Boogie-woogie piano, swamp rock, bluesy ballads and zydeco all went into the gumbo that was Marcia Ball’s tenth studio album, “Peace, Love and BBQ.” This interview took place after the release of that album.
Ball’s voice was featured prominently on the release. “Peace, Love and BBQ” also marked the return of Tracy Nelson who sang on Ball’s 1998 album, “Sing It” which also featured Irma Thomas, a blues singer idolized by both Ball and Nelson.
The following questions focused on Ball’s smoky voice.
Myers: A lot has been said about your piano skills and your songwriting skills. I’d like to focus on another one of your talents—your singing. The All Music Blog points out that Steven Bruton’s production on “Peace, Love, and BBQ” keeps the sound open to highlight the voice in the mix. Is that something you did on purpose?
Ball: Yeah, it’s something we try to do and I have to also give credit to our engineer, Chet Himes, who is a master of sensitive engineering and mixing. It’s a team effort when you get to the refining. The end of the refinement process of making a record, and the mix, is very important or you bury good things in the mix. Chet does not do that.
Myers: It seems also that it’d be tricky to do that when piano and horns are so prominent, since they are in the same range as a voice.
Ball: Yeah, we put a lot in a record. There’s a lot of layers and so it’s very tricky to not have one thing overwhelm another.
Myers: USA Today referred to you as a “sensational, saucy singer.” I’ve also read your voice described as being soulful and husky. What goes into your vocal approach to a song?
Ball: I guess part of what I do is try to find songs that work for this kind of fractured voice of mine. I try to find songs that I’m really sure that I can do—that are true to me, so that I can deliver them, so that I can sing them sincerely. If you can do that, if you can deliver the message, then the singing part of it comes very naturally.
Myers: Are there certain kinds of songs where you know, “OK, that’s going to work well with my voice” and others that you think might not be a good match for you voice?
Ball: A lot of times, I don’t know what’s gonna’ happen until I just get in there and do it and sometimes we let something go…For the most part, I pretty much know what I’m going to record and just go in and do it. I prepare for these things for a long time in advance. So I try to get my songs in line and hopefully, I have been singing them for a while. Sometimes we get something at the last minute, but pretty often I’ve been writing these songs for a little while, or listening to them or singing them live. I think the best work I do sometimes is a surprise. We had songs that we just needed one more song to fill out the record and we’ll pull something out of our repertoire and it turns out that it is one of the better songs on the record.
Myers: When you’re singing live, do you have favorite songs to sing?
Ball: Well, when we do a show, I worry about this a little bit, because we start with the same three songs in many shows. That is because it’s my warm-up. I haven’t been professionally trained, so I don’t have a vocal warm-up back stage where I’m running scales or anything. The first three songs I sing are the same songs that I do almost every night to start with, and that’s what warms me up. I have to be kind of careful not to throw something out there that I’m not ready for at the very beginning of a set.
Myers: Does the way you sing affect the way you play piano?
Ball: Yeah, I think so. My piano playing supports my singing and—to about the same extent—my singing supports my piano playing. I’m actually used to doing both at the same time and I lean on one to support the other. Basically, what I say is, I sing well enough to accompany my playing and I play well enough to accompany my singing.
Myers: Can you give me an example?
Ball: Well, sometimes I find that if I’m doing a song like “Sing It,” for instance, from that record that I did with Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson, or any of my up-tempo kind of jump tunes, sometimes my piano playing is as frantic as my singing. I’m doing both at the same time and it’s full speed ahead and the energy feeds on itself.
Myers: Tracy Nelson is on “Sing It” and she’s on the new album too. What is it about your voices that works well together?
Ball: I don’t know. It’s a miracle that it does at all. Tracy’s got that huge voice. When I did that record with her and Irma Thomas, I wondered if I was going to be heard with those big voices, and it just worked. We made it work.
Myers: How did you decide who would sing what on that album?
Ball: Well, we’re all tenors to some degree, but Tracy has the lowest voice and Irma definitely has the mid, and if I try real hard, I can hit a higher note. So, that’s what we did. None of us were singing real high though, I guarantee you.
Myers: How did you all come together to record “Sing It?”
Ball: We were all on Rounder Records at the time, as I recall. Ever since I had done the record that I did with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton back a ways, Rounder had hoped to have a project like that for us [Thomas, Nelson and Ball]. So we did. Tracy was a big fan of Irma’s as was I. Tracy had heard her when she was just starting out playing music, and had sought her out. So we were both big fans of Irma’s. It was really an opportunity for us to work with her.