By Linda Cain
The label “child prodigy” is often overused. But when it comes to Ivy Ford, the description rings true. Raised in north suburban Waukegan, IL, Ivy leaned to play music at an early age. She is mostly self-taught on piano, alto saxophone, drums, bass and guitar. At age 13, she began performing live with a Kenosha, WI band, The Real Deal. In 2012, at age 19, she joined a local blues band which evolved into Ivy Ford and the Cadillacs.
Once she was old enough to get into bars, Miss Ford began to perform with her mentor, blues guitar hero and Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductee J.B. Ritchie. She has since shared the stage with Toronzo Cannon, Tom Holland, Joe Moss and more. After receiving exposure by playing in Chicagoland’s blues clubs, Ivy’s stand-out talent earned her many prestigious bookings including opening for Buddy Guy at his club Legends in 2015. She also represented the Crossroads Blues Society (based in Rockford, IL) at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in February 2018. Ivy’s riveting, high energy performance won her a spot in the semi-finals, after competing against a couple hundred blues acts from around the world. The next year, Crossroads sent Ivy back to Memphis for IBC 2019 and this time she made it to the finals
Her star really began to rise after that–she landed a slot at Chicago Blues Fest in June 2019 and released her critically acclaimed CD Harvesting My Roots. She followed with a unique concept album, Club 27, an homage to legendary musicians who left us too soon. When the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic cancelled her performance schedule, Miss Ford spent her time well; she streamed live shows and recorded a cheery Christmas EP, Happy Holidays 2020, in her home. It, along with a 2019 holiday EP also titled Happy Holidays, are available as free downloads at the Ivy Ford website.
Now that things are at least starting to get back to normal in Spring 2021, I caught up with Ivy, who continues to carry on, undaunted.
‘Love In This World,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
At what age did you start learning to play music? Did you take formal lessons and on which instrument(s)?
It’s cliché but true that I’ve been singing since before I could talk and my household that I grew up in was always a fan of music. I was always in choir in school and age 9 I took a few piano lessons. I was in band for a spell too, but those are the only sense of “formal” training or lessons. And what you see me do now, is all self taught. The most valuable knowledge I’ve learned has been from outside a classroom.
How many instruments do you now play?
Well I sing, but I also play guitar, bass, piano, drums and saxophone. So five, and six if you count my voice.
Who were your early musical influences?
I’ve grown up in a household that has a very diverse collection of music to listen to, so I remember listening to Luther Vandross but then Patsy Cline too. As a pre-teen I was very much into the pop princesses of the ‘90s, which does include Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (laughs). But I remember being hooked on Billie Holiday and Sara Vaughan from a very early age. I love Nat King Cole and Ray Charles too.
How and when did you first hear blues music?
Funny enough, I never thought anything of it until looking back, but my mom actually used to make fun kid songs out of what would be technically 12-bar blues. Disclaimer: my mom is not a musician, although she’s says all the time she wishes she was. But I first heard Billie Holiday around age 7 or 8 and fell in love then. Although I had been privy to it, I probably didn’t listen to a whole lot of electric blues until around 12 or 13. And that was actually when I got my first personal taste of live music. The band I saw eventually took me under their wing, so to speak, and it’s safe to say that’s when the seeds were planted.
The Ivy Ford Band, live from Rosa’s Lounge (Stay Home Again Series), streamed live on July 25, 2020. The band lineup: Ivy Ford, guitar, lead vocals; Willie Rauch, bass; Dave Axen, drums; Bob O. Walesa, harmonica
Who are your biggest blues influences?
I absolutely dig Freddie King. Last several years, both as a guitar player and vocalist. But as a female performer and singer I’ve always felt kinship to Billie Holiday. Now, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and of course Memphis Minnie are inspirations for me as well on many levels. Don’t get me wrong: I have peers of mine today that I admire and aspire to emulate as well. The list is truly long.
How would you describe your approach to the blues genre?
