Sarah Spicer might be singing the blues but she's more than happy with how life is treating her.
Living in Waihi for the past four years and studying and working as a youth counsellor, Spicer is writing and recording her beloved blues and has found a new backing group in the form of The Blue Riders, headed up by Liam Ryan, the well-known Tauranga musician and Jazz Festival stalwart, who now also lives in Waihi.
"People kept telling me I ought to meet this new arrival - including his real estate agent," Spicer says. "When we did finally get together, Liam and I just clicked musically."
Spicer has been recording with The Blue Riders (Ryan, keyboards; Buck Croyden, lap-steel and guitars; Wayne Melville, bass and Jeff Baker, drums and percussion) and has an album ready to release with the first single Mr Johnson, a tribute to Mississippi blues legend Robert Johnson.
"I think it's great they're all so seasoned," she says about the age of her new band. "The Blue Riders can all see my vision - it's like I've been writing for them."
Spicer, a self-confessed troubled teen, left New Zealand in 1989, aged 15, to join her older brother Matthew and their father in California. She already had two years' experience playing in bands, mostly doing covers.
Living in the San Francisco area, she and Matthew wrote music together, the pair performing as The Spice in blues clubs, doing sessions with other bands, attending jam sessions and then forming the Automatic Blues Band.
"The clubs and jamming sessions are where we learned our craft," she says, "and where we made our contacts."
Spicer is still embarrassed she didn't recognise the older man who approached her in a blues club - John Lee Hooker was among the pantheon of America's blues musicians - but she was initially wary of his intentions.
"When I figured out he was genuine we became friends. He helped with some manager issues I had and I went to gigs as part of his entourage, sang with his band, before he came on stage and drove him to the bank or the store," she says.
Hooker recorded a duet with Sarah which appears on her 2013 CD Colours, and she has two more unreleased recordings that "one day" she'll take another look at. "The time will come. I don't want to use his name for my own ends."
Matthew returned to New Zealand in 1998 after being unable to obtain a green card to work in the US but depression and schizophrenia set in and Spicer says "he lost his way", taking his own life the next year. She returned to New Zealand shortly after.
Spicer stayed in touch with Hooker and in 2001 he sent her an air ticket to visit him in the US. Sadly, he died the day the ticket arrived. "So I got on the plane and went to his funeral."
Mother to sons aged 13 and 16, Spicer is retraining as a youth counsellor. "My life experience helps me help them," she says of the work. "I've been around drugs, I've dealt with suicide, I know homelessness. Being able to reach out and inspire kids is just the best thing."
That, and singing the blues.
Sarah Spicer and The Blue Riders perform at Tauranga Arts Festival on Thursday, October 26. Tickets from Baycourt or Ticketek. TECT cardholder discount available until October 6 (Baycourt only). For more details see taurangafestival.co.nz