STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your 2018 album NO GOOD DEED is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the way the album turned out and the reaction to it so far?
MINDI ABAIR: This album is deep to me. It feels like the band has gelled … we complete each other’s sentences musically and play together so effortlessly at this point. We joined forces as Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers at the beginning of 2015, but I had played with Randy Jacobs for 20 years before that, and Rodney Lee has been in my band for 17 years. Third Richardson is from my hometown. I hear the camaraderie and the friendship and the sheer abandon we have playing together, and I love it. We chose songs we loved, whether we wrote them or someone else did, and we played them like only we would.
SPAZ: Your career has allowed you to dabble in so many styles, which make your work with your band The Boneshakers sound so natural. Do you approach your work with the band differently than you do while working on a ‘solo’ album?
MINDI: Randy Jacobs started The Boneshakers in the mid 1990’s and when he joined forces with me in 2015, we both agreed we’d find common ground musically and have fun doing it. We weren’t making a “Mindi Abair” solo record, and we weren’t making a “Boneshakers” record. We were bringing our best selves to this marriage of musical forces and hopefully rising up to be something transcendent that we couldn’t find on our own. I love the fact that everyone in this band brings their own past… their own strengths to it. Rodney is a brainiac that can sit back there on the B3 or piano and blow my mind with how patient he is musically, not even playing on some songs. And then he’ll tear it up on the next song. He knows when to play and when not to… and he is the glue of this band. Third Richardson is a wild animal. I feel like we can just chain him to the drums and harness all that power. He drives the train on stage, and he’s got this raw energy that you can feel run through you when he starts a song. Ben White is solid and locks in with Third in this perfectly swampy way. Randy is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen in my life. I first met him playing in a rock band that mid-guitar solo he did a perfect back flip into the audience… landed it… and kept playing. It was so rock star. That personifies him. He’s sheer electricity and he and I have always had huge chemistry on stage. He inspires me. They all do!
SPAZ: Before The Boneshakers came along, were you searching for a band that would allow you to move in a Blues/Rock direction? Or did Randy Jacobs and the band inspire that decision?
MINDI: I grew up on the road with my Dad’s band The Entertainers. It was a blue-eyed soul band… really high energy. After the band broke up my Dad started putting together rock bands that toured the US, and I’d sit in their practice rooms for hours a day and watch and listen. I grew up a rocker girl watching MTV and wanting to be the third member of Heart or sing and strut like Tina Turner. The beginning of my career was spent playing for artists like Teena Marie, Adam Sandler, The Backstreet Boys, Duran Duran. My first solo record ALWAYS AND NEVER THE SAME was indie and it was a pop/rock vocal album. But I was courted by Verve Records to make an instrumental record. I did and it broke chart records in Contemporary Jazz so I continued, of course, and loved every minute. In 2011, I was called by Don Was to record a sax solo on “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” for American Idol. He said I’d probably end up on the show. I did, and I ended up spending two seasons as their featured saxophonist, ending with Phillip Phillips’ win. That morning, Steven Tyler called me and just talked at me saying “We have to do this… time is running out… let’s go.” And I had no idea that he was asking me to go on the road with Aerosmith. I couldn’t say “No” to Steven Tyler. I’m a huge fan, and the chance to sing and play with Aerosmith was a dream for me. I realized that every time I moonlighted from my career it was with rock ‘n’ roll or blues. I’d spend weekends off playing with Waddy Wachtel and his band or sitting in with Orianthi or taking my summer vacation with Aerosmith. I toured for a few months with Max Weinberg from Springsteen’s band and played so many Clarence Clemons parts and solos. I felt like I was living two separate lives… my “jazz artist” life and my “rocker girl” life. What if I could fuse the two and make a record that really encompasses all of me? I decided to take that idea on, and I asked people that I’d worked with and loved to help me find the way. I released WILD HEART in 2014 and it featured Joe Perry from Aerosmith, Gregg Allman, Booker T. Jones, Keb’ Mo’, Trombone Shorty, Max Weinberg and Waddy Wachtel. These friends of mine helped me find me … all of me. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. WILD HEART was the gateway drug to me going back to my roots of rock ‘n’ roll and soul and blues. I needed my live band to reflect this music, so I called Randy Jacobs, who I’d played with on and off for many years. And at that point, half of my band was playing in his band The Boneshakers. It all made sense! We both ended up on the bill at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival 2014. The Boneshakers were playing on one stage and my band was on another one. We were the same band… just playing different material. I sat in with The Boneshakers and stayed the whole set. It was electric and so inspiring. That’s what music is supposed to feel like every night. Randy and I were on such a “high” and we talked about joining forces…. maybe making a joint band called Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. We did just that and haven’t looked back. I walk off the stage every night loving every second with these guys. We’re making music that moves us and I feel that energy translates to our audiences.
