Sleep Little Girl is a firestorm of a record - the sixth solo release by the self-titled firegirl, and one that will greatly increase the Canadian singer's already international fanbase. Zoe is joined by German blues guitarist Henrik Freischlader, who not only composed all the music, but also played almost all of the instruments, save for the song Let's Get Crazy, which has bass and organ supplied by Moritz Fuhrhop.
I'd been listening to this record almost constantly for two days, and being very impressed by the cohesion of the band, the first question I asked Layla was who was in the band. I about fell out of my seat when she told me that Freischlader has played them all himself. The man is amazing - from the slinky groove of Give It To Me, to the high octane Zep-a-like stomper Rock and Roll Guitar Man, Henrik is world class on every instrument, and you would never know it was a one man show were you not told.
"I'm really a guitar girl!" she laughed, "I listen mostly to artists like Roy Buchanan, Frank Zappa, and Peter Green, but I'm quite sure that Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Susan Tedeschi, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Eva Cassidy, and Joni Mitchell all had an influence on my vocal stylings."
Sleep Little Girl is full of autobiographical musings. Zoe wears her heart firmly on her sleeve, and you can tell by listening that she doesn't have to look far for inspiration. She reaches deep, and tells deep truths. She doesn't spare herself, or her audience - this is the blues, and this is how they were meant to be sung.
Layla said, "Pretty much all of this album comes from personal experiences - my observations on current and past experiences. Sleep Little Girl is a lullaby to myself, as I suffer from mild to extreme insomnia on the road sometimes. Singing My Blues - a true belief that I will be sing the blues until the day i die. Black Oil is about my true belief that the world was coming to an end during the news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Rock and Roll Guitar Man, well, that's about a guitar player I fell in love with, and so on and so forth..."
Zoe described the process of their collaboration as such: "I had written many lyrics and poems, as I write often. Henrik gave me demos of a bunch of music he had written. I took the songs I liked from the demos, added melodies with my voice, and out of my words to the songs I thought best suited the lyrics. It was a very organic thing - it was not thought out. It just happened that these were my favorite pieces of music he had written, and my words seemed to fit perfectly! We both had a part in the sound and the feel of the record. Working with him was so natural, it really felt as if it were meant to be."
That it does, indeed. In fact, so much so that her saying that this collaboration was meant to be almost seems an understatement. The music is married to the words in a way you seldom see, as if the moods of the melodies somehow existed only to serve these songs. It sounds like a band that has been working together for years, not like a paste up Pro Tools job. Made with love by a couple of pros at the tops of their games.
Straight away from the heavy rock onslaught of the opener, Give It To Me brings a fancy, funky strut that features fatback drums, skronky wah'd guitars, and a rubber band bass line that makes dancing an impossibility. This is as sexy as a song can get - Layla Zoe makes no bones about the mission she's on - she's not begging for it, she's demanding it. And most likely getting it. Her vocal power will knock you out of your seat.
Shimmering tremolo guitars against a very loose, open rhythm track makes Singing My Blues sound like it was constructed for a David Lynch soundtrack - very atmospheric and heady. Zoe's phrasing is sophisticated as the track, and when she goes for the low notes, you will swoon right along with her. Freischlader's guitar solo is a textural playground that suggests there's little in the lexicon that he's not absorbed. A primer for any want to be soul singing sister, this is a proud proclamation of Layla Zoe's mission statement.
Let's Get Crazy is the closest the record comes to the heart of the blues, as Henrik is joined by Moritz Fuhrhop, who plays some soulful Hammond organ and some nice walking bass. Zoe's vocal acrobatics save this one from being a bit predictable, and she delivers a sizzling performance.
Another Bonham-esque piece of drumming rings in Pull Yourself Together, and yet as big and blustery as the arrangement is, it's still Zoe who commands the ship from the bridge. As a guitarist, the German six stringer is incendiary - pulling every bend, slur, and run he has in his vocabulary out on this one. His solo is a blinder, and it's very clear that Layla gave him full reign to ride - I hear a lot of blues band leaders keeping their sidemen on leashes, and it's a thrill to hear when someone is given license to strut his stuff.
I Hope She Loves You Like I Do would have been a huge soul single in the late 60s, and while it offers no surprises, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and the performances keep it from bogging down in familiarity. My least favorite song on the album, but it's still damned good.
Rock and Roll Guitar Man delivers the big rock in spades, as super saturated pentatonic guitar licks, a loping bass line, laid back beat, and a singer barely tethered to this planet take this one to the time of Led Zeppelin's first tours of America. Zoe and Freischlader joust from beginning to end, as each seems able to take it as high as it needs to go. This one will have audiences going wild this month as the pair cross Germany on their Fall tour. This is great rock and roll, and boy do we need it.
After the extreme onslaught of Rock and Roll Guitar Man, it's time to relax and ride this record off to the stables, and Zoe does it with a proper lullaby. The album's title song is a gentle good night - Layla can purr as well as she can roar, and accompanied by only an Appalachian acoustic guitar track, she brings us down gently, and bids us good night.
She said, "I plan to keep gigging, and promoting the heck out of Sleep Little Girl, as I personally feel it is the best thing I've ever done. I'm very excited to share it with as many music lovers as possible. I hope to get over to America at some point, and I believe I will. The US is hard to cross into for musicians, with the border and the small money to be made in clubs if you're name is unknown. I'm just waiting for the right time and opportunity. Until then, I'm mostly focused on Canada, and parts of Europe. Someone contacted me online for a German gig in 2009. I have been there ever since - they have a great blues scene, and they really appreciate what I am doing. I met Henrik at that first gig in 2009, he was hired to be my back up band. The rest is history.