Tuesday

LISA MYCHOLS INTERVIEW


MOVE THE NEEDLE TO GROOVE: In an extraordinary career that began in the closing years of the twentieth century, the Long Beach, California-based vocalist and composer Lisa Mychols has consistently thought outside of the box to produce a rich and diverse body of work that is at once both familiar and challenging. With the release of her all new Sugar album for the Strataplastic label, Mychols has taken her vision a decisive step forward in that respect. Blitz Magazine recently spoke with Mychols about how that project came to fruition, as well as the various musical highlights that came about along the way (Click on above image to enlarge).


THINK A LITTLE SUGAR:
LISA MYCHOLS
SWEETENS HER LEGACY
WITH NEW ALBUM 
By Michael McDowell

In the process of conducting an interview and/or composing a review of a given release, it is more often than not likely that reference will be made to a given artist or track whose inspiration seems apparent within the work at hand.

Over the past half century, there have been very, very few releases which at once sound familiar yet unique. That is, one in which the artist in question draws from universally acclaimed inspirations, but in the process creates a work that defies comparison to others. 

One such album is legendary songwriter Lori Burton's 1967 Breakout! album for Mercury Records. In spite of the inclusion therein of her earlier Nightmare single as the Whyte Boots (which has long been regarded as a hallmark of the vocal group genre), Burton's work in that landmark release stands tall on its own merits. 

More than a half century later, another work has at last come along that at once suggests a variety of familiar inspirational sources, but which cannot be decisively affiliated with any of them. That album is Sugar, the latest Strataplastic label release by the veteran Long Beach, California-based vocalist, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Lisa Mychols. 

With producer Steve Refling handling all instrumental responsibilities, Sugar was recorded at Lincoln Lounge in Venice, California. And while Refling and Mychols have taken decisive steps to present a richly diverse and unique cross section of material in their eleven collaborations therein, the sense of familiarity and solidarity is accomplished through the album's cover design. 

The brainchild of Now Sounds Records' founder and CEO, Steve Stanley, the cover of Sugar draws freely from the inspiration of classic Warner Brothers albums of the early to mid 1960s by such label front runners as Petula Clark, Joanie Sommers, Dick And Dee Dee, Connie Stevens, Freddy Cannon, Barbara McNair, Piccola Pupa and Peter, Paul And Mary. 

"I have always wanted to design a record for Lisa, and was thrilled when she asked me", said Stanley, whose recent projects also include serving as art director for ABKCO's long awaited CD and LP compilation of the 1966 - 1967 Hideout and Cameo label 45s by Bob Seger And The Last Heard.

"My only instruction for the design was to create something frosty and sugary. Lisa sent me a few photos that immediately echoed the vibe of some Petula Clark records in my collection. I like the way she looks simultaneously elegant, inviting and tough. Lisa gives off a similar attitude".

Sugar is the latest and possibly the most ambitious in a long line of Lisa Mychols releases. Like Jeremy Morris, Dana Countryman, Adam Marsland, Rob Martinez and Kyle Vincent, Mychols has been plying her trade prolifically since the closing years of the twentieth century. Yet only now is this informal cadre of like minded visionaries being recognized as the front running up and coming generation of influential singer/songwriters.

"When someone brings a lot to the table, it kick starts the process of defining what you have", said Steve Refling.

"It also allows you to pull things out of thin air".

Steve Stanley concurred with Refling's observations.

"Many of the musicians and artists I know now I met back in the 1990s", he said.

"I can now honestly say that out of all of them, the one I thought was the most robbed by not achieving mainstream success was Lisa. She was overqualified for the times and the scene in terms of charisma, writing, vocal ability, musicianship and overall talent. 

"But fortunately for all of us, whatever lack of commercial success didn't sway her from following her muse and pursuing her art. And we are all the richer for that."

In this recent exchange with Blitz Magazine Editor / Publisher Michael McDowell, Lisa Mychols discusses not only the impact of Sugar on her exponentially expanding base of hardcore devotees, but how her earlier work with the Wondermints, Nushu and the Masticators have helped ensure her commitment to stylistic diversity in a field where genre myopia has often taken its toll on the creative process. 

BLITZ: From the onset, you have adopted different personae in the studio, from your solo work to Nushu and most recently the Seven & Six. Yet the collective mission statements of each seem to have only minor variances in their respective goals. Is this done in part to accommodate any potential variations in vision of your respective collaborators? 

