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Purple House: An Interview with Ryan Madora

Ryan Madora
Photo by Anna Haas

If you’ve been reading No Treble at all for the past seven years, you’ve probably read the work of Ryan Madora. Her popular columns run the gamut from mastering the blues to understanding your instrument to bass players you should know. If you haven’t heard her play yet, you need to check out Robben Ford’s latest album, Purple House.

Robben Ford: Purple HouseThe effort is a bit of a different flavor for the guitar virtuoso, leaning more on the songwriting aspect with an emphasis on production. Catchy hooks, melodic riffs, and adventurous forms make it an album that will stick with you. “I’m always pushing myself with each record. I haven’t made one record that sounded like the one before it and this was going to be no different. Purple House was a great opportunity to try something really different,” Ford says.

Madora anchors the majority of the album with the exception for three tracks. One listen and it’s obvious she practices what she preaches in her columns. Her bass lines provide just the right accompaniment, adding tasteful flourishes only to propel the groove, while utilizing her rich tone to add depth to the tracks. For evidence, just check out “Bound for Glory” and “Tangle With Ya.”

Of course, a huge part of Madora’s bass DNA is her tone. Her love of classic blues and soul music permeates her musical aura and as such informs her sound. Seeing the Blues Brothers movies and the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” documentary early in her playing gave her heroes like Donald “Duck” Dunn, James Jamerson, and Bob Babbitt. Further investigation led her to fall in love with the Muscle Shoals sound, especially the bass playing of David Hood. (Check out her interview with Hood.)

A Philadelphia native, she moved to the Nashville scene six years ago to expand her horizons. Since then she’s worked with Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, Pat McGlaughlin, Chelsea Bain, and many more. She’s even been able to back up Garth Brooks, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bently, Carrie Underwood, Marren Morris, and Hanson. You can also catch her in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons of the hit TV show Nashville.

We reached Madora for an interview as she was preparing for an upcoming European tour with Ford in support of Purple House. This isn’t the first time she’s been overseas with him: after joining his band a year ago, they flew to Asia.

How was it touring Japan with him last year?

That was insane. They treated us so well over there. We did China, too, so we played the Blue Note in Beijing and then a show in Taiwan and then we went to Japan. We were there for a week because we did a couple shows at the Blue Note and a few at the Cotton Club. The audiences there are really appreciative and love it. This will be my first time going to Europe to tour, though.

How are you preparing for that?

Well I need to go and buy a jacket. [laughs] I’m learning Italian. I’m terrible at learning languages, but now I can ask for two croissants and a cappuccino in Italian. That’s the phrase I’ll use the most.

As far as actual preparation, I’m just playing songs and learning a little more of Robben’s material in case he pulls something out. He has thousands of records so it’s almost impossible to learn his whole catalog. I’m also focusing on soloing. A lot of what I’ve done since moving to Nashville is just learning songs to play, typically cover songs. I’m rarely required to have my own voice in the music, so a lot of what I’m practicing right now is technique and soloing over changes to make sure those chops are back in line for when he points at me on stage.

That’s a whole other world isn’t it?

Yeah. I used to do that a lot more in the past, but haven’t as much since moving here because it’s so song oriented and, especially as a bass player, it’s all performer-oriented so you don’t get to have a lot of personality when you’re playing.

How are you beefing up for that?

I’ll use the iReal Pro backing tracks or I’ll just play along to some jams I know – just something kind of cliché like “Watermelon Man” – or something where someone else is soloing so I can cop a line from a sax or something. Then I’ll figure out how they work over the changes and try to integrate it on my own. I’m also listening to other blues recordings because I kind of live in that world. I’m just practicing to changes and giving myself the freedom to experiment so when it’s time to pull something off live, it’s there.

Does he give you a list of tunes to expect, or does he call it on the fly?

There’s been a pretty standard set list. There’s been maybe 15-20 songs that we’ll have and he’ll say which ones we’ll do for the night. Every once in a while he’ll say, “Hey, do you know this song?” I’ll say, “I can listen to it right now!” Then that will be worked into the set. So we’ll stick to a set list and then every few days he’ll ask us to check out a tune and work through it in soundcheck.

The album is sweet. It’s not what I expected, because it’s much more singer-songwriter based than I thought it would be. Was it recorded after you had been touring with him for a while?

I started playing with Robben in October of last year. We did the run in Asia and while we were there he sat us down to tell us about doing the next record. We had only worked up a couple of the tunes. “Tangle With Ya,” “Bound for Glory,” and “Empty Handed” were songs we started playing on the road that he had written by that point. Some of them have changed since then, but for the most part the arrangements are the same. We recorded those, plus he brought more songs to the session we had never played before. He also experimented with a lot of other things.

The concept for this record was two-fold, I think. First was to have it focused on the current touring band, which is why [drummer] Derrek Phillips and I got to play on a lot of it. The other was that Robben has been intensely listening to the Alabama Shakes album, Sound & Color. He really enjoys the production style of it so with his record he wanted to be more playful and experimental with production and working in the studio. He wanted to use different sounds and sonic textures as opposed to saying, “Here’s the band, here’s the song.”

What did that mean for you?

