SESSIONS, LESSONS EARNED, LEARNED: MINDI ABAIR AND THE BONESHAKERS SHAKE, RATTLE WITH SOUL ON THE EASTWEST SESSIONS
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: GREG ALLEN
“I never really thought about being a girl playing an instrument or being in this business. I just did what I loved and thank goodness people didn’t tell me it was odd for quite some time. Until it was too late and I was already in it.”
Chances are you’ve either heard, seen or read about Mindi Abair at some point, but perhaps weren’t aware of the name behind some of the most innovative and captivating saxophone playing heard onstage, onscreen – big and small – and on the radio. The list of top shelf musicians’ live and recorded music Abair has lent her unmatched talent to is long, and while only scratching the surface, ranges from Aerosmith to the Backstreet Boys. In addition to collaborating with cream of the crop artists, since 2000, Abair has release seven solo albums and garnered two Grammy nominations along the way.
Now, Abair and her band The Boneshakers are set to release their first studio album. Due September 15, The EastWest Sessions was recorded over a feverish five days at Hollywood’s EastWest Studios. The 11-song collection follows Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers’ 2015 LIVE In Seattle, which was recorded during their first official show together. I recently had the good fortune of having a great conversation with Abair about passion and persistence, saxophone and sessions and lessons learned along the way.
Hey, Jim, thanks for doing this. I’m doing great.
Well, thanks for your time today, and if you’re ready to rock, I’m ready to chat about some music.
I love it! I love it! I’m glad we made it happen. It’s good to finally meet you. You’ve done a lot of stuff that I’ve listened a lot to, so I’m a fan of yours (laughs).
Well, thank you. Let me begin by making a statement. You are a one-woman multimedia juggernaut, having logged time on stage, on television, on the radio and in print with your 2011 self-published book How To Play Madison Square Garden: A How-To Guide To Stage Performance. Did I miss a film appearance or a stint on Broadway along the way there, or not (laughs)?
(Laughs) You didn’t miss anything on Broadway, but I do appear every once in a while, in an Adam Sandler film (laughs). And I was Al Pacino’s sax player in (2015’s) Danny Collins.
Okay, thank you for that. I missed those. Let’s go back, and then we’ll jump into the record here, but tell me about your very first public appearance. When was that?
My first public appearance? You know, when you said that I thought of, well. My dad always had a recording studio in the third bedroom of our house (Mindi’s father Lance Abair played sax and keyboards professionally in his band The Entertainers). One day – I’d been playing a couple of years – and he said, ‘I need a horn section. Can you play with me?’ And I just thought, this is the big time! This is the real thing! So, that wasn’t public, but my first public thing, the first gig I got paid for, I got paid 50 dollars (to) play at a Chinese restaurant for a singer-songwriter. I was probably 18-years-old. I thought I’d arrived (laughs). I played for probably four hours and I just thought, alright, this is what I wanna do.
Great! That’s the type of story I was looking for. You know, playing in some dive in front of four people – that type of thing.
Yeah, I mean, you gotta do it. You gotta become one with your instrument and just do it anywhere where they’ll let you do it, and that’s how we all get to where we wanna be.
Well then let’s zip fast-forward all the way to the present here, where you are today, as well as touch on some of the career highlights throughout our conversation. Your new album, The EastWest Sessions, arrives September 15 and is the first studio album with your band The Boneshakers. I wanna begin by asking you about the two tracks that bookend the 11-song set, starting with the really funky opener “Vinyl.” I love the line, “Hard to handle like Otis Redding.” Tell me about this one.
“Vinyl” is a song that came out of a Nashville writing session. For this record I just wanted to expand my world and I wanted to expand my songwriting, and so I did a couple of trips to Nashville, and I had some different writing sessions here in Los Angeles. I just really wanted people that could help me amplify who I was, and I think songs are such an important part of the vehicle for being an artist. I got hooked up with a songwriter named Jerry Flowers, and he’s been Keith Urban’s musical director for years and years and years, and written a bunch of hit songs over the years. What’s cool about him is he loves old soul and rock and roll. So, I just went in and said, I know I’m in Nashville but I don’t wanna write a country song. That’s not why I’m here. He was all for that, and we were just throwing around ideas for songs and then he said something that just struck me. He said, “I got an idea for a song and it’s about falling for someone and kind of getting’ in their groove,” and he likened that to a needle going into a vinyl record. And I could just see it, and thought that was absolutely the coolest idea for a song, ever! From there we just started thinking about all those great old records, and that’s where that line came from that you just mentioned. Otis Redding, “Hard to Handle.” One of the greatest records of all time!
Oh, hell yeah! It’s a great way to kick off the record. The song that ends the album is the predominantly acoustic “I Love to Play the Saxophone.” This may seem like an obvious question, Mindi, but what finally compelled you to sit down and pen a love letter to your sax?
(Laughs) You know what, some great writers have written love letters to their instruments. Notably, Jimmy Webb (Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, The 5th Dimension) wrote a song called “My Piano.” So, cut to many years later, one of my girlfriends was making a record for a children’s charity, and she goes, “Write a children’s song. I don’t know, write about your saxophone.” And it was like, “Ding!” Now that record never happened, but my song was written. And I never quite knew what to do with it. I’m sure listening to the song at the end of the record you’re like, well this isn’t exactly like the rest of the record. But I loved it so much…and we really had fun as a band with my dorky little “I Love to Play the Saxophone” song.