I think I bring a boldness that is big but not overwhelming or intimidating. I have a huge sense of pride in what I do and I try not to be crass or present it in a caricature-type manner. My work should speak for itself, but it’s very authentic, especially in my original music I’m an open book. My music is me. Honestly, you’d probably have an easier time knowing who I am through my music and my writings than getting me to talk about it. With the pride comes a sense of reputation that I strive to uphold. The showmanship and entertainment part of it is very important and I like it to be polished. Don’t mistake that for putting on a facade of some sort; you can dress things up and still be wearing very, very true colors
What do you hope to bring to the blues as an artist?
Music and performances that are “fresh” enough that even people that say they don’t care for blues will have a change of heart. I want to be part of the reason for its longevity and for its history to continue.
Tell us about your journey as a professional musician.
It’s not always easy. It rarely is, except for the actual playing part, but I can’t say I would or could ever stop. Being a musician as a career is something that I seem to have fallen into. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of hard work involved and without dedication, commitment and determination you won’t go far; but that’s for anything. And I still consider myself to be on that journey. It’s a continuous one that is forever teaching me new things and putting me in new experiences.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Oh yes. Steve ‘Rainman’ Rainey, who was a drummer and who put together the “Real Deal Band” from Kenosha, WI. Man, he taught me a lot, especially when it came to professionalism, work ethic and how to lead a band. Blues Hall of Fame artist J.B. Ritchie and I worked together pretty steadily for a few years after he had introduced me to a lot of Chicago musicians I now know. And honestly, other musicians I meet and get to listen to give me a little knowledge of what to do or what not to do. So again I’m always learning and trying to better myself, when I can. You can never stop learning something.
‘Harvesting My Roots,’ Ivy Ford, the title track from her 2019 album
What challenges did you face? You started in the music biz at a very young age.
I still get it now but, being so young, I think gives folks a preconceived perspective that I’m naive. Or that I’m too young to handle myself in the business, and that is frustrating.
What are some of your career highlights?
Opening for Buddy Guy at Legends, which was a big kickstart to my career, will forever be a magical memory for me. I did feel it then, but there was so much adrenaline and I had a performance to focus on that I couldn’t digest it, but that night I think was like a rite of passage for who I am today. And making it to the finals for the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, I am very proud of. I’m so proud of my band–drummer Dave Axen and bassist Willie Rauch–as always, on and off the stage. And I was proud to represent as a Chicago Blues musician, plus we advanced that far in the competition with all music from my original album, Harvesting My Roots. That fact takes a huge priority for me, because, well, it’s my work; (my original songs) were what people liked and what (criteria) the judges (used) to score me, which put us in the top tier of the competition that season.
You are a prolific songwriter, with five albums of mostly original material. What is your process for writing a song?
First off, thank you. I don’t have a go to “process.” I write when I can. Sometimes it’s literally some words or a phrase that comes to mind, when I’m in a certain situation, and if I’m home, I have journals and put pen to paper. If I’m out and about, though, I do text myself with what I come up with. Sometimes I come up with words first, other times I have an instrumental that makes me feel some kind of way or the music and lyrics kind of write themselves simultaneously. But all of my original music comes from real experiences, my feelings etc. The best way to get an inside look at me, is through my music. I have a hard time talking about it otherwise.
It seems that some of your albums have an overall theme or concept. Harvesting My Roots and Club 27 are both very different. What were your goals for those two records?
Harvesting My Roots is an homage to my personal background and where I come from. The title track says, “I am what I am, my daddy’s blood and my mama’s soul.” I mean that’s quite literal. It was also, in my opinion, my first album that I felt I had wised up enough to proudly say, yes, this is more on that traditional blues side with neo-nuances to my music. Although all of the content is from my life, personal experiences and feelings, my album Club 27 is arranged more deliberately to fit a profile; and that was to respect and pay homage to the notorious “27 Club,” which is–for those that don’t know–an unofficial “club” of mega musicians and rock stars over the decades that had untimely deaths at age 27. Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, The Doors and Kurt Cobain were who I used for inspiration when it came to the grooves and feel of the music. I know it may have seemed a little crazy to “play with fire,” but I actually released that on my very own 27th birthday. I felt that solidified my point for that album, and I’m very glad to say I’ve made it to 28. I wasn’t trying to get my card punched for that membership, but I think it’s very intriguing and worth showcasing.
