Foy Vance Interview: ‘From Muscle Shoals’, ‘To Memphis’ Navigate Complex American Musical Landscape
Listening to Foy Vance's latest two albums, From Muscle Shoals (released on June 28) and To Memphis, out Friday (Sept. 6), is like listening to two sides of the same record. In fact, the singer says, he recorded both projects one after another, hopping from one iconic recording studio (Muscle Shoals, Ala.'s FAME Studios) to the next (Memphis, Tenn.'s Sun Studios), and initially conceived of the work as two EPs, each one steeped in the history-rich city where it was made.
"Five tracks, that was the plan. So I had only picked five songs for From Muscle Shoals," Vance recounts to The Boot. "So we record for two days, we mix for one day, and then I was going to drive to Memphis, record for two days, mix for one day, with the Americana songs [for To Memphis]."
One he began the recording process, though, Vance realized that he might not be able to cap the projects at five songs apiece. "FAME Studios was so killer. Such great form. And I knew the next batch of songs would be a lot easier for me vocally," he continues. "So when we got to Memphis, we cut all these songs in two days, and when we looked back at it at the end, I was like, 'That's an album!'"
"Soul, R&B, and country music and bluegrass are all related to me. They just all feel like they're in the same family."
After consulting with his label manager, the singer decided to make an additional stop in Muscle Shoals to flesh out the first project, resulting in two full-length records. While they're separate projects, with separate regional connotations and musical dialects, Vance says the two albums both spawned from the same question.
"I've been interviewing other people about Americana, and what is Americana -- what it actually f--king means. And nobody really knows," he deadpans. "But to me, it's just sort of the '50s, '60s, '70s in American music, which, by the way, was when people immigrated here from all parts of the world.
"Those three decades changed the face of music -- you know, changed the face of what was going on from rock 'n' roll to the country explosion, the blues to bluegrass, and then getting into psychedelia," Vance continues. "Soul, R&B, and country music and bluegrass are all related to me. They just all feel like they're in the same family."
FAME Studios and Sun Studios are two important stops on the journey through American music during those decades. Each a potent musical stronghold, the studios teem with history, and Vance experienced several powerful moments when the full weight of the locations hit him. At FAME, these moments often came from the people he recorded with, many of whom were the same session musicians that cut iconic hits with artists such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.
"When we were recording the song called "Pain Never Hurt Me Like Love," I looked out the window, and it was like I had time traveled," Vance recalls. "Because I was singing the song with Spooner Oldham at the same Wurlitzer in the same room where he came up with the riff for [Franklin's] "I Never Loved a Man."
"It was just one of those flash moments where I was like, 'Holy s--t. He's still here, at the same piano. And I'm getting to sing with it. It's incredible.' He's a beautiful guy, just a wonderful spirit," he continues.
When he ventured west to Memphis, Vance goes on to say, Sun Studios hummed with energy. "You walk into it and you feel it -- you know where you are," he relates. "You can really sense it, especially if you're a musician or a music fan ... So much cool s--t went down there. The space has been kept, you know, upstairs, where Elvis would have gone and hung out. [There are] a bunch of burns on the table from where Johnny Cash left his cigarettes."
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Muscles Shoals' music is marked by the influence of Rick Hall, FAME's founder, who was notoriously demanding in the studio, pushing already virtuosic performers to the very limits of their skill. Vance says he could still sense that energy and stress when he recorded there.
"F--kin' Rick Hall would have driven those singers to distraction, would have had them sing it 120 times," he points out, adding that the singing style of Memphis came to him a bit more naturally. "I knew it was going to be a lot gentler, and we could pace it out a bit."
Beyond the studio's link to all the music that he grew up loving, there was another reason that Sun felt like home: "The songs [I recorded in Memphis] made me feel a little bit like my dad, in a good way," the singer says. "My dad's a little bit of a crooner, you know, so when I got to sing songs like "Have Me Maria," I just felt like my dad. And they're so easy to sing."
At the heart of both albums is the sense that Americana music, in all its forms, is interwoven, and perhaps even interdependent. No matter the genre, Vance asserts, the music all comes from the same basic origins.
"Like, for instance, let me say this: I think the most soulful singer in the world is Willie Nelson," he offers. Though Nelson may not be what people think of when they think of a soul singer, soul in this case is not so much a style, but a way of being.
"Listen to him. Listen to his phrasing. Listen to how he falls on his notes. Listen to how he chooses to start and end," Vance adds. "That's not a choice. That's just soul."
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