photo credit: Zach Pigg
For nearly two years after the release of Ida Mae’s debut album, Chasing Lights, the British musical and marital duo traveled the highways and back roads of America. Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean played whenever and wherever they could — solo dates and opening slots for among others Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Greta Van Fleet, Blackberry Smoke and Marcus King. It was an eye-opening and gratifying experience that found them introduced to America’s regional personalities and cultures.
The thousands of miles traversed conveniently led to downtime for Turpin to lay down snatches of riffs and melodies that he would collect and arrange into fully fleshed-out songs for the band’s next releases. Altogether, the traveling exploits and the hours between one gig and another came together to create the foundation for Ida Mae’s current album, Click Click Domino.
While their introduction to the music scene fell within the ranks of the Americana genre, Click Click Domino makes a concerted effort to blur the lines of folk, blues, rock and psychedelia.
Recorded at their Nashville home when COVID-19 put their touring ways to a halt the new album includes contributions by Marcus King and Jake Kiszka (Greta Van Fleet) and Ethan Johns. The album moves from a nod to and 21st century update to Delta blues on the title track, skuzzy blues on “Long Gone & Heartworn” to the raw emotion-filled blend of Turpin and Jean’s voices on “Line on the Page,” “Raining for You” as well as the piano-based “Heartworn Traders,” pop-leaning “Learn to Love You Better” and haunting “Road to Avalon.” Overall, the 13 tunes contain hard-gained wisdom of riding in cars, tiny backstage spaces, dingy clubs, lack of sleep and staying committed to a musical vision and each other.
JPG: You’re originally from London. You met in college and that’s when you started performing?
CT: Yes, that’s where we cut our teeth. That was down south in a place called Bath. But really, we were living in London. Before we moved out to Nashville we were living in Holloway, which is Islington.
JPG: Is Bath where Peter Gabriel has his studio?
CT: Yeah. That’s where we did part of our first album. In that studio. And Stephanie, she does session keys for Ethan Johns. She works out of there quite a lot when we’re in the UK. Great studio. Great place.
JPG: I read it has either a big picture window or there’s glass on the floor so you can see a stream going through.
CT: The main control room for the big room is in this pond by a river. It’s nuts. It’s like Teletubbies land. The grass comes up out of the sides. It’s pretty amazing.
JPG: The reason I asked about London is because people move to different locations in life. I’ve traveled and you get a vibe here and there. So, why Nashville? What’s the vibe that you feel there and how does being in a different location affect you?
CT: Well, it’s quite a culture shock. Holloway, it’s like a 150 languages spoken within, I think, a mile of where we were living. It’s kind of frenetic, busy.
The main thing is we ended up getting visas through the record company we were working with at the time. There was just a lot being spoken about then in the Americana scene and saying Nashville is where it’s at. There’s this burgeoning new rock and roll scene. Jack White is there. Dan Auerbach is there. There’s interesting things happening. We were hearing names like Lilly Hiatt, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and there’s a few rock and roll outfits happening. And we had management based out there. We were like, “Let’s just go to the center of it. See what happens. We’ve got these visas. Let’s see what happens if we take it out there.” Just a big old adventure.
JPG: You moved to Nashville two years ago but other than a mailing address it seems as if you really weren’t home all that much.
CT: We were on the move a lot. We were stuck at home for part of the pandemic at the beginning when we first moved. We started on a major and we ended up deciding to go completely independent and start our own imprint with Thirty Tigers.
We just said, “Yes” to everything. If we were getting offered a free pair of jeans we’d play for free. And we just worked our way up, really. So, we’ve been all over the place. I think we’ve done 44 states now. We’ve done our homework.
JPG: With hindsight being 20/20, do you think that was the best for you artistically or do you think, “What in the hell were we thinking?”
CT: Good question. I think it was the best thing. We’ve grown up on a diet of British folk and then rock and roll and discovering country, blues and outlaw country. America is such an exciting prospect for any music fan because some of the most incredible Western music has been created here. Just to be on a ground level, kind of like Jack Kerouac-style in the car, just traveling, it was a bit of a dream come true and a huge adventure. Definitely, it was hugely informative on who we are going forwards now and how we think as artists. Whether it was the best thing to do financially and economically, (laughs) who knows? But, in terms of life experience, it’s more than worth it.
