March 2, 2023

The British Blues boom of the 1960s was a cultural phenomenon, pioneered by such luminaries as John Mayall, guitarist Alexis Korner and his harp-playing musical partner Cyril Davies, and powered into the stratosphere by Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. A massive inundation of pub rock acts followed in the ‘70s, but the movement was eventually elbowed to the margins by punk, new wave and Britpop. Despite its relegation to a niche market though, blues remains a massive draw for all age groups, and has been shown to be chemically reactive with all genres, from funk and soul, to pop and metal. It seems that any contemporary musical style can trace its ancestry to the blues. Sometimes though, this bubbling morass throws up a purist, usually a guitarist, someone with the blues in his DNA who doesn’t try to dilute it with anything else. One such young gun is Essex-born Connor Selby, whose self-titled 2021 album has been pulled out of relative obscurity and re-released with much fanfare by his new label, Provogue.

In conversation with Connor over a Zoom link, the first question virtually asks itself: What draws a fresh-faced youth such as himself towards a genre that predates even his parents? “It’s just the music I’ve always really gravitated towards;” he says without hesitation, “The music that elicits the biggest reaction out of me, I suppose, emotionally. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved it – as soon as I heard it, I fell in love with it. And that hasn’t really changed to this day.”

Photo by Rob Blackham

I can relate to that, being a hoary old blues player myself, heavily influenced by early Clapton, and especially the Bluesbreakers ‘Beano’ album. I’m interested to know though, who Connor’s heroes are. It turns out we’re not as far apart musically as we are chronologically. “To start with, probably Eric Clapton. He probably had the biggest impact on me as a young teenager or young kid, I suppose; I always found him relatable, you know, and I kind of see myself in him –not just the music, but his whole attitude towards music and the way he saw himself in the bigger picture of the UK music scene. He always described himself as being kind of an outsider, very obsessive, very tunnel vision, which I definitely relate to. He always talks about the mythology of the blues and the way he fell in love with that; the idea of one man with a guitar versus the world. I found that idea very attractive as a young kid, and I still do now.”

Although born in Essex, Connor’s family moved with his dad’s work, and he spent his formative years in environments as diverse as Connecticut in the eastern United States, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Inevitably, there was a nagging feeling of being out of kilter with his surroundings, and although he has been back in Essex for more than a decade now, those early experiences have fuelled his involvement with blues music, if anything. In the video link, I can see a poster over his shoulder with ‘Eric’ written at the top. “Yeah, that is an Eric Clapton poster,” he confirms, tilting his screen so I can see it. And I’ve got my other biggest influence, Ray Charles,” he continues, rotating the screen to a large poster on the other wall. OK, this is where Connor and I diverge a little, as I’ve never been heavily into Ray Charles. For Connor though, he and Clapton are two sides of the same coin. “I think Clapton has a lot in common with Ray Charles, really. I mean, he’s recorded something like ten Ray Charles songs over the years, maybe? He’s done a lot of covers of him. In his interviews going back to the Cream days, he said he wanted to try and play the way the Ray Charles sang, or Aretha Franklin sang, which is what I’m trying to do as well, you know. Obviously, Clapton just took it in a different direction, but yeah, he was definitely influenced by him in the same way that I am.”

Most of the material on Connor’s new album is original, but one of the bonus tracks is a cover of Ray Charles’ My Baby Don’t Dig Me, with a definite savour of 1960s rock’n’roll, complete with a rasping sax solo. The track before that, Love Letter To The Blues, reminds me very much of a 1989 slow blues by Clapton named Hard Times. I didn’t realise until I checked it out, that Hard Times is itself a Ray Charles cover. “Yeah,” says Connor, taking up the narrative with enthusiasm. “I mean, it’s pretty much an exact copy as well. The arrangement is exactly the same, and he even has David Newman doing the sax solo, who was the original guy who played with Ray back in the day, from the ‘50s to like the mid ‘70s I think. He was in the original small band, when they made all those pioneering soul records, including that one.” He asks me if I have heard the original version, and I admit I haven’t. “Oh, you should do. That’s one of my favourite songs to be honest.”

Real Velvet Thunder’s review of the Connor Selby album

So, what goes around comes around I guess; even when Connor isn’t being consciously influenced by Ray Charles, he’s being influenced by Eric Clapton performing Ray Charles songs. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he ever dabbles outside of the strict blues confines. Does he experiment with alternative tunings or fingerstyles? “I mean, I have done in the past, not so much recently. I went through a phase when I was about 16, 17, where I was really into people like Nick Drake, and that whole kind of folk movement that was happening in England. And during that time, I’ve messed around with all that sort of stuff and finger picking. I still do that every now and then, but for the most part, I just stay in standard tuning really.”