MYCHOLS: Well, my first collaborators were the Wondermints for Lost Winters Dream, which all started from a bunch of emotional turmoil I was going through, writing down and putting to music. Once I brought those songs to Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, he brought in Nick Walusko, also of the Wondermints.

From sadness came the magic of the Wondermints and the future of Lost Winters Dream. It was a lot of fun collaborating on that project. I never felt anything was being taken away, or that any song might be losing its message. It was more like the project was being continuously loved and nurtured. I will forever love those Wondermint boys!

The Masticators were a band I put together for some new songs I had written. Patrick McGrath on guitar and keys, Robbie Rist as drummer, producer and engineer, and Severo on bass helped create our sound by simply bringing in their own individual musical expressions instrumentally and vocally, making everything we did together a whole lot of fun! I feel that we all complemented each other. It really showed in every song we recorded.

After that band disbanded, I brought in a bunch of new songs to Tom Richards of the Waking Hours. He was able to work with me to release Sweet Sinsations and In This City. Tom knows the kind of music I love, and created a new kind of sound for us to play with.

Even with the limited recording space he had to work with, he made those albums happen! We also had some friends play on some songs, making those songs that much better. All which include members of the Waking Hours and the incredible Debbie Shair!

As for Nushu, working with Hillary Burton was a type of collaboration where we would bring in songs and have the other either add to it or just be players and singers on each other's songs. Steve Refling had lots of cool sounds in his studio, so there was a lot of freedom to create and/or just come up with ideas in mid air.

As far as our collective vision and goals, at least for me, I felt like our lives were taking on a ton of major changes in some parallel kind of way. We were loaded with inspiration and a bit of edgy mystery. Nushu was a great and timely unit to creatively express through!

The Seven & Six, the current project and band of Tom Richards and myself, have a collaborative sound and message more for the current age of the mass collective. Tom and I collaborate very closely in this band. We actually have conversations about the lyrics, because they are absolutely worth talking about!

Seriously, if Tom changes even one thing during recording, it will affect something in the lyrics. But it's so much fun creating this way, as I think it keeps us actively inspired.

BLITZ: You are based in Long Beach, California. The city is known in part for a collective image borne of seemingly disparate components, from the traditional beach community of Belmont Shore (which interestingly enough is a beach community without the key attribute of a beach, given that the Pacific Ocean's geographical particulars there are not conducive to surf because of their southern exposure) to the consistently changing face of the downtown area, from the demise of Buffums Department Store to the short lived Long Beach Mall to serving as the base for KNAC-FM in the 1980s. Not to mention the historical significance of the presence of the Queen Mary and the shipping industry in neighboring San Pedro.

Given that so much of your work draws from a sympathetic third person perspective if not consistently a first person one, has the atmosphere of the city been an asset or a liability in your creative process in that respect?

MYCHOLS: Long Beach for me has been less of an influence and more of an ongoing backdrop of my inner world. It's a very pleasant city, though. More of a place I go out to when I am not in creative mode. A place I never take with me, if that makes sense.

BLITZ: The cover graphics of your Sugar album were inspired by early to mid-1960s Warner Brothers label albums, including the stereo logo. The label's roster at the time included Petula Clark, Barbara McNair, Piccola Pupa, Freddy Cannon, Joanie Sommers, Joan Barton, Connie Stevens, Lynn Gold, Dick And Dee Dee, the Marketts, Dorothy Provine, and Peter, Paul And Mary. In light of the label's richly diverse cross section of artists, and given that your work differs from theirs as much as each of theirs differs from one another, was this as much a profession of solidarity with their individual mission statements as it was a proclamation of thinking outside of the box?

MYCHOLS: I love most of those artists you've just mentioned. The other names I just don't recognize! Musically and/or fashionably, they have influenced me in one way or another, and on a deep level. Steve Stanley, who created the artwork for Sugar, somehow captured all of that. Whether it was intended or not, the cover radiates that very essence. I cried when I first saw it!

BLITZ: One Revolution from your Sugar album cleverly invokes record collector terminology, including "move the needle to groove" and "you wanted to do a full revolution". To what degree does that perspective impact your writing process, as opposed to painting a lyrical portrait borne of experience for the sake of the art itself?