Obviously there have been countless love songs written and recorded and this is another one. Only this one’s written to – I would say – your best friend.
Yeah! It occurred to me when writing it that everyone says that I’m the grown-up Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons. She plays sax on the show. We’re gonna give it to The Simpsons and see if Lisa would do it.
Very cool! Speaking of playing the sax, I know your dad played it professionally. His influence aside, did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? Looking back, was there a moment when you really realized that music was going to be your life?
So many guitar players I know had exactly the moment you just said. They saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and they said, oh my gosh, I can get tons of girls, and look at them, and I’m gonna do rock and roll for the rest of my life. I didn’t really have an epiphany like that. It happened a little bit differently for me. Music was always a part of my life growing up. I grew up on the road with my dad’s band. And my grandmother was an opera singer, so I’d go over to her house and she was singing arias and playing Beethoven on the piano. I was busy watching MTV and wanting to be Tina Turner and wanting to be Heart. I loved that. Probably a pivotal moment for me was seeing David Sanborn, and he’d scream on saxophone like Steven Tyler from Aerosmith would sing. And I’m like, “Oh, you can do that? You mean I could be cool like all these people I aspire to be, but I can play a saxophone to do it!”
When I first moved to Los Angeles I joined a rock band. (Lyricist) Jerry Leiber’s son, Oliver Leiber, had started this band called Oliwood. And the guitar playing in that band, along with Oliver, was Randy Jacobs (Bonnie Raitt, Was Not Was, Willie Nelson). Randy and I have been a part of each other’s careers since. But I always was a fan of his band The Boneshakers. He started that band out of Was Not Was. He was one of the founding members, along with Sweet Pea Atkinson and Don Was. Cut to many years later, The Boneshakers were playing on one big stage at this festival, and my band was playing on the other stage. So, I went to sit in with them. (Later) we decided (to form) Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers and our first show together was in Seattle. That became our live CD.
You’ve got a pretty good guitar player laying down some serious licks on the song “Pretty Good for a Girl.” I’m gonna let you spill the beans and then I’ll follow up. Tell us who’s handling the axe while you’re blowing the sax.
Yes, it’s a little crazy, and the world works in mysterious ways. As we were recording the record (producer) Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Joe Bonamassa) was talking to me, and he goes, “I think Joe Bonamassa should come in and play on this. I just think he’d have so much fun, and he’d just kill this!” And I look at him and I went, “Well yeah! Of course! It’d be great!” So, he came in, probably two days later, and recorded the whole song with us. We only did a couple of takes and we were done. Kevin Shirley said, “Yeah, we got it!”
I was just going to say that, going back to my days producing Rockline, I’ve known Joe since he was about 17. I had him on the show with his band Bloodline. That guy kicks some serious ass on guitar, there’s no question about that.
Yeah, I mean there’s just something wrong with him that he can play that well. It’s like, wow, are you kidding me (laughs)? It’s always nice to have someone in the studio like that that pushes you to greatness. I remember being in the studio with Joe Perry on my Wild Heart record and thinking to myself, “I got Joe Perry to my right, I better play. It’s time to play!” That’s how I felt with Joe.
Let’s jump back to Kevin. Kevin is the man – the “Caveman.” Tell us how you guys got connected for this project.
I was at dinner with a few friends, and one of them said, “I know who should produce this record for you,” because they were hearing what I was writing. One of my friends said, “I know the guy. There’s no question in my mind, this is the guy to produce it. Kevin Shirley. The Caveman.” Sometimes the universe is just there for you, and this is one of those times.
That’s all accurate (but) there’s a lot that’s not in there yet that we’re still building out. There’s a bunch of dates that we haven’t made live yet, and one of those is the CD release at the Grammy Museum (in Los Angeles) September 14. So, that’s gonna be a nice kickoff. But yeah, we’re adding a bunch of tour dates, so, I’d say to anyone that wants to come out for a show, get on my email list, get on the website, get on Facebook and we’ll let you know as we book dates and kind of fill it in.
Finally, let me close with this: track eight on the album is called “Had to Learn the Hard Way.” What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned about how to carve out a career in the music business as a predominantly solo female artist?
(Laughs) The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn? Hmm, I don’t know that it’s one lesson, but I do think that the way that we take things is probably the way that they will happen to us. I never really thought about being a girl playing an instrument or being in this business. I just did what I loved and thank goodness people didn’t tell me it was odd for quite some time. Until it was too late (laughs) and already in it. And I’ve had great experiences and bad experiences with being a woman in this industry. But I do think it’s how you approach it and how you take things. I think that kind of gives you a path. And you can have a chip on your shoulder, or you cannot. Like my song “Pretty Good for A Girl.” I’ll use that as an example. I had to poke fun at people taking what you do (seriously). Serena Williams can win the most tennis tournaments ever, and (some people will say), “Well, it’s pretty good for a girl.” There’s always gonna be someone that says that. It’s kind of disheartening, you know, you’re like, “Aw, come on, really? I’m pretty good for anyone.” I built a website around it (prettygoodforagirl.net) for girls to be empowered and feature girls who are doing amazing things. I turned it around to be something of a motivator instead of something that can bring you down.
Anybody that would say “pretty good for a girl” and literally mean it in 2017 is probably a literal caveman!
(Laughs) I think you’re right.
Mindi, thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I hope I’ll get a chance to hi face-to-face real soon.
Absolutely. I really appreciate your time with this, and the cool questions and the great conversation. So, I appreciate it – great to meet you. Take care. Bye.