JPG: It’s an adventure. You absorb influences and sights and sounds but traveling can be hard on the body and the mind.
CT: Yeah, it is, man. When the pandemic came it was in some ways a relief to get off the road. We were getting close to being too exhausted because we are a light footprint when we travel and we travel together, which makes things much, much easier. But yeah, it’s tough, man.
We’re from the UK and here we were doing an American road trip. So, that saw us through a lot of it. Whereas, a lot of Americans, perhaps, wouldn’t put up with some of the places we were staying and things we were doing. We saw the romantic side of it more.
JPG: Recently, I watched a documentary on touring, “Why Am I Doing This?” It’s really interesting to hear all these road stories; some horror stories such as being in a motel and someone saying, “Don’t sit back,” because there was a bloodstain on the bed. So, I’m sure you lived some portion of that.
CT: The funny thing is though when you say that no one really knows what it’s like unless you’ve done it. That documentary sounds fascinating in that respect, that it gives you a window because a lot of people think it’s really rock and roll or romantic and cool and all the amazing things you get to see and do. But that’s when you get to a certain level you get to do that. The baby steps before that are brutal; gunshots outside the hotels and people breaking into cars. It’s grim. We were naive to a lot of that when we first started. You learn quickly.
JPG: You mentioned about going to Nashville in part because of the growing Americana scene there. I know that terms like Americana get thrown at you or blues-based, blues-soaked band…Do you have a preference? Americana does encapsulate a wide net of things.
CT: It’s difficult because we’re not really any of the above. We’re deeply influenced by British folk and rock and roll but then as soon as you listen to British rock and roll you’re on a freight train towards the blues, especially with the guitar playing. If you listen to Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green and Jack White and Dan Auerbach at the same time, it was easy for me to discover Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson and the birth of rock and roll guitar playing; that style of guitar playing, which is kind of like, a lot of people call it Travis picking as well. That kind of country picking is a large part of what we do live but we don’t comfortably sit anywhere.
Americana is an easy term to throw over everything but we see ourselves as folk music more than anything, especially being British and playing American-influenced music but also folk-influenced music. American music is an astonishing melting pot of all sorts of influences. And there’s no pure form of American music. It never was. We just see ourselves as a little bit of that tapestry. We’re a tiny bit of the jigsaw of Americana music but it just so happens that we’re feeding backwards and forwards from British stuff to American stuff later on.
JPG: Your previous album, Chasing Lights, seemed to reflect Americana folk styles and influences while there’s more heavy blues stuff on Click Click Domino.
CT: We were much more gentle. We’d just started and we were working with the producer Ethan Johns and he wanted us to track everything live. He told me to sing very, very softly, almost in a talking voice, and strip it back to the really raw bare bones of what we are doing. That delicacy was where he was most excited.
Whereas with Click Click Domino, we’ve been on the road for two-and-a-half years and we’ve been opening for Marcus King and Greta Van Fleet and all sorts from Nick Mulvey to Blackberry Smoke, like huge different varieties of bands. And just naturally, the sound toughened up over time. We wanted something with a bit more hit and also to push ourselves ever so slight away from the Americana thing. With tracks like “Click Click Domino,” it’s not roots music as such. It’s got that rock and roll thing going on.
JPG: Ethan Johns also was involved with this album. When you sent him the material was it to add instrumentation? Did you specifically say, “Don’t clean it up?” Is that what producing it yourself did?
CT: Well, this time around, we self-produced entirely. Basically, Ethan plays drums. He’s played drums on a lot of the great records that he’s worked on. And he works very closely with the bass player on the album, Nick Pini, as well. They’ve worked on all sorts of records together as a rhythm section. So, pretty much, we said “Look, we’re using these old school drum machines, these beatboxes, and for the other half of the record, we’d love for you, from your lockdown location, would you play drums on it?” We still tracked a lot of the album, even though we weren’t live in the room together, we tracked it live. The vocals and guitar, they’re all a couple of takes. “Deep River,” for example, and “Click Click Domino,” I think they’re third takes with the guitar live and singing live together. We weren’t using click tracks.
