It’s one thing to pay your dues in order to sing the blues, but what if you discover the music, fall in love with it, learn to play it, and eventually thrive in the genre with almost no support system at all?
That’s the remarkable story of Ghalia Vauthier, who made quite a bit of noise in the blues scene with her debut album Let the Demons Out and has now just entered the Billboard blues charts at number three with her latest release, an ode to the Mississippi Hill Country blues called Mississippi Blend. It’s a journey of both distance and discovery, from her birthplace of Brussels to the Crescent City and several blues-themed points in between. Sort of an “Eat, Play, Love.”
She’s sometimes credited herself as Ghalia Volt, an Anglicization of her last name that fits her electric, rock-blues style well but seems unnecessary in the land of “laissez les bon temps rouler”: her charming Francophonic accent belies a good command of English, and she only occasionally pauses to search for le bon mot litteralement. She describes her hometown as “a very cultural town, sort of a melting pot of old cultures.” Nevertheless, “there’s a big musical culture in Belgium, it’s just not really a blues town. That part of Europe is more about electro? You know, dance music.”
So while she came to music early, her blues discovery took a while. “Me and my brothers were not raised as a musical family, but I just started singing in front of the TV,” she recalled. “I actually started out as a big old school punk and garage fan, you know? MC5, Stooges, Sex Pistols, Cramps, the Clash. But once I researched and understood where that music came from, it brought me back to rockabilly, then rock ’n’ roll, then into blues and jazz, but also ragtime, gospel, everything.” Skip James and J.B. Lenoir were major influences on her guitar style, but her equally distinctive and quite authentic vocal style was born from soaking up a bevy of female blues, jazz, and gospel greats like Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, and Wynona Carr.
“I loved playing the blues,” she says now, “but there was no demand for it in Brussels, so I just created my own show in the street. Busking, you know? And I look back on it—it was great because I could be my own boss. Nobody forces you to play anything, but you have to be good because you have to catch the attention of people walking by.”
There was one (and only one) true blues club in the city, a well-regarded dive bar called Grain D’Orge. But it certainly wasn’t enough to live on, which is why a teenage Ghalia, just out of school and working at a local record store, caught her big break quite unexpectedly when a customer came in looking to put up flyers to find a singer for his blues band. “I said, no! You can’t put that up here, because that singer is me!” she laughs. She begged for a shot, and she made the most of it: “My audition became my rehearsal.”
That band, with the unlikely moniker of The Naphtalines, took her around the region, allowing her to find an audience finally in nearby cities like Liege and Antwerp. “It was strange because the whole band was like 45 to 75 years old, and I’m 19,” she remembers. But I’d bring out all my friends and it would be a whole new young audience for these places.”
Eventually she saved her busking and gig money and followed the music to the only place it could lead her—the roots of the blues homelands. She booked transit to America with a guitar and a backpack, hopping the more recent rails of Amtrak (and Greyhound) like her legends, journeying from Chicago to Memphis to the Delta and then to New Orleans on a musical journey she herself describes as a “pilgrimage.”
“I also did it to challenge myself,” she says, recalling how she took every open-mic night she could get. “I would always come up on stage. I would not allow myself not to, even if I was scared or intimidated. Because that’s how I learned. I would sit in with everyone, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Chicago.” But it was a demo she made in St. Armant with Sonny Landreth drummer Brian Brignac (“for fun”) that caught the notice of Ruf Records, who found her busking back in Europe and asked her to come back to the Crescent City to record her debut, Let the Demons Out, with local mainstays Mama’s Boys (Johnny Mastro, Dean Zucchero, and Smokehouse Brown).
Now she returns with Mississippi Blend, the result of another pilgrimage, this time to the state’s famed Hill Country. She’d already apprenticed in the Delta: “Brookhaven, McComb, Monticello, Clarksdale… the whole Blues Trail really. People would look at me and say, ‘Why are you here?’” She laughs. “They were very nice, but many of the originals don’t play the music there anymore. There’s a few old guys I got to meet, like Robert Belfour, but everybody’s dying, you know.”
The more rhythmic, groove-oriented Hill Country style fit her perfectly. “I’m so glad I could meet them,” she goes on. I got to learn things like the Bentonia-style blues. I’d sit on their porches and say, ‘Show me how to play that riff.’ That’s how I learned when I was busking. I’m always looking for a groove, a riff. A feeling. A lot of feelings.” Ghalia doesn’t have any plans to expand her education with an album in the style of Memphis or Chicago as of now; she’s yet to tour with her new songs. But you can bet wherever she lands next, she and her guitar will be quick to pick up the language. Let’s just hope more youngbloods like her will learn to speak it.