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On November 10, 2005, I had the good fortune to have a phone interview with the wonderful Phoebe Snow. I spoke to her and several other artists for an article that ran as “Even Women Get the Blues” in Elmore Magazine in January 2006. On the sad news of her passing on April 26th, I remembered this transcript, and felt moved to share it. Some of this material first appeared in that original article.
Her words have so much to teach about struggle, perseverance, and diligence in bringing raw talent to fruition. At a few points she spoke about her daughter who was disabled and of caring for her, but felt those comments weren’t for publication. I will honor that. I will say, though, that I am pleased that this came together on Mother’s Day. I believe it is perfect timing.
I am so glad that I had the chance to hear her live performance at Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue at the Beacon Theater in 1992. What a phenomenal voice. Thank you, Phoebe, for the interview and for the inspiration. Blessings on your journey.
Robin Renée: It’s wonderful to talk to you, first of all. I wanted to get into a little bit of your experience of being involved in blues singing, particularly as a woman. Are there any stories you might have to tell about how being a woman has affected your career? There are probably many.
Phoebe Snow: I don’t even know, you know, if it is connected to blues particularly. Being a woman and being in any kind of professional career is an uphill battle.
PS: Being a woman and to be employed on any level <laughter> but um, I guess I think –
I did start out and my goal was to be primarily a blues artist, and I was more interested, when I started, in being a guitar player as opposed to being a singer. I didn’t think I had a very good voice, which people are always surprised to hear me say. I was incredibly shy, I was incredibly self-conscious, so I already had that going against me. It was very difficult for me to get up in front of people and sing. So I focused on the guitar a lot.
Now my earliest influences were… I’m trying to think of who it was I heard when I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. People like Bill Broomsey, Memphis Minnie, guitar-oriented blues artists, rural blues artists… Charlie Pickett.
There was a guy in Lower Manhattan around that time who was putting out reissues of old 45 blues records and his name was Nick Pearl. They were all pretty much under his umbrella. He would find these fantastic obscure old blues artists and he would reissue them and try to remaster them in whatever technology existed at that time. I think any blues artist who was around at that time, any kids coming up knew about this guy. I even went and auditioned for him: “I know I’m a contemporary artist and I was in the 70s, but hey! Check out how I can play this!” I would try to impress him with some of my guitar stylings and in return he gave me a lot of great records to listen to. That’s kind of how I started my guitar style.
Also, I was a huge fan and follower and ultimately friend of David Bromberg’s. He was kind of a clearinghouse for great blues stuff. I know that’s not exactly what you asked me, but these are my roots, these are how I made my decision to be… The other thing I was really influenced by, believe it or not, is bluegrass music. I developed a picking style, a very fast picking style. I had a teacher back then, Rick Schoenberg, and he actually made a couple of albums with a guy named Dave Laibman on Verve Records. My family knew the Schoenberg family, so he said, “All right, I’ll give you guitar lessons.” What they were doing at that time when I was trying to study guitar with him was transcribing Scott Joplin piano rag tunes into two-guitar picking style. There exists a master of this somewhere—Rick and Dave doing it, and it’s among some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.
RR: You did say that being a woman in any profession is enough. Do you have any anecdotal stuff about what it was to break through a ceiling?
PS: I think anytime, see… There’s also this typical thing about a woman playing a man’s instrument. And unless she’s dressed like a playboy bunny they have all these perceptions…. Maybe she’s this, maybe she’s that… No… maybe she’s a musician who really wants to do this. The guitar lends a lot of perceptual stuff to this I’m sure. When I heard all these people speculating, “Who is she? Where did she come from?” That was funny stuff. I would like people to think in a very linear way about what I do and just notice the music. In a perfect world, they would, but it’s not a perfect world. My biggest breakthrough would be when people just talk to me about what they’ve heard me do musically and they don’t mention anything else, like “Why are you wearing that?” You know? I actually had another woman say to me years ago, “Girl, we’ve got to do something about your drag.” I’m like, what?? Drag. My clothing. I’m like, why? Leave me alone. If you’re in this for the music, people can really get hung up on the wrong things. So, I really think the greatest triumph for me is that people say “Wow, you’re really a great musician. You’re a great singer.”
RR: So you’re doing some new stuff, I hear. I have Natural Wonder. Is that the most recent?
PS: That would be the most recent one. It was very well under the radar. That’s ok with me. The other thing is I’m really looking forward to performing again. I’d lost my passion for performing for a while, you know. I’ve had a life full of huge challenges at times. Some people know about it, some people don’t. It’s not really important what they were or why I was challenged, I kind of had my musical heart broken because I was trying to juggle so many things that I couldn’t give everything I needed to give to music. When I was vulnerable in that way and I was going through personal challenges, I have to say this, I was somebody who was very easy to manipulate. If someone would yell at me or be dictatorial, like you kind of have to do a certain kind of thing, I would go ok, let’s not get into anything, you just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll just go on autopilot and I’ll do it. I regret that, but I don’t dwell on regretting that. I’m not overwhelmed by whatever my life circumstances are anymore and I think I can really do much better work, at this stage of my life. I didn’t really know where I was gonna be. Were you at The Bitter End the other night?
RR: No, unfortunately I didn’t make it.
PS: We are planning other venues. Once they know that I’m out there and wanna work… so that’s what we’re working on right now – polishing up the live performances and I’m concentrating on a lot on original material. I’ve been validated as a songwriter— that’s another triumph! Gotta mention that in the triumph column! I never knew if my songwriting was viable or not. Now people are saying, “Yeah! You write hooks!”
RR: Just out of pure selfishness… What do you think a songwriter trying to break out today should know?
PS: I had the benefit of advice by iconic songwriters…. Take everything with a grain of salt. Take what you need and leave the rest. Mostly follow your own muse. If something feels like it’s exciting and you want to write it, listen to your muse. That belongs to you. Don’t let people push you around. Especially songwriting, because that’s coming out of your heart.