I know that Ethan is comfortable playing off a click track to live performances like that because he’s done it with Laura Marling. So, we just said, “We’re going to send you these tracks, do whatever you want to do, we trust you.” There was not much direction because we trust him implicitly to do things right. He’s one of those people you don’t really need to give direction to because he’s going to do something that’s better than you could think of anyway. So, that’s what we did. Thankfully, he’s really impressed with the record and he was really proud of what we did and we’re close to him. We’re lucky that he didn’t think it was shit. (laughs)
JPG: There are a couple songs I want to highlight. “The Road to Avalon.” Avalon being a mythical place of deceased heroes in King Arthur’s time.
CT: The Celtic mythology.
JPG: Yes. Is that reverting back to your British roots or an American thing that you’re looking at being on the road to Avalon?
CT: Yeah, it was more just that…That song was nearly the name of the album just because we liked what we were marrying — the juxtaposition of this banjo ukulele which is…I got quite interested in getting back to quite early Americana sounds. So, that banjo ukulele — from the early 1900s they were very popular — you play in your ukulele orchestras and what have you, and banjos would come out and little tiny, portable instruments that were really loud and really big in America. It’s a really unpopular instrument and it is not a beautiful instrument at all.
But I wanted to revoice some of that stuff. Then, I’ll set it against a lot of different timbres and times. So, you’re hearing a banjo ukulele being played like a folk guitar part but against the Mellotron, which is a very British, you know “Strawberry Fields Forever” Beatles-style sound, naturally. And it was just trying to offset and pull these things together in new ways. The main melody is a thumb piano that we got for, I think, about $2 off Amazon.
It’s this interesting, strange concoction of instruments. We were just trying to…a track-by-track stage of us waking up in these different, strange kind of towns and moments and feeling like that documentary Why Are We Doing This? sort of thing. It’s like this end journey towards something.
I think a lot of people in music feel that way. You’re working because you have your own creative compass and you’re just being pushed in this direction, and you don’t really know what the end goal is. You can’t really plan that far. The work has to be the reward. That was what that song was about. “Avalon” was just an interesting word because it’s that paradise in the western skies, the soul of King Arthur. There’s Avalons right across the U.S. I know there’s one in Mississippi. Mississippi John Hurt was from Avalon, Mississippi, and it’s used in everything now from branding to cars to whatever. So, it seems an appropriate word to use. It could have been road to anywhere but that just came to mind.
JPG: Because it seems like a road to seeking…something.
CT: Exactly, and it seemed to be a word that just fit. That British and American thing; share some of that culture.
JPG: The title of the album. For someone who works with words, it’s an interesting three words that are put together — click click domino. Is there more to it other than the song alluding to dominos falling and people falling in line and looking alike?
CT: Yeah, you kind of got it. Part of me, especially in songwriting, and especially in that song, I just enjoy playing with words like the Beatles did. I always think of “Come Together” by The Beatles, and it’s just fun to play with language. I don’t know where it came from. It just came out one day and it felt appropriate. Also, because we were thinking about more in terms of social media, engineering and the number of bands and artists on the road, just modern life, how we have to deal with it. It’s easy to get worked up in algorithms and binary and numbers, especially more and more of that being a part of our lives as creatives. It’s stats and figures now. It’s very easy to feel just one of those.
So, “click click domino” just seemed a term that…things that sound cool. It’s like making up phrases, making up things that sound like something that hasn’t been yet. As a writer yourself, I’m sure you get a kick out of that. It’s like creating something out of nothing. That was one of those terms that felt appropriate for the record and was an interesting metaphor that pushed in a lot of different ways and looks good on the t-shirt.
JPG: It has a certain punch to it that unites with what’s going on musically. That’s why I find it fascinating.
CT: Well, thank you. I hope so. To be honest, it wasn’t going to be the album title but when that song happened, we thought, “Let’s run with it.”
JPG: Can you talk about “Road To Avalon,” the photo journal that accompanies the album? As someone who takes photos and concert photos, I’m wondering about your thought process behind it because I noticed when I went through the album’s track-by-track section that the scenery shots or the shots with inanimate objects had crisp focus, a lot of clarity, but the photos with people were either grainy or out of focus.
CT: I shot all of them on film. Everything that’s in that book is either large format or 35mm. It’s probably just a case of my ISO was always set, pushing 400 one-stop. So, if you’re inside and you’re trying to deal with colors and people and stuff, shit gets blurry because it’s just a longer shutter speed for the picture to come out. I wouldn’t claim I’m a fantastic photographer. I’m just really interested in photography.