MYCHOLS: A journey that might appear to be going in circles. Yet it might not, at least not for long. The imagery is quick enough to think one knows where they are going. But it's all happening on an energetic level, really.

I suppose that sometimes I get lost in the writing itself. Or maybe it's that the writing is using me to write. So it's kind of hard to answer this one!

BLITZ: To that effect, is there an undercurrent at play of endeavoring to raise the bar on behalf of that demographic, some of whom profess regret with respect to their perceived cultural disenfranchisement?

MYCHOLS: "Journey through the soul with me, for there is where the answer will be".

BLITZ: He's Got Me Dreaming is interesting, in that it features a 4/4 march tempo not unlike that found in the Monkees' Birth Of An Accidental Hipster. Even more so, both pieces find unique lyrical routes to a common goal. Was that intentional?

MYCHOLS: Hmmm. I don't think so. I mean, when I wrote the song, it could have just been how I happened to be strumming at the time.

Although, Steve Refling had a big part in arranging the songs on this album. So it could have been something he just heard. So I would probably say not intentional.

BLITZ: Next To Impossible draws from the slow 6/8, high drama template of Lesley Gore's I Don't Wanna Be A Loser. But interestingly enough, Next To Impossible transforms its firm resolve and propensity towards independence into an atmosphere of both dependence and despondency. Given your trademark relentless optimism outside of a musical setting, could this be considered a scenario which was not borne of personal experience?

MYCHOLS: Wow, you certainly have a good sense! Steve Refling brought in this delightful gem for us to record. As far as the lyrics went, Steve started me off with the brilliant title, Next To Impossible and gave me complete freedom to write the rest. Although I did on occasion call on his help when I would get stuck.

It was a tricky song that needed to be absolutely right. And even though this song may not be drawn from a past physical experience, I feel that I have fully experienced it. So I connect with this one quite a bit!

BLITZ: However unintentionally, you have become an integral part of a burgeoning movement of prolific vocalists and composers that have been plying their trade since the closing years of the previous century, yet whom are suddenly finding common ground and growing acclaim commensurate with their current work. Their ranks would include Jeremy Morris, Dana Countryman, Kyle Vincent, Adam Marsland and Rob Martinez, some of whom you have worked with in various capacities. What do you envision as your own role in these developments? Do you see the potential for future collaborations with any of those colleagues?

MYCHOLS: Collaborations indeed, and "Hey!" to all of those wonderful friends.

I'm excited to report that I am currently working on a song written by the very talented lyricist and songwriter, Elizabeth Racz, along with another song by my amazing friend, Jordan Oaks, the writer of Yellow Pills

I will also be singing on a song with Kai Danzberg for his upcoming album. Have you heard his music yet? He's one of my absolute favorite current artists!

DEBBIE GIBSON'S WEDDING OF DREAMS


GENIUS AT WORK: Beloved vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer Debbie Gibson (seen above in character as Debbie Taylor) has added yet another triumph to her impeccable three decade legacy via her starring role in the acclaimed Hallmark Channel motion picture, Wedding Of Dreams. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look into the production of the film, and the inspiration behind it below. (Photo courtesy of the Hallmark Channel).  (Click on above image to enlarge).

YOUR FOREVER GIRL IN WONDERLAND:
DEBBIE GIBSON
TAKES ART IMITATING LIFE
TO NEW HEIGHTS IN
WEDDING OF DREAMS
By Michael McDowell

A voice inside me, or something said,
Are you afraid of love? Are you afraid of love?
When the moon is shining in the sky above,
Are you afraid of love?

That rhetorical question was posed in late 1965 by the vaunted quintet, Hedgehoppers Anonymous in their Parrot Records B-side, Afraid Of Love. It echoes to a lesser extent the more extreme perspective articulated the previous year by the legendary Gino Washington in his signature Son Bert label single, Gino Is A Coward:

I won a medal for bravery,
Fought in three hard wars.
And just for the thrill and pleasure,
I rode the back of a dinosaur! 

But I'm a coward, yes I'm a coward,
When it comes to love.

To be certain, both Hedgehoppers Anonymous and Gino Washington have formulated within their respective works a pair of worst case scenarios in an ongoing impasse that has been indigenous to humankind since the dawn of time. 

