Ida Mae
Photo: Zach Pigg / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Band Together to Make Ida Mae ‘Click’ in Nashville

Summer might be the perfect time to celebrate Ida Mae Day with a refreshing married duo from England whose new album Click Click Domino should heat up lukewarm Americana traditions.

Click Click Domino
Ida Mae
16 July 2021

Sticking Together

With Turpin writing a collection of acoustic-based songs that “just didn’t match up with a heavy rock ’n’ roll band,” he and Jean decided to change direction and seek out other contacts in the music industry that “were interested in what we were gonna do next.” 

“We had heard people say, ‘Perhaps you should do something as more of a solo project,’” Turpin remembers. “And we never considered it. We thought it would just be a smaller kind of indie-style project. We didn’t expect, within the next three years, we’d be living in Nashville and opening up for Willie Nelson. That wasn’t really part of the plan. We just focused on the songs and what was in front of us. … We wanted to write songs that we cared about and felt strongly about. And we hadn’t made any compromises.” 

Saying he felt like Richard Thompson, a personal musical hero, leaving Fairport Convention to improve his songwriting skills, Turpin thinks that’s especially true within the confines of a rock band. “You start to write in riffs rather than writing in strong narrative or poetry, which is what we cared about more,” Turpin proclaims. “I felt like I just wasn’t getting any better. … So that’s what we tried … more with Ida Mae was, ‘OK, let’s focus on the work and that will be the reward. And what will come of it will come of it.’”

Click Click Domino

Ida Mae’s New Home

Even before forming Kill It Kid and meeting Stephanie Jean, there was the Ida Mae Band, the local Norwich group Turpin started with bassist Tom Harvey and drummer Martin Scheuregger before disbanding in 2007 to pursue university studies. 

Deciding to use the name that not only comes from the song by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee but also because it’s attached to roots from Ireland, England, America and even Germany (Jean spent part of her childhood in Erlangen, near Nuremberg), Turpin certainly thought it was worth trying again. This time for a two-word twosome whose first song they sang together happened to be “Ida Mae”. 

Neither are able to pin down the exact year this Ida Mae was officially reborn (Turpin: probably 2019; Jean: maybe 2018), but whenever it was, they soon made an impression on music executive Britti (Himelfarb) Phillips of Nashville’s Vector Management. “Britti was, by far, the most determined, serious music lover that we’d met in the music industry. And willing to do things differently,” Turpin believes. “The old record deals … signing advances for huge sums of cash and then them owning you for the rest of your life is quite an old business model now. 

“We didn’t want to go that route if you didn’t have to. … We own more of our copyrights and we’re able to record what we want when we want. They were willing to try that in this kind of new and ever-changing music industry, which a lot of management companies won’t want to do.” 

With management and visas in place, and seeing enterprising artists like Jack White and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach make past relocations buzzworthy, Ida Mae chose to follow them to Nashville. “There were just things happening,” Turpin expresses. ‘We felt, ‘Hey, if that’s the scene right now and that’s where it is in America, let’s go to it.’”

Yet Turpin refuses to play the copycat game In Nashville, using the 2014 professional breakup of the Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Joy Williams as an example. “As soon as they left, there was this vacuum of husband-and-wife duos that kind of came out together kind of doing that Americana thing,” he claims. “But a lot of that was a bit sickly, kind of sweet, for us. It’s not really what we do.” 

So while admiring dual collaborations such as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or Robert Plant’s Raising Sand project with Alison Krauss that Turpin acknowledges “was an inspiration” or the married pair of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst known as Shovels & Rope, Ida Mae prefers not to listen to — or get compared with — other roots duos. “We’re a kind of small piece of that patchwork,” Turpin concedes. “But, strictly speaking, we don’t really fit into any of those genres comfortably. Because we don’t affiliate ourselves really too much with any of those.

“Growing up on British rock ’n’ roll, it’s just a diverse influence when you really follow the lineage of any of those bands back. There’s a lot of early outlaw country, there’s a lot of pre-war country blues, there’s an awful lot of British folk and Scottish border ballads. Really, it’s kind of this mesh with everything.” 

Wisely Picking and Choosing

On the road throughout 2019, while supporting acts such as the Marcus King Band, Greta Van Fleet, and Blackberry Smoke, Turpin likens their us-against-the-world mentality while driving across the country to Bonnie and Clyde, though Jean jokes, “We don’t rob banks or kill anyone.”

Yet in the spirit of On the Road author Jack Kerouac, they are willing to take chances while the miles on their speedometer mount, with Turpin mainly behind the wheel. (Another aside: Jean taught him to drive several years ago, proudly establishing that, “He passed [his test] the first time. So I have a very good record.”)

They’ve also explored America’s backroads to find hidden treasures from a vast musical history filled with blues, country, rock, folk, and jazz, whether it was in an antique shop, vinyl record store, or places that specialize in refurbishing vintage instruments. 

