Forget lo-fi indie rock, bootleg concert recordings or hip hop mixtapes – there’s no genre where the recording quality has mattered less than in the early Delta blues.
Artists like Son House and Robert Johnson made some of the most enduring and influential recordings of all time in the 1930s. The recording sessions typically consisted of the Delta blues greats playing guitar and singing in front of a single microphone. There were no re-runs, no overdubs and no post-production bells and whistles.
Josh Teskey and Ash Grunwald have both built careers around a patent reverence for the early exemplars of blues, soul and R&B music. So, when the pair set out to make a straight blues album, it was a given that they’d be taking a back to basics approach.
The result is Push The Blues Away: an eight song collaborative LP made up of six originals penned by Grunwald and Teskey and a couple of blues standards.
The collaboration has its roots in two songs from Grunwald’s 2019 album Mojo, ‘Ain’t My Problem’ and ‘Waiting Around to Die’, which feature contributions from Teskey. Grunwald is the older and more experienced partner, but he’s not shy about his love for the Teskeys.
He describes Teskey’s voice as “amazing, distinctive” and ranks it as his “favourite male voice in blues and roots in Australia.”
As a youngster growing up in the north-eastern outskirts of Melbourne, Josh and his brother Sam Teskey were inspired by performers like Grunwald, whose work not only showed a deep appreciation for the past masters, but also sought to recapture the soul at the heart of the source material.
Grunwald made a direct impression on the Teskey brothers during many Saturday afternoon gigs at the St Andrews Hotel. As budding pre-teen musos, Josh and Sam would busk at the St Andrews Market while Grunwald would perform across the road at the pub.
“They used to come watch me sometimes,” says Grunwald. “This probably in the late-‘90s or around 2000, so it’s long before I had an album out.”
Grunwald pulled from a blues-heavy repertoire in those days, which is represented on his debut album, Introducing Ash Grunwald, from 2002. In fact, there’s one song that appears on both Introducing Ash Grunwald and Push The Blues Away: Elmore James’ ‘The Sky Is Crying’. The pair started jamming on ‘The Sky Is Crying’ while filming the video for ‘Ain’t My Problem’, which planted the seed for Push The Blues Away.
“That weekend I was going to play at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and I was going to do a memorial gig for Chris Wilson who was a hero of mine,” Grunwald says. “And Chris did ‘Sky Is Crying’ on his seminal album Live At The Continental, which was very influential on me and that’s why I would’ve done that song on my first album.
“For me personally, it was a generational thing. I thought about Chris and I thought about the times I’d jammed with Chris and shared the stage with him and there I was with this new guy who’s amazing that I look up to as a singer. It was just a really special moment.”
Grunwald became adamant that he and Teskey should make a blues album together. Teskey was easily convinced and from there, it came together in a hurry. In addition to ‘The Sky Is Crying’, the record includes a version of Son House’s ‘Preachin’ The Blues’. The rest of the track listing consists of original material written separately by Grunwald and Teskey.
“Josh already had ‘Hungry Heart’ and then he wrote ‘Push the Blues Away’. Then I wrote four [songs] for it,” says Grunwald. “We wrote super quick in the lead up to that session and then we went into the studio together for a week and it was so bloody easy.”
Push The Blues Away was recorded straight to tape at the Teskeys’ studio in Warrandyte, Victoria. For the most part it’s the sound of two guitars, two voices, as well as some hand claps and stomps. Grunwald handles all the slide guitar, while Teskey plays harmonica.
“I’ve got a National Steel Tricone. I used that Tricone a lot in the album,” says Grunwald. “It’s a baritone Tricone National Steel, beautiful guitar, but I didn’t use it as a baritone. But I think that when you’re playing a baritone and it’s tuned up to normal, it just make the strings tighter so it’s better for slide.”
Sam Teskey produced the album, a decision that made both practical and artistic sense. Sam engineered and produced the Teskey Brothers’ latest album, Run Home Slow, for which he received a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. Grunwald describes the experience of holing up in the Teskeys’ studio as “perfect.”
“I found it really refreshing to be recording in a bare bones way straight to tape through all analogue gear. Nothing could be more exciting really,” he says. “We did use some multi-tracking, but it’s mainly live. We used some nice Fender amps and I used my National Steel a lot, I used my Gibson 137 a lot and we just focused on the music, really.”
Despite Grunwald’s long association with the blues and the general perception of him as a back-to-basics kind of operator, it’s not often that he’s employed such a no-frills approach in the studio.
“Sometimes the way I make music is really computery. Often I’ve gone into the studio with a rough idea of what I’m going to do, but not really, and I sit there with a producer who makes really good beats and I’ll just be making loops and we’ll be building it up like that.”
On this album, however, he and Teskey employed a spontaneous and instinctive process, which was complemented by the Teskeys’ analogue recording gear.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, these Teskey brothers, they’ve bothered to buy Barnesy’s old tape machine, this is how they roll. So I’m going to go down this rabbit hole with them.’ It was like, ‘I’m not here to tell these guys a thing about a plug-in.’ It was a seamless experience, just really raw.”
Push The Blues Away is available to purchase and stream now via Ivy League.