All of your albums have been self-produced and self-released and are very professional. Is there a producer you would like to work with in the future?
I can’t say I have one in mind. That does not mean there’s not great ones that could probably add to what I’m doing, I’ve yet to be proposed to by one that I’ve felt compelled to work with…yet.
Is there a favorite musician you’d like to work with?
I’m extremely fortunate I get to and have gotten to play and share stages with some of the greats in Chicago blues or otherwise. However, I don’t think anyone would argue with me saying Chicago’s own Guy King has a phenomenal taste between his guitar tone, singing and overall nuance that I would be honored to work with. Maybe someday.
How do you approach the business side of your music career? You seem to wear many hats: booking agent, record producer, manager, promoter, graphics, marketing, social media. Do you do it all by yourself? Plus you are a busy mother of a preschooler!
It’s a lot for sure. I’ve yet to meet someone like a manager, agent or otherwise that I sincerely feel will work just as hard as me to further my career. So I don’t feel comfortable to commit to someone financially or otherwise yet. I am a mom of a three-year-old (Miss Vivian with be four in July) but I’m lucky my support system at home is really dedicated, like my mom and Vivian’s dad. It helps and it takes a village to raise a kid.
How did you spend your time during the COVID shutdown of 2020, with all of your live shows being cancelled? Did you perform streaming live shows for tips, like many others?
I right away went to streaming me playing acoustic at home. At first it was really kind of strange to be performing to a screen. As time’s gone on, me and my band have done about four professional streams from Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago that people have really enjoyed; I won’t lie, I kind of was getting the hang of “talking and playing to myself.” Although I’m grateful for some alternative to live gigs, there’s nothing like performing for real live audiences and unfortunately even us artists that have music, merchandise and more on the market, our paychecks come from when we perform, so it’s definitely been a difficult and dire situation this past year.
‘Time To Shine,’ Ivy Ford, title track from her 2018 album
Do you have some local live shows coming up, now that Covid restrictions are starting to be lifted?
Summer 2021 has shaped up rather nicely with festivals, outdoor parties and more, which has been a great boost for morale and our bills (laughs). We will be back in Chicago at Rosa’s live on April 9th and then at Untitled Supper Club in May. We have a few road trips coming up this summer too, which I look forward to.
Do you have any future plans or goals to tour in the States or in Europe?
Before COVID I was scheduled to go on tour to France in Fall 2020 with a possible return in the summer of 2021. Naturally it was postponed, but I’m hoping I will be able to reschedule my tours across the pond.
‘Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
Where do you see yourself and your music headed in five years’ time?
My goal is to continue to write, record and tour. Performing really is my life and one of the things I do best. I will continue to play and perform until I can’t do it any more, and unfortunately I probably won’t always be able to rock and roll like I do now. When that day comes, I want to have planted seeds throughout my career that I can harvest down the road. I want to be considered one of the “heaviest hitters” from here in Chicago to L.A. and New York and overseas. I hope and want people to listen to my music, watch me as a performer and walk away with their souls feeling 10 times richer than before. It probably sounds epic and big. But it’s good to have big goals and desires, and if it makes you happy and ain’t hurtin’ nobody else while you’re doing it then, “It’s time to shine…don’t let no one do you dim.”
Linda Cain is the Founder/Managing Editor of the Chicago Blues Guide. Now marking its 13th year of publishing, the CBG is the go-to source of everything newsworthy in the Chicago blues scene in particular and in the blues world in general. Ms. Cain’s interview with Ivy Ford was first published in the Chicago Blues Guide as part of the publication’s series “The Future: Chicago’s Blues Youngbloods” and is reprinted here with permission.