october 2009

Dani Wilde: Standing with other young female blues artists of the day who are broadening the genre's lexicon to include a specific feminine viewpoint on relationships, personal aspirations and contemporary social concerns.

Wilde One
Dani Wilde sees the bigger picture beyond her killer blues
By David McGee

To say that at age 21 British blues newcomer Dani Wilde is a young woman with big ambitions is to be guilty of understatement. Her debut album, Heal My Blues, on Ruf Records, is quite the calling card—a real tour de force of strong writing, affecting singing and potent electric guitar stylings that places her squarely in the upper tier of impressive young female blues artists suddenly cropping up like vivid sunflowers on the musical landscape.

But there is much more to Dani Wilde's raison d'etre than her remarkable artistry. After receiving her 1st Class BA honors degree in music from the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, this Wiltshire lass continued a mission she had begun as part of her degree dissertation, and it has now taken on the feel of a life's work.

Specifically, she is central to an effort to upgrade the facilities of Embu, Kenya's County Primary School. She began traveling to Embu while still in school, and her fund raising efforts and personal work in bringing music education to the school itself through her Children of Kenya Foundation have already made a difference. Check the video below of Wilde leading the schoolchildren in song, and take note of the joy in their faces, the light in their eyes. Take note too of the building they're in—through Wilde's efforts, enough money has been raised to renovate two classrooms "from top to bottom," as she says. And as she explains it, more was needed than music education, because more than education was lacking in the school.

Dani Wilde, Will Wilde (harmonica) and her Kenyan friends from Primary County School, Embu, perform Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 'Up Above My Head'

"All sorts of things have happened," she said in a chirpy British accent on the phone at the end of her first U.S. tour in August. "Initially it was just getting them descant recorders, so they could have a recorder group. From there it went on to guitars and drums and a trumpet, all sorts of things like that. But having been to the school and realizing they were loving the opportunity to have a music education, I found they really needed basic things as well. So now, every year, we're trying to keep them stocked with pens and paper, reading and writing materials, calculators, rulers, erasers, all those basic things they haven't got. And we've done things like laying down concrete floors and putting in proper windows, bookcases, chairs, also a water tank so children can wash their hands after having used the toilets, which has made a huge difference in the amount of kids that were out of school sick, just by educating them in washing their hands.

"So the next thing we're doing over there is putting in a proper working toilet block because right now they've just got a hole in the ground, one for the boys, one for the girls, shared by the 800 kids at the primary school. No toilet paper, it's really unhygienic. There are a lot of kids that get sick at that school, so hopefully the new toilet block will make a big difference."

If this seems like a lot to have accomplished at so tender an age, the pace of her music career is similarly accelerated. It was only seven years ago, when she was 14 and still in the early stages of her development as a musician, that a visit to the U.K.'s Bishopstock Blues Festival essentially altered the course of her life. Encouraged from childhood by music loving parents who raised her on classic blues and '60s rock and soul—"I always loved the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson," she says—she took up the guitar at age 11, not to be "a flashy lead guitar player" but instead to pursue a driving desire to write songs, which led her to Bob Dylan.

"Initially I just learned all the Bob Dylan songs, and I used to play rack harmonica as well," she says. "So that's how I started gigging; when I was about 13 years old I was already playing a lot of local pub gigs in Wiltshire, playing these Bob Dylan songs."

(Asked if she weren't a bit young to be playing pubs then, she giggles. "See, in England, you are old enough," she corrects her correspondent. "In England you can get into a pub pretty much at any age, but obviously you have to show the ID to drink, but not to play.")

Dani Wilde, 'I Love You More Than I Hate Myself,' from her debut album, Heal My Blues; this performance was recorded live at Keighley Blues Club on 27 February 2009.

Then, at 14, came that fateful visit to Bishopstock. "That was the first time I saw young contemporary artists playing the blues—more important, young contemporary female artists. I got to see Deborah Coleman, got to see Sue Foley, Shemekiah Copeland and the one who really had an impact on me, Susan Tedeschi. After I saw her play I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life."

