IDA MAE, the sublimely talented British blues duo comprised of Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward, achieved a fair amount of stardom at a relatively young age. The pair initially made their mark in Europe with Kill It Kid, the alternative rock band they formed in Bath, England over a decade ago.
Turpin and Ward toured extensively with Kill It Kid, and before it as all over they had even signed a major label record deal with Warner Bros. Kill it Kid generated the kind of industry buzz that often leads to the global rock star success that millions of musicians blissfully daydream about while plodding away at their day jobs.
But despite all their initial success and the attention they had begun to garner—not just in England, but all throughout Europe—Turpin and Ward decided to kill off Kill It Kid. The pair subsequently set out to do the one thing they had always had their hearts and minds set on: make the kind of music that inspired them to become musicians in the first place.
Turpin and Ward recently sat down with Live For Live Music to discuss their transformation from alternative music darlings into Delta blues torch-bearers, their unique chemistry, how the legendary Ethan Johns came to produce their debut LP, and their love affair the retail chain Target.
Most musicians would give anything for even the slightest amount of industry recognition or success, especially when initially attempting to jump-start their careers. However, despite reaching those benchmarks in their early twenties with Kill It Kid, Turpin and Ward threw caution to the wind and collectively chose to pursue a different path altogether. The pair ultimately wanted to make music that inspired them and although they had spent years grinding away in Kill It Kid, success started to take on a different meaning for IDA MAE.
“We started Kill It Kid when we were nineteen-years-old and we ended up getting signed within six months of starting the band while we were still at university,” explains Turpin. “The band started out in a sincere, simple place that was very acoustic where we even had a violin player, but things changed quickly. At one point we decided to leave our degrees and move to Seattle to make the first Kill It Kill record. It seemed like the right move at the time because we got out there and immediately started connecting with producers that had worked with established acts such as The Lumineers and Brandi Carlile.”
However, as things progressed with Kill It Kid, Turpin and Ward began to feel some trepidation about moving forward with the band despite their increasing buzz within the alternative rock world. “By our second record, it had begun to get a little tougher on us as we suddenly found ourselves playing more rock and roll music,” Turpin laments. “By the time we had made it to making the third Kill It Kid record, we had been signed to a major label. We knew at that time that we had signed a bad deal but we simply didn’t have a manager that was powerful enough to handle a situation like that. … That third Kill It Kid record was never meant to sound like commercial music, nor was it really meant to be pushed to a commercial label, but those things ended up happening anyway. At that point, Steph [Ward] and I realized that being in Kill It Kid just wasn’t working for either of us anymore.”
Turpin and Ward wanted to transition to making the kind of music that inspired them personally: rural, early twentieth-century country and Piedmont blues. Blues legends such as Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell and “Blind” Willie McTell were the types of artists that really turned Turpin and Ward on.
The band’s name, IDA MAE, was even initially coined when Turpin asked Ward to sing an old Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song by the same. Coincidently, that ended up being the very first song the pair ever harmonized on together.
Let’s be realistic for a second. Delta Blues isn’t exactly bringing in the type of social media following that generates global fan interest or, for that matter, buy-ins from major record labels. If it was tough paying their bills as members of a somewhat-successful alternative rock band, how were Turpin and Ward going to carve out a living playing the blues? How would they even go about describing their new sound to anyone that may choose to give it a chance?
“If we wanted to make more money we would have stayed in Kill It Kid,” Turpin explains. “We had a following and had everything behind us that would have surely lead to more money. For us the change in our career was all centered around the music. … I would rather be fucking bone broke making the music that I love than feeling I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and just going through the motions to make a paycheck.”
Turpin is passionate about the subject and seems intent on hammering home the point home that IDA MAE, more than anything else, was both his and Ward’s true calling all along. “The reason we started to make this music and the reason we made the record the way we did was we wanted to be as brutally honest as we could be. We care about being as sincere and as honest as possible.”
“More than anything else, I think that’s what’s missing from music these days,” he continues. “A record should be something that you can put on and it should provide solace and safe place for you to go into and hide for a bit. It should be a very personal experience.”
Despite rooting the sound of IDA MAE in the blues, both Turpin and Ward insist that they are still inspired and influenced by the more traditional and rock and roll artists to whom most of their peers claim allegiance.
“What’s crazy is we are piecing together some of the exact same influences we did in Kill It Kid—like f*cking Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, and the Grateful Dead—but we’re just putting those influences together in completely different ways.”
As Ward adds, “Some of these shows are the first ones where I’ve been happy with the things that people have been saying to us afterwards, like things about our harmonies for instance. We’ve even had these big scary blokes coming up to us and saying that our set made them cry. Strangely, that’s the kind of feedback that has helped validate all the tough choices we made.”
