Quad-Cities’ Avey Grouws Band Has Thrilling Experience Recording in Nashville
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Billed as “Music City,” Nashville, Tenn., has long been a magnet for musicians around the world. That was especially true earlier this month for the Quad-Cities’ Avey Grouws Band, which spent a couple weeks in the area recording and mixing their latest album.
Tentatively titled “Tell Tale Heart,” with an expected September 2021 release, the band’s second disc was
“He’s so talented and chill,” Jeni Grouws (lead singer and songwriter for the band) said recently in an interview from Nashville. Guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Avey really liked an album from Ford and
saw that Wasner did the engineering.
“I e-mailed Casey, and said, ‘Hey, my name’s Jeni; my parents are from Minnesota too,” Grouws said. Wasner also has his own studio (called The Purple House) in Leipers Fork, Tenn., 27 miles southwest of Nashville, where Avey Grouws did mixing and some recording. Ford has an album called “The Purple House,” since he recorded it there.
At East Iris Studios, the room they recorded in was an exact replica of the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. East Iris is owned by Universal Music Group.
“It’s like a whole neighborhood of studios,” Avey said of East Iris, which are wildly colorful and intricately decorated.
“There are Indian tapestries, with dark woods and bright colors, the painted woods.” Grouws said. “It was such a cool, creative vibe to work in. That inspired me.”
“It was like when you walked through one door, you were transported to something else,” Avey said. “When you walk into the control room, it was like an Indian remodeled cave.”
After Grouws heard the mixes of all 10 songs for the new record, “I honestly can tell you, I have never been so excited. I didn’t actually know we sounded that good,” she said.
When they recorded, they all performed at the same time, Grouws said, though she sang in a different room from the guys.
“When you have studios that can have that kind of sound space – that are that large – we know we can record room sounds, which has always been super important for Chris with his guitar in a way that’s impossible to do in a small space,” she said. “It is, for me anyway, a helpful thing to be outside your home environment to record something like this.”
“It definitely makes it an adventure, which adds to the excitement,” Avey said. “That adds to the excitement and the feel of the record.”
“We knew we could only afford three days, so let’s get this done, everybody focus,” Grouws said. The Purple House was done mainly for mixing and some percussion.
She got to shake a tambourine, and dried goat’s toes (strung together like a bracelet).
“Casey’s a drummer, too, so he and Bryan can nerd out on drum sounds,” Grouws said her drummer, Bryan West. Wasner took on the producer role, to improve their sound.
“It’s definitely been an incredible growing experience, to work with professional industry people like that,” Avey said.
Wasner (a native of Northfield, Minn.) won a 2014 Grammy for Best Engineered Album (non-classical), “Bluesamericana,” by Keb’ Mo’, with whom he also recorded while Avey Grouws Band was in Nashville.
West was a little apprehensive before meeting Wasner, but he’s played drums 35 years and it went perfectly. “He’s such a laid-back guy and such a cool guy,” he said. “Immediately, it just went away, and we did whatever we needed for the album, and it was awesome. I trusted him.”
Wasner was very motivating and supportive, West said. The band also includes Randy Leasman on bass and Nick Vasquez on keyboard.
Of their sessions, Grouws posted on Facebook April 8: “We finished up 3 days of intense tracking at East Iris Studios in Nashville last night, and we couldn’t be more happy with what we have so far! We all worked so insanely well together, and huge props to Casey Wasner and Ross Collier for having that perfect mix of chill and energy to keep us motivated and moving forward.”
Wasner is such an easygoing guy, he didn’t know he won a Grammy until someone told him, West (who also had the thrill of holding the award) said.
“He didn’t know if Keb’ won, that he won too,” Grouws said.
Surviving a 2020 of ups and downs
Avey Grouws Band was formed Jan. 1, 2017, after a wild New Year’s Eve party in Decorah, Iowa, where Jeni lives, three hours from the Q-C. Grouws – a native of Eau Claire, Wis. – ran a radio station for years and first met Avey and West at a Bettendorf blues jam in 2015.