Although at that point she was still consumed by Dylan, she had begun investigating the deep blues and incorporating into her repertoire songs by Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Following the festival she formed her first blues band, hiring an electric guitar player in her stead while she concentrated on vocals because she thought her own skills on the instrument were in need of more polish. Susan Tedeschi covers made it into the set list then, along with original material and older blues. Then one of her music teachers introduced her to British folk legend Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span, who enlisted Wilde initially as a backup vocalist, then in short order (after hearing her original songs) as an opening act at a sold-out show at The Wyvern Theatre, Swindon. The audience response was over the top, prompting Wilde to step up her efforts at self-promotion and booking while at Brighton as she began to make a name for herself on the blues circuit. Upon graduation, she found her music degree was good for little more than teaching. But she detoured around academia and, for reasons that seem still to perplex her, took a part-time job in real estate while haunting London by night, playing any club that would have her, performing as a solo acoustic act because she couldn't afford to pay a band.

"I was really struggling to do it all," she recalls. "But working in property and working in an office really made me know I didn't want to spend my life doing that and gave me the push to record the best demo I could and get together a much better band than I had before and really pushing and getting out there. That was how I ended up doing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall opening up for Jools Holland, just by making sure my name was everywhere. Opportunities were offered to me then."

She sent off her strikingly packaged demo to a slew of blues labels in the U.S. and Europe, and of five responses, two were "seriously interested." She wound up signing with Michael Ruf's (pronounced "roof") Ruf Records, and for that she can thank herself for standing out from the pack of unsolicited demos the label usually receives. "(Michael) said he normally wouldn't open unsolicited material, but because my package was bright pink with my photo on the front, he knew it was a female guitar player and that was exactly what he was looking for, so he decided to unwrap the package; then he came to see my band play at a festival in England. Luckily for me he liked it and we went from there."

Dani Wilde, 'Bring Your Loving Home,' video for first track on debut album, Heal My Blues

Heal My Blues, recorded quickly and cleanly in Germany (Ruf's home base) with producer Mike Griot, and was released in the U.K. in 2008, but did not see the light of day on these shores until this past summer, owing to the lack of touring opportunities for Ms. Wilde. Her first tour as a Ruf artist was as part of a package billed as Blues Caravan, with fellow artists Candye Kane and Deborah Coleman, the resulting CD of which marked her first appearance on record and the American leg of which was her introduction to U.S. audiences.

As a debut, Heal My Blues is most impressive. She may have been born and raised in Wiltshire, but on record Wilde sounds like she grew up at various times on Chicago's South Side and in the dark heart of the Mississippi Delta, maybe with a pit stop along the way in Motown. Like a number of outstanding female artists emerging in the blues field in recent years, she's not averse to mixing in with her blues some country ingredients and hard driving rock 'n' roll (one such example of the latter is the furious, unrelenting title track, the second cut on this disc, which features not only a fiercely rocking rhythm track but also a gritty vocal by Wilde made doubly appealing by her unself-conscious squeals at a couple of junctures that arise not by design but by the sheer intensity of her immersion in the moment). The young lady who once judged herself too unschooled to play electric lead onstage with her band here emerges as a heck of a picker, as any number of solo spotlights prove, with a lot of Buddy Guy's searing attack in her own elegantly crafted excursions. And not least of all, Wilde leaves no emotional stone unturned as a singer—Heal My Blues may be one of the most draining blues records you'll ever hear, owing to the electrifying, gripping vocals Wilde unleashes. "I Love You More Than I Hate Myself" rises from a whisper to a roar, and the point at which Wilde unburdens herself of the pain consuming her and cries to the heavens has the primeval punch of a certain Mr. Plant back in the Zep's heyday. That's nothing, though, compared to her intense declaiming in the southern soul-drenched "Testify," an outright message song protesting the use of children as soldiers in Third World countries, a bit of topicality that predates but is directly related to the other part of her education, in Kenya. More message songs should have the forcefulness and urgency of "Testify." The band stomps and grinds behind her, with her brother Will Wilde moaning and wailing on harmonica as Dani spits out the lyrics with arresting conviction—you don't need to go back and listen again to get the message when she vocally pokes you in the chest and shouts, "So don't turn your head the other way/When I'm trying to tell you what's going on/Educate yourself, enlighten yourself, you've got shock yourself/To right these wrongs!" To cool down from "Testify" she glides into a slow, seductive version of John Lee Hooker's "In the Mood," her tasty, fingerpicked Delta stylings supported by Will's honking harp as she moans her sly come-on.

