They say that every hue mixed together creates the color black. If each song was a tint, then we’d find that its artists, Delta Deep, blend together to create the perfect shade of cobalt blue; which is raw, primal and organically extracted from the Earth. Their perfect combination of rock, rhythm, soul and blues indelibly draws us into a picture that tells far more than a thousand words and mixes every shade of music into a painting, redefining the color wheel.
Debbi Blackwell-Cook’s vocals tell a visual story upon the smoky canvas of each song, making each word she sings vividly appear with an ease that only a seasoned artist could express. Her formidable vocal ability to reach down to the depths of her soul unleashes each of her life’s experiences upon each sound splashed across the composition. She makes herself vulnerable to the entire canvas, never leaving one detail out, allowing her passion, her longing and her pain to illuminate the canvas with artistic precision and intent.
Bandmate Phil Collen’s signature rock n’ roll-infused slide guitar work melodically meshes to meet Blackwell-Cook’s dynamic vocals, dancing its riffs over the canvas and bringing the image of each song to life with a sound that magically transplants the listener right to the heart of the deep delta without hesitation.
Polishing off this project is Grammy award-winning drummer and percussionist, Forrest Robinson, who’s masterful beats tie all components of this collaboration together to complete the masterpiece. All three artists exemplify what free-spirited artisanship, experience and limitless creativity can produce, a message that came through loud and clear during my January 2014 interview with Delta’s Deep’s Phil Collen and Debbi Blackwell-Cook.
“We’re very open-minded about [music.] I’ve always let every kind of music in–whether it’s reggae, jazz, extreme rock, dance music, electronica, soul, funk–you name it. And I think when you actually start writing, you have so much inspiration to draw from, and it actually sounds a little bit different from some other artists out there,” said Collen when asked to define the sound of Delta Deep.
He continued on to state, “It’s a primal thing. As funny as it is, we joke about [the emotions.] Sometimes it kind of evokes sexuality. It evokes emotions one way or the other, and that is what we want to do. That’s why they call soul music ‘soul music,’ although we haven’t got much of it around anymore. It’s really nice to be able to go back to that way of expression. It’s all been about the music business and very sterile over the last 15-20 years. It’s kind of nice to go back and actually do what we’re doing for the right reasons. It’s so much fun.”
To understand the blues, one must remember the roots and foundation of it, and both Collen and Blackwell-Cook agree that honesty, spirituality and the pioneers of rock and roll all played a vital role in the creation of it, as well as inspiring Delta Deep’s sound.
Blackwell-Cook remarked that, “You have to strip down butt naked which means I go to the soul of my life. Everything that has happened in my life–I put it on the stage. I’m totally honest, whether it’s the good, the bad or the other. It’s my journey. I live my journey through my song. I bare my soul.” She continued on to say, “It’s singing your truth. My mother said when I was a baby in the crib, I would sing and do my fingers like a piano. Then I would sing from the crib to the church. It’s a calling, honey. It’s the calling.”
Blues is music in its rawest form, and when asked if he was in agreement with rock and roll being born from this genre, Collen emphatically replied, “Absolutely. I always say Little Richard was the first hard rock singer, and I sincerely believe that, and that [his music] literally came straight from the blues which was a voice. It was [actually] an expression that came out of pain and everything, and you actually heard that. You can’t really stylize that. You can just take the inspiration. That’s really what we’re doing.”
He also discussed that effectively performing the blues takes commitment and a deep understanding of its roots. “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met each other in a train station. They were disciples of the blues. They would have these albums that you actually couldn’t get in England [in the 1950’s and 60’s.] They formed an appreciation society which ended up being The Rolling Stones. The same thing can be said about Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. If you trace back to Def Leppard, [we were] hugely influenced by those bands, and those guys were all influenced by the blues. It’s the pure inspiration of it. Like I said, it’s not the style of it. It’s the inspiration of it.”
In terms of how Delta Deep and other artists interpret the blues, Collen said, “I really get upset with a lot of music when they just go to the style of it, and they don’t actually go into the mechanics of it–the social commentaries. Blues was a voice. It was actually a political, social voice trying to get something out, and that’s really what we’re tapping into–basically stuff that makes you feel. Music that makes you have goosebumps when you listen to it. [We] just draw from that inspiration and emotion, so that’s really where we’re at, and we’re just loving that process,” Collen continued.
Collen has also been lead guitarist for Def Leppard for over 30 years, though his roots began in punk with the bands Lucy, Tush, The Dumb Blondes and then Girl (glam metal rock) respectably. In 2004, Collen formed Manraze, along with former Girl bandmate, Simon Laffy and The Sex Pistol’s Paul Cook. He feels that, “Everything you do has an influence”, in terms of his current and previous projects. “It depends on how involved you want to be,” he continued. “I’ve always been very involved in music, and it’s always been part of my life. I do meet a lot of musicians and players and they’re not very passionate about their music. It’s almost like a hobby, and it will always be there. You can hear the artists that do that. There’s a big difference if it’s a part of your DNA, so yes, of course, everything that you do influences where you get to, and that’s how it should be,” he replied.
Blackwell-Cook’s roots can be found at the other end of the spectrum, from performing on Broadway, to singing for Pope John Paul at the Vatican, to crooning with The Jammers, a post-disco, synthpop musical group. In addition, she’s guest-starred in acclaimed television sitcoms like A Different World and Sister, Sister, though it was her role as Bessie Smith in James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones that won her the AUDELCO Best Actress award, aside from a multitude of other New York City AUDELCO awards.
Percussionist Forrest Robinson is also a composer, solo artist (pianist/keyboardist), producer, music director, and has collaborated with an array of artists including India.Arie, Akon, TLC and Ray Parker, Jr.
“He is such an incredible player,” Collen said of Robinson. “You try and write songs you come out with, and sometimes it goes in a direction you didn’t really expect. Some of this [work] sounds like early Led Zeppelin; really powerful, hard-rocking. It’s just amazing, so we just went with it. Forrest is such an amazingly powerful drummer. It was just an honor to play [along side] him in the studio. We had a thrill. It was great stuff,” Collen shared.
Helen L. Collen, Phil’s wife, is not only an accomplished costume designer and photographer, but also contributes to writing songs for Delta Deep. Although Delta Deep’s album is not slated to debut until Fall 2014, Collen discussed his wife’s role with the band and offered a sneak peek behind its upcoming songs. “These songs were actually [written by] the three of us; me, Debbi and Helen. A concept comes. You usually get an idea or a story or a hook. It can be anything though. We have this song, Bang the Lid and it’s really cool. I had an injury in my tendon. I couldn’t play guitar for a while, so I actually learned how to play slide guitar. That song is very slide guitar-based, in fact, that’s all that’s on there. Each song is different, [for] whatever the muse is, and Helen writes lyrics, Debbi write lyrics, and they’re beautiful,” he added.
The culmination of every musical genre, along with life experiences and unabashed open-mindedness complete the full picture of what Delta Deep stands for, bringing the blues into a whole new musical spectrum. Collen shared that, “We’re just doing what we want to do, and that’s really what that expression is, so you’re not going to get a closer expression more similar to some of the other blues that don’t have that sort of influence going on.” Blackwell-Cook added, “Music is music because it comes from your soul. It comes from your heart. It’s my passion. It’s what I live to do. I would rather die than not sing.”