Caravan of Soul Sirens
Caravan of Soul Sirens
A Q&A with Ina Forsman
And Layla Zoe of the Blue Sisters
By Geoff Gehman
Looking for a rousing, arousing, take-no-prisoners performance of “Chain of Fools”? Look no further than the YouTube video of the Blue Sisters putting a serious hurting on Aretha Franklin’s siren song. Ina Forsman, Tasha Taylor and Layla Zoe stomp, strut, seduce and soar. Even their hips sing; even their eyes swing.
The soulful vocalists come from different nations but hail from the same musical country. Each one decided to sing for a living as a youngster. Each one’s voice is wounding, caressing and roaming. Each one has a funky, brassy new CD dominated by tunes they wrote. Each album is released by Ruf Records, which is producing their Blues Caravan tour, the label’s 12th traveling showcase for its acts.
Zoe grew up in Vancouver, fronted a band at age 14, and has gigged at such prestigious venues as the Montreal Jazz Festival. “Breaking Free,” her 10th disc, includes the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and her own “Wild One,” which features trademark slide guitar from Sonny Landreth, her friend and guide. Forsman, a native of Helsinki, is a 19-year-old jazz chanteuse, a disciple of Sam Cooke, and a protégé of Helge Tallqvist, the renowned harmonica player and producer. Her eponymous album contains Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and her own “Bubbly Kisses,” a celebration of boozy sex. Raised in Dallas and on the road, Taylor is the child of the late, great R&B/soul singer Johnnie Taylor, who hit pay dirt with “Who’s Making Love” and “Disco Lady.” Her third CD, “Honey for the Biscuit,” is sparked by guests Robert Randolph, the lap-steel wizard, and Keb’ Mo’, the urban, urbane blues bender.
On July 21 the Blue Sisters will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a rock ‘em, sock ‘em, money-making, money-shaking, Tina Turner/Janis Joplin-style revue. Below, in a conversation from a Buffalo hotel. Forsman and Zoe talk influences, tattoos and their mission to rip out hearts.
Q: Why did you join the Blues Caravan? Were you attracted by a strong platform for your new records as well as a strong sisterhood of the road?
Zoe: One of the attractions is that this is my first real American tour. It’s also my first big project with women musicians. I’ve done the Women’s Blues Revues at Massey Hall in Toronto that the Toronto Blues Society puts on, but of course that’s just a one-night thing. The Blues Caravan has been very busy; in February we did 23 shows in 30 days. I really am pro-support for women in the blues. There are no all-female blues festivals, even though there is so much talent out there. You can definitely put Tasha and Ina in that group; once I heard their voices on YouTube, I was ready to sign up.
Forsman: I was attracted by the chance to have my first real tour and to do many shows in so little time. I was very attracted to come to the States because it’s America, you know. I don’t think I would have gotten here on my own this soon; on my own it could have taken a couple of years to come back to promote my first record on Ruf. I have a lot of connections in Europe, but the States is a whole other thing. The Caravan gives me a good chance to sell my show here.
Q: What do you admire about each other’s singing? What do you dig about each other’s personalities, on and off the stage?
Zoe: We’re all so different and diverse in the music we play and in our voices. I admire Ina’s and Tasha’s commitment to their styles. Both of them are fine songwriters; both of them have great presence onstage. Tasha really sweats the soul; you can definitely tell she’s her father’s daughter. Ina is incredibly talented and mature for such a young musician; she’s at the age when I was getting into cover bands and starting to make records. She has a good education in the blues and music overall; she listens to all kinds of music on her headphones. She has a good head on her; she definitely has her shit together.
We’ve become friends, which I love. We talk when we’re off tour, which I love. Maybe we’ll work together; I’d definitely consider having them as guests on my next album. If I didn’t like these women and their voices and personalities so much, it would have been much harder to be with them show after show after show.
Forsman: Layla and Tasha are amazing performers who really know how to talk to people. Both have great songs with an original sound. I love to work with other artists completely doing their own thing; somehow we can combine our whole thing together and develop something different and stronger. I’m so happy we’re getting along so well; otherwise, it could get crowded.
Q: Ina, you’ve credited Helge Tallqvist, the veteran harmonica player and producer, as a musical mentor. What was his best musical/life lesson?
