Photography Joseph Branston
When acclaimed producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns contacted Ida Mae’s management team they may not have expected it, but they were ready for it.
“So we got this call and the message was, ‘Ethan wants to meet you at this time, on this day and at this address’. We ended up going to his house – in the wilds of Somerset, in a log cabin in the back of his garden – and talking about music all day,” Chris Turpin recalls.
“Halfway through the day, the conversation changed and we thought, ‘Hold on, does he want to do our record?’ He ended up asking us to stay for dinner and then I just thought, ‘I’m going to call out the elephant in the room’ and I said, ‘We’d love for you to do our record’ and he said, ‘Fantastic, I’d love to record it’. We’re still not sure how it all happened!”
Audition guitars were once sold in Woolworths, but this instrument has a unique sound that’s perfect for slide
State Of Flux
The music industry is, and will always be, in a state of constant flux. What doesn’t change is the artist devoting all of their waking hours trying to make their music reach an audience. No longer can emerging bands, or even those who are more established, rely on album sales alone. Touring is the money maker but also a money pit. In the 21st century, having a song used in commercials can be the answer.
When advertising executives recognised the unique and raw sound of the hard-rocking British blues band Kill It Kid and used one of their songs on a Samsung TV advert, it propelled husband and wife, Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean, into a world that didn’t seem natural to them.
After dissolving that band following three albums, critical acclaim and touring most parts of the world, establishing Ida Mae was Chris and Stephanie’s way of grounding themselves back into writing and producing, “sincere and honest music”. Compromises had been made in the past but as Chris settles into a very long chat with us he states firmly, “No more compromises”.
“I’d got to the three-album mark on Kill It Kid and I really needed to change and shift up creatively. Me and Steph had got married and we both wanted to create an album that was as good as anything we’d ever done. Ida Mae started as a very simple, acoustic guitar-based, two voices, Americana and British blues songwriting outfit.
Not many things say ‘old-school Americana’ more than than a cigar box guitar
“Being in a band together and being married is bizarre to some people but to be honest it’s what we’ve always done. It comes as second nature to us and we’re so in tune we tend to agree 95 per cent of the time. We were talking about the artwork for the album and the designer spoke to each of us separately and went through this huge Pinterest mood board with us. We ended up picking out the same three pictures. It’s quite good as Steph is really logistical and I tend to focus on the songwriting a little more so we pick up the slack with and for each other.”
“We co-wrote about 100 songs before getting signed to Universal Music and working with lots of different producers, No. 1 songwriters, huge pop producers that work with people like George Ezra, Ed Sheeran, Kings Of Leon and basically we went around the houses, commercially, that didn’t feel right to us. We then signed to Sire Records and Warner Brothers and worked with our hero, Ethan Johns, finally completing our album in March.”
The Spice Of Life
A multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, mixer and songwriter, Johns has worked with artists as diverse and legendary as Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, The Kaiser Chiefs and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The combination of his A-list CV and the unique sound of the records he produces earned him his aforementioned hero status and meant that when he offered musical insight, the pair were more than receptive.
But if working with a producer of Johns’ calibre wasn’t inspiring enough for the duo, then the studio he chose for the recording sessions can’t have hurt either.Less than eight miles from the historic city of Bath sits a rural idyll of old mills, in varying states of distress, well-kept waterways, and a recording studio.
Chris utilised his Martin D-18 for its “quintessential, beautiful sound”
Not just any common or garden studio but, what has become affectionately known in musical circles as, the ‘legendary’ Real World Studios. Real World was set up by Peter Gabriel in 1986, and has since welcomed artists such as Van Morrison, Beyoncé, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Paolo Nutini, Robert Plant, The Vamps, Paloma Faith, Rag ’N’ Bone Man, Tom Jones, New Order, Kasabian, Laura Marling, Pixies…and now Ida Mae.
The setting provided the perfect environment for Chris, Steph and Ethan to get in tune with the rootsy, organic sound the album needed and deserved. Chris’ favoured vintage guitars were always close at hand, but it wasn’t all old-school during the sessions.
“We used quite a lot of drum machines with the resonator – a 1930s guitar with 1980s equipment,” Chris chuckles. “We even had a synthesiser on folk ballads. It’s that textural juxtaposition of old and new that gives us a unique sound that Ethan can capture so well.”
Perhaps the most eye-catching guitar in Chris’ rack is this Trussart Steelcaster
“I managed to find this dirt cheap 1931 National Duolian resonator on eBay, which is bright red and covered in cowboy decals from the 1940s. We used that guitar a lot alongside my Martin D-18, which is this quintessential, beautiful sound that only a Martin can do. I also used a little Regal-made 1920s Parlour guitar. But again we wanted to screw around with that and we ended up amping that up on one of the songs, which makes a really interesting sound.”
