Music

Joe Bonamassa on his ‘ridiculous’ chart-topping success and his stellar career at the age of 43: ‘I’ve only managed it by being completely narcissistic ‘


To his companions, he’s JoBo. Among his peers, he’s considered the guitarist’s guitarist. To everyone else, Joe Bonamassa is the world’s quintessential blues-rock superhero.

Having played the guitar professionally since the age of 12 – opening for B.B. King in 1989 – it’s something of a disservice to consider Bonamassa’s musical endeavours a career. The blues is woven into every fibre of his being. And as he admits to this writer, this is the only life he really knows.

But Bonamassa’s blue rock mastery tells only half the story. It’s thanks to an utterly relentless work ethic that Joe Bonamassa, the guitar-slingin’ kid from upstate New York, is now Joe Bonamassa, the global guitar phenomenon. He’s certainly made his own luck.

It’s no surprise, then, that Joe Bonamassa holds the record for the most Billboard #1s, with 22 top spots on the Blues Albums Chart. An eye-watering accomplishment that Bonamassa himself considers ‘ridiculous’. Counting studio records, live albums, side projects and other collaborative releases, his new album, Royal Tea, is Joe Bonamassa’s 45th in total. This is a man who is still yet to reach midlife.

Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, Royal Tea brings Bonamassa’s career full circle. It’s less of an album and more of an electrifying homage to the British blues players that set him on this journey 30 years ago – the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and John Mayall, to name a few. Each of its 10 original songs feature collaborations with homegrown heroes such as Bernie Marsden [ex-Whitesnake], Pete Brown [ex-Cream lyricist] and even Jools Holland. Along with its very title, a play on royalty, that’s one way to capture an inherently British vibe in the studio. Bonamassa says the title was inspired by an episode of Good Morning Britain, where Piers Morgan discussed Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s resignation from their Royal Family duties. At the time, Bonamassa was enjoying a scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Very British.

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Of course, the world that bore Royal Tea at the turn of 2020 is quite different to the one that gets to enjoy its fruits. It’s also difficult to think of another musician’s workload that has been wrecked to the same degree by Covid-19’s impact. After all, Bonamassa has spent 200 days on the road every year for as long as he can remember. He is well aware that the life he knows might have already come to an end. At the very least, reconfigured beyond recognition for the foreseeable future.

As Royal Tea is released, Metro.co.uk spoke to Joe Bonamassa about the new album and what the future looks like for the guy in the suit.

Bonamassa is releasing his 45th album, Royal Tea (Picture: Jim Herrington)

You turned 43 in May, but you’ve already been a professional musician for 30 years. What do you attribute to your incredible longevity?

Sheer tenacity and spite! Never underestimate spite as a motivating factor in all of this. Tell me I can’t do something, and then I’ll show you I can. Right now, everybody is looking at their career and thinking it could be over. We have to accept that. The landscape is changing. The nature of how people consume music, the criteria that you have to adhere to, everything has to be curated. We’re in a landscape where you could be cancelled, but I don’t work for a corporation, so that’s an advantage.

The longevity part I attribute to my fans who were willing to take this journey with me, and I’ve challenged them along the way. I’ve done a ‘70s style classic rock band with Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian [Black Country Communion]. I’ve had collaborations with people like Beth Hart, Mahalia Barnes. I’ve done five instrumental records, including one with the Sleep Eazys called Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell. That tells you everything you need to know about the instrumental music business in one line! And I’ve done four records with Rock Candy Funk Party. Over the course of 20 something years, this will be my 45th album. Anybody who has it all is a superfan because I’ve asked a lot from my fanbase. I never subscribe to the ‘once every five year’ model of making a record. It’s an old school model. You write, record, tour, write, record, tour.

The first single from the record, A Conversation With Alice, was inspired by a therapy session that you had. Did that bring about any big changes in your life?

I only went twice. Not because it wasn’t helpful, but because it was too helpful. I’ve still got a few years left in this thing, and being an eccentric character makes me good at my job. If I’m gonna round out the edges, I’m not sure if I can still be the guy in the suit. So I decided to wait a minute, because my behaviour’s not hurting anybody.