Altering the name from a popular History Channel show, just call them Americana Pickers. 

They’ll go to great lengths — including “the middle of nowhere” in Iowa — to find authentic instruments from the past such as a Carnation Condensed Milk tin or an Oscar Schmidt-made mandolinetto, both heard on “Little Liars” along with Jean’s lovely lead vocals that she also displays on “Sing a Hallelujah”. 

“We kind of see ourselves as archaeologists when it comes to some of this music,” especially for this record, declares Turpin, whose instruments on Click Click Domino also include a gut string banjolele and his “most important one” — a 12-string resonator made by National Reso-Phonic.

Having used the instrument on tunes like “Raining for You” and “Has My Midnight Begun”, Turpin gushes, “It’s kind of a one-of-a-kind guitar. It’s one that I’ve taken out on the road a lot. … It’s become one of the third members of the band.” 

Playing mostly piano, synthesizers, and Hammond organ, Jean calls her Wurlitzer 200A electric piano “my prized possession” but finds it “incredibly impractical” to take on the road. “We used to try and tour with it,” she adds. “It’s just so heavy, and every time you knock it, you have to get it serviced, and it costs a fortune.” The pianette she plays on “Deep River” is a smaller alternative that’s “a little similar to the Wurlitzer in tone” but “it’s actually incredibly heavy as well.” 

The itinerant travelers certainly know all about the rigors to the road, totaling more than 250,000 miles by planes, trains, automobiles, and boats, according to Turpin’s new photo journal book that also will be released Friday, with the same title as the album’s riveting first song — “Road to Avalon”. 

On the livestream, Ida Mae reports the name Avalon was chosen “because it’s rich in Celtic mythology,” Turpin reflects. “It’s an earthly paradise in the western skies, which is a pretty grandiose metaphor about searching or escaping a place or situation for somewhere that’s better than where you are.”

Before the pandemic, they were constantly touring while also opening for performers such as Josh Ritter, the Lone Bellow, and Rodrigo y Gabriela, the Mexican acoustic guitar tandem that headlined the last show Ida Mae played last year. After appearing on 12 March 2020 in Sugar Land, Texas, they were forced to take what Turpin calls a 15-month break. 

“We’re just hoping that this [new album] becomes a ticket to get back out on the road to play live, to play large-scale shows, and to just reconnect with the fans that we met on a merch stand every night for two-and-a-half years,” Turpin maintains. “This record is a real representation of our time on the road and growing and growing, really.” 

Personnel-wise, they’ll be traveling lighter during a 2021 tour schedule that began in the rain at the Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on 1 July, then the next day at Stephen Talkhouse, a Main Street bar in the East Hampton hamlet of Amagansett, New York. 

While taking more instruments along this summer as they resume with wish-list stops at the Newport Folk Festival on 23 July, Nashville’s AmericanaFest in September, and a string of dates on Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival tour in October, their favorite rhythm section will remain in the UK for now. 

“Even just getting ourselves back out to America has been complicated,” Jean explains. Now that they’re back, here’s a slogan to consider: “Take a joy ride with Music City’s Bonnie and Clyde.” 

Double the pleasure

Other married duos I’ve previously interviewed admitted they’ve had their share of minor spats or heated discussions, but there’s no double trouble so far for Ida Mae, Turpin and Jean insist after maintaining a professional and personal relationship for about 12 years. Revealing that, “Typically, I write the bulk of the songs,” Turpin goes on to say, “Steph comes in more as a director toward the end and tells me what I’ve done wrong,” causing them both to erupt in laughter. 

He hastens to add, “A lot of the songs on this album were more cowrites because Steph is a fantastic keys player,” mentioning how “Heartworn Traders” and “Line on the Page” began as instrumental pieces she composed on the piano. 

Regarding the primary challenges facing them during a 24/7 existence, they respond, almost in unison, “We really don’t have any.” With a laugh, Jean continues, “We get along really well. … We met working together and it’s all we’ve ever known … and staying together all the time. So maybe if we’d had separate lives and then came together and tried to be together 24/7, it would be different, but this is all we know, so it works for us. I know it wouldn’t work for other people, but it works for us.” 

With their busy schedule, thinking about starting a family is laughable to Jean right now, while Turpin interjects, “I’m sure that will be inevitable at some point.” She even finds it funny that anyone would wonder if they ever argue over household chores like washing the dishes or taking out the trash. “We very irritatingly don’t disagree on that much, actually, do we Chris?” she asks. He quickly replies, “No, we don’t.” 

If there are any spousal complaints, Jean finally finds one but softens the blow by mentioning key witnesses who would testify on their behalf. “Sometimes Chris is late. But then we’re always together, so then we’re both late. (laughs) … Our mothers can vouch for us that we don’t disagree on very much. We’re lucky.” 

As long as the Turpins can keep it together, there’s no doubt many more Ida Mae days — and miles — lie ahead.