Joe Bonamassa has worshipped British blues and rock ‘n’ roll for as long as he can remember. When he was around 12, he raided his father’s vinyl collection, which introduced him to – among other things – different aspects of the U.K.’s musical output.
He began listening to some of England’s finest six-string exports – namely Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – as he started pursuing his own career in music. “The British were my gateway into the blues,” says Bonamassa, who even dedicated an entire 2016 U.K. tour to his British guitar heroes.
Some of that tour’s highlights – including Bonamassa’s scorching takes on the Jeff Beck Group’s Let Me Love You,” Cream’s SWLABR and Led Zeppelin’s How Many More Times – can be heard on 2018’s British Blues Explosion Live.
That same year, right around the time we called Bonamassa to discuss British Blues Explosion Live, the guitarist joined former Whitesnake six-stringer Bernie Marsden, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker and ex-Cream lyricist Pete Brown (who cowrote SWLABR with Jack Bruce) for a rollicking session at London’s Abbey Road Studios, the hallowed ground where the Beatles and Pink Floyd – among countless other artists – tracked their masterpieces.
Bonamassa fondly recalls that original session, which wound up being the last time he saw Baker, who died October 6, 2019. (“It was, as you would expect, as advertised,” he says.)
He enjoyed it so much that he began talking with Marsden and Brown about doing it again. “[I said], what would it be like if I came over and kind of camped out in London – and we wrote a record? I’d made the last couple of records in Nashville. And I thought, maybe if I come to England, [it would] change the sound a little bit – or at least change my headspace. It was a bucketlist thing that I really wanted to do.”
Bonamassa, Marsden and Brown reconvened with producer Kevin Shirley in London in January 2020 to write and record Bonamassa’s bluesy new album – Royal Tea, released October 23 via J&R Adventures – at Abbey Road.
Joining them was Bonamassa’s touring band, including drummer Anton Fig, bassist Michael Rhodes and former Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans.
Bonamassa co-wrote with Marsden, Brown and former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, who also plays on the album.
“Writing this record in London has done its job,” Bonamassa says. “It really does sound inherently British. Bernie and I, we finish each other’s sentences. We’re cut from the same cloth.”
Recording at Abbey Road
While it was easy to be in awe of such a storied studio, Bonamassa was laser-focused on the mission at hand: capturing a British-sounding record.
“Abbey Road is happy to show you the John Lennon microphone, the McCartney mic, the piano Hey Jude was cut on, the console The Dark Side of the Moon was recorded on,” he says.
“But you can get overwhelmed. You can just go, ‘Oh my God, this is where John Lennon had a tomato-and-cheese toastie.’ It’s great for history, it’s great as a fan. But when you’re there recording and you have a mission, you have to kind of detach yourself from that and just go, ‘Okay, we’re in a recording studio to make a record.’”
They recorded on and off for five weeks, during which time Bonamassa considered Abbey Road his home office. While recording,he focused on two guitar tones that helped shape the record – a “bitey” sound courtesy of a Fender Telecaster and a “real dark” Gibson Les Paul tone.
“It’s like when you’re painting landscapes – the sky is always blue,” he says. “You just have those outlines and then you fill them in sonically.” In something of a “full circle” moment, Royal Tea arrives on the heels of A New Day Now, a remixed, remastered and resung version of Bonamassa’s debut album, 2000’s A New Day Yesterday. “
When I listen to [that] album, even though I re-sang it, I was just a kid who could play a little bit,” Bonamassa says. “And when I listen to [Royal Tea], there’s an artist. Like, this took 20 years. And there’s a lot more to it than just being able to play.
“When I listen to the first album, as much as people like that record, the tempos are quick. I was just this kid who didn’t really have direction, although [producer] Tom Dowd did the best he could with what he had. It’s a 20-year bookend.”
Below, Bonamassa discusses Royal Tea – part two of that bookend – track by track.
When One Door Opens
“I wrote When One Door Opens with Kevin Shirley and Pete Brown, but it started off as a Pete Brown lyric. I had a B-bender Tele with me in London; I was messing around with it and I stumbled upon this riff and thought, This is pretty cool!' I started singing the lyric Pete had sent over and it fit with what I wrote, and then the chorus kind of lifted it.“
“I owe a credit to Piers Morgan. I wrote that song the day Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the royal family. I was having breakfast in my room before heading to the session, and Piers Morgan was on Good Morning Britain, ranting and raving about the hypocrisy of royalty. He kept saying the word 'royalty.'
“And as I’m in the cab on the way over to the studio, it just started reverberating, and I started to think about hypothetical ways the whole situation could play out – not in a good way, obviously. A blues song. By the time I got to the studio, I had this idea for the chorus. We knew it was the title track as soon as we had it.“
Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye
“That's one I wrote with Bernie Marsden. I think it’s one of the better songs I’ve been involved in for a minute. It’s obviously inspired by Gary Moore, but it’s also very topical, something I was living through at the moment. Bernie had this great knack.
“If I brought him something, I’d ask him, 'What would the British do?' He’d be like, No, no, you’ve got to go to the minor fifth' or something like that. But he knows those British chord changes. Because he is one – he is British! That was great because we speak the same language, but we’re coming from different continents.“
”Lookout Man! was a Pete Brown lyric. Kevin and I were messing around in the studio. We never make demos, but we made a demo for that. So we came up with this riff, then Errol Linton, a great musician in London, came in and added harmonica. I was like, 'All right, now we have a blues song!' Having blues harmonica on it really glued it together.”
High Class Girl
”That's a John Mayall-inspired song that was inspired by true events. Bernie and I were fucking around with an amp. I was showing him how good it sounded before we left, and I just kind of wrote that. We were just messing with that riff and he goes, 'Let’s write it!' And we wrote it in an hour – before dinner.“
A Conversation With Alice
”That's about my two trips to a therapist, so it’s based on true events. I figured out that being a character is better than talking myself out of being a character. It makes me good at my job. So be it. You can’t fix everyone and everything, me being one of them.”
I Didn't Think She Would Do It
”A cool lyric by Pete Brown. The idea was, if Iron Maiden and Cream did a song, like a Cream blues gallop. It’s an odd fellow, as they say. It’s a very odd fellow, that song!”
Beyond the Silence
”That was one I wrote myself on the baritone guitar. It’s about what happens to someone who lives a very fast-paced life and all of a sudden it all goes quiet. The shock to the system – kind of like what we’re going through now.”
”That's a boogie I did with Dave Stewart and Jools Holland. By that point in the record, we said what we had to say. It’s just a fun track – and Jools played great on it.”
“Bernie came in with that, but with a slightly different title. To me it sounds like Pure Prairie League; it’s the most American-sounding song on the record, so it’s odd thatBernie wrote it. I helped finish it, but it wasone of those things where you just go, 'Okay, it’s just how it works sometimes.'”
- Joe Bonamassa's Royal Tea is out now via J&R Adventures.