Within a year of forming, the band won the Iowa Blues Challenge and played its first International Blues Challenge (sponsored by the Blues Foundation) in Memphis, Tenn., in January 2018. It also was back for the worldwide competition in January 2020, both times earning a semi-finalist spot – in the top 40 of 250 bands.
Their debut album, “The Devil May Care,” was recorded in fall 2019 at Catamount Studio in Cedar Falls, by Travis Huisman. For their first Kickstarter campaign, for the record, they had a goal of raising $7,000, and got over $8,000.
“For us, it’s about opportunities, for people to get the album before it’s released, and all that good stuff,” Grouws said. “So they actually want to be invested and we use that money for part of our recording process. We give them things in return for them spending money with us.”
The Kickstarter goal on the new one will be $15,000, she said.
The band hit the top 10 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart for its debut disc; was nominated by Blues Blast Magazine for best Debut Album New Artist; and was the first artist last September for a new online series (J.A.M. Sessions) presented by River Music Experience and Joy Avenue Media.
Grouws quit her radio station job in fall 2019 to do music full-time, after having worked as manager of KDEC-AM and FM in Decorah, formerly owned by her parents, for 16 years.
Of “The Devil May Care” (all originals), DownBeat magazine wrote: “Avey Grouws Band channels its pent-up enthusiasm and not slight musical ability toward an individuated brand of blues rock that recommends its first album.” The review said Jeni’s “limber voice rings with conviction, ratcheting up intensity on original tunes sans artifice.”
Their last in-person shows before the 2020 Covid shutdown were Friday, March 13 in Prairie du Chien, Wis., then March 14 in Decorah, Iowa.
Since March 20, 2020, they did live streams as a trio from Bryan and Chris’ Bettendorf apartment Fridays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at noon, exceeding 100 on Facebook shortly before leaving for Nashville.
They’ve gotten to know the Bettendorf apartment complex neighbors, who enjoy their music.
“Although the pandemic has stunk, it also has some benefits of bringing people together,” Grouws said. “When we go back on the road, we’re gonna miss some of those moments we had every weekend.”
Avey said they’ve had people in Europe who regularly watch their Facebook videos.
“Our biggest contingency has been from England, Scotland and Wales,” Grouws said. “One person in England, Melanie, found us because of
a song she heard on the radio, looked us up, and posted us to a group of music followers that like this other group in England, and they started an online community that has grown to thousands of people that like to come see our show.”
Last year, the band did a handful of outdoor shows – including last September at Tabor Home Winery in Baldwin, Iowa (50 miles from Davenport). That was their last public gig before Friday night, April 23, at Rhythm City Casino in Davenport.
Of Tabor Home, Grouws said: “It’s beautiful and it’s so spread out. Nobody has to sit by anybody. They walked around with a tip jar, if anybody wanted to put money in. Otherwise it was free. It was so much fun, and we’re doing it again on June 20, Father’s Day.”
The band has about 50 shows scheduled this year, including at Riverside Casino tonight (April 24) at 8:30 p.m., and at Davenport’s Hawkeye Tap on June 4 at 6 p.m. Other upcoming gigs will be June 6 for the Levitt AMP summer music series in Galva, Ill., and June 19 at Crawford Brew Works, Bettendorf.
Finding inspiration during pandemic
For the weekends when they did livestreams (most every one in the past year), Grouws would stay at their apartment on the couch. One morning she was inspired by one of Avey’s acoustic recordings and she wrote a song called “Daylight” on the way home to Decorah.
“It is not a blues song and it’s OK. It’s a beautiful, comfort song,” she said. “About that feeling of anxiety, when the world around you is
feeling too much, but you know the new day is coming, the possibilities of the next day.”
They discussed how to record it with Wasner in Nashville, and the best thing he said was, “There’s a lot of different choices to make this exactly right,” Grouws said. “He basically said, there’s a lot of great options to make this right. As a producer, for someone to give you that license to feel OK with any choice, that’s pretty cool.”
