The show has ended; Peter Karp and Sue Foley have finished a terrific four-song set and joined in for a jam with the other bands on the bill as part of Nashville's weekly live radio broadcast Music City Roots and there are a couple things on their minds. First they need to get the bevy of guitars and stringed instruments they used for the show from the backstage to their van. I pick a couple of them up and laugh, telling them I've carried many a guitar for friends in bands having realized some time ago I couldn't actually play one worth a damn.
"We'll just be a second," Peter tells me as he loads the last of them. "Gotta take care of something- namely getting paid." He gives a wry smile and heads back into the Loveless Cafe to find the man with the money. Sue returns to the van and looks for Peter. I smile and rub my fingers together, giving the universal nonverbal signal for "money." She nods, knowingly, and grabs a seat on the curb, relaxing.
Peter returns, presumably with some form of payment and asks, "Where are we going to do this? I'm hungry. Let me go see if the kitchen has anything left." He darts off again and Sue and I make small talk while he's away.
"It's hard to get much of an appetite before a show," she tells me. "Afterwards, though, you're usually starving."
About this time Peter again makes his way towards us, trying mightily to balance three glasses of water and two clear, plastic bags, one filled with fried chicken and the other with rolls. I meet him halfway between the back door and the van and help offload some of the grub. Sue hops in the van and meets us around front as we walk to a picnic table on a humid, breezy night in Nashville.
"I made a point to make friend swith 'the help,'" he says. "A woman in their named Tuffy- I asked her before the show if she'd hook me up and she said she would. I told her that her name may be Tuffy but she's a softy."
"A woman named Tuffy," I say. "That sounds like a song to me."
This may not be the highlife to these two veteran performers but I'm trying not to pinch my arm in front of them. I've put two hours of highway travel between me and the struggles and troubles of my day job and I've now entered some strange cosmic space that finds me sitting across a picnic table eating fried chicken with Peter Karp and Sue Foley, talking about the successful musical partnership that has produced one of the year's best records, He Said She Said (review).
We cover a lot of ground while we eat our late dinner before the "official" interview begins. We begin with the record's unusual genesis and the long odds of it ever being made or finding the commercial success it has found.
HSSS began as a series of letters and e-mails the two artists exchanged while on the road touring in support of their respective solo albums. Those letters form the basis of the majority of the songs found on it. It's an unusual formula and not one most labels would embrace in this day and age.
Karp nods when I mention this and admits he and Foley had to do a little work convincing his label to support the idea. Once they let them hear the songs, the label saw the potential in this unusual story as something that might help sell it, even to what can be a conservative, traditional audience.
"This is not a blues record," Karp said. "We're blues-based artists that are looking to tell a story and a lot was in that record, if you know some of the background. There's a lot of emotional dymanics: love, romance, discovery, inspiration, tragedy. We put it all out there."
Deep emotions and good stories have long been found in the blues idiom even if the singer/songwriter approach of these two doesn't fit squarely inside the traditional constructs, but Karp suspects the refreshing approach may be what's helping it find an audience among blues listeners looking for something different.
He mentioned the possibility of doing this collaborative record the first time I interviewed him at the end of 2007 and while that may seem like a long gestation period from then to the spring 2010 release of HSSS, he and Foley believe the timing was perfect.
"It gradually kept unfolding," said Foley. "We met at the end of '06 and then we just corresponded for a long time and then eventually we did see each other again in '07 and then we would arrange meetings when we could and things gradually unfolded. It took a good year-and-a-half.
"It really had its own pace. It wasn't rushed. Even when we tried to rush it to get the record done it still had its own pace. It's the creative process; you just have to let it do its thing. "
Sometimes when records and the creative process takes that long it is an indicator of busy schedules and difficulties executing the idea. While the two were certainly busy with their solo careers, Karp says there weren't any real difficulties in making the idea work.
"It was very intuitive," he said. "It wasn't like, 'Here's my schedule, here's your schedule, let's make a record in this period.'"
Foley said even the idea of a 'He Said/She Said' concept happened organically. Neither of them had any idea they were writing songs when they were exchanging letters. While they talked about music and songwriting and even passed song ideas back and forth between one another as part of their exchanges, the idea they were building a foundation for an album didn't come until much later.
