Sometimes it’s just hard to be good.
“I think everybody knows that, and if they say that’s not true, they’re lying,” says Romi Mayes with a raspy chuckle. “It’s really a lot easier to be bad, and that’s why most people are bad. It’s hard to wake up in the morning and go to work; it’s hard not cheat on your wife if you’re not in love with her after 50 years; it’s hard not to grab the wallet that was left in the bathroom and not go return it, when it has $8000 in it, to its owner, you know?”
But that’s the beautiful thing about actually being good, she notes: everyone has the capacity to do it, but it just takes a little bit more work—even though, let’s face it, it can be a hell of a lot more fun not to be, every now and then. This ongoing push-pull between the two is the dichotomy at the core of her latest album, Devil on Both Shoulders—her first since the release of her live record Lucky Tonight in 2011. Mayes had been churning out records every couple of years until that point, but she recognized that making albums and a heavy touring schedule was beginning to take its toll. She decided to pull back and catch her breath, and there was even a brief period where Mayes wasn’t sure if she would release another record at all.
“What I spent the last four years [doing] when I wasn’t writing, I was flushing out a lot of demons even,” she explains. “There’s a lot to be bitter about for everybody, and I was feeling pretty bitter. I was like, ‘You know what, man? It’s like there’s a devil on both shoulders.’ And I couldn’t get away from that for a long time.”
Of course, Mayes did get back into songwriting, and she was able to take her time fleshing out this album since there was no push from a label. It’s a gritty, emotionally charged record that most will be quick to slap a blues label onto, but Mayes doesn’t feel that’s the most accurate descriptor for it, or for her work in general.
“I don’t really like being called a blues singer and a blues artist,” she notes. “I don’t consider what I do blues. I think there’s a lot of blues influence, the same way there’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influence, and the same way there’s a lot of even country and bluegrass influence in the traditional roots that I come from.”
So what is it, then? Mayes has been a mainstay on blues bills and festivals—”which mostly have pop music now anyway,” she laughs—but she says her music leans more towards roots and rock ‘n’ roll. Despite some slower tracks, like the sultry swing of “Gonna Miss Me,” plus a dose of twang and crunchy, dare-I-say-it bluesy guitar riffs winding through Devil On Both Shoulders, it’s a rock record—just listen to the title track—and one Mayes is glad she decided to make.
“If I never made a another album again, I would be really happy that that was my last one,” she says. “I think it really touches on the sound that I’ve been wanting to hear out of myself. Someone described it as a ’70s Bonnie Raitt album, and that appeals to me quite a bit … and I just like that it has a lot of groove rather than driven blues, straight-ahead rock. I think it’s my best lyrics, my best melodies and some of my best songs.”
Mayes credits some of that inherent groove to Grant Siemens—part of Corb Lund’s band, and whom she’s dubbed “groove-meister.” The two have been close friends for some time and had played together over the years, but they had never worked so intensely on one project together. The pairing turned out to be beneficial, as Siemens pushed Mayes to attempt bigger melodies as well as strive for more as a writer and as a performer. For example, Mayes had planned to drop the key of the track “Make Your Move,” because it’s quite high for her voice and a difficult track to sing, but Siemens encouraged her to leave it as is—something Mayes says she wouldn’t have done otherwise.
“I think really what it comes down to is a producer’s role is very simple: the songwriter has to trust them and respect then, they have to have good ideas and they have to be someone that encourages you,” she notes. “If you can do that, you’re going to be able to make a better album for the person, which is what you’re there for. You’re there because they want your expertise to make what they’re going to do better than what they would on their own.”
Sun, Jul 19 (7 pm)
With Sean Bishop
Mercury Room, $10 in advance, $14 at the door