Avey and Grouws do most of the songwriting, with him sending her musical ideas.
“Chris will send the licks and I’ll sit down and stress over lyrics, what I want it to say, and we all come together as a band and things will arrange differently,” Grouws said. “There are sometimes songs where everybody’s jamming and it turns into something.”
Having gone through the summer was difficult, but after the Tabor show, she was inspired by playing for people again.
“It was that jump-start I needed to feel excited about just being out again and seeing people, and that’s when we started writing more heavily,” Grouws said.
One of the new songs is “There for Me,” which came out of feeling people together again, and missing friends. “The idea is that no matter what’s happening in the world, bills are piling up and things are crashing down, but it all goes away because I know you’re there for me,” she said. “It’s that support system, and that for me was a very positive song out of this.”
They also wrote a song called “Bad, Bad Year,” not just about the pandemic, but stuff that happens every year – such as hot-button racial and politically divisive issues.
“That’s what music does – we sing songs about connecting people, but we also write songs about the times when we forget that connection,” Grouws said. “As musicians, it’s important to make sure we’re bringing those things to people in a way that feels beautiful and fun and inspiring, but also honest. So ‘Bad, Bad Year’ is about that idea we struggle through some stuff, but it’s OK to be upset about it.”
Another song, Grouws wrote after drinking a bottle of wine, with corny lyrics.
“The idea was, we’ve been trapped inside for so long – that could be metaphorically or literally – that it’s time to get out and it’s time to have fun together,” she said. “Honestly the song flipping rocks, it’s so fun.”
Vasquez and his fiancée had a baby during the pandemic, and Leasman has a five-year-old at home. Grouws has two high schoolers and one college student (19, 18, and 16). West has an 18-year-old.
Even during a year when their tour was canceled, the band didn’t ask for donations on the Facebook Live
“People were generous, they wanted to help,” Grouws said. “We said, if you’re having a good time and you want to tip, great. If you don’t, hang out with us, we don’t care. That’s not what it’s about. To be honest, it was helpful.”
They passed 100 videos over the pandemic, and they have one fan who kept statistics.
“I felt like a cool baseball team,” Grouws said. “He kept stats on all the songs we did, how many times we did them, if we made up a song during the show – he wrote it down as a separate stat. So for me, he said, by my account, this will be number 100 and you’ll go to 101 if you go to another. It was kinda cool.”
They also did full band performances at Joy Avenue Media in Bettendorf, and they played the full first and second albums in their entirety on March 20, 2021.
That was the one-year anniversary of what would have been an in-person album release party for “The Devil May Care,” which was planned for Gypsy Highway, Davenport. They will be back there for a Memorial Day event on May 30 at 2 p.m.
“We decided since we’d been online for every weekend, except my daughter’s graduation and Christmas – we were on every weekend since March 20, 2020, and we went live again on March 20, 2021, as a full band, and we played all the songs from ‘Devil May Care’ and all the songs from the new album.”
Avey Grouws did a few other Joy Avenue online shows, including paid events. Grouws credited Dustin Cobb of the studio, and River Music Experience, for supporting the series.
“They’re dealing with the hassles and giving us extra PR, which is pretty cool,” she said of RME. The band plans to play their Live@Five series Friday, Sept. 10.
They also were happy for Avey and Grouws to get the second dose of the Covid vaccine while they were in Nashville (West still has to get his).
Finals for big songwriting competition
Another silver lining for 2020 was that Avey and Grouws entered the International Songwriting Competition, and three of their songs were picked as semi-finalists (out of 26,000 entries) for the blues category. “Come and Get This Love” (from “The Devil May Care”) made the finals, among 13 others.
Industry professionals choose the winners, and the competition also has a People’s Choice Award. Grouws said they don’t know when the winners will be announced (last year, they were named in the summer).
They don’t think “Come and Get This Love” is the best song on the record, however, Grouws said.