"I just wanted them to get to know me as I am, a young female blues performer," she replies when asked about her aims going into the studio for her debut. "I wanted it to have a very life feel to it, I wanted it to have the energy and the sense of us having a really good time performing that me and my band do have when we're on stage. There's a song on the album as well that's about Africa, one I wrote before I'd been to Kenya the first time, and the song's about child soldiers in Africa, 'Testify.' I've written all of the songs on the album apart from three of them; one of them is a John Lee Hooker song, 'In the Mood,' because I've always loved John Lee Hooker, and I had tickets to see him play and he passed away; he was too ill to make the show I had tickets for and he passed away not long after that. So I never did get to see him play, but the song is on there like a tribute to him, really. The other song is Junior Wells' 'Little by Little' that I saw Susan Tedeschi play at that festival that really just made me absolutely fall in love with the blues. So I put that on there because the song means so much to me. But the rest of the songs are all mine, some are more fun, some are more deep and meaningful."

The album's one "uh-oh" moment comes when she eases into "I'm Going Down." Penned by Norman Whitfield, originally recorded by Rose Royce, covered by Mary J. Blige, it's a wrenching lost love song, but coming from a different place than Wilde has visited heretofore. When she intones the first verse in a melodramatic, melismatic voice, adding a squeaky upper register fillip here and there, the theatrics are starting to get a bit overwrought and unsettling. But Wilde brings it back—brings it back to the church, in fact, thanks in part to the grandeur of Morg Morgan's rich, humming Hammond, and mostly to the hard left she takes to make it as much an appeal for divine guidance, a prayer for salvation, as a self-serving lament. She simply works a remarkable transformation on the song. Not bad at all, considering it wasn't supposed to be on the album.

Dani Wilde, 'Friends Making Love,' brother Will Wilde on harmonica, Ben Poole on guitar

"The first day in the studio, before we'd even recorded anything, I got to meet Morg Morgan, the keyboard player on the album. I hadn't played with him before. He's Ian Parker's keyboard player and I'd heard Ian's band and really liked his playing on that. So Morg and I sat down in the studio and I asked him if he knew the song 'I'm Going Down.' I'd heard that song when I was very young, maybe once or twice when I was very little; it always stayed in my head. Then more recently, just before we went into the studio, I rediscovered it, and I'd learned it. I hadn't planned on it going on the album, but we started jamming on it in the studio, just me and Morg, and suddenly he really gave it something extra—it wasn't up to standard, just me and my acoustic guitar playing, but as soon as Morg took it, he threw in that real gospel edge, which affected the way I sang it, too, because I fed off of that. That's how it ended up on the album, because the producer suddenly walked in and listened to what we were doing and said, 'Yeah, you've got to put that on there.' I didn't realize Mary J. Blige had covered it, and when I was told that I was thinking, If another contemporary vocalist has done it that recently maybe it shouldn't go on there. But the guys in the studio really liked it."

