Interview: Ash Grunwald gets deep with us about his new collaboration with Josh Teskey

Ash Grunwald
Teskey & Grunwald

When you hear it, you wonder how a coupling like Josh Teskey and Ash Grunwald had never come to be before now. It’s a match made in Blues heaven. And, in a world that seems to be dominated by just how electronic music can become, this album is a time-capsule full of pure and simple Blues goodness.

Sometime late 2018, Josh and Ash were together at Half Mile Harvest Studios filming a clip for Ash’s single ‘Ain’t My Problem’, on which The Teskey Brothers had played. Ash started jamming some blues riffs and Josh sang over them. Nearly two years later, Push The Blues Away is the result of what was born that day.

Ash spoke to us about the project recently and had this to say about its genesis: “It was really obvious that it would sound good if Josh started singing some Blues. But, there’s another level that only the people that are making the music know about and it’s the connection. That’s how you know it’s an extra level of a good thing. When it’s that easy. And that’s how recording this album was.”

That synergy is tangible when you listen to this record. “That’s what I really respect about the Teskey Brothers. Ten years my junior but they have an almost enviable puritanical approach to music. Doing things in all analogue on tape and I really respect that. I’m kind of a complicated fella and doing things that way isn’t my whole bag. Sometimes I like making music on a computer; but I never need too much encouragement to go there. I can always go there and I always love it. I love doing traditional Blues and I love doing simple raw things,” he says about working with the brothers.

It’s clear even on first listen that this album is almost belligerently anti-new. Everything about it, with the possible exception of the lyrical content, is based on the idea of removing the layers of modern life to find some deeper meaning. “I wrote a bit of a manifesto song for the project which is called “Something With Feel” and that was really about that fact that we live in and insta-world now and there’s so many things crying out for your attention. The whole idea of that song, and the album, is that we’ve come here today to give you something real, the genuine article,” Ash says.

“We recorded this a while ago and when the pandemic hit, I was playing Blues Rock in Europe – really different music to what’s on this album – but then because of COVID I ended up sitting on my cajon like I used to and just playing acoustic blues. It’s just suited to the times – scaled back, raw and real. And I think we need something real at the moment. It ended up being quite a good release for COVID times.”

The influences of legendary Delta Blues pioneers like John Lee Hooker, Lead Belly, and Howlin’ Wolf are immediately obvious. And Ash says that whilst he started in that vein, he’s been many places musically since, but had always wanted to come back to it:

“My first album was really bare bones – a guy in a room playing some blues. At the time there wasn’t really anything around like that and I thought this’ll be refreshing. I’ve been thinking about this for years ever since. My first album was recorded in 2001 and by 2011 I’d been genre-bending a lot. And ever since then I’ve thought it’s time for another Delta Blues album. From that moment on for the next ten years I would go in every time I went to do an album and think I’m going to do an acoustic blues album and just end going in some other direction. So by the time this came around with Josh it just seemed perfect.”

According to Ash, the songwriting process was a team effort. But among the eight tracks, the fingerprints of both artists’ individual styles are all over the ones they wrote. “We shared the songwriting credits but really we brought separate ideas in and then we worked on them together to make them come to fruition. You can hear the Josh ones, the really catchy folky ones, like “Hungry Heart”. I don’t know how to write a song like that. It’s really simple, and you know most people think blues is really simple and they can just go play it and miss the point. I do some blues stuff which hard to do but simple. And the same applies to Josh’s stuff. Those folky bluesy things are really simple, but I don’t know how to make things all pretty.”

Folksy blues may not be his bag, but few people appreciate how hard it is to make a simple Blues song like “It Rained” work, a sentiment with which Ash agrees. “I don’t think many people get the nuance that’s going on in writing a simple blues song that’s good. You have to have a reverence for what you’re doing. A good example is “It Rained”. That’s influenced by really early John Lee HookerR L Burnside; tuned to open G, like a lot of the Delta guys. But there’s a real patience that you need, and you have to be able to decide how minimal you’re prepared to go. It’s almost an act of bravery, the more minimal you go, the more reverence you’re giving to it. It’s almost a spiritual thing these days. Because it’s so hard to not get super busy on every track.”

Whilst the album would musically sit comfortably among the work of the Blues greats, its lyricism does bring a touch of modernity to it, which Ash says was intentional. “When I sit down to do something bluesy I really strive for that and I really strive to write lyrics that really mean something to me. That aren’t just a combination of cliches I’ve picked off old blues songs. I like to try and write it as a contemporary songwriter but have it sound like it’s always been around.” Which Push The Blues Away most certainly does.

When listening to these songs, it feels less like Josh and Ash have set out to make a Blues record and more like they’ve had a reason to play music that aligns best with the motivations Delta Blues artists had. Blues is about purging your pain through crying guitars and wailing vocals. And in a year that has been undeniably shit for so many, this might just be the record we all needed. It will transport you, and god knows we could all use a bit of that this year.

Push The Blues Away, the new album from Josh Teskey and Ash Grunwald is out now, from Ivy League Records.

Josh Teskey and Ash Grunwald will be appearing on ABC’s The Sound on Sunday December 13th. The episode looks back at the memorable moments from this season.

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