Joanna Connor

Joanna Connor - Photo: © Steven I. Wolf

On October 15th, 1985, cameras rolled as the Space Shuttle Columbia carried Spacelab into orbit. On the same day, with no cameras present, an innocuous Greyhound bus carried its own precious cargo into unknown territory, rolling into Chicago with Joanna Connor on board. This quiet, undocumented moment is, in retrospect, also a momentous launch of sorts, as it was the stellar birth of an ever-evolving musical trajectory piloted by a skilled, determined artist with rockets for fingertips, celestial talent and highly combustible determination.

IGNITION: “I always had it in me from the time I was a kid that I felt that I could do anything I wanted to do, even if I was a girl…”

Joanna was born in Brooklyn on August 31, 1962 and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. From an early age, she was deeply influenced by her mother’s musical tastes, as she’s often cited Taj Mahal’s 1968 release “Giant Step” as the first record to make a significant impression on her. She received her first guitar at age seven and started studying classical music. At age ten, Joanna attended a Buddy Guy concert with her mother where she sat mesmerized on the floor in front of Buddy’s amp (a prescient moment that Joanna would eventually joke with Buddy about when she would open for him years later). At fourteen, she started playing acoustic blues guitar, taking lessons from Ron Johnson and learning slide guitar in her late teenage years. She started performing in bands at seventeen, eventually switching to blues and becoming a professional musician at nineteen. This was also the age when Joanna made a visit to Chicago that cemented her desire to live and learn in that new city.

THE GREYHOUND HAS LANDED: “I was very single minded when I was younger. I didn’t let anything stop me.”

Joanna’s arrival in Chicago opened up a new universe for her.  She trekked to all corners of the city to watch and learn from the blues artists she so loved (while braving the expected city tribulations such as the mercurial weather, as well as the unexpected ones, like a knife assault) and eventually started playing the local circuit with Johnny Littlejohn.  While she was blessed early on with the support and encouragement from such notable icons as Magic Slim, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, it was Dion Payton’s intense, melodic playing that really spoke to her.  A fortuitous encounter with Payton and Lonnie Brooks at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted led to Joanna’s tenure in his 43rd Street Blues Band, playing as a member of the house band at both the Checkerboard Lounge and Kingston Mines as well as on his legendary track “All Your Affection Is Gone” on the seminal Alligator Records release, “The New Bluebloods.”  Artists that Joanna had idolized while growing up were starting to take notice of her intense talent and by autumn of 1987, a mere two years after her arrival, she had gained the respect and notoriety warranted to begin the pursuit of her own career fronting a band.

LIFTOFF: “When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would say ‘Jimmy Page.’”

Doc Pellegrino, storied owner of Kingston Mines, was the catalyst to Joanna searching out her own band, and thus, her own voice. He saw her raw talent and wanted to give her a weekly gig at the famed club. Joanna didn’t feel ready, but now admits that this opportunity pushed her out of the nest and ultimately into the limelight. Doc gave her Tuesday nights and a month’s notice to put together a band and repertoire. The newly formed band started their residency while Joanna and her mother assembled a promo pack and started booking the band around the Midwest. Blind Pig Records signed her in 1989, and the subsequent touring for her debut album moved Joanna out of the fishbowl of the Chicago scene and into major blues venues and festivals around the U.S., Canada and Europe. The momentum swelled and she toured relentlessly, traversing the European continent an impressive thirty-two times from 1990-1999. Her travels gained her a strong legion of followers in Europe, South America and Japan, and in 2007 she became the first American artist to tour Taiwan. The pace was grueling but the payoff was ultimately worth it. Joanna was unquestionably coming into her own.

ATMOSPHERE: “Make them listen.”