The subject of love and the pursuit and fulfillment thereof has been the focal point of countless musical works, novels and motion pictures for as long as such means of expression have availed themselves. And in her latest Hallmark motion picture release, Wedding Of Dreams, beloved vocalist, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer Deborah Ann "Debbie" Gibson has tackled the subject head on by taking the concept of art imitating life imitating art to the next level.

With a musical curriculum vitae that ranks in the upper echelons of all of music, Gibson nonetheless once infamously referred to herself as a "reluctant actress". But as both Wedding Of Dreams and the highly acclaimed 2016 release that preceded it - Summer Of Dreams - more than adequately underscored, any such reservations were ultimately laid to rest once Gibson took a cue from the late Buck Owens to Act Naturally.

In fact, thinking outside of the box has long been a key attribute of Gibson's mission statement. To wit, at various points in the early stages of her musical career, she cited the inspiration of certain works by such veteran visionaries as Vaughn Monroe, the Shirelles, the Five Satins and Conway Twitty, while concurrently testing the waters of the aesthetically declining musical mainstream of the late 1980s and ultimately conquering it. Recently, she elevated the overall mood of observers while en route to a rehearsal by breaking into a chorus of the Andrews Sisters' exuberant Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

And in a moment of bravado equaled perhaps only by Detergents/Archies front man Ron Dante's infamous late 1964 confrontation with Roulette Records president Morris Levy, Gibson in the early stages of her tenure with Atlantic Records entered the offices of label head Ahmet Ertegun, placed a paper bag full of cassette tapes on his desk and said, "Here's my new album!" 

Given that the Atlantic/Atco conglomerate boasts not only one of the most revered artist rosters in history (Ray Charles, the Clovers, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, the Coasters, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Bobby Darin, Sonny And Cher, the Young Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Led Zeppelin, Bette Midler, Laura Branigan, etc.), but was also the proving ground for such industry heavyweights as Jerry Wexler and the great Bert Berns, Gibson's matter of fact methodology for asserting her vision underscores the wisdom and discernment (tempered with ambition) that guide it. 

All of which leads to the dichotomy which provided the inspiration for the Hallmark projects at hand. 

In recent years, relatives and friends of certain beloved musical figures have shared how the genius that fueled each artist's inspiration occasionally came at the expense of their acumen in certain day to day affairs. To wit, rock and roll giant Rick Nelson (who tied with Hank Williams Senior as Blitz Magazine's pick for Best Solo Artist of the Twentieth Century) left behind a recorded legacy that is pretty much second to none. However, insiders who worked closely with Nelson have endearingly observed how he often entrusted such matters as writing checks to cover expenses to his aides or relatives, as his direct experience with day to day banking transactions was minimal. 

Likewise, the extraordinarily gifted banjo virtuoso, David "Stringbean" Akeman may have been without peer in terms of his acumen on his instrument of choice, as well as a supremely charismatic humorist during the first five seasons of the long running Hee Haw television series. But despite his formidable talents, Akeman never learned how to drive a car. He instead gifted his wife Estelle with a brand new Cadillac and subsequently deferred to her expertise on all matters of transportation. 

And while both academically gifted and creative at the genius level, Gibson has likewise conceded that her drive and commitment to her art has occasionally come at the expense of her familiarity with certain day to day matters. As such, the decision to approach the creation of both Summer Of Dreams and Wedding Of Dreams from a somewhat self-depreciating perspective has not only served to further endear her to her most unwaveringly loyal core base of followers (affectionately known as Deb Heads), but to reiterate the fact that her thinking outside of the box perspective has enabled her to consistently flourish for more than three decades at center stage.

Gibson first hinted at that perspective in Summer Of Dreams. The overall theme of that initial production was the sudden collapse of fortunes of her character, Debbie Taylor, who was dropped by her record label and faced eviction from her hotel suite. Those developments prompted her to leave New York City, relocate to Youngstown, Ohio, move in with her sister, Denise (played sublimely by Pascale Hutton) and take a job teaching music at the high school where Denise served as the Assistant Principal. Debbie Taylor's reality check came most poignantly in one of the early scenes, in which she met guidance counselor Noah Burns (portrayed impeccably by the genial and generally unflappable Robert Gant) in a supermarket and immediately earns his exasperation, amusement and interest by her inability to shop for the most rudimentary grocery items, such as pineapple and oatmeal.

