There was never a light bulb moment for Cherry Lee Mewis, she says, “I just always knew I wanted to sing.” At 12, she was performing at talent shows and in holiday camps and, at 17, she had a management deal and was nearly signed to Beyonce’s label. When that didn’t happen – “one minute they want you, the next they don’t. It really is build you up then knock you down” – the North Wales born singer found solace in her dad’s collection of blues, country and psychedelia records. That inspired 2007’s Little Girl Blue, her self-released debut album of covers by Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton et al. The Blues catches her as she’s putting the finishing touches to fourth album, Catch My Drift.
Call And Response: Cherry Lee Mewis
The Welsh singer songwriter turned to the blues after her dreams of a pop career were dashed. Four albums on, she’s finding her own voice.
What’s the idea behind your new album?
I want people to connect with me and get what I’m saying and to hear my story. I grew up on this record and I wanted to dig deep and touch on subjects that people don’t normally talk about. But I also wanted to write about things that I knew about – subjects that hit close to home. There are songs like Bride Ain’t Me, about how society says, go to school, get a job and a career, get married, have children. But what happens if that’s not what you want to do and you’re not ready to settle down? There’s another song called Love Can Wait, but that one has a twist at the end of it.
Did the songs come easily to you?
Yes they did. Recently Max [Milligan, Cherry’s guitarist and co-writer] has been encouraging me to play guitar on stage, it’s given me a real buzz and inspired me and the ideas were coming every day.
Are there any surprises?
There is still plenty of foot stompin’ music, there’s a lot of energy, but also some vulnerable ballads. It’s still rooted in blues and country, but there are also three or four songs that you could see getting play on mainstream radio. I want to reach as many people as possible with my music.
Peter Narojcyk from Gerry Jablonski and the Electric Band plays blues harp on the album.
Yes, on a cover of Get Right Church by Jo Ann Kelly and then Nobody’s Fault But Mine which is by Blind Willie Johnson. I like to pick songs not many people know, so they’re like our own anyway and then we put our own arrangement on them. My dad used to play Get Right Church all the time and we used to play it live in 2008 so it was nice to revisit it. It was Max’s idea to do Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
How did you and Max Milligan first get together?
We met nine years ago through mutual friends and we clicked immediately. He just got me and we started doing duo gigs in London. Max came up with the idea for me to do Little Girl Blue, to rearrange traditional blues songs. It was great because there was no pressure and I’d just come out of this management/production deal, where I had been pushed towards a mainstream pop sound.
How did that deal happen?
I sent them a cassette of me singing a song I’d written and they liked my voice. They were based in Bedford [where Cherry lives now] and I spent every day and night in the studio. I lived and breathed making music. I was put with a producer, Stevie V, he’d had a number 2 hit with Dirty Cash (Money Talks) in 1990. The idea behind it was that I was a white girl doing modern black music. I recorded an original song called Snake, it was released on a white label under the name Cherry. It was an R&B dance track, it was the highest new entry on the Music Week urban chart, but sadly it didn’t go anywhere. I still have a copy of the chart.
Then came Little Girl Blue.
Max said to just write down 10 songs you love and we can record them. There was never any talk of getting them out, it was simply record them and go from there. There was no plan, just me singing songs I loved from hearing them at home from my dad’s record collection. It was great after two to three years of singing R&B pop because then I’d have to sing a line, go back and sing it over and over again a million times and I was working with backing tracks, not a band. This was the first time I recorded a song top to bottom without being stopped. It was like you were singing it live. We got such a good response, we went out gigging together and that naturally led to us writing together.
Who influenced your first stabs at songwriting?
Alanis Morissette. I was 10 and I discovered my dad’s copy of Jagged Little Pill and I nicked it off him. I loved the lyrics, I’d read the lyric sheet over and over. Those songs taught me how to tell a story and she wrote with Glen Ballard so I thought it would be great to get that kind of partnership. I wanted to meet someone who got what I was about and that was Max.
And who influenced your vocal style?
Janis Joplin, I loved how she just went for it, she was so honest on stage and I wanted to be like that. I did Mercedes Benz on Little Girl Blue.
Outside of blues circles, you’re also a backing vocalist of much repute.
Yes, I’ve sung with Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake live and on record, and with the Quireboys and Del Bromham’s Stray. It was fun.
Catch My Drift is out now via www.cherryleemewis.com