Doyle Bramhall II is perhaps one of the most recognizable players in rock and blues today. His father, Doyle Bramhall, was a beloved icon of Texas music. He was a singer, composer, and musician who grew up with and remained friends with the Vaughan brothers, Stevie Ray and Jimmie, all his life. He was admired, loved, and respected throughout the Texas music community. Doyle learned well from his father and his friends, putting what he learned to use in discovering and growing into the musician he has become.
Bramhall has worked with and played with some of the biggest names in the business including Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, B.B. King, Dr. John, and so many more. He is a song writer, producer, session player, and now, once again, touring as a solo artist behind his new album, Rich Man, out on the Concord Records label.
ABS was fortunate enough to speak with Bramhall about his recent spiritual and musical journey of self discovery, the new album, which he is quite proud of, and life and music in general.
Barry Kerzner for American Blues Scene:
You are probably one of the most “known unknowns” out there. People know you by seeing you with Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, and others, but they may not be as familiar with everything that went on before. When they do go back through your work, it’s kind of like their own journey of discovery of your music.
Doyle Bramhall II:
Yeah, I guess because I’ve been OK with being a part of other musician’s and artists’ careers, and being a part of the team for so long. I’ve always felt like a team player as well. So, I have my solo career, but, always willing to be there and accompany others as well. Especially, with the kind of caliber that I started playing with; Roger Waters and Eric Clapton, Erykah Badu, T-Bone Burnett, and Meshell Ndegeocello. I think I was always just down for the most moving musical experiences that I could have, for me, first. So, it didn’t really matter to me if I was considered a musicians’ musician. That’s sort of an honor, you know?
Now, I’m relaunching as a solo artist, fifteen years after I stopped; at least stopped as a solo artist. I’m picking back up now and it seems that with my new record label, Concord, with everything that I’m doing; my new website, my new album, and all the social media stuff that goes into getting your record out these days, I think it’s all about connecting the dots, and it seems like in the last fifteen years I’ve made a lot of dots.
So, it’s about how we can connect all the dots, and get it out that this is the same person doing all of this.
When you put out Jellycream, that really opened a lot of doors for you, didn’t it?
Yeah, it did. I know that Roger would tell me that he was a fan of that record. I know that that’s how Eric Clapton became a fan of mine as an artist, is through that album. So even though it got a modest critical acclaim, it was also noticed by quite a few sort of heavy players, heavy artists. I would get calls from Billy Gibbons and Eric about the record, and you know, and many others that had gotten hip to it.
Since that time, you have been fortunate enough to have worked with legends across all genres of music including B.B. King, Elton John, Billy Preston, and Dr. John. That must have been very enriching for you on a personal level.
Yeah. I think that’s really what I was going for was to have the richest musical experience that I could have. By doing things that I really cared about, that were really moving to me musically, I think that sort of bred other things. I started working with Elton John on a few of his records and that came through T-Bone Burnett, who I worked on many, many records with him. He had such a great cast of musicians, and a lot of them became my friends. A lot of them I either used on my record, or I used on other records. We all play together. It’s a really cool society of musicians that play with T-Bone, and are a part of his records.
That has led to a lot of really awesome experiences for me. Then, through Eric Clapton becoming a fan of mine, I’ve gotten many many sessions and cool projects that I would not have had if other people hadn’t heard me playing on Eric’s records. So everything leads to the next – it’s all part of the fabric. I feel like they’re not really separate things, it’s all one thing; building blocks.
It’s all things that I love. I just do things that I love now, as opposed to doing things only to make money, and I think that pays off much more than when I just do things to make money.
You’re probably less stressed and more emotionally satisfied, I would imagine.
I’m probably more stressed, but more satisfied. The experiences in my career that have happened along the way, are just really deep to me because I don’t know why I’ve been given the gifts that I have throughout my life, but, they just keep coming. I get to play with people that I grew up listening to, who I admire, that move me.
You have been a band member, a bandleader, a producer, and all of that comes together on your new album, Rich Man. How has all that past experience helped you in the creation and production of this new record?
I think being a producer for the six or seven years before I started making my album, producing my new album, Rich Man, all those years I spent on producing others, just gave me tools and made me really confident on how to facilitate my – the sounds and song structure; how to get the sounds I wanted. How to get the right sound to fit the emotion, or the lyric, on a visceral level. It made me know how to facilitate that, and get what I need to get to that. I knew how to facilitate myself.
That said, I had co-producers on this album along the way that were my sounding boards that I would bounce ideas off of because I really like collaboration. I like camaraderie and collaboration. Music is, to me, all about the collaboration. For me, that’s where I find I’m most inspired and pushed and challenged into a higher way of making music.
