Susan Tedeschi first came on the scene two decades ago with her debut album, Better Days, released in 1995 to modest attention. Twenty years later, she is one of the reigning queens of roots rock, renowned for her deeply soulful pipes and fiery live presence. As coleader of the 11-piece blues-rock powerhouse Tedeschi Trucks Band, which she fronts with husband and former Allman Brothers bandmate Derek Trucks, she and the group have garnered worldwide acclaim for their epic shows and outstanding musicianship. The Tedeschi Trucks Band will return on Sunday, June 7, to Santa Barbara, where the band will be playing at the Santa Barbara Bowl with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Doyle Bramhall II. We spoke with her about her musical journey, touring with family, revelatory experiences, and owls.
Where are you right now? I’m at home in Jacksonville. Where are you?
I’m in my office in Santa Barbara. You guys played here last October at the Arlington. Are you looking forward to coming back? We love Santa Barbara. We really do. It’s beautiful; the people are really nice; I like walking around, maybe finding a nice coffee place.
You are going to play some indoor venues in May and then a big outdoor tour starting in June. Is there a big difference between indoor and outdoor shows? You know, it really just depends on the venue. Some of the indoor shows can be very sedated; other times they are very loud and rowdy. It just depends on the crowd. I do find in the summer people are really amped up and excited to be outdoors. Those shows can be very nice, like playing the Greek in L.A. Especially with a tour like this, people are gonna be pumped up having Sharon [Jones] and Doyle [Bramhall II]; it’s gonna be very exciting.
How did you get set up with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings? Promoters are always trying to do the coolest thing, you know? They want to know who you want to tour with. We would love to tour with Willie Nelson or Stevie Wonder, but then there’s the reality that they have tours already booked, or they may not tour all the time. You also have to look at who would be a good match, what would make sense in the venues … There are a lot of factors that go into it.
Derek and I ran down the list of all the possibilities and the people that we like, and we came up with Sharon as a really great fit. That would be a really cool show; she’s someone we want to see, too. We were supposed to play with her at a festival, but she was sick. We’re really excited she’s doing great and back on tour and ready and willing to go. We’ve only been able to see her on YouTube, haven’t really gotten to see her live yet, so I’m excited.
You recently played at the MusiCares Person of the Year gala honoring Bob Dylan. Is the old adage true about how it’s better not to meet your idols? Honestly, I’ve been very lucky with most of my heroes. My heroes are actually still my heroes. Bob’s badass, sweet, and down-to-earth. A lot of the people I really admire that I’ve met, I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been very lucky and very blessed that way. Same with people like B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples — you feel like you’re their daughter, like you’re their family. I can’t say enough great things like people like that; they work so hard and could easily say, “I don’t have time for you,” but they go out of their way for you.
You released your first album, Better Days, 20 years ago. How has the journey been? It’s been amazing. It’s only gotten better. It only keeps amazing me. When I first was playing the first couple records, I had other jobs too, just trying to pay rent and everything. It’s so amazing after all this time I’m still playing music and I get to do what I love to do. I’m very thankful for that. And then to be able to play in a band now with my husband is very surreal, and he’s so talented I honestly thought I’d never get the chance — everybody like the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton wanted him, so it was a very special thing. I do like being my own boss, but if I’m gonna have somebody tell me what to do, Derek is the one.
To what extent is Tedeschi Trucks Band a group conscious, to what extent is it a duo project, and to what extent do you bring your individualities to it? I think all three of those definitely have their place. I’d say there is a group conscious. There is a certain core of the band, maybe about seven of us, which gets together every couple days and talks about the tunes. We talk about stuff we’re writing, what needs to be done, what could be better, what kind of tunes we should be adding — there’s always a dialogue.
If we had to pick one leader it would definitely be Derek. He really has a vision, and he sees the big picture. He can see things that most of us really can’t see, whether it’s the future, whether it’s the record, whether it’s a tour, a special show coming up, what needs to be done and what we can do better. There’s definitely no plateau in this band; there’s no getting comfortable and getting on autopilot. There’s a lot of “Let’s mix it up. Let’s keep it fresh. Let’s keep the audience engaged.”
Are you working on any new material? We are mixing our next record in August, with maybe a January or February release. It’s a really cool record. I like the other two records, too. The things they have in common is the band and that we’re doing a lot of writing, but the albums are different even there. The writing keeps evolving and changing. There’s a lot more variety on this record: There’s songs that sound Leonard Cohen-y, then a track that’s like total funk, then a more folk-type song. We wrote three with Doyle: Those are really beautiful. Mike Mattison really led the way on a couple tracks, and I helped him finish writing. There’s a lot of really good stuff, and we’re really excited. Some of the songs have to do with current events; some have to do with everyday stuff. It can be frustrating not being able to play it at our shows until it’s released, but every once in a while, Derek will drop hints, playing a new riff in between songs … It’s fun having it in your back pocket. By the time it comes out, we’ll already be onto the new record.
