The Foley Files: Carolyn Wonderland

John Mayall lead guitarist Carolyn Wonderland is a powerhouse vocalist with amazing six-string skills to boot.
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Wonderland performing with John Mayall in Oslo, Norway, March 3, 2019

Wonderland performing with John Mayall in Oslo, Norway, March 3, 2019

I met Carolyn Wonderland in her hometown of Houston, Texas, in the early ’90s, when she was still a teenager. The first thing that struck me were her powerhouse vocals, which harkened back to Janis Joplin and seemed far too big for her petite frame and girlish demeanor. But besides being a great singer, Carolyn is an amazing guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, who is also proficient on trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin and lap steel. 

She released her first album, Groove Milk, in 1993, and issued her latest, Moon Goes Missing, in 2017. When she’s not on tour with her own band, she’s out walking in the footsteps of players like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya and many others, touring and playing lead guitar with British blues legend John Mayall. Visit carolynwonderland.com for more information.

When did you first pick up the guitar? I can’t recall if you played when we met.

At that time I didn’t play a whole lot in front of people. I’d play rhythm, but I had Little Screamin’ Kenny [Houston guitarist Kenneth Blanchet] playing guitar in the band, and he was one of my favorites, so I kind of thought I was superfluous. But then there’d be gigs where we’d be missing a guitar player, and so I was like, Well, okay, I can play the tunes I wrote ’cause I know how they go. Eventually, it came to be that I had a tour but no guitar player, and I wasn’t gonna cancel it, so I just learned really quickly.

Did you have any musical history in your family?

Oh, yeah. Pretty much everyone on my mom’s side plays. My grandma was a steel player, and my pop played ragtime and big-band piano stuff. My mom sang, and she played acoustic guitar in a band called Badlands. So there were always guitars around. I started playing piano when I was about five, and I started writing songs when I was about eight.

You’re known and marketed as a blues artist, but you also touch on a lot of styles in your playing, and you seem to draw a lot of creative inspiration from your political and world views. How do you bring that all together?

I’m trying to sound more reined in, but it’s hard to say exactly what direction I want to go in. I play a lot of blues and rootsy stuff as well as soul, gospel and a little country. There’s also experimental rock and roll, like my [2003] song “Bloodless Revolution.” A lot of my stuff’s been really political lately, just ’cause that’s what’s going on and that’s what’s been speaking to me. “Bloodless Revolution” was more finger pointing, and my new stuff is including myself where the finger’s being pointed. My songs of peace are not necessarily just about peace between countries but about peace between folks. I’m trying to find hope or a solution, instead of just pointing out the problems.

The bottom line is, there’s no “us and them.” We’re all us. Even the folks who you think you detest. They’re your children, they’re your brother, they’re your father. They’re all of it. So I guess I’m just trying to find a way to be more loving myself.

For more information about Sue Foley, visit suefoley.com, and check out her latest CD, The Ice Queen.

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