Multi-award winning Canadian Sue Foley
(29 March 1968) is one of the top Blues musicians in the world.
Foley has toured the globe with her distinctive pink paisley Fender Telecaster and has worked and shared stage with artists such as BB King, Buddy Guy and Tom Petty.
She has also worked to raise funds for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation and for over a decade has been promoting the work of female guitarists as part of a project called Guitar Woman.
She has released over a dozen albums, with the latest being the critically acclaimed The Ice Queen on 2 March, which features music legends like Jimmie Vaughan and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top).
Guitars Exchange catches up with Sue Foley the morning after a gig in Canada, in the chill of a January morning. “The gig went great last night,” she says, “but I am now looking out at the snow and ice of a very cold looking day and wondering how I’m going to face it!”
GE: How were the tracks from your new album ‘The Ice Queen’ recieved last night?
SF: Really well. Mostly people have just heard the single ‘Come to me’, and are now getting very psyched for the album. I felt a really good reaction.
GE: Are there any special collaborations on the new record?
SF: Yes many; I recorded it in Austin, Texas, where I started my career, and so that was like a ‘full circle journey’ in itself. We went to one of the first places I recorded at – Firestation studios in San Marcos, just south of Austin - and some of the same people were on it, like Derek O’Brien and George Rains, one of the greatest blues drummer ever. And then we brought in special guests: Jimmie Vaughan, who plays and sings; Chris Layton; Charlie Sexton, who is on the first single; and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.
GE: What was it like working with Billy Gibbons?
SF: He is the best. We are in a band together called Jungle Show with Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Flanigin and Chris Layton. Billy is enigmatic, eccentric, and as cool as they come; he is a really generous person. People might not know this because they just know him as a celebrity, but he is one of these guys who is constantly giving people gifts; he mails people gifts. He is a hard worker, really smart and creative, a really interesting guy. He has this aura about him. Everybody loves him.
GE: Do you have a favourite track on the album?
SF: Actually I feel really good about the whole album; they are the best songs I’ve ever written and the best musicians I’ve ever recorded with. I really like ‘81’, which is about a highway that runs from Ontario down to Tennessee. It is a pretty treacherous road because it goes through the biggest snow belt in the world, which circles the Great Lakes, and it is just a hellish drive! I used to have to drive it all the time and I would always dread it. The song has a dark vibe; it is about a lot of things, but 81 is the highway.
GE: Does it bring up a particular emotion for you?
SF: No, not really, I’m just happy that I don’t have to drive it anymore! (laughs)
GE: Going back to the start of your career…you started playing guitar at 13. Could you tell us about the first moment you picked up a guitar?
SF: I am originally from Ottowa but I had moved out to Edmonton, Alberta, with my mother and one of my brothers. Canada is huge, I was thousands of miles away from home, I was bored and I didn’t have any friends, and so I asked my father for a guitar for Christmas and he sent me one. Everyone in my family played guitar. It gave me something to focus on.
GE: What kind of guitar was it?
SF: It was actually a really cool Epiphone acoustic. I wish I still had it. I love Epiphone’s; the older ones are really nice.
GE: When you were very young you went to see James Cotton play and you said that the intensity of that live performance changed your life. You now offer that experience to others – is playing live more important to you than making records in the studio?
SF: I see the value of both. The nice thing about a record is that it lasts forever and that is pretty impactful. I don’t know if one is more important than the other. I think with blues music the direct connection with the audience is very important; that live thing is where the magic happens. Recording can also change your life too, but I had to see the music being played live to understand the real power of it, and that happened when I saw James Cotton.
GE: This is perhaps a tough question: if you had to choose three highlights in your career which would you choose?
SF: Seeing James Cotton at 15; meeting Ronnie Earl when I was about 19 and making friends with him; and then meeting Clifford Antone. I remember that we were playing a week long gig and Ronnie Earl was playing a club next door one night, and when they played they just completely blew our minds. Ronnie is such a powerful performer and at that time in the late 80s he was just on fire. He was probably one of the top blues players in the world at that time. Ronnie and I bonded straight away. He asked me who my favourite guitar player was and I said Earl Hooker, and he said ‘I changed my name to Earl because of Earl Hooker’; and we’ve been best friends from that moment on. He calls me his soul sister. He also validated me as a musician; he gave us the confidence to go forward and say ‘we can do this!’
Antone was another huge validaton. Clifford heard a demo I had sent him and he signed me for a record deal. I am from Canada and Austin was my favourite music scene at the time. I was in love with all the blues coming out of Austin so getting that validation was beyond a Cinderella story for me.