"We didn't really know each other but we were able to express and open ourselves up to each other through letters and it became very cathartic and we started to rely on that," she said. "We were living crazy lives out on the road and you're just totally in the wind and that became something you could hold on to and that honesty was there. It wasn't like we were putting each other on. We were just opening up. I think since we were both doing it, it felt very safe."
Karp used the word catharsis about their communication and took it a step further, calling those e-mails from Foley a lifeline.
"I think in my life there was so much that was wrong that the only thing that was right and made me feel good and that I could be really straight about was talking to Sue through the letters," he said. "There was so much of my life that wasn't going right. It really was a lifeline. I was spiraling down and then I went through some other stuff that pushed me real down. I was losing my footing."
The powerful emotion and the at times desperate and tragic events that served as the backdrop for their correspondence made for rich songwriting terrain but it wasn't always easy to revisit when it came time to make the record. It took that safety they discovered and nurtured to make the next step possible.
"She's a very strong person and she's been doing this for years," he said. "When I sensed that through these letters, it gave me something to hold on to and pull myself up. It transcends the music business part of it or making a record. It didn't have anything to do with that. I was going to make another record and she was going to make another record but this became too important to us both. It felt like unfinished business and now it's taken on its own life."
Foley is reluctant to delve into nonsensical philosophical babble or artistic cliche but she, too, found herself excited and drawn to what they'd started without knowing it.
"It's going to do us now," she said, speaking of the record. "This is happening. It's time. We knew the strength of the material. Once you have that and it's ready and complete and that's where we went. It led us. It was like the 'creative force' pulling us."
After spending much more time getting to know each other via distance, it took some time to learn to work side-by-side in the studio but even that proved to be fun for them. With the record completed, they next had to conquer delivering the material live each night as they kicked off the HSSS tour.
"There's still a learning curve because we're both leaders in our right," she said.
"To get to that point, we had to go through a few battles just to learn each other's bad habits and good habits, said Karp. "We don't have ego problems. We have healthy egos but we don't have ego problems. If somebody wants something more, we each give it to each other and if it throws the thing out of balance, we keep an eye on the big picture. We're both experienced."
"We're lucky," Foley continued. "The band is great. We're pulling the stuff off live and it's just like the record. People are blown away and it's very comfortable and easy.
For me, it's great because I don't have to work as hard and vice versa. We work our asses off on the road! There's a lot to do. When you have a co-partner it really takes the edge off. We're able to focus a lot more."
Foley has handled most of the set lists and has looked for ways to keep things fresh for their audiences and for each other.
"We mix it up a little bit," she said. "We usually start with "Treat Me Right." It's a good starter and we end with different songs, depending on what kind of show we're doing. We are doing the whole record, every song is being done, so that's cool. "
I realize the night is getting away from us even though I had many more questions swirling through my head and was completely engrossed in the stories of the road from idea to record. I tell myself there will be another day and time, especially if this tour is going to continue into next year. I still have a two-hour drive and Sue has an early morning flight home to Ottawa. I wipe my greasy fingers on my jeans and we shake hands and part company.
It's possible my feet touched the ground as I made my way back to my car, but I doubt it.
HSSS Tour Dates
Thu 06/10/10 Springfield, MO Nathan P. Murphy's
Fri 06/11/10 Wichita, KS Rock Island
Wed 06/16/10 Kansas City, MO Knuckleheads
Thu 06/17/10 Lincoln, NE Zoo Bar
Fri 06/18/10 Rochester, MN Whiskey Bones Roadhouse
Sat 06/19/10 Berwyn, IL FitzGerald's
Sat 07/10/10 New York State Blues Festival
Sat 07/24/10 Pittsburgh Blues Festival Hartwood Acres
Sat 08/07/10 Earlville, NY Earlville Opera House
Sun 08/22/10 Delaware, NJ Hunter's Lodge Field
Sat 08/28/10 Springfield, IL Old Capitol Blues & BBQ
Fri 09/24/10 Shirley, MA Bull Run Restaurant
Sat 09/25/10 Portland, ME The Venue Music Bar