Born into the Blues

By Paul Rigg

Eve Monsees was born in Houston on 12 October 1983, but moved to the ‘Blues Mecca’ of Austin, Texas, aged eight.  

Monsees got her first guitar at 12 and soon began hooking up with her schoolmate, Gary Clark Jr., to regularly practise playing the blues. At 15 they began sitting in on jams at Austin clubs, and within a year they were getting their own gigs, including an opening slot for Jimmie Vaughan at Antone’s.

Monsees established The Exiles with Mike Buck and in March 2004 they released their debut record. In 2007 Kathy Valentine approached her to join the Bluebonnets, an all girl rock band, and in 2010 they released their first album Boom Boom Boom Boom. In 2008 Monsees took co-ownership of Antone’s Record Shop, and she continues to play in a number of bands.

Guitars Exchange
catches up with Monsees in January 2019, on a gorgeous sunny day, while she is at her Austin home. She has been finalising details for a blues festival she is playing at over the weekend, has a cup of tea in her hand, and is eager to talk about her friendship with Gary Clark Jr, the importance of Clifford Antone and Albert King in her life and her latest album, which has been selling like hot cakes...

GE: How has Eve and the Exiles’ latest album ‘You Know She Did’ been received?

EM: It’s been out a couple of years now and been one of our best sellers. We did the CD first and then pressed the vinyl about a year ago; that was something we wanted to do initially but it was a little cost prohibitive. We actually had a partnership with Jameson whisky for a year, which was something that Gary Clark helped us be a part of, and they helped fund our vinyl edition, which was great. They asked us what goals we had and a vinyl was at the top of our list, so we were really happy to be able to do that.  

It’s fun to put a vinyl out and then have it available at your own record shop [Laughs].  It's cool because people come to the shop specifically to get our record.

GE: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the record?

EM: Well we had some songs that we’d been working on that were not strictly blues or rock n roll; they were more a blend of different influences.  

GE: You invited quite a number of guest artist to play on your album; why was that?

EM: In order to get a slightly different sound. Denny Freeman is an amazing guitarist and he had just started playing steel guitar. He played with Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan for about five years and he has been part of the Austin scene for decades. He is known as a Strat player but decided to play steel a few years back, and what he did sounded so unique because he was coming at it from a different perspective. So instead of just getting a steel guitar player who only did country or what have you, we wanted something new. I’m such a fan of his; what he did really added a lot to the song that he played on. I guess when you go into the studio you have opportunities to create sounds and play with people that you wouldn’t normally be able to play with live, and it is good to take advantage of that. Glen Clark is a friend of Mike’s, and he and Delbert McClinton recorded together years ago, and he was going to be in town so we took  advantage of that. He is really fun in the studio, he has so many ideas, we thought he was just going to do one thing, but he was like ‘we could put this on it’ and ‘we could put that on it’. And then Lewis Cowdrey, who was on the early blues scene in Austin, played harmonica; he rarely comes to town but he was here for an event and we wanted to have him on there. Then the organ player, Nate Basinger, he is occasionally with us as he lives in Austin, but he is in other groups so we don’t get to play with him as much as we would like, but we were able to make that work in the studio. So it was just an excuse to get our friends together because they would never be on stage at the same time.

Is there one track that perhaps has a special story attached to it for you?

EM: Mr Devil. Mike wrote the lyrics for it, and it came together the quickest. That one was as stripped down as we could do it; it is just guitar and vocals. Some others we took longer to focus on as they had so many different aspects but this one came together so naturally we just turned up and played, so that was good. And then I would choose the song Footnote, just because it is so different from anything that I’ve ever previously written and recorded. I was very happy with that one.

GE: Going back to your childhood, as a blues musician, it seems like you had tremendous luck to move to Austin when you were eight – how do you see that now?

EM: Absolutely, I think about that a lot, ‘if I hadn’t grown up in Austin, what would I be doing?’ because there are so many opportunities here to play. The amount of talent that is here, you kind of just absorb what is around you so, yeh, I feel very fortunate that my parents thought it would be a good idea... I was born in Houston and I’m really pleased about that as I was exposed to so many different types of people at a very early age because it is a very diverse community, but moving to Austin was a lot of luck.  


You have said you got an acoustic Fender guitar around 11 and then a year later your first electric, a Fender Stratocaster. Why Fender particularly?

EM: That’s a good question. The acoustic my parents got for me. Fender is not as well known for its acoustic instruments as for its electric instruments; but that is my acoustic.  

Then the Strat I won in a competition, which is crazy. It was a black Fender Strat and I kept going into the guitar shop and eyeing it; I think those Strats are synonymous with Texas blues, that’s what Stevie Ray Vaughan played, so the first people that I was aware of who were local successful blues players played Strats, so that kind of caught my eye initially. I was in a music store and I filled out a form with my name and address, and they pulled my name out of a hat!

GE: Clifford Antone soon took you under his wing; how important was that in your career?

EM: Meeting Clifford was a really big deal, I think it was at a show where Jimmie Vaughan was playing and I went up to him and said ‘I can play blues too’ – you know I was very young and just excited to be there - and he said ‘Oh, okay, who do you like to listen to?’ and he probably expected me to say ‘Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or someone who was well known, and I said ‘Magic Sam’ and he put his head in his hands and I thought ‘Oh no, did I say something wrong?’ and then he looked up and he had this huge smile on his face.

