so strict that most people don’t have guns because of it. And they don’t have this problem in Europe and England; nobody does that there. They can’t. They don’t have access to guns in that way. They don’t have teenagers that get pissed off and on a whim can go shoot up a school on an afternoon. That’s not even a thing in Europe. It just can’t happen. At some point, we’ve got to come up with a way to figure that one out. It’s happening so much in the U.S. now, and it’s so ubiquitous that we’ve got to do something about it.
Does that ever get into your head as a performer? These days, that terrifying possibility is always on my mind when I go to a concert, movie theater or any place where there are a lot of people congregating in the same space.
Not really. Maybe just because I’ve been traveling all over the world for so long. I’ve traveled through northern Africa and Morocco and London where they’ve had a lot of bombings. I travel so much where there’s been terrorism for many years. Maybe it’s just a constant low-grade vigilance thing happening. The only time I really think about it is if I’m around a U.S. embassy in another city or the metro or the tube or trains. I’ll think of it because you’re stuck down there and there’s really no way out if something were to happen.
Throughout your career as a songwriter and performer, have there been any lessons you’ve learned from your collaborators that have surprised you?
Working with Eric Clapton has really changed my life as an artist and performer. Just being around him and watching him work and be so driven and also stay true to himself. He’s never been diverted off what he loves. He’s only done what is completely true to himself. It’s showed me that, if one of the most successful artists of all time and one of my favorites who has been successful over a 50-year span, if he can do that, then there’s something to be said for that. He’s taught me how to be true to myself and believe in myself, always. To listen to my own voice and not get off course because critics or labels or whoever it is want you to do other things. What makes you uniquely special is how you express things in the world.
What’s next for you?
I’m now in a really good flow with touring. With this record, I’ve established that I’m going to make records as frequently as I can. I have so much music that’s running through me all the time. I want to be able to express myself live, because it’s such a different thing. Making records is a different expression of the art form than playing live. I want to get into this flow of going on the road throughout the year, playing and also at the end of the year going in to record the new songs I’ve been writing on the road, and just keep putting out records and create a big body of work. I want to establish myself and have a big presence in Europe and the UK and Eastern Europe, in a lot of different countries around the world. I’ve always considered myself an international gypsy, and I want to travel the world. I want to see the world, and I want my music to be the thing that takes me around the world.
I’ve already started writing for the next record; the first day of my record release, I started writing for my next album.
Interview by Meghan Roos