When it came to plugging in, Chris kept his options limited, with two electrics that are very much at the opposite ends of the price scale. “I only used two electric guitars,” he recalls. “My old Audition guitar, which they used to sell in Woolworths – I picked it up for peanuts and it’s got such a unique sound for all the weird slide stuff. It’s got a really low output and it’s very monophonic hence why I tape all three pickups to stay in one position. My Trussart Steelcaster was also used… I don’t need to say how amazing that sounds.
“I didn’t use any amps over five watts, which is pretty cool. We used my hand-wired Vox AC4, which is just a killer amp. For the first single, Feel I’m Getting Closer, which has a killer tone on it, I used a Cornell Plexi 7, which is an amazing amp. I was also lucky to use Ethan’s narrow panel tweed Champ, which I’ve just fallen madly in love with.”
Throughout the recording of the album, no DIs were used and everything was tracked live to tape. Chris doesn’t shy away from embracing pedals, with quite an extensive collection of stompboxes at his disposal.
“Keeley Electronics make some of the best sounding pedals around today. The D&M Drive, Caverns and Monterey pedals are just so usable and featured heavily in the sessions and on my touring pedalboard, too.
The unmistakable sound of National resonators is a key component of the Ida Mae sound
The Analog Man Sunface is all over our first single as well as an Analog Man Beano Boost and one of the modded Blues Drivers. I’ve recently got hold of a Hologram Electronics Infinite Jets, with which I did a really outrageous guitar solo on a song called My Girl Is A Heartbreak. Using the JHS Pedals Crayon gives me that mental, blown out speaker thing – that with the Voodoo Labs Proctavia together is the most disgusting sound I’ve ever heard, and then I threw in an autowah. A very weird tone!
Chris’ Regal-made, 1920s parlour acoustic was amped up for the Real World sessions
“In the whole recording process, we didn’t get to hear the tracks until mixing. All the overdubs were just ‘bang bang bang’ and then you move on. With Ethan you go with the energy. None of us really decided what we were going to play – whatever the player plays is the right thing. When you’re surrounded by good players that tends to just happen.”
Chris has a very popular Instagram profile (instagram.com/surfburst) and invites people into his and Steph’s world of vintage gear and to be wowed by some very tasty sound clips. One particular person that started to message Chris via the social network was Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil. One thing led to another and Zappa asked if Chris would like to collaborate on something.
“There was this huge ‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ tour last year and Dweezil was playing the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre, and he asked me the day before if I’d like to come on and jam with him on Cosmic Debris, which is the biggest Frank Zappa blues jam,” Chris explains.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do that!’. I ended up doing it though and he was the sweetest, kindest and most down to earth guy you could meet and his guitar playing is in another dimension. Frank Zappa was really supportive of young guitar players and allowed them to sit in with him so Dweezil has inherited that same idea.”
Chris favours smaller amps when it comes to recording, including a Vox AC4 and Ethan’s tweed Champ
The collaboration between the pair didn’t end there though, and Chris grabbed the opportunity to ask Dweezil if he’d like to appear on the Ida Mae album. “So, we’ve got this rock ’n’ roll song on the album and I asked him if he wanted to do a solo on it. I did this one take, a rough and ready Chess Records sort of solo, and then he, from LA, beamed over his take. It’s just absolutely wild and an amazing moment. It’s a totally different vibe and I think people that listen to it will just love it.”
For Chris and Steph, Ida Mae draws a line between their past successes of being in a rock ’n’ roll band and focuses on the dynamic of the singer-songwriter team immersed in classic Americana sounds with, of course, the occasional raw British blues moment shining through.
Chris’ board features a whole host of lovely boutique pedals, but he reserves special praise for the Hologram Infinite Jets and JHS Crayon
“We’re actually in the middle of completing our visas to move out to Nashville in July for, hopefully, three years at least,” Chris tells us. “The album release, which will be around autumn time, is going to get a big push in the States so we kind of thought instead of paying rent here in the UK we’ll head over to Nashville instead. We both love Nashville and everyone is really friendly and supportive so we thought why not throw ourselves into it. Hopefully, people will buy the record so we can keep doing it!”
On top of releasing a single, recording an album and planning a move to Nashville, Chris and Steph began touring across America from April and will then move on to work their way around Europe, finishing at the start of the summer. The duo hope to be releasing their second single or EP complete with live tracks after the tour has finished, which should bring them up to the album’s planned launch.
As our conversation draws to a close it’s quite clear that Ida Mae are ready to embrace an entirely new chapter of their longtime musical partnership. “At the end of the day, it would be very easy for us to go down the commercial route. Do the cheesy girl-boy ballad and have it played on Radio 2 but I’d have to live with that for the rest of my life. I would rather leave behind something that I’m really proud of creatively and artistically.
You know what, if it doesn’t work out in a few years, I’ll still be incredibly proud and wouldn’t change any of it. You can’t say no to any of this stuff. Music is just an adventure.” As Chris said at the top of our chat, no more compromises.
Ida Mae’s single Feel I’m Getting Closer is available now via Apple Music. For more visit www.idamaemusic.com.