GE: Since then you’ve had many high points in your career, but I’ve noticed that ‘Blues in D natural’ and ‘Absolution’ seem to be particularly popular among your fans on Youtube – why do you think that is?
SF: I think my fans love guitar first of all. And those songs are slow blues on guitar. If you can play a slow blues I think guitar players feel that you can really play, I think those songs really have an emotional impact, especially ‘Absolution’; it has a powerful message.
GE: Turning now to one of your other interests; you’ve spent many years researching gender – including taking a break in your career to study and prepare a book called ‘Guitar Woman’. What was your original motivation for this?
SF: Years ago I felt isolated as a woman in this industry. There were not a lot of people I could share stories and experiences with. When I discovered Memphis Minnie I thought she was incredible; the fact that she played guitar and wrote her own songs turned her into my favourite artist of all time. I started to do some research and I found that there was not a lot of documentation about female guitar players that I could really go to, so I started to interview them one by one, people like Bonnie Raitt, Suzy Quatro and Carole Kaye from the Wrecking Crew. I did over 100 interviews and now Guitar Player Magazine is starting to publish them in monthly excerpts under the heading ‘The Foley Files’.
GE: Did you come to any conclusion about female guitar players?
SF: I was interested to see if women play differently to men, and I got a variety of answers on that one; I couldn’t really nail it down.
I thought I could find something that defined female guitarists, but I couldn’t, and that sort of impeded my progress in a way because I couldn’t tie the story together. The characters were really different, their backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, and cultures. There are a lot of guys who play sensitively and are very empathatic, and then there are a lot of women who play aggressively. Perhaps it is cool just to say that music makes everything like that disappear in a way; great musicians are great musicians and music transcends that whole gender thing.
GE: There has been a lot of news recently about harassment of women in the film industry in particular, do you think it is the same for women in the music industry?
SF: Absolutely! Even worse! I think women musicians have to be really thick-skinned. To survive in the music industry you have to be kind of tough.
GE: Would you give any specific advice to female guitarists?
SF: I would give the same advice as I would to men, which is become a great crafts-person, learn everything you can. Also, I say to anyone I teach ‘love the work’, because if you don’t love the work, you won’t survive. You’re never going to be good enough, you can always get better, and there are always people better than you. That in itself can be a burden, but again it is a beautiful thing because you never stop learning. There is always somewhere to go.
GE: Turning now to your guitar, you are well known for your pink Paisley Telecaster - why did you choose the Tele?
SF: I chose the Tele because in the late 80s when I was switching from hollow to solid body, every guitar player I knew was playing a Strat. I was in a store looking at both of them and I thought about Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and Keith Richards and I picked the Telecaster. Also because I’d seen Albert Collins live, I think that changed my life forever.
GE: Why do you think Strats are so popular among blues players?
SF: I think people like the Strat because they think it has got more range and sound – the Tele doesn’t have that; in the hot pickups down by the bridge you can really get a biting tone and then you can get a warm thing, but it is a very basic guitar, it is just like wood and strings. I always think that if you can play a Tele clean and it sounds good, then you can really play, because you can’t hide with a Telecaster.
GE: Regarding your gear, which is the pedal and amp you can’t live without?
SF: I’m pretty basic, I could play with just a Reverb pedal through a Fender 59 Bassman Reissue 4-10. Recently I’ve been using the Holy Grail Reverb pedal, but if I could just have that I’m happy, I play really clean.
GE: You have been taking lessons in flamenco guitar, how is that going?
SF: I took some lessons and it really spun my head around because it was such a different style of music to what I was familiar with. I kind of hit the wall with my blues playing, I thought I was just repeating myself, and I really needed to learn something new. Specifically I was really interested with right hand techniques and using my fingers - I use a thumb pick but I am really comfortable with just using my fingers. I was able to open up my playing a lot and get to a new level, a new place of personality, and something that sounded more like me.
When you use your fingers it is skin on string and it really is just you, you get down to your personal sound. People like Albert Collins never used a pick, and he has the best tone of anyone in the world. I was really fascinated with tone, and I think tone really happens in the right hand. How you hit those strings has more of an impact than the size of the string or your amp.
GE: What guitar do you use to play flamenco?
SF: It is just a Mexican one, it is not high end. I don’t even have a flamenco guitar but I’ll get one one day.
The interview closes with Sue Foley reflecting on one of the happiest times in her career, when she started in Austin in the early 90s. “That was a really important time for me, there was so much good music around,” she says. “At that time we could see Albert Collins, Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, and Earl King, guys who have all passed on now, they all hung out there. I just feel really lucky to have been there, we were so happy.”