For husband-and-wife duo Christopher Turpin and Stephanie Jean, what’s bold is new again as they bring a touch of British roots rock to Music City USA with their band Ida Mae. Adding innovative twists to their original songs that sound unconventional yet authentic, the singing-songwriting pair from England take blues, folk, outlaw country, and rock ’n’ roll to another level with vintage instruments, wraparound harmonies, and old-timey sensibilities. It all comes together with Friday’s release (16 July) of Click Click Domino, the couple’s second full-length album, and one already worthy of top 10 consideration for year-end lists.
Returning earlier this month to their adopted hometown of Nashville after an extended stay in the United Kingdom, Turpin and Jean have traveled a long way to get where they are today. And the two-for-the-road warriors were happy to perform live again as the holiday weekend approached before enjoying a “pretty traditional barbecue” on the Fourth of July at home with burgers and fireworks.
Though Ida Mae’s reformation is a recent addition to their timeline, Turpin and Jean have quite a history together that goes back more than a decade, when they met after joining a soul band while attending Bath Spa University in southwest England. Calling last week from their home, these engaging partners for life were willing to share many of their ups and downs during a lively chat with PopMatters, which featured their “Learn to Love You Better” on the PM Picks playlist in June.
Home Alone Project
Like many artists shut down by the global pandemic, Turpin and Jean had to readjust to record Click Click Domino, the impressive Ida Mae follow-up to 2019’s Chasing Lights, their full-length album debut that was produced by frequent collaborator Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Laura Marling, Kings of Leon).
After previously working with other notable producers like T Bone Burnett, Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Brandi Carlile, Foo Fighters), and M. Ward, the kindred spirits were ready to make a new record in 2020 but — grounded by the pandemic — had nowhere to go.
Home alone in Nashville, where they have lived since moving from the UK in 2019, they “rigged up the whole living room into a studio space” during quarantine and decided to produce the project themselves.
“We kind of thought that, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for us to really show what we’ve learned,” offers Turpin, whose raw, distinctive vocals and fine fretwork help Ida Mae roar into uncharted ground. “Put our money where our mouth is and show what we can really do. We’ve been saving for a studio because we’re independent artists [having their own imprint while Thirty Tigers handles distribution]. …
“We really care about keeping as independent and as homegrown and DIY and as organic as we can. So we thought, ‘Let’s just spend all the money we’ve saved (laughs) right at the beginning of a pandemic and get some of the equipment we know works for us and see what we can do.”
While Johns on drums and Nick Pini on bass — whom Jean calls their “favorite rhythm section” — were stuck in the UK and recorded from their own home studios, a couple of prominent American musicians were able to join Ida Mae for electrifying guest appearances.
Two guitarists who connected with Turpin and Jean during previous tours were featured separately on three explosive cuts — Marcus King (“Click Click Domino”, “Deep River”) and Greta Van Fleet’s Jake Kiszka (“Long Gone & Heartworn”).
“We’d just invite them over for dinner. And we would hang out, we’d drink a little and eat curry and just say, ‘Hey, do you want to take some passes on the tracks?’” recalls Turpin, who previously mentioned a “pretty over-the-top guitar battle” he had with Kiszka in the kitchen.
Introducing “Deep River” during their 24th June livestream on Mandolin, Jean playfully needles her husband by wisecracking about King’s “amazing solo on the record, and a solo that I don’t think will ever be emulated live by anyone.” There was no nasty retort from Turpin, only a wry “Thank you very much.”
Turpin and Jean often sang live takes of songs like “Click Click Domino” (feel the White Stripes vibe) and “Deep River” without a click track, then would jam with King before sending them across the pond to their rhythm section. “So it was a really bizarre way of putting together a record,” Turpin admits. “To me, I listen to ‘Deep River’ and it sounds like we were all in the room together. Which is pretty remarkable. But it’s just because we were lucky to be working with great musicians, I think.”
Just over a week from Click Click Domino’s release, Turpin expresses cautious optimism while saying, “Our expectations for the whole album have shifted but we’ve managed … to put the songs out slowly, which has been a great benefit to us. We’ve been able to reach a bit of a wider audience, streaming them online.”
Taking a progressive leap of faith from the gentler touch provided on Chasing Lights has been a plus, too, as the buzz builds by word of mouth. “With Chasing Lights, we were just on the road constantly,” Jean states. “It was like selling records on the road and just keeping … we were in that bubble. Whereas with this record we’ve been more in sort of the online bubble of things and keeping more track of that. But so far, everyone seems to love what’s come out so far, which is good.”
Trying hard to avoid getting trapped in the predictable Americana genre that Nashville-based bands sometimes find themselves, Turpin dares on Click Click Domino to “push sonically the kind of fringes of what you can do with that, so combining early 1970s synthetic-sounding drum machines and strange synthesizers with a resonator slide guitar. … It’s just really exciting for us.
“To see how we can re-contextualize and reframe a lot of those sonics was what we were trying to achieve. … Reshape some of the things we’re used to hearing. … We’re very proud of what we’ve done. It’s not necessarily revolutionary but we did what we set out to do.”
Following what Jean calls “a step up” with this iteration of Ida Mae that was 10 to 12 years in the making, it’s worth knowing how she and Turpin first brought similar musical interests and adventurous ideas together to become proud parents of a bouncing baby band.