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).

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!