B-Sides in the Bins #41 – Wendy & Lisa Interview

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman– collectively known as Wendy & Lisa are probably best known as the creative songwriting force in Prince’s 80’s backing band The Revolution. It’s my opinion as well as others that it was Wendy & Lisa who were a strong (and necessary) compliment to Prince and that relationship fostered the creative energy of the three that spawned music that was more than the three could have achieved individually. After Prince dissolved The Revolution Wendy & Lisa stuck together and continued to work through the 90’s on their career as a songwriting duo. While the four albums released through 1998 had been received well critically, none of the albums really took off for them– quite a bit of it due to label switching that was outside their control and it was this experience that formed their approach to their new album.

In the ten-plus years since their last album, the pair have stayed together focusing on studio work, songwriting, production and some significant soundtrack scoring for shows like HBO’s “Carnivale,” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and NBC’s “Heroes.” At the end of 2008, Wendy & Lisa self-released White Flags of Winter Chimneys which seems to be a new declaration of purpose with a vision towards the next phase of their partnership. It may prove that the long gap between releases is enough for the pair to be judged upon their own merits as artists and musicians rather than continuing in the shadow of their work with Prince.

I had an opportunity to talk to Wendy & Lisa during a short break in their busy schedules last week to talk about their new album, the promise of an upcoming tour, and their unique distribution model. They were very cool to talk to– funny and excited to talk about their new work. They had me on speakerphone and it was a lot of fun talking to them. They are kindred spirits with me in a lot of respects, their tastes in music are as varied as mine and their passion for their work is infectious as I found myself re-energized to focus on this blog!

Me: A lot of bands are looking into a self-distribution model. Yours is unique in that you are selling it from your website first and then moving to other electronic distribution channels– is it going to get regular distribution as well?

Wendy: It will get regular distribution later, yeah. We’re doing this in steps right now because we’re trying to make a little cash so we can get to the next level because we are distributing it ourselves in a little room with our little postage machines and our little weighing machines and our packaging and this-and-that. We bypassed getting a regular distribution deal because a lot of times the artist ends up having to pay back a lot of money to the distributor because the distributors ordered way too much product. So, we opted to not do that and just to do it as it’s being ordered. So, the best way to get a sense of what is being bought is to take it one step at a time. Basically, our manager Renata who is the computer genius in the family came up with this model– that we go ahead and release FLAC digital downloads and 320Kbps mp3’s and offer it at a reasonable price on the website first to get an idea of what was being sold. And, actually, it’s coming back that we are doing quite well on that. So, the little bit of money that has come in from that is being put into packaging now and getting more product out to people. On February 24th when it is on digital download sites like iTunes, Amazon, and Rhapsody–

Lisa: we have to mention TopSpin who has been with us since the very beginning and helped us get this up and going.

Wendy:  That’s right.

Lisa: I think it is important for people to know that what’s been really cool is that we’ve offered all of these different packages– including just single-song downloads– you know– to just the get things going. All we needed was just the first bit of artwork to have some design up on the webpage. So, you can download a single song, you can download the whole record, you can download the record plus order the CD when it becomes available– you can order the beautiful vinyl which we made a limited amount of– this blue-and-white splatter vinyl which is going to be FANTASTIC!

Wendy: Yeah, and the mastering on the record is FANTASTIC– it’s almost sounds better than the CD as far as I’m concerned.

Me: So, can you tell us a bit more about the vinyl pressing and who did the mastering?

Wendy: Yeah, Paul du Gré did the mastering of the vinyl and he’s from North Hollywood. He’s one of those guys who’s just done everything for ages– he’s a classic engineer, mastering and an audiophile kind of guy. You can Google “Paul du Gré” and find all kinds of wonderful things he worked on. The pressing is being done by Pirates Press using GZ Digital Media in the Czech Republic. There was a problem with doing the splatter– we found a plant that could pour the paint by hand instead of using machines. There is a whole environmental consideration and things like that. [It’s important to note, also that this first limited pressing will be in a gatefold sleeve. -ed]

To get people to pre-order these things over the website has allowed to finance getting these things done. I think it is helpful for other musicians to know that are trying to put things out– that you can start lining your ducks up and start selling things and it will help finance things like producing the product.

Lisa: For me, I feel like this is more satisfying than having a record deal.

Wendy: It really is, and more has come from this in satisfaction for us than any record label we’ve ever been signed to– and we’ve been signed to A LOT. And dropped from every one of them… This is so much better and I highly recommend it! Haha!

Me: So, did you create a label for this?

Wendy: Yeah, we just created our own thing.

Me: What is the label called?