Forsman: He introduced the whole blues thing to me. After that, he taught me to try to find my own thing and to keep doing it even when others try to drag me down into their own thing. I always enjoy performing with him and talking to him. I’d like to spend more time with him; he’s very talented and very wise.
Q: Layla, who is your music/life coach and what essentials did you get from him or her?
Zoe: I attended the Hornby Island Blues Workshop when I was quite young; I had a bar band back then. It was an incredible weekend with many exceptional musicians, including [singer/songwriter/slide guitarist] Ellen McIllwaine. It was important because quite a few older, more experienced musicians told me I had a strong voice and I could have a career if I wanted it.
I actually met [slide guitarist] Sonny Landreth, one of my best friends in the business, at a festival in Canada. I’ve sat in with him at festivals; he plays on a track [“Wild One”] on my new record. I’ve had so many things happen to me over the years: losing my voice and having to cancel a tour; having to take time off the road to recover from back surgery. He’s always been there for me; he’s always been honest and genuine and real.
Q: Layla has said her musical/emotional goal is “to rip people’s hearts, then put them back in.” Does that sound right, Ina?
Forsman: I definitely relate to that; that’s about it. It’s funny, you do a show and you sing your songs and someone comes to you and says that’s exactly how they felt and you don’t even realize that your song could affect people that strongly. Ripping your heart out is exactly what we go for.
Q: Ina, I know you listened to a lot of Sam Cooke when you were preparing your new record. Did Tasha tell you that her father, Johnnie Taylor, replaced Cooke in the Soul Stirrers, the vaunted gospel group?
Forsman: When she told me about her father and Sam Cooke, I went: “Oh my gosh, Sam Cooke, that’s what I was hoping to hear. Oh my god, Sam Cooke—really?” It’s just so crazy to have the spirit of someone so legendary in my presence.
Q: Can you tell me one of Tasha’s juicy tales about her dad, who was a quintessential soul/R&B singer?
Forsman: I have to pass on that. Tasha has told good stories about her family in interviews but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to pass them on. If you ever talk with her, I’m sure she’ll tell you some hilarious ones.
Q: You two have some serious tattoos. So who has the most bodacious tatts?
Zoe: I think we both have amazing tattoos and we both get complimented about them. I have quite a few portraits of my favorite musicians on my legs: Tom Waits and Frank Zappa and Janis Joplin and Neil Young and of course Bob Dylan. I have more personal stuff, too.
Forsman: My favorite tattoo is of my dog, a four-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Allu, which is a Finnish nickname for Alex. He’s on my shoulder. My second favorite is a mandala thing in my hand. I don’t have any music-related tattoos, except for a key note on my middle finger. Maybe I’ll add some portraits of my favorite singers: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday.
Q: I’ve never asked this question in my 36 years of interviewing musicians so here goes nothing: Do you coordinate your clothes before you hit the stage?
Forsman: Do you mean do we review each other’s outfits? Not that much. We have our own private fashion shows in our hotel rooms and of course if we like each other’s clothes we talk about it. But there are no [clothes] gatherings before shows. Sometimes we come close to matching and sometimes we don’t come close to matching. But we all have distinctive styles, so we all still look good.
Ina Forsman, Tasha Taylor and Layla Zoe: The Scoop
Forsman’s first unforgettable song was “Reflections,” which she heard on the soundtrack for the animated film “Mulan” and then happily rediscovered, at age seven, on Christine Aguilera’s first solo record. “I sang my heart out, although definitely not as high as Christina, but I definitely tried” says Forsman with a laugh.
While Zoe couldn’t name a first favorite song, she easily remembered favorite albums she first heard as a tyke in her father’s rehearsal space: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs,” Bob Dylan’s “Infidels,” every track cut by Robert Johnson.
Taylor acted in the TV series “House” and “Ugly Betty.”
Zoe’s Blues Caravan repertoire includes “Sweet Angel,” her tribute to a friend who died from a brain aneurysm. It doesn’t include her 12-minute number “Highway of Tears,” a fan favorite too long for a program with two other composing vocalists.
Taylor performed in Blues Brothers concerts starring Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi.
The Blue Sisters will return to the area for a July 24 gig at the Sellersville Theater.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Layla Zoe’s passion for the Bob Dylan album “Infidels” and Forsman’s passion for songs about soused sex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.