With Wedding Of Dreams, Gibson masterfully takes the proverbial bull by the horns and elevates self-depreciation to new heights, with endearing results. Concurrently serving as an Executive Producer for the project (which was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia over the summer), Gibson as Debbie Taylor is now well settled into her new life as a high school teacher. That role is augmented by a highly prodigious and ambitious group of students (many of whom also appeared in the earlier production) and unconditional support from one-time Barbershopper and attorney turned actor Gant, reprising his role as Noah Burns.

However, when Gant (whose numerous credits include roles in The Young And The Restless and guest appearances in such long time favorites as Caroline In The City and Castle) as Noah Burns attempts to elevate their relationship with a marriage proposal (astutely highlighted with not only a chorus of Gibson's 1987 monster classic Out Of The Blue single performed by her students, but also with the use of a footbridge not unlike that found in the pivotal "fifteen minutes" scene of the classic motion picture, The Music Man), both Taylor and Burns soon find their momentum derailed when renewed career success comes calling in the form of a guest appearance on the fictional Platinum Star program and the promise of a successful tour. 

Yet despite their recruitment of a wedding planner to facilitate the proceedings (a move that nearly backfires on them in the film's near-final scenes), a generous portion of the overall proceedings highlight Debbie Taylor's account of Debbie Gibson's ongoing attempts to come to terms with trying to live life both on center stage and on her own terms (and to be certain, her quick aside about having to be "on" in such moments is one of the most astute such observations in cinematic history). 

It would seem that for a veteran musician who is also a self-professed "reluctant actress" that a healthy showcase of that which best defines her would be in order in such an endeavor. But surprisingly, music is kept to a relative minimum in this sequel. Nonetheless, that which did make the cut is utilized for maximum impact, including Debbie Taylor's impromptu serenading of Noah Burns at the wedding ceremony with Debbie Gibson's utterly stupendous 1988 Lost In Your Eyes single.

Likewise, the reprise of the signature original from Summer Of Dreams, the ballad Wonderland is rendered herein in curious fashion. By definition, the concept of Wonderland has been used to describe that which represents grandeur, awe and splendor at its most impacting. The Detroit, Michigan suburb of Livonia did as much with the grand opening of its futuristic (and ironically now defunct) Wonderland Mall in 1959. In turn, visionary composer and orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert celebrated the bombast and exuberance of the concept that same year in his landmark recording of Wonderland By Night.

But for Debbie Taylor, Wonderland is approached with a degree of reservation this time around, reflecting her ongoing attempts to come to terms with the calling of both worlds. Debbie Taylor even underscores the point by announcing her engagement to Noah to her sister Denise with an obvious element of hesitancy. 

On the other hand, Wedding Of Dreams' lone new musical contribution, Your Forever Girl has provided Debbie Gibson with yet another career highlight. Taking a cue from the like minded So Much In Love by the Tymes and Chapel Of Love by the Dixie Cups, Your Forever Girl (the official video of which includes scenes from the film and a cameo by Gibson's beloved dachshund, Joey) is a totally engaging work of relentless optimism that is destined to be one of the best new singles of 2018.

True to form, Debbie Gibson took a hands-on approach to the premiere of Wedding Of Dreams on the evening of the eighth of September. Despite being on the road in Singapore as part of a whirlwind series of concerts that will also take her to the cavernous Mall Of Asia in Manila, Philippines on the fifteenth of September and to the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas on the eighteenth of October, Gibson joined in the fun online and availed herself on social media, discussing developments in the film as it aired. She even summed up her methodology regarding one particularly emotional scene with Robert Gant thusly:

"I listed to a certain song on my phone and used other specific materials to elicit tears in this scene", she said.

"It's hard to see it all, but I full out cried like eight times. Any time you conjure up real emotions, it's exhausting, but worth it!"

And that was as good of a reason as any during the film's mid-point for Gant's Noah Burns character to appropriate a line frequently used by Blitz Magazine in his assessment of Gibson's Debbie Taylor in creative mode: "Genius at work". To be certain, that genius has once most successfully followed her own advice by bringing to fruition the wisdom of the title track of her third album, Anything Is Possible.

(Wedding Of Dreams aired on the Hallmark Channel on both the eighth and ninth of September. If past procedure is any indication, the film will most likely be shown again in the coming weeks. Check your local listings for details).