Part of it was the fact that we would go in and play the song, then they would sit with it for a couple days before perhaps calling me back. They might say, “Hey, I think we want to rerecord this track. Can you use this kind of bass?” or “We want to change the key down a half-step.” For a song like “Tangle With Ya,” we had it pretty much set and it was straight forward. For other songs, there would be more manipulation and focus on what they wanted it to sound like in the long run. It was a bit challenging because you had to adjust to different keys, to working with material that was still being flushed out, and to tracks that didn’t have vocals yet. It was pretty cool, but it was a very different way of working from what is the Nashville thing these days where you have a four-hour session to do four songs with charts. With this, we were all hanging out in one room. Robben was sitting three feet away from me and showing me the changes. There were no charts and no melodies so it was challenging to wrap my head around [it]. Then a couple days later I’d come back and adjust after they decided what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to change.

Was there a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor?

No. It wasn’t that the songs would change… For a song like “Cotton Candy,” that ended up being a synth bass tune. I didn’t play on that one because we started out tracking it and they decided to go in a different direction with it. If you listen to it, there are notes on it that go lower than a five-string. They just ended up using different sounds from what could be done on a traditional bass. They were going for an interpretation of Robben’s music that was different from what had been done before. He likes to focus on making every record sound different and represent a different band and sound, which is super cool.

When you’re jamming with him in the studio, was he giving you a lot of direction with the bass lines or was he just playing chords and asking you to figure it out?

Sometimes he’ll straight up tell me what he wants the bass part to be, but I know that with that I have the freedom to throw in a little bit of my own personality here and there. That would happen after the song opened up a little bit. They would say, “Why don’t you try something more percussive there?” or “Try doing something with more of a Motown feel.” That gave me the freedom to play around with it.

A lot of it came from the combination of working with Robben and Casey Wasner, who was the co-producer. Casey was the one that put the band together in the first place. We used his studio an hour outside of Nashville. Robben, Casey, and myself all influenced the bass parts and it somehow came [together] into one part. Its a fun way to work because sometimes you’ll be in the studio with an artist and they’ll have no idea what they want. Sometimes they’ll say it’s great and sometimes they’ll say, “Let’s try something else.” That’s great, too, because sometimes it’s good to know what they don’t want to hear. A lot of this record was creating something that wasn’t commonplace. They wanted something that was a little different and more creative.

Can you tell me about the gear you used for the record? I saw you posted a picture of a whole stack of basses.

I used a couple different basses, mostly a beat up 1983 Fender P-Bass with flatwounds and then some with my Mike Lull P-bass. I’ve got Aguilar pickups in that one. I also have a Fender Mustang that is tuned a half-step down. A lot of the songs were in Eb and Ab, plus Robben had some guitars tuned a half-step down, too. I used a Neve DI and my tricked-out Aguilar pedalboard for fun sounds. That’s pretty much all we used. We recorded most of it at Casey’s studio, Purple House, but we also went down to FAME in Muscle Shoals one day.

Was that just to test it out?

I think it came from a couple places. One is that it was only two hours away, so why wouldn’t we go do it? Second, Casey recently produced a record with another group that went down there. They had a really good experience, so Robben said, “That sounds fun. Why don’t we do that?” It was like a fun band field trip. We all got in a van with our stuff and set up. It was like the best version of summer camp I could imagine.

What was it like at FAME?

For me, it was a special moment because I’ve always been obsessed with that genre of music, the players that made a living down there, and the songs that came out of that studio in particular as well as the Jackson Highway one. It was a surreal experience knowing that so many of the records that influenced me were recorded there. That’s the same room where Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett tracked. Those were such huge records for me that I felt I had to do it justice.

We went in to set up and made our little nook. That’s always a fun thing in session. You set up your little spot so you can see everybody. The cool thing about tracking there is that the main tracking room is quite large so we can all be in that one room together. That’s important for tracking something that wants to have a full band feel. Having the rhythm section in the same room makes a difference. If nothing else, I want to see the drummer. That makes a big difference, especially for ending the song. Everybody is playing a click anyway, but there are still differences in the way we feel time. At the end of a song if there’s a particular hit, it’s really helpful to be able to see.

On cool thing about working with Derrek is that we’re buddies. I met him on a gig five or six years ago, now. It’s the kind of thing where he’ll play something then I’ll play something and we’ll both look at each and smile because we know we’re feeling the same thing or we surprised each other. To be able to have that on stage is awesome, but it’s important to have in the studio, too. It’s also easier to communicate. If you’re talking about the song, everyone can just take their headphones off instead of meeting in the control room.

What else do you have coming up?

We’re doing a European tour with a few dates in the Netherlands, then we go to France for ten days and then we finish up with two weeks in Italy. We’ll see what happens after that. There are two other projects I am working on that I’m really excited about. One is with an artist named Kyshona Armstrong, who is just the real deal in terms of talent and songwriting and groove. Her music is really soulful with mindful lyrics. She’s got a new record that’s going to come out in the first part of next year. Another record that I’ve been producing is with an artist named Craig Haller, who is a fantastic songwriter and also happens to be my husband [laughs]. We’ve been co-producing it in a way that plays to our individual strengths, but I got to call the band and enlist some of my favorite players in town. Derrek is on that record as well and it will be released in 2019.

And, as always, I’ve been writing for No Treble!