Joanna’s signature sound is an amalgamation of vast influences and sheer, natural talent. Although she is typically categorized as a blues artist and is widely known for her fierce attack and searing slide skills, her style is an unconventionally convincing and potent mélange of funk, rock, jazz, world music and, of course, blues. Both her original songs and covers are marked with a full, present sound, tight arrangements and an unwavering rhythmic attitude executed flawlessly on her 1960 classic reissue Les Paul, a guitar that she said “feels like home.” (In 1990, Joanna was the first independent artist to receive an endorsement from Gibson Guitars.) As a songwriter, she keeps it simple, turning to life experience, family and world events for inspiration. Each album is essentially a time capsule, a melodic chronicle capturing her life at that time as Joanna shares her stories about motherhood, the death of her father, spirituality, love, lust and lore. Her compelling storytelling is emoted through a strong, seasoned voice, not world-weary, but instead refreshingly empowered.

(WO)MANNED EXPLORATION: “The world is coming to you.”

In recent years, Joanna’s touring has become less frequent, partially as the result of higher travel costs, but primarily because she has been able to support her two children by playing more locally, an opportunity not afforded to her in her early career. A mainstay at Kingston Mines, Joanna’s weekend shows draw in hundreds of fans. Newer generations are being captivated by her incendiary artistry, while longtime fans (many of whom have seen her as a result of her diligent and extensive touring) are able to rediscover what drew them to her in the first place, as the audiences that she worked so hard to reach out to are now reaching out to her. Her fan base has also expanded astronomically as the result of an enrapt concertgoer who captured a few moments of her performance at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in July of 2014. The video, posted in November of 2014, went viral and has been viewed upwards of sixteen million times. This unexpected surge of recent attention has baffled and thrilled this grounded, humble artist and has injected a spirit of excitement of the unknown into her career. Out of the blue, Joanna has been approached with opportunities ranging from film work to a request from “America’s Got Talent” to schedule an audition. New music is on the way, a renewed spirit has been gifted to this creative workhorse, and a rebirth of an already impressive career seems imminent.

It is quizzical that almost thirty years ago, this woman, upon entering a club in a new city was asked “Why are you here?” whereas now, this same woman, after playing clubs in the same city, is being asked “Where have you been hiding?” Perhaps the answer lies in the stars… Joanna Connor, like an undiscovered galaxy, long existed before discovery and has been here all along, hiding in plain sight. We just needed the right eyes to see her.

From Joanna’s site:

The pedals from Pigtronix are again a reflection of classic principals that have been around since Hendrix wanted to reproduce the sound his amp made “just before it died.” In both blues and rock music, the subtle (and not so subtle) use of distortion and overdrive has become something of an art-form. In any performance, pedals take a lot of harsh treatment and need to be robust and reliable, which is not always an easy combination. But there are a more enhancements from using some effects that are absolutely not distorted at all. Guitarists have always been guilty of stealing ideas that were never intended for guitar but when applied, they often add a dimension that opens up whole new class of performance.
Pigtronix keep the classic sounds alive but also use what they call F.A.T., Futuristic Analogue Technology. Yes, digital has come a long way but sound is analogue and Pigtronix retain that principal which is why those who want classic, full sound, opt for pedals that don’t lose it. FAT is a pretty accurate description of the end result that Pigtronix gives you.
Joanna has Class A Boost, Fat Drive, Philosopher’s Rock and Rototron from Pigtronix.

Q. Which pedals do you use the most?
A) “Overdrive/ distortion, chorus, delay.”

Q. How well to Pigtronix compare to others you’ve tried?
A) “Pigtronix has a much fuller spectrum sound quality.”

Q. What’s the sequence you plug the pedals in?
A) “Overdrive/ distortion, chorus, delay.”

Q. Class A Boost gives you what exactly?
A) “Class a boost delivers an increase in volume of about 25 percent.”

Q. Fat Drive does what to your sound?
A) “Fat drive is a little like a tube screamer but sounds much more high end.”

Q. What does Philosopher’s Rock add to it?
A) “Philosopher’s Rock, ah, that is my fat, shredding sound!”

Q. Rototron, what sort of sound do you aim for from that and what settings?
A) “Rototron gives me that Stevie Ray type low frequency, B3 Leslie effect.”
(B3 is a reference to the Hammond organ, an example of guitarists using things never intended for the guitar! Handy thing about this pedal being of course that the Rototron doesn’t need two roadies to move it.)