Learning to play the guitar and write songs is a great achievement. But in truth, lots of kids do it – to quote AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock, there were “15 million fingers learning how to play,” and “Across the land, every rocking band was blowing up a storm.” A much bigger achievement in my book is becoming known, getting yourself out there. I wonder whether Connor has some magic formula, a touch of gold dust that he can pass on to other aspiring players. The main ingredients are always the same though, wherever you hear it – hard work and commitment. He explains his method this way: “I guess the same way everyone does, really. I started playing at school and in bands, doing the odd live gig at school – then moved to blues jams and things in pubs, and the occasional gig – you know, those kind of gigs where there are like, five acts on the bill, and you get paid ten quid, and stuff like that. I did that for a few years, and just started doing stuff on the blues scene, and tried to build a following through gigging.”

It’s amazing where that can take you if you get the breaks. In the summer of 2019, he played Wembley stadium, on a bill topped by The Who. “I still have to pinch myself that that happened,” he says. “You know, it’s unbelievable.” The Who continue to give him strong support on their own website, he was on the roster for the Hyde Park gig in 2022, and has been steadily gaining ground on the British blues scene, having been voted Young Artist of the Year at the UK Blues Awards in 2020, 2021 and 2022. I wonder out loud how old someone has to be, before they no longer qualify as ‘young’. “Twenty-five,” he says, “which I am now. If you win three times in a row, you get disqualified anyway – but even if I hadn’t, I would be too old now!” February 2023 sees him supporting PP Arnold at two shows in London, and then embarking on a UK tour in support of the astonishing vocal powerhouse Beth Hart, as well as doing his own shows around the country.

Photo by Rob Blackham

The self-titled release is actually Connor’s second album – the first, titled Made Up My Mind, was released on the Hertfordshire label 3MS in 2018. His self-titled second album was self-released in 2021, before he signed with the Mascot label’s Provogue subsidiary, who have now repackaged the album in deluxe form, with four added bonus tracks, for the current release. That in itself is a massive step forward, so I ask how it came about.

“I was put in contact with Stu fine, one of the guys at Mascot in America. He really loved the album, and it all came up from there, you know. Ever since I first spoke to him, he was very, very complimentary about the album; every time I speak to on the phone, he’s got it in the background, which I think is quite funny! The reason I wanted to release it again, as opposed to doing a new album, is because when I self-released it, I had little to no PR, and no distribution whatsoever. All the CD and vinyl copies that existed in the world, I had made myself, so the only way to get one was directly from me. And obviously, that’s very limited quantities! So it didn’t really get the chance to be heard that it deserved. This was a great opportunity to do that, so I thought why not?”

The packaging has been duly upgraded (although the cover photo is the same), and some extra tracks have been added, so I wonder whether Provogue added some extra gloss to the arrangements, with the horn section and the female backing vocals? Definitely barking up the wrong tree there. “No, all the tracks, they’re exactly the same as they were on the original, “ he insists. “Nothing’s changed, I don’t think.” In that case, kudos for the original recordings, as there are some pretty lush arrangements in there. “Yeah, I mean, I’m pretty happy with them to be honest. I think there’s maybe a couple things I would like to have changed. But for the most part, I was pretty happy with the way things were.”

I observe that the slow, introspective material suits his style and his voice admirably, but I do like it when he rocks it up a bit, such as on the southern rocker Emily and the groovy The Deep End, which is the featured video on our review of the album. He gracefully admits that, while the album is predominantly his own work, Emily was almost entirely the work of his second guitarist, Joe Anderton. The Deep End is one of his own though; I like it because it reminds me heavily of the early work from Texan bluesmen The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Connor is happy with the comparison, and generally agrees with it: “Yeah. I was really trying to get that old school blues jazz kind of swing feel, you know, so I understand why you would think that.” Inevitably, it sparks a discussion of the T-Birds’ original guitarist, Jimmy Vaughan, older brother of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. I mention that Stevie Ray and Jimmy had such hugely different styles, considering they must have grown up with the same influences, surely? Connor pursues the contrast: “Yeah. I think Jimmy’s music is much more inspired by the old school stuff. Not that Stevie wasn’t, but Stevie kind of took it in a different direction, didn’t he? He had the whole Hendrix influence and that sort of stuff. And he was heavier than Jimmy, in the sense of like, you know, more rocky, and faster. But I always saw Jimmy as staying very much within the old school ‘50s blues sound, which I love.”

So then, what’s next for the young and hungry Connor Selby? Will we be seeing any radical departures into other genres, a spreading of the wings perhaps? “Well, in terms of the live stuff, I’ll be doing this Beth Hart tour, then see what happens after that. The plan is to do some headline shows afterwards, sort of May; some of them have been booked already and have been announced. Then do some festivals and stuff over the summer, maybe get to Europe. I’ve got a couple of things booked in Europe, and I’d certainly like to do a lot more over there, so hopefully that will happen soon. Maybe next year, do another album; I’m starting to write and accumulate songs. So yeah, just keep going really, just keep playing. Keep writing, keep developing. I don’t know if there are any particular styles I want to do that are different to what I’ve already done, you know, I want to refine the things I’m already doing and just make it better. I don’t think I’m going to do anything radically different, at the moment at least.”

Time, at least, is on Connor Selby’s side, and so is everyone else by the looks of it. Quite right too.

Connor Selby’s self-titled deluxe album is available from 3rd March 2023 via Provogue