Your music takes its inspiration from a lot of classic and timeless Americana. Where does the inventiveness come in? Combining a couple of us together puts a new spin on the tradition; because there’s a few different people putting in so much input, it takes on a life of its own. With all the different influences, little things come out. Whether you’re listening to Tom Waits or David Bowie, whatever you’re listening to at the time can actually seep through in your writing as well as your performing. That’s something that gives a lot of the American roots stuff a little bit of a twist. A lot of what we focus on, though, is, “Is the song really strong? Is it a great song? Is it strong enough to play acoustic? Would it hold up?” That’s a big start when we’re doing stuff.
The first Tedeschi Trucks Band album was called Revelator. What have been the revelations so far? One thing that’s cool about the band is that Derek and I get to do a band together, writing with all these amazing musicians who are really on the same page as us. It’s a revelation saying we all want to be in this band and we can all do great things. It’s not just work. It’s not just a job. It’s actually fun and meaningful, and it’s what you hope to do. Some people aren’t always very grateful and complain a lot and other people are very grateful. It’s cool to have a group of people who are all veterans, and they’re all all-stars, all super talented, but excited to be doing this because it’s a collective. It’s not the “me” show; it’s not about “me, me, me.” That was the revelation that we can have such a great band and have such an open book that we can write it ourselves.
What’s next for you guys? We’re basically finishing up this album, and we have this huge tour coming up this summer with Sharon and Doyle, and we are really looking forward to doing some collaborating, trying to do some tunes together, maybe we’ll even write together …. You never know. You’re just hanging out with those great musicians, everybody’s just going to get along and you never know what will happen. So the main focus is to finish the record and have a blast doing this tour.
Another thing we have coming up is Lockn’: It’s a big festival, and they’re always doing concept sets like getting to play with people you’ve never played with before …. So this year we’re doing what is called the Mad Dogs and Englishmen set, and we’re doing it with remaining people from Joe Cocker’s band and friends, like Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Chris Robinson, Jim Keltner, Dave Mason. They’ll get up and perform with us and do a bunch of songs from that era. We have lots of things like that going on, as well as writing for the record after this one.
[An owl flies by Susan’s window.] Oh, wow, a huge, beautiful, big owl just came by …
Owls are majestic. Sort of a rare sight around here. There are lots here. They’re so silent you don’t hear them.
Do you have a favorite animal? You know, I really do like owls. I love a lot of animals. My daughter loves horses and dogs; my husband and son love to fish.
How has it been on your kids to have both parents touring? I think it’s kind of hard on them, now that we’re both gone when we’re gone. I used to be able to schedule around Derek’s tours, but it’s gotten harder to do now that we’re in a band together. Derek’s mom helps me with the kids while I’m not home.
Is it challenging to be a married couple in a band? Yeah, everybody else gets their own room every day, and we have to share one! You don’t really have much free time. That’s the thing. We really have very little free alone time. I actually am kind of a loner. I actually write better and take better care of myself when I am alone. Being on the road with Derek, sometimes I have to go, “It’s time for me to run, honey. I’ll be back.” I have to let go. He needs alone time, too. That’s one of the things we’re starting to figure out: how to help each other more and give each other a little space even though we’re together all the time. Relationships are work; they’re not always super easy.
What’s amazing, too, is we didn’t know if we’d be able to do this together because we’ve been doing it on our own so long, but it’s actually been great for our marriage. In the past it was hard to be on the same wavelength all the time when you have two separate bands. It’s nice that it’s working out good and we’re getting along well. Kids will be coming out on the summer tour during the second week.
Do they help out at the shows? They do love to sell merch. My son is like the entrepreneur, wheeling and dealing, saying, “that’ll be $147” and he didn’t even need to add it up yet — he’s super quick.
Does your family get a lot of support from the other band members? Half the guys are dads, so they all are very supportive and love the kids. Our kids are really easy because they’re a little older now, 10 and 13. They’re fun to be around; they’re good kids; they’re not high-maintenance or anything. They’ve always been on the road. They’re used to it by now. They just hop in a bunk and get on the phone and call friends or listen to music.
Would you ever invite them onstage to sing with you? Maybe! My daughter’s always asking when she will get to sing along with Mike …
Anything else you’d like to add? A lot of people right now are thinking about B.B. King. I’m thinking about B.B. Willie Nelson just had a birthday, so I just want to wish him a happy 82 and send prayers out to B.B. Derek and I are both very thankful to him and his music, and I hope that he’s okay and that he’s not in pain. He’s having a hard time right now. We hope you’re okay, B.B. [Editor’s note: This interview took place before B.B. King’s death.]
The Tedeschi Trucks Band plays Sunday, June 7, at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). For more information, call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.