She saves a real stunner for the end. In a return to her solo acoustic days, she offers the ballad "People Like You." in which a daughter confesses to her unforgiving mother some deed she's done that has the whole town talking, and not in a flattering way. At the end, though, the dirty deed is revealed to be something in the nature of crusading against injustice, as Wilde cries out, "Don't you want to create a modern world we can all be proud of?/And what the fuck ever happened to equal opportunity?/Seems it's always one rule for one, and another for me/She said it's true, what they say about people like you." With a good head on her shoulders, something to say and being bold in saying it, Wilde makes it clear she's going to stand with other young female blues artists of the day who are broadening the genre's lexicon to include a specific feminine viewpoint on relationships, personal aspirations and contemporary social concerns.

As she returns home to England and begins her next round of career development, Wilde is also looking towards the next step of her Kenyan project. Much work remains to be done, and she intends to do it. First up, a set of proper toilets.

"Right now they've just got a hole in the ground, one for the boys, one for the girls, shared by the 800 kids at the primary school. No toilet paper, it's really unhygienic. A lot of kids that get sick at that school, so hopefully the new toilet block will make a big difference. At the moment even if they're educated in proper hygiene, they don't have the means at that school to protect them—they haven't got a toilet roll and the hole in the ground is not dug deep enough—you can smell the toilets across the whole school, which is really bad because it also puts other teachers off from wanting to work at the school. So it will improve a lot of things."

Working with her foundation through the U.K.-based Moving Mountains Rescue Center, Wilde maintains regular contact with the Embu school's headmaster and her finger on the pulse of the latest goings-on there. She's planning another trip soon, to, among other things, continue the special events she inaugurated for the children, called Fun Days, which encourages the young ones' artistic expression.

"For Fun Days at the school we've brought in acrobats, trampolines, people to perform for the kids, also like a DJ so the kids can dance, and on Fun Day the kids get to perform what they've been doing on the recorders and also harmonicas. My brother's a harmonica player and he came over with me last time and set up a harmonica group. He was teaching all the kids some blues harmonica but more so kind of 'Jingle Bells' and 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' songs on harmonica, with 20 of these kids playing together in a big group.

A short clip of Dani and Will Wilde leading the students of Embu County Primary School, Kenya, in Dani's song, 'I Want Your Lovin'"

"Last time I was there I put together a choir and taught them 'Oh Happy Day.' I get to teach them a lot, but the problem was that the classes are really oversized. What I really need to do is start working on more classrooms and more teachers. At the moment the teachers they've got are fantastic but there's not enough of them for the amount of kids. So the class sizes are 70 to 80 children per class. However, they also double up the classes. So they would say, 'Dani, do you want to take this class?' And I get in there and it's just suddenly me and 150 kids who don't speak English that good yet, and the Kenyan teachers have disappeared somewhere, glad to have the time off. But the kids are fantastic and different from English kids in that everything is such a big opportunity for them; they really don't have a lot. They are so keen to learn and school is the highlight of their day, especially when you see what they have to go home to."

Consistent with her history of aggressively pursuing her music career on her own, when asked about long-term goals Wilde figuratively studies the map. The businesswoman side of her speaks, with the artist always whispering in her ear: "I'd like to become better known in different territories. I'd love to make it in the USA. Right now Germany and Scandinavia are my best territories in terms of being well known, selling CDs and touring. But I'd like to be able to play bigger theaters like Bonnie Raitt would play; that would be my dream, to get to that level. Or even potentially have some kind of crossover success, but if I did do that I wouldn't want to have to make any compromises on my music. I don't want to sell out and become a pop artist. At the same time, young people in that wider audience enjoy blues music when they hear it. The only reason they're not hearing it is because major labels are not pushing the genre. If a major label would take a chance, then the same way that Joss Stone kind of brought back soul music, and Norah Jones is doing her thing in a genre that she took mainstream, it could be done with the blues. I would always be keeping my eye out for that kind of opportunity."

The smart money is on opportunity to come knocking, and soon.

Dani Wilde interview, 2007, includes a solo acoustic performance of her song 'Come Undone' from her debut album, Heal My Blues

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