I’m just eccentric, I take things to extremes. I live in a house of guitars! I’m very driven, very one-track minded. There’s no way you can accomplish what I’ve done in the amount of time without being completely narcissistic, which has hurt my past relationships. It burns people out. Part of trying to salvage my last relationship, which was unsuccessful, was going to see this therapist. I wrote about this conversation with Alice, and it was the best thing I ever did, because that’s part of the chorus. But it was the wrong time. Eventually, I’ll deal with some of the underlying stuff, but I’m not too hard to read. I’ve got a chip on both shoulders.

Bonamassa with ex-Whitesnake rocker Bernie Marsden at Abbey Road Studios (Picture: Christie Goodwin)

The orchestral intro on When One Door Opens [the record’s second single] took me by surprise. You always seem to progress your sound with each album. Is this one of the reasons why you’ve been able to do it for so long?

Since 2015 when we did the Three Kings Tour, we’ve operated with a big-band format. Like seven-pieces, horns and stuff like that. For this record, no offence to our horn guys, but we’ve done that for years. I was at a hotel in London just f***ing around and looking at the lyric, and I came up with this riff. It was like 12:30 at night and I thought I’d better sing it. If they knock on the door, I’m not answering until this thing is out. And I was able to get a verse, chorus and a riff on tape to work on the next day with Bernie. I ended up finishing the song without Bernie and then showed it to Kevin Shirley [long-time producer and collaborator], who said we gotta go full on with the orchestra and the heavy riff. I tell you what, we’ve been playing this song in rehearsal and it is devastating when it cranks up. To me, it’s just what heavy, sludgy British blues rock is all about.

You recently put on a livestream show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Was it something you fully embraced or was it a necessary evil, given the current climate?

I wouldn’t have taken people’s money if I thought I was gonna mail it in. I was excited about people hearing the record, and I was excited about people hearing the live version of the record. We decided to do the PPV, but what do you do when the red light goes on? I don’t have any off. I know if I have an audience, I play a certain way. Is a live audience when they cheer for the solos the last 5 or 10%? Absolutely. But my own personal narcissism will clap for myself when I feel I’ve done a good job. It was exciting because it wasn’t just a normal set. I think some of these songs will be in my set list for a long time, and that’s encouraging.

Is there a living to be made like this? This could be as good as it gets for quite some time…

I think it’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It’s not like Robert Plant at Madison Square Garden, it’s a little bit different. There’s a reason why people get out of their houses and watch bands and go to concerts. There’s a kinetic energy that happens in the room, you’re moving air. I’m leary of the over-saturation point because the prevailing narrative is that everybody’s gotta stay relevant, but at what cost in the long term?

I understand you’ve gotta make a living, but I’ve seen acts go on there and say, ‘hey guys, if you like what you hear, leave a tip’. So, what, are we f***ing buskers now? It’s the perfect storm. The music business has been hit the hardest, because streaming has killed the songwriting business. I mean, you could have a hundred million streams and get a cheque for 75 bucks. They give away the music now, but we always used to say, you can’t illegally download a concert. But we’re there. Should it be government subsidised or do we just fade into the hedge? The jury’s still out on that. It could be that we’re done.

Used to touring for more than half a year, Bonamassa is looking forward to a more ‘peaceful’ life (Picture: Kit Wood)

Either way, what does life look like for Joe Bonamassa post-touring? B.B. King toured into his late 80s.

Peaceful! I’ve literally been in the eye of a hurricane for 25, 30 years. There’s more to life than the life you made for yourself.

I’ve been very fortunate, my fans have been very generous to me, but I’ve worked very hard. Nothing’s ever been handed to me. My manager and I have been at it for almost 30 years. B.B. loved it. That’s not to say I don’t love it, but B.B. loved perpetual motion. He knew nothing else. He loved being on the road, that’s what got him out of bed on a morning. I have been at this since I was four, so 39 years playing guitar. I got my first professional gig at 12 years old. I don’t know anything else either, but I’d like to try. Whatever you’re passionate about, it shouldn’t be just by sheer obligation.

My goal was to retire at 50 years [playing professionally], which would make me 62. Maybe 40 years, 52. Who knows? Maybe it’s over now and we don’t know it. The landscape is so different, and I don’t know what my audience looks like coming back. I don’t know if there is an audience, and that’s okay. The fans tell you when you’re out.

Joe Bonamassa’s new album “Royal Tea” is out now on Provogue/Mascot Label Group. Further info – www.jbonamassa.com and www.mascotlabelgroup.com

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