My grandfather was a photographer and I just got into it. When we first came here I wanted to document some of what was going on and we all know with our mobile phones that we have thousands of pictures that we never look at. So, I didn’t want to go digital camera and just start snapping away because things would get lost. I wanted to force myself to think more about what I was taking a picture of. That’s why I ended up spending way too much money on film. And it was just a fun project to do. A lot of it is inanimate objects, not much. And the pictures won’t mean a huge amount to anybody else but it was just nice to be able to share some of that journey. We’ve only printed, I don’t know, maybe 50 books, if that. It’s just nice to have a companion piece to the record to show what was going on.
We’re not in many of the pictures because I was very aware that I didn’t want to be taking holiday snaps because that would just be awful. It’s more a case of sights and sounds and smells and things that we’ve experienced. I really like the William Egglestons and Garry Winogrands — the kind of American color photography I think is really interesting — Martin Parr and people like that. So, I’m interested in that world of photography. I thought we should do this.
JPG: Now that you mentioned it’s on film, the way it looks makes more sense. The picture of Stephanie on the couch, she’s wearing sunglasses, the black and white shot. That must have been a shot at the very end of the roll or at the very beginning because half of the frame is white and half of it is her.
CT: Yeah. That’s it. First of the roll.
JPG: I remember those moments when the best shot I’d take for the night and only half of it is there. At least it worked out for you.
CT: It looks cool. It’s like an Instagram filter. The cool thing about film is when you get it right, it’s just right, which is nice. You don’t have to mess with it too much. I’m not shooting so much film. I’m on digital now. But it was a good way to learn. To think about what I was taking pictures of, which is good.
JPG: Back to the album. You recorded at home during the 2020 pandemic and sent the material to Ethan Johns to work on. With the guest spots by Marcus King and Jake Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet, did you send them the tracks at home as well?
CT: Everyone was grounded because of the pandemic and they all live in Nashville. With Marcus, it was, “Hey man, come over and have some dinner. There’s a few tracks.” He’d also said, “I’d love to play on your record.” We had Dweezil Zappa on our first album, which was quite a random thing. And so, we’re like, “Shit man, we should get some other heavy duty guitar players on the next album.” Marcus offered and for “Click Click Domino,” we just put two amps in the basement. I’d turn them up loud. We took two passes and that was it. Me and him sitting side-by-side, just improvising, trading licks.
For “Deep River,” we gave him three passes. We were still set up in the house and he just jammed to it. And that was it. That’s what you hear on the record. Marcus played a solo in “Deep River,” which is, I think, one of the best solos he’s recorded, and that’s saying something because he has some astonishing solos. I know I’m biased, but man, what a hell of a solo.
Same with Jake. He came over one night. We had some dinner and we stood side-by-side and we just took a few goes at the solo. Didn’t overthink it. Just played. Just improvised. I think Jake is used to sculpting songs a little more and taking time and working out solos and I don’t really operate that way. So, I pushed him. I was like, “Man, your first take was great. Let’s go with the early stuff.” That’s how it happened.
Being on the road with Greta and Marcus were really important moments for us, artistically; also career-wise, learning and getting to meet fans. It was because we were all stuck at home. It was just a privilege to be able to share that moment with them and to have them come play.
JPG: Besides putting out the new album, you’re touring again.
JPG: How does it feel?
CT: It’s really surreal. There was a moment we were in the hotel room getting ready for the shows last week. Our last shows were 15 months ago and it felt like, “Okay, here we go.” It’s like none of it had ever happened.
JPG: You didn’t have any emotional overwhelming feeling to be in front of people?
CT: Some shows are kind of nuts. Peach Fest it rained. At Peach Fest there was a shit ton of rain. Then, the show in the Hamptons ended up… We were booked to play the Friday night, Fourth of July weekend in this little bar called the Stephen Talkhouse, which is like a little secret venue in Amagansett.
The way that venue works is they have a show and then it opens up later to be more of a bar kind of club. So anyway, we played and we sold tickets and there were people coming, and all of a sudden 3,000 frat kids turned up because it was the only bar within 10 miles. So, they basically had to lock the doors, not let them in for the show. The police were called and they shut down the road. The show was just nuts. I don’t think I can really base any emotional feeling on those two shows because they were just crazy in different ways but it was a thrill to be playing loud again.