Wendy: It’s called “Lisa Coleman/Wendy Melvoin” hehehe. Literally, that is what it is called. We don’t have a label name. It is just “L. Coleman/W. Melvoin”

Wendy: That’s it– we aren’t going to put out anyone else’s records.

Me: Well, yes I suppose you aren’t going to make a “Paisley Park” or something.

Wendy: Nah, it’s not going to happen for us.

Me: Will you be selling the LP without the CD at some point?

Wendy & Lisa: Oh, yes! Absolutely!

Me: It seems that the other part of the equation for working bands is touring and, in some cases the album is promoted by the touring. Do you see the success of this preventing the need to tour? Are you going to tour?

Wendy: We’re going to need to tour. All of this is leading into the two of us hopefully getting out this summer to do some gigs. We have so much work to do before we can even put our eye on that– but our sights are on being able to tour. I’d love us to be able to spend at least three months– six weeks here in the States to do just some key places and six weeks in over in Europe would be fantastic.

Lisa:  Yeah, it’s not a matter of even needing to tour, we really would like to tour.

Wendy: Yeah that’s true…

Lisa: …And play this record out and play these songs and give them a life. But, we don’t have the financing to rehearse a band and pay for hotels and travel and things like that so we’re trying to raise the money first. Maybe find some smart ways of doing it– maybe pairing it with another band or a promoter or something that makes sense.

Wendy: Or what we talked about before is that we have this group of musicians that we have this band with called Edith Funker. It has members of the Roots– ?uestlove on drums, Erykah Badu on vocals, My brother-in-law on guitar Doyle Bramhall [Wendy’s sister Susannah Melvoin is married to Doyle -ed], with [Susannah] doing vocals and guitar, James Poyser on keyboards with Lisa, me on guitar, this really phenomenal record producer-musician named Mike Elizondo on bass. And, we want to go out possibly as each other’s band.

Me: Oh, like a package tour!

Wendy: Yeah, a package tour. So, for like 45 minutes we’re Eryka’s band, and for 45 minutes they’re Wendy & Lisa’s band, and for 45 minutes we’re Doyle’s band– you know what I mean? Kind of do that. We’d love to make that happen.

Me: That would be really great!

Lisa: We think that would be the ideal thing, but you know it would be pretty hard to coordinate. Everybody’s doing their records and tours and things like that. We’re hoping maybe by summertime. Also, that’s when the TV season ends because our day job, of course, is scoring TV.

Wendy: “Nurse Jackie” and “Heroes.”

Lisa: Yeah, so after the TV season is over and everybody kind of gets done doing what they’re doing right now…

Wendy: Which is the end of April…

Lisa: Yeah, we’re going to try aim for late June or something around there to try to get out and do something like that.

Me: Are you going to try to hit the festivals?

Wendy: You know, if we could get that group of people together, I don’t even know that we have to do the festivals. We could probably get a venue on our own and make it a two-and-a-half, three hour event with all of those people– bypassing the festivals.

Me: By the way, I think that White Flags is a brilliant record. You have somehow managed to hit a lot of the buttons I care about in music.

Lisa: Oh wow, Thank you!

Me: I had a pretty tough time describing it while writing the one paragraph I did write for the article talking about the upcoming release. The record either sounds like it’s been a long time coming or– I don’t know. It’s all over the place and it has one sound– a consistent production value. I’m going to call it “shoegazer” because I don’t know what else to call it.

Wendy: Yeah, and I related to your comparisons, I do listen to Lush a little bit and My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead– of course and I feel those things when I hear this record as well.

You know, this has been a long time coming for us, this record.  We needed to start fresh. We didn’t really use anything that we had in the can from ten years ago, but we opted basically to let all that got to define who we are right now. After being in film composing and TV composing for this long and producing for other people and being on a million other records during this time and writing for other people. And, when we got the writer’s strike– for good or for bad– the strike allowed us the opportunity to get in our room, shut the door, turn the red light on and keep everybody out and make this record. We were lucky for the time– really lucky for it because I’m really proud of this record. When my kid’s a teenager, I wouldn’t hesitate handing him this record and say, “here, give this a listen.”

Lisa: It was like opening the flood gates for us, too. After having the responsibility to write music all the time, having the freedom to write music was a totally different experience. The things that came out of us were– and we’re guilty of being all over the place anyway because we love so many different kinds of music– we like to groove and we like to be introspective, we like to trip out and then we like to get really classy or intimate. So, all these things just started pouring out, and when we hit a certain song or a certain place after a month or so of writing we knew we had stumbled upon the sound that could carry through. There was even this Mellotron “voice” sound that I think we used on every song or as a way to segue between songs was the emotional thread through the album– like it was one story.

Wendy: Michael, when you listen to the LP, we actually made this– segued this so it would sound as if you were having the LP experience. It’s been so many years since people have had that mindset and boy do I miss it!