You went on a spiritual journey in search of new sounds, new thoughts, and new ideas. This album is a result of that quest?
I think more so that it’s a – the spiritual journey grabbed me, and took me along for the ride, which I didn’t know at the time. Basically, the album revealed itself when I was mixing the record about two months ago. It revealed itself and it told the whole story of coming out of being a smaller version of what I could be. I was sort of walking around, invisible in the world and not contributing anything of much substance, in my mind. Maybe others would not be able to tell that, but I knew. I was a lot less connected to the experiences that I was having and a lot less in the moment. That was not only in my recording, it was in my personal life, it was in my performance. Being a performer, it even played out there, where I had no connection to the audience. I had no connection to really anything; I was sort of on auto-pilot. It’s a heavy realization at 42 years old, 43, whatever I was.
So, all that said, I think this record is more of, just the story, of that journey, and the story in lyrics and sounds and music and colors and all of that. It’s all there.
There has been a lot of talk regarding the the Indian and North African influences that are part of this album. There’s also a lot of great acoustic sound on here as well.
All the influences came about just because I didn’t feel like my album should be sort of boxed into any kind of category or genre, really. Then I should treat it as sort of an open palate. I have so many different influences, and so many styles of music that I listen to that I love, and that I try to either study or learn. All the sounds and melodies and beats and rhythms that I gather, that I have gathered in my life, and especially in the last seven years, while traveling to different parts of the world; all of those influences, be it Indian Pakistani, Iraqi, Persian music, to all the different styles of Moroccan music… When I go to a country, and study music, I stay there for two or three weeks, and I immerse myself fully into the culture. I listen, I study.
You worked with Norah Jones, who you have worked with in the past. That must have been especially satisfying.
I know her history, I mean, the talent! She’s just so extremely talented, and comes from such extreme talent as well, between her father and her sister. I was just humbled, and I felt like I was being graced by somebody. It was a beautiful gift to this world as far as being a musical entity. She was lovely, and she was so good, I think I was smiling the whole time we were playing together.
This whole record has been such a great long journey, I’ve had so many friends and peers that I’ve always wanted to play with and that I have played with. All the really gifted musicians, including my live band, whose playing I’m happy to say.
So, you, in your inner self, you are happy how this has come together?
Absolutely. Definitely. I couldn’t be happier with the way the record turned out. It sounds exactly how I heard it in my head when I first wrote the songs, and first came up with the ideas.
It’s really rare to hear an artist say that when they are done with a record. I mean, they’ll say, “Well I could have done this.” Or, “I didn’t get this quite right.” Or, “If I could do it again, I would…”
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it in an egotistical way, like, ‘This is the greatest record,’ but, I am saying that it sounds exactly how I’d imagined or hoped it would sound.
I know exactly how you are saying that. It came out how you envisioned it in your mind.
I didn’t always feel like it would get there. I’m really, really taken aback how it all came together finally. Really, in the eleventh hour too.
You’ve talked about a quote by Charlie Mingus saying, “He felt that he was not just playing a style of music so much as expressing the sounds of his life and experiences through the medium of music. I very much relate to that.” Is that basically what music is for you now?
It’s always been that for me. I just, when I read that, I was like, ‘Wow. He just talked about what I’d been experiencing my whole life.’ I didn’t really know that or think about it too much; at least I didn’t put it together. I remember when I was a kid, when I would come home from school, and go the the store or whatever I would do. I’d be walking, I would write songs in my head; it would score every trip that I would take. Wherever I went, I was always scoring things in my head, like I had music going all the time in my head. Along with the colors I saw, and the sound, and anything that challenged me, it was always getting scored by something. The songs would just sort of bubble inside me as I walked along.
I would make rhythms first, and I still do that to this day. Then I’ll get some music that starts gathering to accompany that, and then I start getting melody ideas. Then lyrics or vocals start to come to me, and I’ll piece it together. And I’d do that all in a trip to the store.
So, I knew what he meant when he said he didn’t feel like he was playing a style of music, or playing music. Life was just coming back out in this form, as a manifest, in this kind of expression.
Anything that you would like to say to your fans?
Thanks for supporting blues music and keeping this beautiful tradition going.
I think this is gonna be a real interesting test for what kind of people like this record because, and what kind of listeners like this record because with modern culture, I think people’s attention span is that of a gnat. So; you can’t just start this record and hurry along. You actually have to listen to it. They will either listen to it, or they’ll be really impatient like, ‘Ah this is boring, the intro’s too long.’ So, they’ll move on. I don’t really care, but it’ll be interesting to see. I think cool, now that there are fans who actually like this, and will actually listen. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about; it’s about the listening.