By ERIC SCHELKOPF
I had the chance to talk to founder Johnny Iguana about the band and its latest album, “The Claudettes Go Out!” Iguana, 2021 Blues Music Award nominee for piano player of the year and 2022 Living Blues Award nominee for most outstanding musician (keyboard), first gained attention for being the pianist for the legendary Junior Wells.
Q – You are an in demand musician. Do you feel honored to be in demand?
There's a few things. Number one, I got hired by Junior Wells when I was 23 and I moved out to Chicago. He was a hero of mine and a hero to many and that got me better known than I would have been if I had a more linear rise within the music business.
I went from playing in a band in Philadelphia and New York to all of a sudden touring the world with one of the greatest living blues heroes. And so then I got introduced to a lot of people and got to tour with Otis Rush, who was another favorite of mine when I was a teenager.
I got in my first blues band when I was just old enough to drive. We would play three sets a night, all white kids in a black part of Philadelphia.
We were too fast and too loud, but people recognized our enthusiasm and our love for the music.
I do get a lot of good compliments from good musicians and I think what they're appreciating in me is just how many hours I put into it and how much I've learned along the way.
Q – So as far as the name of the band's latest album, I would imagine it's a reference to everything being locked down when the pandemic first hit, including music venues. Do you view this record as being the best thing to come out of the pandemic?
The album title seems to suggest the lost pleasure of being able to go out over these last few years when we were all staying in. And so I rented a party bus and we took a photo shoot dressed up and going out on the town.
So there's that on the surface. But to be honest, it's really hard to keep a band together.
Bands are really ships passing in the night. The four of us have probably been together for five years now.
And I think that's kind of an amazing achievement. So with the title “The Claudettes Go Out!", I almost printed on the disc itself or on the back, "with a bang."
I just felt like it's very possible that this will be our last album, this will be our final statement. I wrote it kind of as a note to myself.
I felt like this album was a really special, really great album with a lot of emotion in it. It was kind of done in two stages, where we did it piecemeal, COVID style, recording parts separately and assembling them and then the other half we were able to play in the studio together.
And yet the tracks mix and match really great I was worried about the cohesiveness of it, but I think the tracks play great together.
Q – You have said the album is the band's best effort to date. Why do you think it is the band's best effort?
I think it's a stunner because of the craftsmanship of the songs, the performances and the emotion in it.
The delivery of emotions and ideas to the listener is really clean and effective on this record.
Q – In forming The Claudettes in 2010 with drummer Michael Caskey, what were your goals? What do you think Berit Ulseth has added since you asked her to join the band in 2016?
Initially, I was inspired by these '60s recordings by Otis Spann and S.P. Leary that were just piano and drums. Michael and I listen to a lot of jazz and soul and R&B and I grew up playing punk music and I kind of wanted all of that in there.
The first recordings we made, I kind of called it cosmic cartoon music and I thought it kind of sounded like old bluesy, vaudeville, burlesque kind of a sound.
And then I met Berit at a time where she was singing backup in a band but someone had told me that she was a really special singer. And she hadn't really been the lead singer of a band.
She came over to my house and did some demos and right away I heard it and said, 'Oh, there's something here.'
She had to step up into the spotlight. It's different than singing backup.
Over time, she's gone from reluctantly getting up there to I think really owning the stage.