“It’s cool that our music seems to be really connecting with people but if you were to just describe it to someone that didn’t know us and said to them IDA MAE, oh they’re this Delta blues band, most people’s response would probably still be, ‘Well, f*ck that,’” Turpin concludes with a chuckle.
Fortunately for IDA MAE, the industry and music fans have had nothing but praise for the blues duo of late. Case in point: Southern rock superstars like Blackberry Smoke and the Marcus King Band both tapped IDA MAE to open runs of shows for them earlier this year. Last month, Turpin and Ward closed out a very well-received run of shows with current mainstream rock music press darlings Greta Van Fleet.
IDA MAE’s debut LP, Chasing Lights, is set to be released on Friday, June 7th. The record was produced by the legendary (and somewhat reclusive) Ethan Johns. Johns has worked with industry heavyweights such as Paul McCartney and Kings of Leon, among others.
Johns is also a producer who turns down about ninety-nine percent of the artists that approach him to work on their records. Despite this fact, Johns jumped at the chance to work behind the scenes with Turpin and Ward to create what eventually would become Chasing Lights.
“Ethan was always at the top of our list because of who his father is [Glyn Johns] and how both he and his father record music,” Turpin explains. “I grew up with bands like Free, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks and all that music that’s real, but we never thought Johns would work with us. However, we actually ended up getting a call one day that he wanted Steph and I to come out to his house and meet with him.”
“We went to his house in the winter, which is this farm in the middle of nowhere,” Turpin continues. “We played a bunch of songs together for a while then met his kids and stayed for dinner. At the end of all of it, John’s says to us, ‘I’d love to do your record.’ His management was quite shocked to hear that because he turns down ten out of ten people.”
“We knew what we were signing up [for] with Ethan [Johns]. We wouldn’t run through songs so much as we would play them in pre-production and then go through the songs and the lyrics together,” Turpin explains of recording with Johns. “When we sat down to track and record, we had maybe played the song through once if we were lucky. Then we’d run through it maybe once or twice more and then it was straight to tape. Ethan would often just listen to a song once and come out and say, ‘That’s the one.’ The innocence, the mistakes and the learning that’s in those recordings—those are all part of Ethan’s process and they allow the songs to really reflect all of that work.”
Turpin highlights Chasing Lights track “Easily In Love” as an example of this rapport. “So, ‘Easily in Love.’ When you hear it on Chasing Lights, that wasn’t even our first [actual] take of the song—it was lifted from us just practicing it. When Johns heard that take he just said, ‘That’s it.’ And you know what, he was right. Right then and there, we knew we were going to get super organic, super unpolished and we were either going to sink or swim in that environment, and it just felt right. That’s why we went with Ethan, and it’s why the record came out the way that it did.”
Beyond the inherent quality of their music, the thing that allows IDA MAE to hypnotize any audience is the fiery chemistry that exists between Ward and Turpin. Ward effortlessly weaves in out and of Turpin’s direct space on stage as if their unspoken connection spiritually binds them in ethereal ways that cannot be easily defined or explained. Even without the assistance of a band behind them or anything that could be deemed a stage bell or whistle, they create a myriad of intense moments that captivate any audience for whom they play. Consequently, the duo’s live shows come off as not only musically polarizing but also deeply personal.
Curiously enough, however, neither Turpin nor Ward were initially cognizant that these conditions even existed. “We weren’t aware of it even though people kept telling us about it all the time,” Ward says with a laugh. “Quite frankly, I’m now kind of terrified it’s going to just disappear one day.”
“I think we’ve been doing this so long together that our chemistry just naturally exists today but I do think it’s something that’s been there the whole time,” Turpin adds.
Turpin and Ward only recently moved to the U.S. and are slowly becoming acclimated to all of North America’s idiosyncrasies and offerings. Since they’ve spent the vast majority of their time in the U.S. on the road, they’ve started a burgeoning love affair with, of all things, retail outfit Target.
Ward lets out and big laugh as she details what’s behind their infatuation with the retail giant. “Target is great because you can go down one aisle and buy slacks, then you can just walk over and get a cup of coffee from Starbucks. But he [points to Ward] is just as bad.”
“It’s true,” Turpin chimes in. “I’ll go into Target for something very specific but somehow walk out of there with a thermal vest, two Yankee candles, and a f*cking bookshelf. That sh*t does happen.”
Today, IDA MAE is generating the same kind of fan interest and industry recognition that Turpin and Ward were able to achieve more than a decade ago in their past life with Kill It Kid. The difference these days is they are doing it their way, making the kind of music that they once only dreamed of sharing with the world. It turns out dreams actually do come true. Who knew?
You can browse a gallery of IDA MAE photos below. Check out IDA MAE’s debut LP, Chasing Lights, when it’s released on Friday, June 7th. To pre-order the album and to keep up to date with all things IDA MAE, head on over to their website here.