Cover photo © 2021 Allison Morgan

Joanna Connor
Honor Who You Are

Blues Blast Magazine – Issue 15-27
Interview by Bucky O’Hare

“What I loved about Blues was that every Blues artist you heard, whether it be on record or in person, the real founding mothers and fathers, you know who they are as soon as you hear them play. That’s not so common nowadays. A lot of times I’m like ‘well who is that playing guitar who is that singing?’ But back then you knew Albert King, you knew B.B. King, you knew Robert Johnson, you knew Blind Willie Johnson. They were so unique and so different. I felt that was also because they honored who they were and let themselves come through music and songwriting.

“And I thought well I am who I am. Yes I heard Blues my whole life as a child because of my mom and saw it my whole life. It wasn’t like I put on a Stones record and found the Blues, no I heard Blues. But I also listened to Rock and I listened to Funk and I listened to Reggae. For me to shut that part of me off would kinda like not be true to who I was, so that was my thought process. Well this is me, yeah.”

Joanna Connor is a powerhouse Blueswoman who has dedicated her life to honoring her true self within her art. A soulful and enthralling singer Joanna can express the depth of emotion in her own lyrics as well as those written by others. But, Joanna is at heart a guitarist. A virtuoso of the slide guitar, Joanna cascades her slide over her Gibson Les Paul with passion and fire.

A YouTube viral video star for mind boggling clips of her six string acrobatics, Joanna’s concept of guitar and momentous live performance is born out of decades of training in Chicago clubs. Having learned from some of the greatest “founding mothers and fathers,” Joanna follows her muse into Funk, Rock, Soul, Jazz and even Hip Hop. It is this exciting weaving of styles into a real deal Blues framework that has won over audiences at her home base of Kingston Mines, one of Chicago’s landmark Blues clubs, and admirers like Vernon Reid, Slash, Tracii Guns and most recently collaborator Joe Bonamassa.

Joanna plays her slide guitar like a woman on fire. Exuding emotion and seemingly possessed by the spirit, Joanna plays her guitar almost vertically while switching between intricate lead runs to swooping deluges of sound. Sparked at an early age in her native Massachusetts and then born out of necessity on the South Side, Joanna’s slide technique has been developed over the years.

“I did take lessons in Massachusetts from a guy named Ron Johnson, he was really into Ry Cooder, a lot of the older Delta stuff. He turned me on to all of that. He’s like ‘hey I want to teach you the slide.’ I was like ‘okay.’ I didn’t really even know what it was, I knew but I didn’t know it. So he gave me a great foundation of technique. (In Chicago) I would just go to gigs and it was like I was the backup guitarist so I had one guitar. Well I’m not gonna be like (in a silly voice) ‘oh let me tune to an open tunning.’ I had to play. I would just throw the slide on and play.

“That was a contributing factor to my approach to the slide, just being in those situations. I combine slide with fretting, with tapping, with rhythm cause I play it on my pinky so that gives me a lot of freedom to do all of that. It just becomes another tool in my arsenal. I have been playing more and more slide cause I used to fret more I think because it was more difficult to me and I like the challenge, and I’m like ah slide it’s a breeze (haha). The slide is just so expressive. I can close my eyes and play the slide and not even look at the neck I been doing it so long.”

“My thought process when I’m playing is kind of a merry go round in my head or a circus. People say ‘oh you look so calm or you make so many faces.’ Man there’s so much going on up there. I try to get to a place where I’m totally into the music. I think all musicians look for that in the zone as they say. So I try to get there. I try to fit into the rhythmic qualities of the music with my playing. I’m very rhythm oriented. I’m definitely not a subtle player although at times I can be. I think you see that more on Rise some of the more subtle type guitar playing. But I get into this space where I, I don’t know, go for the throat, get a little aggressive. I just let it go. I want it to move you, I’ve always loved very passionate guitar players. I try to be that. If it happens, I hope it happens that way.

“I asked Joe Bonamassa ‘why me out of all these guitar players?’ He’s like ‘cause you have an intensity a lot of other people don’t have and you know how to channel it.’”

It was that intensity that Bonamassa wanted to channel when he approached Joanna about recording. Calling her style “lightning in a bottle” Bonamassa, helped Joanna bring to fruition a new record that sparkles with raw intensity: 4801 South Indiana Avenue.

“Back in 2014 one of my videos started to go kind of viral all over the world. It had only a million views on You Tube, but it was literally in every major newspaper around the world. You know 80 million views here, it was incredible. That happened, and then that happened again with another video and that caught the attention of Joe Bonamassa, Tracii Guns, Vernon Reid, Liberty DeVitto, recently Slash, I mean all these heavy hitters. And I always reach out to these people through the social media: ‘hey this is Joanna Connor, thank you so much if you ever want to get in touch with me.’ Cause you never know. Vernon Reid reached back, Tracii Guns reached back. But, Joe reached back and was like ‘I want to take the unknown out of your equation,’ he said ‘I can help you.’

“That was a couple years ago so we started this conversation and he made it come true. He’s like ‘well do you trust me, I have a vision for a record I want to make with you?’ Kinda like he wanted to take total control artistically and stuff. And I’m like yes, I mean I’ve made records I’ve produced myself for many years and do whatever I want to do so I’ve fulfilled that kind of longing let’s stay. I totally trusted him, I’m like ‘yeah you have a pretty good track record there Joe.’ And it was a complete honor. Over the course of like 6 months he got material and he’s like ‘I want to make a real Chicago Blues record.’ To capture what I do on stage throughout the whole record. He called it lightning in a bottle. He goes ‘you trust me? cause I’m gonna work you really hard.’ I’m like ‘well I’m used to workin’ really hard.’”

“It happened in February of 2020. Got tickets to Nashville and Ocean Way Studios, which is a really legendary studio. He assembled the cast of musicians along with Josh Smith, who I’d known since he was like 13. He used to jam with me in Florida so I was real familiar with him. And the engineer happened to be someone who was from Chicago who’s been in California a long time doing really big things winning Grammys. He’s like ‘I used to sneak out of my house in High School to see your band (haha).’ And probably the greatest thing was playing with Reese Wynans whose Joe’s keyboard player and of course was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s keyboard player and the Allman Brothers once upon a time.”

“So I landed in Nashville, and the next day I went to Joe’s place in Nashville. Him and Josh picked like Blues songs that were not typically covered and arranged them, gave them a little twist. So I’m sitting in the middle of Josh and Joe with their guitars totally just fangirling, geeking out there. The next day, picked out some gear, and he’s like here play this amp, play this guitar. Then we went in the studio and literally the whole album was cut in 2 days and then I went in and did vocals for a couple days. So like 5 days we did the whole record. And he told the band he’s like ‘listen if we don’t get any of these songs in 2 or 3 takes we are gonna move on because I want it to be raw and fresh and exciting.’

“He really set up the studio like we were all in one room. We were all together in a little circle. I cut all the guitar stuff live. I don’t know, it was just one of those amazing moments that you dream of happening where everything’s flowing, everybody’s inspired, it all works. I mean I was incredibly nervous going down there like oh my god I’m gonna sit in front of these guitar gods. And here I am and yeah I’m who I am, and I’m not putting myself down, this is just walking into some big stuff here, big platform. Joe and I really melded personally and musically. He’s actually super funny, he’s very sarcastic and dry humor which if you grew up on the East Coast you’re used to that.

“So I felt sort of totally at ease. When we were done he was like ‘well we really put out a really raw Chicago kick ass Blues record.’ Then he came up with the concept of well what were some of the older clubs, the addresses. Kinda like a homage but we didn’t want to just be like play traditional traditional to the letter, we still breath fresh life into it. Literally the whole record was Joe’s concept and Josh’s arrangement. Joe really pushed me hard in the vocals, he was like ‘I want your vocals to be as tough as your playing.”

The hard work paid off, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, which was the address of the famous Theresa’s Lounge, is a fresh in the moment testament to Joanna’s live performance. However, the “big platform” of this most recent record doesn’t dim the sparkle and depth of her long career. 2019’s Rise is possibly Joanna’s most eclectic and representative album. Influenced by her son, a Hip Hop producer, Joanna expanded her pallet creating a mix of straight up Blues, Funk, Fusion Jazz and Hip Hop, Rise sets a standard for what Contemporary Blues can be. Joanna describes the journey:

“My shows are pretty eclectic and always have been. It’s loved by some and hated by some, you know. Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia come up to me and they go ‘you’re a trend setter we used to go watch you play. You were combining Blues and Funk and Rock with the Blues and yeah people had done it, but, you really did it in a certain way and we kinda were inspired by you.’ I was like ‘really I had no ideas.’

“But it wasn’t always a great place to be because some more traditional people kinda pushed me to the margins like ‘nah we can’t have this.’ But whatever, it was all good I still managed to make a living and make records. With that record I really wanted to feature kinda what my band was about at the time. I had a couple different drummers, my bass player was amazing, they’re all Chicago guys. It was still kinda the same premise, we went in and we cut everything live. There was a little more overdubbing on my part, some songs had 4 or 5 guitars on them. My son is actually in LA now, he’s a producer out there. My kids both loved hip hop and my son being so intimately involved with it I would go by his place his little studio I was like I have this song I wrote and I’d love to have a rap thing on it. I heard this one rapper and I was like oh man I really like the way he sounds. So we ended up meeting in the studio and he wrote some lyrics for me and being on a couple more things. So it was a nice meeting, Alphonso (Buggz Dinnero).

“It was cool, we kind of got off in different directions, kind of a Crusaders feel on some of the things. I love the 70’s Jazz-Fusion kind of thing. We had some real kick ass Blues songs on there. We had an acoustic piece on there. So it was featuring what I was about at the time. I mean I love it. But, some people can’t pigeon hole the record cause it’s kind of all over the map, if you follow my career that’s pretty much every record. I make records from the point of a musician in terms of I love all music. And all my music is rooted in Blues of course but my band is always gonna have some Funk going on, it’s gonna have some Soul, it’s gonna have some Rock, a little Jazz and that’s what you hear on the record. And some Hip Hop so there you go.”

Joanna Connor is a Chicago Blues institution. Having moved from Boston’s blue collar western sister city Worcester in her early 20’s, Joanna launched herself fully into the Chicago scene. One of only a few women playing Blues guitar at the time, Joanna refused to be stifled or dismissed and as a result was allowed to participate in and learn from a distinctly African American community of musicians.

“What I loved about Chicago was it was so different than Massachusetts. It was culturally so different. I mean I played some great places back home and there were a lot of really knowledgeable people and still are really good players. To be immersed in that actual African American culture in Chicago, in the city, in the place where all that modern Blues was created. Being around people most of whom came from the Mississippi Delta, it was just a total immersion in the Blues. And in that way I learning from people and the school of music that you come through playing with people like that. People grew up playing Gospel, people might have done a lot of Soul music, people that play nothing but raw Blues, some of the older guys. I went as a student, my whole quest was I wanted to get into the scene and learn first hand and soak up everything I could. From an emotional side not from an academic, you know really be in it. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna really do it.”

“I had to be tough. I had no car, I’d get off in the middle of a really crime ridden area off the train with my guitar and be like the only person looking like me and I just did it. And nothing ever really ever happened. Everybody was gracious, and at first looking at me like why are you here, but when I started playing music I was really accepted.

“And you know there were some musicians who were hard on me, it wasn’t like Disney World. But, for the most part I was embraced and that was a validation and also an amazing thing. A lot of these people could look at me and be like get out of here (haha) what are you doing here. I’d been very persistent, I used to carry a Fender Twin off the bus, I mean I was just all out. Wherever they wanted me to be it didn’t matter what neighborhood. People would be ‘oh, you can’t go there,’ well I’m going. Then I played at the Checkerboard Lounge, which was Buddy Guy’s club that he owned back then on the South Side. We were in the house band every weekend for like a year. We backed up everybody. We backed up Junior Wells, we backed up Buddy Guy, we backed up the Meyers Brothers.”

Joanna eventually landed a steady gig with the great Chicago legend Dion Payton. Payton’s band had a residency at Kingston Mines the funky family owned Blues emporium in the heart of the city. This unique club with two stages and a hedonistic 5am closing time on Saturday nights became Joanna’s home.

“You know it’s so funny, my whole life seems to be intertwined with that club since like 1982. I happened upon it by accident looking for a Blues club and I didn’t know about it and there it was. So it was kind of like fate. It was one of the determining factors of why I moved to Chicago. Cause there’s this club with two stages, and growing up in Massachusetts everything’s pretty much closed by 1 o’clock back then and I thought this was the best thing in the world, open till 5 on Saturday. Wow you can party all night. 2 bands and there were people like, you could see Junior Wells on one stage and the house band on the other with all these Chicago All Stars. Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Otis Rush at this club.

“Well fast forward and I moved to Chicago and ended up in Dion Payton’s band and we were the house band there. He continued on and I went on with my career and my band. In 2005 I went back and I said ‘hey I’ve been on the road a long time and I have a young daughter now I would like to get a night here,’ ended up with 3 nights there. It’s just been a spectacular place to be seen by people from all over the world because they come from all over the world. I was in Holland and there was a guy with a Kingston Mines shirt. It’s just a unique place because of the hours and it’s family run. It’s pretty funky, you know nothing polished or corporate about it. 2 bands with contiguous music all night without a break it’s pretty epic.”

“I could write books and books about Kingston Mines (haha). My famous one is jamming with Jimmy Page there on a Thursday night, which was unbelievable. Meeting Herbie Hancock there, meeting Aretha Franklin there. I mean playing with Son Seals, playing with Junior Wells, playing with Koko Taylor. I mean just so many fantastic nights. Meeting Mick Jagger there, meeting Keith Richards there. Everybody came through there at some point and continue to do so. Nicolas Cage he came in, ended up spending a lot of time when he was filming a movie in Chicago, we ended up hanging out. (laughs) That’s like a name dropper but it is the way it is. And what is really kinda special about it to is it attracts a younger crowd, which in the Blues world is kind a unique, since it’s not always the case. You got a young crowd, you got an older crowd, you got an international crowd, you got a white crowd, you got a black crowd. So it’s really a melting pot.”

Joanna is the proud mother of two. She delights in her children’s accomplishments and is in awe of the adults they have become. It is no easy thing being a full time artist and a parent.

“It’s funny I had my son when I was pretty young, I was 24 or 25. I was ‘well I always wanted a kid, I want to have this child and I’ll have one kid and by the time he or she is 5 I’m gonna be a rock star’ (haha) I had all these plans. Well obviously that didn’t happen. (chuckles) With my son he was actually a drummer at like a very young age. If there had been the internet then he would have gone viral cause he was literally playing when he was 2 years old he could keep time. He was a big kid, he played with Luther Allison, he played with Bernard Allison, he met B.B. King. He did shows with me. He traveled a long time with me all over the world and played whenever he wasn’t in school and all the vacations. He went into kindergarten there was no preschool, preschool was with mom on the road. There wasn’t a whole lot of sleep going on that was for sure but I think a lot of parents deal with that. But he became a cultured guy and an interesting person. I shielded him, I wasn’t living the life of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. Yeah we played music but when I was home I was home. When we were on the road I wasn’t hanging out in the clubs, we were back in the hotel watching the Disney channel or whatever. I tried to balance like where it wasn’t too much exposure to things he shouldn’t see but he also got to see the whole world with me.”

“Then his sister came along. She was kind of a surprise (haha) that’s why they’re 11 years apart. But both of my kids were athletes, and really serious athletes so I spent a lot of time being a basketball/football mom for years for both of them. There were times I wanted to quit playing music, I mean this is just too hard. Luckily my mom helped me out and some friends when I was gone. But I would miss them, especially my son, I would really miss them when I was gone and it was difficult.

“So I have memories like yeah I was in Paris but I was also crying because I missed my son. It was tough, you know. And I talked to both my kids later, I’m like ‘man I hope it was not a hard experience for you.’ And my son and my daughter were like ‘ma we had the best childhood. We got to do everything, we’re prepared for everything. We know how to meet new people. When we went away to college it wasn’t like a big deal, like oh my god I’m missing home.’ They feel it was an advantage. They both turned out really fantastic so (chuckling) I guess something was good that happened. But I always felt like I taught them whatever your passion is and it doesn’t have to be music, I want you to find a passion. I exposed them to many things. I want you to have something you love.”

In February 2020 Joanna Connor was primed and ready to take the music world by storm. An incredible Joe Bonamassa produced album in the can, 2020 was gonna be her year. And then the pandemic hit. The record release was delayed a full year, all the promotional gigs and events canceled. Like the rest of us Joanna baked bread, did some live streams and waited it out. Now that world is slowly beginning to emerge into our new post-pandemic reality, Joanna is ready to do what she does best, be herself on stage by enthralling us with her Blues. Finally releasing 4801 South Indiana Avenue in February of 2021, Joanna has a full schedule of festivals into 2022. Joanna is also back delighting audiences at Kingston Mines 3 nights a week catching that late night vibe after hours.

“When you play music you just never know what a night’s gonna bring, you know. Any given night at any place. The vibe can be anything from complete debauchery to people that actually want to hear music to incredibly inebriated people, just a mixed bag, yeah it’s the last stop. I mean there’s been some really special musical moments too when people come and sit in. That’s the whole thing about what I do, people are like ‘are you going to have a good night tonight?’ I’m like I have no clue, I say it’s all magic and mystery.”

Check out Joanna’s music, tour dates and more at : https://joannaconnor.com/“What I loved about Blues was that every Blues artist you heard, whether it be on record or in person, the real founding mothers and fathers, you know who they are as soon as you hear them play. That’s not so common nowadays. A lot of times I’m like ‘well who is that playing guitar who is that singing?’ But back then you knew Albert King, you knew B.B. King, you knew Robert Johnson, you knew Blind Willie Johnson. They were so unique and so different. I felt that was also because they honored who they were and let themselves come through music and songwriting.

“And I thought well I am who I am. Yes I heard Blues my whole life as a child because of my mom and saw it my whole life. It wasn’t like I put on a Stones record and found the Blues, no I heard Blues. But I also listened to Rock and I listened to Funk and I listened to Reggae. For me to shut that part of me off would kinda like not be true to who I was, so that was my thought process. Well this is me, yeah.”

Joanna Connor is a powerhouse Blueswoman who has dedicated her life to honoring her true self within her art. A soulful and enthralling singer Joanna can express the depth of emotion in her own lyrics as well as those written by others. But, Joanna is at heart a guitarist. A virtuoso of the slide guitar, Joanna cascades her slide over her Gibson Les Paul with passion and fire.

A YouTube viral video star for mind boggling clips of her six string acrobatics, Joanna’s concept of guitar and momentous live performance is born out of decades of training in Chicago clubs. Having learned from some of the greatest “founding mothers and fathers,” Joanna follows her muse into Funk, Rock, Soul, Jazz and even Hip Hop. It is this exciting weaving of styles into a real deal Blues framework that has won over audiences at her home base of Kingston Mines, one of Chicago’s landmark Blues clubs, and admirers like Vernon Reid, Slash, Tracii Guns and most recently collaborator Joe Bonamassa.

Joanna plays her slide guitar like a woman on fire. Exuding emotion and seemingly possessed by the spirit, Joanna plays her guitar almost vertically while switching between intricate lead runs to swooping deluges of sound. Sparked at an early age in her native Massachusetts and then born out of necessity on the South Side, Joanna’s slide technique has been developed over the years.

“I did take lessons in Massachusetts from a guy named Ron Johnson, he was really into Ry Cooder, a lot of the older Delta stuff. He turned me on to all of that. He’s like ‘hey I want to teach you the slide.’ I was like ‘okay.’ I didn’t really even know what it was, I knew but I didn’t know it. So he gave me a great foundation of technique. (In Chicago) I would just go to gigs and it was like I was the backup guitarist so I had one guitar. Well I’m not gonna be like (in a silly voice) ‘oh let me tune to an open tunning.’ I had to play. I would just throw the slide on and play.

“That was a contributing factor to my approach to the slide, just being in those situations. I combine slide with fretting, with tapping, with rhythm cause I play it on my pinky so that gives me a lot of freedom to do all of that. It just becomes another tool in my arsenal. I have been playing more and more slide cause I used to fret more I think because it was more difficult to me and I like the challenge, and I’m like ah slide it’s a breeze (haha). The slide is just so expressive. I can close my eyes and play the slide and not even look at the neck I been doing it so long.”

“My thought process when I’m playing is kind of a merry go round in my head or a circus. People say ‘oh you look so calm or you make so many faces.’ Man there’s so much going on up there. I try to get to a place where I’m totally into the music. I think all musicians look for that in the zone as they say. So I try to get there. I try to fit into the rhythmic qualities of the music with my playing. I’m very rhythm oriented. I’m definitely not a subtle player although at times I can be. I think you see that more on Rise some of the more subtle type guitar playing. But I get into this space where I, I don’t know, go for the throat, get a little aggressive. I just let it go. I want it to move you, I’ve always loved very passionate guitar players. I try to be that. If it happens, I hope it happens that way.

“I asked Joe Bonamassa ‘why me out of all these guitar players?’ He’s like ‘cause you have an intensity a lot of other people don’t have and you know how to channel it.’”

It was that intensity that Bonamassa wanted to channel when he approached Joanna about recording. Calling her style “lightning in a bottle” Bonamassa, helped Joanna bring to fruition a new record that sparkles with raw intensity: 4801 South Indiana Avenue.

“Back in 2014 one of my videos started to go kind of viral all over the world. It had only a million views on You Tube, but it was literally in every major newspaper around the world. You know 80 million views here, it was incredible. That happened, and then that happened again with another video and that caught the attention of Joe Bonamassa, Tracii Guns, Vernon Reid, Liberty DeVitto, recently Slash, I mean all these heavy hitters. And I always reach out to these people through the social media: ‘hey this is Joanna Connor, thank you so much if you ever want to get in touch with me.’ Cause you never know. Vernon Reid reached back, Tracii Guns reached back. But, Joe reached back and was like ‘I want to take the unknown out of your equation,’ he said ‘I can help you.’

“That was a couple years ago so we started this conversation and he made it come true. He’s like ‘well do you trust me, I have a vision for a record I want to make with you?’ Kinda like he wanted to take total control artistically and stuff. And I’m like yes, I mean I’ve made records I’ve produced myself for many years and do whatever I want to do so I’ve fulfilled that kind of longing let’s stay. I totally trusted him, I’m like ‘yeah you have a pretty good track record there Joe.’ And it was a complete honor. Over the course of like 6 months he got material and he’s like ‘I want to make a real Chicago Blues record.’ To capture what I do on stage throughout the whole record. He called it lightning in a bottle. He goes ‘you trust me? cause I’m gonna work you really hard.’ I’m like ‘well I’m used to workin’ really hard.’”

“It happened in February of 2020. Got tickets to Nashville and Ocean Way Studios, which is a really legendary studio. He assembled the cast of musicians along with Josh Smith, who I’d known since he was like 13. He used to jam with me in Florida so I was real familiar with him. And the engineer happened to be someone who was from Chicago who’s been in California a long time doing really big things winning Grammys. He’s like ‘I used to sneak out of my house in High School to see your band (haha).’ And probably the greatest thing was playing with Reese Wynans whose Joe’s keyboard player and of course was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s keyboard player and the Allman Brothers once upon a time.”

“So I landed in Nashville, and the next day I went to Joe’s place in Nashville. Him and Josh picked like Blues songs that were not typically covered and arranged them, gave them a little twist. So I’m sitting in the middle of Josh and Joe with their guitars totally just fangirling, geeking out there. The next day, picked out some gear, and he’s like here play this amp, play this guitar. Then we went in the studio and literally the whole album was cut in 2 days and then I went in and did vocals for a couple days. So like 5 days we did the whole record. And he told the band he’s like ‘listen if we don’t get any of these songs in 2 or 3 takes we are gonna move on because I want it to be raw and fresh and exciting.’

“He really set up the studio like we were all in one room. We were all together in a little circle. I cut all the guitar stuff live. I don’t know, it was just one of those amazing moments that you dream of happening where everything’s flowing, everybody’s inspired, it all works. I mean I was incredibly nervous going down there like oh my god I’m gonna sit in front of these guitar gods. And here I am and yeah I’m who I am, and I’m not putting myself down, this is just walking into some big stuff here, big platform. Joe and I really melded personally and musically. He’s actually super funny, he’s very sarcastic and dry humor which if you grew up on the East Coast you’re used to that.

“So I felt sort of totally at ease. When we were done he was like ‘well we really put out a really raw Chicago kick ass Blues record.’ Then he came up with the concept of well what were some of the older clubs, the addresses. Kinda like a homage but we didn’t want to just be like play traditional traditional to the letter, we still breath fresh life into it. Literally the whole record was Joe’s concept and Josh’s arrangement. Joe really pushed me hard in the vocals, he was like ‘I want your vocals to be as tough as your playing.”

The hard work paid off, 4801 South Indiana Avenue, which was the address of the famous Theresa’s Lounge, is a fresh in the moment testament to Joanna’s live performance. However, the “big platform” of this most recent record doesn’t dim the sparkle and depth of her long career. 2019’s Rise is possibly Joanna’s most eclectic and representative album. Influenced by her son, a Hip Hop producer, Joanna expanded her pallet creating a mix of straight up Blues, Funk, Fusion Jazz and Hip Hop, Rise sets a standard for what Contemporary Blues can be. Joanna describes the journey:

“My shows are pretty eclectic and always have been. It’s loved by some and hated by some, you know. Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia come up to me and they go ‘you’re a trend setter we used to go watch you play. You were combining Blues and Funk and Rock with the Blues and yeah people had done it, but, you really did it in a certain way and we kinda were inspired by you.’ I was like ‘really I had no ideas.’

“But it wasn’t always a great place to be because some more traditional people kinda pushed me to the margins like ‘nah we can’t have this.’ But whatever, it was all good I still managed to make a living and make records. With that record I really wanted to feature kinda what my band was about at the time. I had a couple different drummers, my bass player was amazing, they’re all Chicago guys. It was still kinda the same premise, we went in and we cut everything live. There was a little more overdubbing on my part, some songs had 4 or 5 guitars on them. My son is actually in LA now, he’s a producer out there. My kids both loved hip hop and my son being so intimately involved with it I would go by his place his little studio I was like I have this song I wrote and I’d love to have a rap thing on it. I heard this one rapper and I was like oh man I really like the way he sounds. So we ended up meeting in the studio and he wrote some lyrics for me and being on a couple more things. So it was a nice meeting, Alphonso (Buggz Dinnero).

“It was cool, we kind of got off in different directions, kind of a Crusaders feel on some of the things. I love the 70’s Jazz-Fusion kind of thing. We had some real kick ass Blues songs on there. We had an acoustic piece on there. So it was featuring what I was about at the time. I mean I love it. But, some people can’t pigeon hole the record cause it’s kind of all over the map, if you follow my career that’s pretty much every record. I make records from the point of a musician in terms of I love all music. And all my music is rooted in Blues of course but my band is always gonna have some Funk going on, it’s gonna have some Soul, it’s gonna have some Rock, a little Jazz and that’s what you hear on the record. And some Hip Hop so there you go.”

Joanna Connor is a Chicago Blues institution. Having moved from Boston’s blue collar western sister city Worcester in her early 20’s, Joanna launched herself fully into the Chicago scene. One of only a few women playing Blues guitar at the time, Joanna refused to be stifled or dismissed and as a result was allowed to participate in and learn from a distinctly African American community of musicians.

“What I loved about Chicago was it was so different than Massachusetts. It was culturally so different. I mean I played some great places back home and there were a lot of really knowledgeable people and still are really good players. To be immersed in that actual African American culture in Chicago, in the city, in the place where all that modern Blues was created. Being around people most of whom came from the Mississippi Delta, it was just a total immersion in the Blues. And in that way I learning from people and the school of music that you come through playing with people like that. People grew up playing Gospel, people might have done a lot of Soul music, people that play nothing but raw Blues, some of the older guys. I went as a student, my whole quest was I wanted to get into the scene and learn first hand and soak up everything I could. From an emotional side not from an academic, you know really be in it. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna really do it.”

“I had to be tough. I had no car, I’d get off in the middle of a really crime ridden area off the train with my guitar and be like the only person looking like me and I just did it. And nothing ever really ever happened. Everybody was gracious, and at first looking at me like why are you here, but when I started playing music I was really accepted.

“And you know there were some musicians who were hard on me, it wasn’t like Disney World. But, for the most part I was embraced and that was a validation and also an amazing thing. A lot of these people could look at me and be like get out of here (haha) what are you doing here. I’d been very persistent, I used to carry a Fender Twin off the bus, I mean I was just all out. Wherever they wanted me to be it didn’t matter what neighborhood. People would be ‘oh, you can’t go there,’ well I’m going. Then I played at the Checkerboard Lounge, which was Buddy Guy’s club that he owned back then on the South Side. We were in the house band every weekend for like a year. We backed up everybody. We backed up Junior Wells, we backed up Buddy Guy, we backed up the Meyers Brothers.”

Joanna eventually landed a steady gig with the great Chicago legend Dion Payton. Payton’s band had a residency at Kingston Mines the funky family owned Blues emporium in the heart of the city. This unique club with two stages and a hedonistic 5am closing time on Saturday nights became Joanna’s home.

“You know it’s so funny, my whole life seems to be intertwined with that club since like 1982. I happened upon it by accident looking for a Blues club and I didn’t know about it and there it was. So it was kind of like fate. It was one of the determining factors of why I moved to Chicago. Cause there’s this club with two stages, and growing up in Massachusetts everything’s pretty much closed by 1 o’clock back then and I thought this was the best thing in the world, open till 5 on Saturday. Wow you can party all night. 2 bands and there were people like, you could see Junior Wells on one stage and the house band on the other with all these Chicago All Stars. Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Otis Rush at this club.

“Well fast forward and I moved to Chicago and ended up in Dion Payton’s band and we were the house band there. He continued on and I went on with my career and my band. In 2005 I went back and I said ‘hey I’ve been on the road a long time and I have a young daughter now I would like to get a night here,’ ended up with 3 nights there. It’s just been a spectacular place to be seen by people from all over the world because they come from all over the world. I was in Holland and there was a guy with a Kingston Mines shirt. It’s just a unique place because of the hours and it’s family run. It’s pretty funky, you know nothing polished or corporate about it. 2 bands with contiguous music all night without a break it’s pretty epic.”