Lisa: To listen to a whole record and to have it be different– so many times I put on a record and then it’s kind of the same song over-and-over again. I’ve never liked that– I like records that have different feels on it, like it takes you on a trip.

Wendy: Yeah, like one of the coveted LP’s that I have is the Bill Evans/Claus Ogerman Symbiosis. Side A is all of the horn arrangements that Claus Ogerman did– Bill isn’t even playing on side A! Symbiosis is this composition where side A is playing at double-time and side B is an orchestra and the Bill Evans Trio playing it at half time. That’s a fucking LP experience to me! That, to me, is a high achievement.

Me: Was that a Prestige title?

Wendy: I think maybe it was.

[Although Evans famously recorded on Prestige, this 1974 release was originally released on the German label MPS. It was re-released on CD in 1995 on Verve Records and is now sadly out-of-print, however you can download mp3’s at Amazon. -ed]

Me: It sounds like I need to find that one– I like Bill Evans.

Wendy: You need to find that. It’s breathtaking. Michael, this LP is BREATHTAKING, it’s so beautiful! Side B– that’s the heartbreak side. Side A is more like the bible of harmonics.

Lisa: It’s almost Supersax, but really um…

Wendy: It’s more Steve Reich-ian meets Supersax.

[I had to stop myself from talking about Reich’s “Different Trains.” I saw the original configuration of Kronos Quartet performing this in Madison, WI in the early 90’s.]

Lisa: Way more sophisticated harmonically. It’s really, really cool.

Albums are so much better when they aren’t just a collection of singles. Even though there is a place for that– you can go buy the “greatest hits.”

Wendy: In defense of a lot of records out there, I think it is just the Pop stuff that is geared towards that. I listen to plenty of CD’s right now that aren’t a collection of singles. It’s too blanket of a statement– it’s just not true.

Lisa: Well, I just think with the failure of the record companies (assumes stuffy documentary voice) “in our historic times”– record labels have completely failed the art and it makes the art difficult to master. When you’re making a record, you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be aiming at. I think that Wendy and I in this situation had the perfect opportunity to not care about that. We had our studio already set up, we had been scoring TV, and the writer’s strike hit and we had nothing to do.

Wendy: It was a perfect storm.

Lisa: Right, exactly, so we were “snowed in,” had all this gear, all this inspiration and nobody to answer to except each other and we just started writing and it was such a gift to be able to do that.

Wendy: Even our engineer kept looking at us and saying “What kind of music is this? What is this?” Just go with it man, just go with it.

Lisa: “Is this supposed to sound like a rock record? Should I make it tight or loose? Should I use echo?” We said, “Just make it sound cool.” He has great taste and great ears and great techniques.

Wendy: We just guided him and said, “Stay there! Don’t move! That’s just where we want to be!”

Me: So, you did this in one sitting, effectively? It’s a bit astounding that you could achieve this record like that.

Lisa: Yeah, it was easy– well I shouldn’t say that and jinx myself! With the exception of “Niagra Falls,” which we re-recorded, yeah. We just have a lot of music in our bones. It just comes out.

Me: I haven’t had this record to listen to that long, but the two songs that stand out for me are “Niagra Falls” and “Sweet Suite.”

Wendy: Yeah, those are the two that a lot of people are gravitating towards.

Me: I have to say that out of the whole Revolution catalog “Sometimes It Snows In April” [from Parade] is probably my favorite song.

Wendy & Lisa (in unison): Wow, thank you!

Me: So, I hear “Sweet Suite” and I kind of hear that in there.

Wendy & Lisa: Yeah, for sure, definitely.

Lisa: “Sometimes It Snows In April” was really the pinnacle of our relationship together [with Prince]. The three of us had kind of a love affair. And when we wrote that song– again– it was just the three of us sitting together in a room. I really loved it, and I had hoped we would follow that trail further, you know? Like make a whole record like that or something. But, that didn’t happen.

Wendy: He opted out.

Me: And there was that B-Side to “Mountains” What was it, “Alexa de…”

Wendy: “Alexa de Paris.”

Me: Yeah..

Lisa: Oh, wow, yeah…

Wendy: That whole Parade record, that was a great time. Parade, and Sign O’ The Times. Actually, the three albums: All Around The World In A Day, Parade, and Sign O’ The Times, those were incredible records to make…

I’ll tell you what my friend– we don’t want to– but, we have to go. We have to deliver thirty minutes of music for “Heroes” for tomorrow morning and we’ve only done one reel out of five! We have a deadline…

Me: I really appreciate the time, ladies, and it was really great talking to you at the beginning of this phase in your career!

Below is a full-album stream of Wendy & Lisa’s new album White Flags of Winter Chimneys:

 

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