RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Sue Foley’s cooking at home

Sue Foley makes a Bluesfest appearance on Tuesday July 9.

The Ice Queen cometh Tuesday — to RBC Ottawa Bluesfest that is.

Ottawa native Sue Foley has been touring her record The Ice Queen for sometime now, hitting Europe twice and zipping across North America pretty much everywhere.

Now she’s coming back home where her career started.

When this interview happened, though, Foley was just back from Europe.

“I have been going there for ages. It’s more like reconnecting with old friends. They see things as artistic and they have a little bit of a different perspective. That’s what I hear from a lot of people. They treat us like artists.” Guess what, Foley likes that.

“It’s nice. They are used to growing up with great works of art around them and they are interested in the culture of the blues and jazz.”

Playing in Ottawa is a welcome homecoming, she said. “It’s where my family is, where my parents grew up. It holds an important place in my heart.”

“The first gig was The Downstairs Club at San Antonio Rose; that’s where we hung out. We played Bluesfest when it was a small festival. I do remember being there early on.

“My first schooling in the blues was in Ottawa. It was a really vibrant scene then and it was sort of a reflection of the scene worldwide at the time or at least in North America.

“I hear similar stories from other people. There were a lot more clubs of course and all the old guys were still alive,” she said.

“We grew up watching these guys firsthand, people like James Cotton and Albert Collins. The first blues show I saw in Ottawa was with James Cotton. It changed my life.”

She said she found the blues to be uplifting.

“People think the blues is depressing, that it’s sad. But the blues is about the human experience and when you stand together with a group of people in a room sharing that experience and the performer knows how to dig into those places, it’s magical. I have had that happen to me many times and that experience has kept me going.

“For me personally, any music that is worth its weight has the blues in it.”

That’s why she remains am enthusiastic and devoted student of the music.

She is also interested in the experience of other professional female musicians, specifically those who play the guitar.

To that end she has been interviewing players from all genres — classical, jazz, blues and rock — for two decades. The goal is to produce a book and she’s getting close.

“I have picked it up and put it down. I have been trying to get it organized this year and get the damn book out. I am not a professional writer. There is so much information that I’m a little lost in it. But I am back at it now.”

She’s been helped by the focus created by a monthly column in Guitar Player Magazine called The Foley Files.

“It’s getting me inspired to put it in book form.”

She is doing it because she’s curious about their experiences. “Also there wasn’t any really solid documentation of this stuff. I thought somebody should put it together and why not me. I’m one of them.

“There are people I have cold-called that I didn’t know. I think there was a level of trust” because she’s a player herself.

“I do try to support female musicians as a role model and teaching about some of the role models who have influenced me.”

She is still playing her famous pink Fender guitar. After three decades, “it’s still hanging in there.”

These days Foley is based in Austin, Texas. It is the place she wanted to go.

“I was really into Texas blues and I was determined to go to Austin. As it turned out, I got a recording deal down there.”

She wanted to learn more.

“Texas Blues has a ballsy thing. At the time the Fabulous Thunderbirds were coming out and I just like the sound. I liked the Texas shuffle. It’s a certain kind of beat. It’s dance-oriented blues. It’s open. It’s soulful not too busy. It has a cool vibe.

“To really learn it, I felt that I had to go there and sit with those players. And I really think I did learn and I’m still there, still learning. I sit down and watch Jimmie Vaughan all the time and I sit in with him whenever I can. When Billy Gibbons comes through town, we hang out.

“We have a little band called The Jungle Show that we do once a year with Jimmie and Billy, Chris Layton and Mike Flanigin. I’m honoured to be rubbing shoulders with these guys that they respect me enough to let me play with them. I definitely learn something every time I get on stage with them or watch them.”

Austin has grown a lot, Foley said, adding “it’s still a cool place.”

The Ice Queen was released about a year ago. Before that she took some time off from solo records and worked on projects with Roxanne Potvin and Deborah Coleman and then with roots musician Peter Karp.

These days she’s back pursuing her solo career. She’s working on a musical project around the book on female guitarists and a new Sue Foley album plus other collaborations, “I can’t talk about. I have a lot of energy right now and I’m in good place with my craft. Life experience has a lot to do with it. You can’t fake that; it only happens with time.”

Sue Foley
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Videotron Stage
When: July 9 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.