“It may not be our favorite song or showcase the writing that we want to do, but it’s the one this one organization thought was a good blues song,” she said.
One of their challenges is, the band doesn’t neatly fit a specific genre, she said, noting they consider themselves “roots rock.”
“We’re influenced by blues; we’re influenced by rock; we’re influenced by the roots genres, but we’re not one thing,” Grouws said.
“I feel like I’ve got one foot over here, whatever I want, and I’ve got the other foot caressing the blues,” Avey said.
With the new album as a whole, there’s a variety of genres, reflecting the different backgrounds of its members, he said. “We’re not trying to be a specific band,” Grouws said.
“We don’t really need a musical label, or box,” their online bio says. “We just want to make music and connect with people that also love music. Since 2017, we’ve argued about stupid stuff, but still we laugh 90 percent of the time.”
The International Blues Challenge has been postponed to 2022, but the Mississippi Valley Blues Fest – which Avey Grouws Band played in 2019 – will be Sept. 17-18, 2021, in LeClaire Park.
The new record is expected to be released in September, Grouws said, noting they hope to get a publicist and a label to distribute it.
“There are different options out there,” she said. “We know we have to run this like a business, and as much as we love music and as much as we love the sounds we put together, and the fun we have together, the honest truth is – if we don’t make money and we don’t make a living, then this doesn’t make sense.
“Whatever makes the most sense for us artistically and financially is what we will do,” Grouws said.
She was also happy this month to see her sister Jessica Holtan (a voice-over artist), who’s lived in Nashville two years with her partner David Abdo. He is originally from the Q-C and used to play with 10 of Soul, among other bands. They have a one-year-old daughter, Ava.
The band has visited Nashville before, but only played there once before — two years ago at the Legendary Kimbro’s Pickin’ Parlor, in Franklin, Tenn., where Chris Stapleton often played before he went solo.
Looking forward to their Adler debut
Avey Grouws Band is also thrilled to take part in a new Adler Theatre Foundation series, which kicks off May 8.
They’ll make their Adler debut Friday, June 18, opening for the world-renowned blues guitarist, singer/songwriter Walter Trout, who last
played the Redstone Room in July 2019.
“That’s the show the guys have wanted to play that theater for years and years, and now we finally get the chance with a band we really enjoy,” Grouws said.
Three years after a liver transplant, Trout (who’s now 70) in 2017 released “We’re All in This Together,” that featured guests John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Randy Bachman, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. It marked his first number-one blues record, and a later one, “Survivor Blues,” a collection of obscure blues covers he considered no less important than the standards,
also peaked in the top spot on the Blues Albums chart.
Members of Avey Grouws have opened for Trout a few times in the past, but not in Jeni’s band.
“I think they are first and foremost thrilled to finally play the Adler, a theater they’ve only seen shows in before but have never been able to play,” she said. “When you grow up in music in the Q-C, this is kind of a dream venue.
“So to be able to play a dream venue with a world class act like Walter Trout is a huge life moment,” Grouws said. “Not to mention the fact that Walter’s drummer, Michael Leasure, was the first industry person to reach out to me
personally to tell me he’d had a friend play our album ‘The Devil May Care’ for him when it first came out and wanted me to know how impressed he was.
“That was a giant moment for me. To have someone in the biz who didn’t know us, reach out to us because they were so excited about our sound is another big life moment,” she said.
“And Michael has been a great friend since then. So this will be the first time we’re meeting him in person,” Grouws said, noting years ago, she interviewed Walter Trout when she worked in radio and had her own program.
“Walter was stuck in an airport and was a little cranky at first,” she recalled. “But as we talked, he warmed up and ended up giving me an wondering live interview. His music is powerful and his personality is, too. It’s hard not to feel intimidated by his presence. But I’m looking forward to finally meeting him in person.
“But more than anything, I’m excited that our two bands will put on one of the best shows of the summer at one of the best venues in the Midwest!”