Andy Burke and Tamara
Willie Mae is a Jacksonville, Florida-based band consisting of the songwriting team of Anderson Burke and Tamara Grigsby. They write and play songs using the delta blues tradition as a springboard for their compositions. Andy plays guitar, National steel guitar and keyboards; Tamara sings as well as playing guitar and harmonica. Their first CD, Bound to Roam, is full of songs with interesting melodies, intelligent, concise lyrics, and tasteful arrangements. They are currently working in my studio on their second CD so I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions about songwriting.
Roy: What is your songwriting process? When you sit down to write a song what happens?
Tamara: My songwriting process is an organic one. My songs usually show up as phrases or a tune that pops into my head - sometimes in the middle of the night. Because I am open to the flow and trust the process, it just comes. I have never had writers block because I let writing happen. Even now, when I purposely sit down to write something, I am really just listening. Andy and I have a organic process as well. Sometimes he comes up with the music, and I come up with lyrics. Other times, he might write the lyrics, and I mold them to fit the melody. We work together and compliment each other. He understands music and the importance of a good melody. He is also a wonderfully natural writer. We really trust each others abilities.
Andy: For lyrics, I think of a story line and because of the limited number of words that can fit in a verse or chorus, I pare it down to its basic components. These songs tend to be structured like a short story. For the music, chord patterns seem to come when I am simply strumming a guitar. If something sounds like it has potential I will write the progression down or record it and later put the lyrics on top of the chords. As she will be singing the song, Tamara has a good feel for what will fit and what will not. All of the songs we write together need to be from a woman's perspective but the emotions and situations are certainly not limited to either female or male.
Roy: Name a few of your favorite songwriters and why.
Tamara: My favorite songwriters are Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Tom is the most creative writer I know. I love his spoken songs the most. Heís the bard of the underworld. His lyrics are rough and jangly yet the words flow out of his mouth like honey. I am in awe of the way he puts words together. Leonard Cohen writes poetry that he puts to music. His lyrics will melt you and make you feel all gooey inside but never in a maudlin way. Since I consider myself a poet who writes music, these two are my songwriting gurus.
Andy: Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Gregg Allman, Mark Knopfler
Roy: What are a few of your influences outside of songwriting, that is, who or what has inspired you to write that has nothing to do with music?
Tamara: Faulkner, Flannery OíConnor, Harry Crews, and many other artists who push the envelope.
Andy: Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner
Roy: How do the two of you collaborate together on a song? Does one of you come up with the music and then let the other write the lyrics?
Tamara: Andy and I mostly write fiction. We create songs with characters, and our songs tell a story. We both enjoy making up characters and events. Sometimes we will start out with an idea or a fictional person or situation, and it will grow from there.
Roy: Some of your songs are written in a blues style that many would consider outdated or constraining. Yet, none of your songs sound dated or derivative in any way. Is this a challenge you face when writing in this genre? Do you even think about this when writing a song?
Tamara: I donít think we really think about that. We focus on writing a good song. Good songs tend to be timeless, and thatís what we try to do.
Roy: "Walk the Dog" is a fun little romp of a song and it's only one chord. Now, most people would never think to use only one chord in a song, let alone be able to make it work. How did that happen?
Tamara: It really started out as fun. The lyrics rolled out and the rest just happened. Lots of old blues tunes just roll out and they can be nonsensical. I love that about them. There are no rules really. That is something I learned from Lucinda who was told that the structure in one of her songs wouldnít work because there was not a lot of variation. She recorded it anyway, and it was a big hit. She taught me that you shouldnít listen to people who say your songs should be a certain way.
Roy: Your song "Levi and Mercy" tells a nice little story, it's basically a short story set to music. How did that come about?
Tamara: Well I had this poem and Andy had this tune and we put them together. Since I love spoken word so much, and it was a poem, it felt natural to speak it instead of sing it. It was based on a couple of fictional characters and a scene from the old South.
Roy: I'm going to name a few more of your songs. If you don't mind, tell me a bit about how they came to be written.
Tamara: Delta Storm is about our 1st trip to the Delta. Andy and I drove through this incredible storm. Itís where I first fell in love with Mississippi. Itís a tribute to the beauty of the land and the people who live there.
Roy: "Blues for Buddy Bolden."
Tamara: Andy was the one who told me about Buddy Bolden and the history behind him. I love New Orleans and the music there, so that song is imagining what it would be like to go downtown dancing in a club with the jazz greats back in the day. If I could go into a time machine, thatís where I would go.
Roy: "Far Don't Matter."
Tamara: Andy wrote these amazing lyrics and when I read them, I wanted to cry. It was so powerful. Every time I sing this, I understand the pain of losing your home. Itís definitely one of my favorite Willie Mae songs.
Andy: For a long time, I have been interested in the flooding of the Mississippi River and have read extensive histories and fiction based around this once common event. The flood in New Orleans from the broken levees in 2005 was the basis of this song about a grown woman and her mother as they struggle to survive the rising flood waters in their home. It is a horrific tale of heroism, bravery and loss. The levees were intentionally blown up in the 1927 flood and resulted in thousands of poor people loosing their homes. In 2005 many residents of New Orleans feared the same thing had happened: "They blew it up in '27, they sure gonna tear it up now..." is how "Far Don't Matter" opens setting the stage for story that follows. This opening line works because of the truth of those 13 words to many of the people in the flood zones.
Roy: Have you ever had a song that changed considerably during the recording process from what you thought it was going to be like when you initially wrote it? Has working in the studio changed the way you write songs?
Tamara: I donít think songs change when you record them, but they may evolve the more you perform them. Recording hasnít changed the way I write. For me itís about capturing that live energy that is full of emotion on stage in the studio. That is the sound I am still striving for when we record.
Andy: In the studio a song can change as you record it and listen to the playback. Subtle changes here and there, perhaps add a different instrument or vocal arrangement. Tamara's song "No More" became in the studio less about the guitar and more about the organ sound. It is valuable to be flexible enough to accept possible changes and try them out. Some changes work, some don't.
Roy: Anything else you want to add?
Tamara: Thanks Roy for your wonderful friendship. As a musician and a friend, you understand what artists try to convey, and you help them capture that in the studio. I trust your abilities as a musician and producer. You have an exceptional ear and know good quality sound in a live performance as well as in the studio. Willie Mae is invincible with you in our corner. We wish you much success with your music and other creative endeavors. You truly are an original.
Roy: Very kind words and thank you both for your time
You can find out more about Willie Mae by visiting these sites: