Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean seemingly had it made by 2014. The English natives were half of the grunge/blues band Kill It Kid that was signed to Sire Records and had just released its third album.
But the married couple wasn't happy with either their record contract or the music they were making. So, they left—and later formed the Delta-blues inspired duo Ida Mae, which performs this weekend at the Peoria Blues and Heritage Festival.
Turpin spoke with WGLT from his now home in Nashville about living in the American south, and the decision to leave Kill It Kid, a move he characterized as “gutsy.”
“We had been told by management ‘you will never be picked up again.’ And the contract we signed … we couldn’t even go out and speak with record companies, or anyone. We could have been tied in that deal for a long, long time. These major record deals are really nasty, and I’m not sure if a lot of people know what’s in them.”
But if you listen closely, he and Stephanie Jean had no choice.
“It was a big gamble because we did not know what would happen. But it’s just simple man. You feel like such a foolster if you’re up on stage playing things you don’t believe in,” said Turpin.
Four years later, the duo is three months into touring to support their debut album “Chasing Lights.” The 13 tracks inspired by their delta-blues heroes from up to a century ago veer back and forth between acoustic and electric. Some are straight up folk, others sound like Led Zeppelin and R.L Burnside jamming in a North Mississippi juke joint. Turpin is careful to point out they don’t want to recreate those blues legends.
It’s almost as if 50 years after British legends John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Zeppelin and the Stones reintroduced Americans to their blues heritage, Ida Mae is again showing the birth country of the blues what else can be done with this timeless music.
“I hope so,” said Turpin. “But it’s funny in the U.K. people kind of turn their noses up at us. In the past I’ve cited blues as a reference, but I get, ‘Well you guys aren’t American, how can you be singing the blues?’ Well it was good enough for the Stones, the Beatles, John Mayall and Clapton. I find it makes no sense for us Brits to become so in love with American music, especially a suburban kid like me from a small city. But for me it was just more meaningful and intense than anything else I’d ever heard before.”
When he moved to Nashville last year, he picked up a collection of folk songs from Missouri. He was stunned to see songs from where he grew up in Norfolk, England, and from his father’s home area of Yorkshire.
“And there were songs from where Stephanie’s family was in Northern Ireland, and they were all being sung all over different parts of America in this huge great melting pot. I think this is one of the proudest things American has is this incredible jamming together of cultures,” said Turpin, checking the Cajun culture of Louisiana to the Scottish and British music melting with African rhythms.
“And the more natural poetry of the blues I just think is one of the coolest things,” said Turpin. “And then how that spills into the great American songwriters like Woodie Guthrie, the Carter family, and Hank Williams. I feel when we play here it’s kind of missed by a lot of people. I don’t think it’s treated with as much reverence as it is in the U.K.”
Though he and Stephanie now live in Nashville and have toured the country a few times, he is still memorized by America’s music, as he is with the geographical places and social conditions especially blues music sprouted. Before the move, the couple had lived in what he described as “a little attic room” in Holloway, an inner-city district of the London Borough of Islington. A bit more cosmopolitan than his native Norwich.
“There were 100 languages spoken there," said Turpin. “Every culture on top of one another and we all lived side-by-side. The first time when I went out to deep Mississippi on the blues trail along Highway 61, I thought it was going to be kind of a strange … I thought I was going to have to reconnect to what it must have felt like to live and breathe that air. It was so naïve that it really blew my mind as to how little of that landscape has changed. I didn’t have to do much imagining of what it was like.”
And he still marvels that he now travels the same roads Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Woodie Guthrie once traversed as they wrote the books and songs Turpin has come to admire. And at stops along those roads and highways, he now talks to Americans that span those barely off the welfare line to someone dressed like Mickey Mouse.
“Whether we’re in Virginia, Mississippi or New England, you’ll meet maybe a hundred people a night that you share stories and conversations with. That realization that these things I’ve dreamt of doing, I’m now doing or have done to some extent. That was a real important moment for us,” said Turpin.
Ida Mae plays the Peoria Blues & Heritage Festival on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
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