SPAZ: Initially, you were known as a sax player but now you are highly respected as a vocalist as well. At this moment in your career, which is more satisfying on a personal level?
MINDI: I grew up singing and playing sax and piano. My father was a sax player … he was that guy shimmying and shaking and walking the bar with a sax. And my grandmother was an opera singer… big as a house and with a personality just as big. I took every band class and every choir class in school. I sang less in college, because it was frowned on as an instrumentalist. I wanted the respect of my peers, so I put other people’s names on the demos I’d sing for people in college. And when I moved to LA to hunt a record deal down, I was told “You can’t sing and play the saxophone. We have no idea how to market that. You have to choose.” Every record I’ve made has had my vocals on it. Some albums have me singing one song… others almost every song. But it’s always been a part of my life. I think touring with Aerosmith helped me feel more confident as a vocalist and take it more seriously. Singing with Steven Tyler is no joke… and I walked away feeling more mojo. I started taking voice lessons and made a serious effort to become the singer I wanted to be. I warm up every day and take it very seriously. I love being able to flip my middle finger to those who told me I had to choose.
SPAZ: How did this batch of songs come together? Do you normally start with a big backlog of material and whittle it down to what makes the final cut on the album?
MINDI: I wrote like crazy for this album. We wrote as a band too. I would stay in towns I had songwriter friends in for a few extra days after we’d play there and write. I really made a concerted effort to write and figure out what was in my head and get it out. I brought 26 original songs in for the band and Kevin Shirley to pick and choose from. We had a few ideas as a band for cover songs we loved or thought we’d have fun making our own. We spent two days going through songs and whittled it down to the 10 we felt like we loved the most. That’s so hard to do! That’s the record.
SPAZ: When working in the studio, do you often choose a take that ‘feels’ right or do you spend days working on mixes to knock things into shape? The songs on NO GOOD DEED seem to have the right feeling, groove, and sounds fresh and inspiring without too much studio tinkering…
MINDI: I love the fact that we’re a band. We play together so much that we really do have this language together. It’s usually hard to catch the lightning in a bottle of that live feeling when you’re in a studio. But with this band, we get in there, do a few takes, laugh a little, and if it feels right we move on. The spirit and energy of us finding it together is perfect the first few times through it. I don’t want to sit there and think about it too much… we might ruin it! We recorded this album in five days at EastWest Studios. We recorded our Christmas album ALL I GOT FOR CHRISTMAS IS THE BLUES in two days, and our last album The Eastwest Sessions was recorded in five days as well.
SPAZ: “Sweetest Lies” is packed with the kind of emotion that sounds like you ‘lived’ the lyrics. Do you prefer to record songs that you feel that you can ‘inhabit’ on an emotional level? And what does that do to you as a performer if you have to be reminded of that each time you sing the song?
MINDI: There are songs that I sing that certain lines choke me up every night. I hate that I feel it so much I can’t control that. It doesn’t make for great vocal takes. But it lets me know that I’m telling the truth… that I mean what I’m singing and it’s real to me. “Sweetest Lies” is based on truths that I’ve lived and experienced. There’s a point when you know you’re in a wrong situation, but you can’t get out… even though you know it’s not right, you can talk yourself into staying even knowing you’re being lied to. I hope no one else has felt that, but I suspect more people than just me have felt that.
SPAZ: How did you originally hook up with producer Kevin Shirley? He’s certainly been involved with a lot of fine bands over the years including The Black Crowes, Rush, Material Issue, Aerosmith, Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden, Silverchair, Led Zeppelin, etc.
MINDI: Kevin Shirley is a force of nature musically. I was sitting at dinner with my friend Ken Ciancimino in Las Vegas and I was telling him it was time to make our second record as a band. Our first album was a live album recorded at the first show we ever played together as a band. So, after a few years of touring, it was time to go into the studio and really define our sound. Ken said “I’ve got your guy. Your guy is Kevin Shirley.” I agreed with him. I was a huge fan of Kevin’s work and thought he always brought out the best in every band he worked with. I didn’t know him, though. Ken assured me he would make an introduction. Sure. Cut to a month later… I get a call from Ken. He said “Kevin is at his studio in Malibu. He’s leaving later today for Australia. He’s free for the next few hours if you want to go up and meet him.” I drove to Malibu and played him a few demos and told him what we wanted to do as a band. He said he was in, and we made the album a month later. Sometimes it’s that easy, right?
SPAZ: What’s next for Mindi Abair?
MINDI: Count on me being on the road solid with Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers having a blast playing our new album live!
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your record/CD players?
MINDI: Ray Charles, Larkin Poe, Gary Clark, Jr., H.E.R, Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson, David Gray, Sam and Dave, The Rascals, The Record Company and Keb’ Mo.
Thanks to Mindi Abair
Special thanks to Mike Donohue, Stephanie Gonzalez, and Dave Rayburn
MINDI ABAIR & THE BONESHAKERS
NO GOOD DEED