It’s a long way from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Memphis, Tenn. Nearly 2,000 miles, to be exact. But when Frazey Ford of The Be Good Tanyas made the journey in 2013, it was to bridge the distance between her background in folk and country, and the soul sounds she’s long been drawn to. “I like to deny my roots,” jokes Ford, whose sophomore solo album, Indian Ocean, was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis with the Hi Rhythm Section. She’ll play The Mothlight in support of that album on Wednesday, June 15.
Soul music is more like an embrace of Ford’s roots than a denial of them. In the decade since The Be Good Tanyas’ last studio album, Ford’s voice has blossomed into frontwoman proportions — rich, emotive, wild and expansive in its magnitude. She’s long loved and studied soul artists, though none more than Al Green. The story is now well-chronicled: How Ford received a call from documentary filmmaker Robert Gordon — a friend of the Hi Rhythm Section, the house band for Green and other artists on the Hi Records label in the 1970s — inviting her to work with those musicians. But Ford still seems amazed by the experience.
“Al Green’s band can be so groovy but without hitting you in the face with it,” she says. Though Ford grew up surrounded by music, she says that by exploring her own taste, and following her love of dancing, she was led to Green and his fellow artists. “These guys had this really refined way of creating so much groove and space, and that’s why not only me, but everyone in my band, has followed what they’ve done for a long time.”
That tastefulness and intrinsically funky aesthetic is clearly felt in lead track “September Fields.” There, acoustic strums lead to thick bass, sweeps of organ and the growl of saxophone. Gordon’s footage of the recording session — including guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who passed away after the completion of Indian Ocean — serves as as the official video for that track. There’s a sweet moment where he and Ford, listening with closed eyes to a playback, both cup their faces in a mirror gesture of joy.
While Ford has often mentioned, in interviews, the unity of the Hi Rhythm Section — the way the three Hodges brothers, including organist Charles and bassist Leroy, seem to play as a single organism — she also stumbled upon their kryptonite: a decades-long argument over the correct way to play a particular chord. “It’s mysterious. It’s in the bridge [of Green’s song ‘I’m Still in Love with You’]. We were trying to record that song, and then it derailed,” says Ford. “One of their friends was like, ‘You can’t play that song. They’ve been fighting over that one chord for 40 years.’” It’s notably absent from the album.
“It was kind of a relief to see how human they were,” she continues. To get back on track, Ford started showing one of the musicians the next song, “Weather Pattern.” Warm and relaxed in a cried-out, post-storm way, Ford’s voice floats out of the shimmery keyboards, washes of brass and lush background vocals.
“That song is one of my favorites [on the album] because there’s a sort of coming back together and ‘we still love to play together’ [moment],” Ford says. “The high-drama moment created a beautiful feeling. … It was all kind of perfect, and I was glad for the whole arc.”
Despite the indelible mark of the Hi Rhythm Section on Indian Ocean, Ford doesn’t see it as a product of Memphis. North Carolinian Phil Cook, of Megafaun, also played all over the record. It was recorded in part in Vancouver. Ford, who self- or co-produces her projects, says, “I’ve always kept control over my recording process. Things can turn cheesy before you know it … so I like to keep it simple.”
But the musician is open to change, too, admitting she’s been thinking about getting away from playing guitar in order to focus on singing when onstage. Lately, she says, she’s been writing songs on piano. That’s not to say that a follow-up album is imminent: “I’m working on stuff, and things are happening,” Ford says elusively. “Whenever I say, ‘I have this thing, and it’s solid,’ it seems to melt in my hands.”
She adds, “I was doing a lot of painting and sewing. Preceding [an album], I dive into a lot of other projects.” On Instagram, Ford shares photos of clothes and crafts she’s made. “I have the seed, and I’m tending to it now. Who knows when it will decide to make itself present?”
WHO: Frazey Ford
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Wednesday, June 15, 9 p.m. $15