“I could write books and books about Kingston Mines (haha). My famous one is jamming with Jimmy Page there on a Thursday night, which was unbelievable. Meeting Herbie Hancock there, meeting Aretha Franklin there. I mean playing with Son Seals, playing with Junior Wells, playing with Koko Taylor. I mean just so many fantastic nights. Meeting Mick Jagger there, meeting Keith Richards there. Everybody came through there at some point and continue to do so. Nicolas Cage he came in, ended up spending a lot of time when he was filming a movie in Chicago, we ended up hanging out. (laughs) That’s like a name dropper but it is the way it is. And what is really kinda special about it to is it attracts a younger crowd, which in the Blues world is kind a unique, since it’s not always the case. You got a young crowd, you got an older crowd, you got an international crowd, you got a white crowd, you got a black crowd. So it’s really a melting pot.”

Joanna is the proud mother of two. She delights in her children’s accomplishments and is in awe of the adults they have become. It is no easy thing being a full time artist and a parent.

“It’s funny I had my son when I was pretty young, I was 24 or 25. I was ‘well I always wanted a kid, I want to have this child and I’ll have one kid and by the time he or she is 5 I’m gonna be a rock star’ (haha) I had all these plans. Well obviously that didn’t happen. (chuckles) With my son he was actually a drummer at like a very young age. If there had been the internet then he would have gone viral cause he was literally playing when he was 2 years old he could keep time. He was a big kid, he played with Luther Allison, he played with Bernard Allison, he met B.B. King. He did shows with me. He traveled a long time with me all over the world and played whenever he wasn’t in school and all the vacations. He went into kindergarten there was no preschool, preschool was with mom on the road. There wasn’t a whole lot of sleep going on that was for sure but I think a lot of parents deal with that. But he became a cultured guy and an interesting person. I shielded him, I wasn’t living the life of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. Yeah we played music but when I was home I was home. When we were on the road I wasn’t hanging out in the clubs, we were back in the hotel watching the Disney channel or whatever. I tried to balance like where it wasn’t too much exposure to things he shouldn’t see but he also got to see the whole world with me.”

“Then his sister came along. She was kind of a surprise (haha) that’s why they’re 11 years apart. But both of my kids were athletes, and really serious athletes so I spent a lot of time being a basketball/football mom for years for both of them. There were times I wanted to quit playing music, I mean this is just too hard. Luckily my mom helped me out and some friends when I was gone. But I would miss them, especially my son, I would really miss them when I was gone and it was difficult.

“So I have memories like yeah I was in Paris but I was also crying because I missed my son. It was tough, you know. And I talked to both my kids later, I’m like ‘man I hope it was not a hard experience for you.’ And my son and my daughter were like ‘ma we had the best childhood. We got to do everything, we’re prepared for everything. We know how to meet new people. When we went away to college it wasn’t like a big deal, like oh my god I’m missing home.’ They feel it was an advantage. They both turned out really fantastic so (chuckling) I guess something was good that happened. But I always felt like I taught them whatever your passion is and it doesn’t have to be music, I want you to find a passion. I exposed them to many things. I want you to have something you love.”

In February 2020 Joanna Connor was primed and ready to take the music world by storm. An incredible Joe Bonamassa produced album in the can, 2020 was gonna be her year. And then the pandemic hit. The record release was delayed a full year, all the promotional gigs and events canceled. Like the rest of us Joanna baked bread, did some live streams and waited it out. Now that world is slowly beginning to emerge into our new post-pandemic reality, Joanna is ready to do what she does best, be herself on stage by enthralling us with her Blues. Finally releasing 4801 South Indiana Avenue in February of 2021, Joanna has a full schedule of festivals into 2022. Joanna is also back delighting audiences at Kingston Mines 3 nights a week catching that late night vibe after hours.

“When you play music you just never know what a night’s gonna bring, you know. Any given night at any place. The vibe can be anything from complete debauchery to people that actually want to hear music to incredibly inebriated people, just a mixed bag, yeah it’s the last stop. I mean there’s been some really special musical moments too when people come and sit in. That’s the whole thing about what I do, people are like ‘are you going to have a good night tonight?’ I’m like I have no clue, I say it’s all magic and mystery.”

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