I found out later that there were all these different waves of musicians who would come through that club and I told him about Gary and later introduced him, and I think that was the moment he found his next wave of young blues musicians. We were 15 and there was a big show with Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton and Mojo Buford, and Antone had never heard us play but he got us up there on stage with those guys. It was not planned, we didn’t have our guitars with us, we just used those that were on stage. A few months later he asked us to open for Jimmie Vaughan for the club’s anniversary. I think that sums up what Clifford was all about, he would bring the legends to town and make sure the young folks had a chance to meet and play with them. When he passed, it left a hole not just for the music community; he was there for everyone. He championed folks whose names were not so well known. He was huge.


I understand one of your neighbours at that time once said your routine was “school, homework, dinner, transport downtown, a few turns on stage, then return home and catch a few hours of sleep” – does that describe it?

EM: [Laughs] Yes, absolutely. We were energetic teenagers. I did pretty well at school but it was pretty cool that afterwards we would go and play music downtown. We would also do other stuff that kids would do at that age: play basketball and go to people’s houses, but the more involved we got in music the more opportunities there were to incorporate music into school events.

It is well known that you grew up with Gary Clark Jr and the short documentary ‘Gary and Eve’ is enormously popular on Youtube; why do you think that strikes a note for viewers?

EM: I think Gary has gone out of his way to mention me and say what things were like when we were first learning. It was so exciting because everything was new, and for both of us that was an important time in our lives. Even though he is doing as well as he is, he still goes out of his way to talk about that - and he doesn't have to, you know - and people have a natural interest in that story. 

The people who did the documentary wanted to capture our story but you never know how it is going to come out; however I was thrilled with the footage they were able to use. It’s sincere, I guess: two kids who were enthusiastic about music. It’s inspiring since then to see how far he has come.  


On one Youtube video you and Gary do an Albert King cover of ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ in 2016 - what does Albert King mean to you and your career? 

EM: He was one of the first guys who really grabbed me. As a young kid from Austin I obviously knew Stevie Ray Vaughan’s name, and I was at a guitar store looking at one of his books and some guy walked by and said ‘Hey, if you like him you should listen to Albert King; that’s where he got his stuff from’ – and I thought ‘okay’. Then I went and bought an Albert King record and I thought ‘Oh, my God! Where did this come from?’ - and a door opened. From then on it was like: ‘well, who else is out there?’ And I became obsessive about trying to get hold of old records. Albert King definitely was a huge influence.  

GE: In 2004 you formed ‘Eve and the Exiles’ with Mike Buck – did that moment represent you taking a different route to Gary?

EM: We were kind of starting to get separate offers anyway; that wasn’t the first thing. Gary started to be offered gigs in town. The Blues Caravan was something like a six week tour that Sue Foley was a part of, but she couldn’t do the last week and was kind enough to suggest that I fill in for the last part of the tour. It was a big deal for me as I hadn’t been abroad before. I thought Gary and I would do separate things and then work together again, but both of us started to have more and more opportunities. But we have remained close friends along the way.


In 2007, you were approached by Kathy Valentine to join the Bluebonnets, an all girl rock band; how did that start?

EM: That was supposed to be for just perhaps a couple of songs during one gig, but I ended up playing the whole set with them. Then they said ‘Hey, would you like to join the band?’ I didn’t expect it and their music was so different to what I had been doing  - it was closer to pop sensibilities - so that was challenging to me at first, but it was really fun. If you push yourself it always makes you a better player.

GE: Do you still play with them?

EM: Yes, we’re still together. We haven’t done anything for a few months but we put out a record a couple of years ago. The single Bye Bye Baby came out before the album and we’ve had a break since the Fall, but we are still doing it. We have a Houston gig in February, and some stuff in March. 


You once said: "I don't feel like I've had a lot of obstacles because I'm a female artist, I mean, I feel like I am treated as a musician … not being 21, that's been an issue." What did you mean by that?

EM: Before I was 21 sometimes it was hard to get into the bars, even if I was playing – that was an issue.  

On the other hand, as a female artist I’d have people come up and say ‘hey, you are really good for a girl’ and they would say that without thinking - and that has always happened and it continues to happen -, but there are now so many more female musician around than before. I don’t really feel like I missed opportunities, but when I first started - being young and being female - I don’t think I was taken as seriously as I am now.  

GE: Turning to guitars now, if you were on a ship and it was sinking, which guitar would you grab?

EM: Oh, that's a tough one! If I could only grab one there is a Telecaster I bought from Pete Mitchell; he was a great guitar player and the sweetest guy in the world. Pete played with Ernest Tubb for years and Mike was playing with him for a while and it was mentioned that I was interested in getting a Telecaster, and he said ‘Oh, I’ve got one’. It was a guitar that he had changed so many things on; it would be impossible to replicate what he did. It has a Tele body with a Warmoth neck, different pick ups, it used to have a B-Bender on it, and he took that out; it makes me think of him when I play it, and so that one is extra special for me.


GE: And what amp and pedals?

EM: Pedals can go down with the ship - I’d be okay with that! [Laughs] As far as amps I’ve got a few Silvertone
Twin Twelve and that’s what I play through the most now, and then I have a couple of different Fenders. 

What plans do you have for 2019?

EM: Good question; we are trying to work out everything now. At the end of May there is a local guitar player named Chris Ruest, Mike and I did a couple of gigs with him recently and we are looking at booking some shows with him in the Mid-West, and then the Bluebonnets have some things coming up. Also I’d like to do some writing and think about a new record. I feel motivated to kick into another year and see what opportunities arise!

The interview closes with Guitars Exchange and Monsees chatting about her friendship with blues guitarist and ‘Austin-adoptee’, Sue Foley. Monsees explains that Eve and the Exiles opened for Gary Clark in December, and that at the end of the show Clark got Foley and Monsees up on stage together with him for a song. “She’s great, she elevates things because she is such a great player and a lot of fun to be with,” she says, “the homecoming shows are always such a blast!”