Author: Cyclone Wehner
Publish date: November 1998
by Cyclone Wehner
[with thanks to Duane Tudahl]
Why is it that when the names Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are mentioned, we think of Prince? Sure, these two all-round musicians contributed more to his work than is generally acknowledged, but it’s been well over 10 years since they left Paisley Park to work with many other high calibre musicians -- Seal, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, kd lang, Tricky and Sheryl Crow. They have also ventured into film, scoring “Dangerous Minds”, “Soul Food”, and “HavPlenty”, the latter two both produced by Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds.
Their association with Prince has often hurt more than helped their artistic careers. Wendy and Lisa released a triumvirate of albums that didn’t live up to the industry’s expectations in terms of sales. Instead of launching the defacto Paisley Park albums expected of them, they forged their own identity. If the first two, self-titled (1987, Columbia) and “Fruit At The Bottom” (1989, Columbia), leant towards a funky pop, “Eroica” (1990, Virgin) marked a shift into indie pop. Wendy and Lisa’s latest, “Girl Bros”, sees a move towards guitar pop territory, with the two finally coming into their own, under the gentle direction of producer Tchad Blake (Sheryl Crow, Soul Coughing).
The two musicians currently enjoy a loyal core following that transcends, even defies, their ambiguous identity as Prince associates. It’s time to stop asking Wendy and Lisa about Prince in interviews; time to acknowledge that they are unique and autonomous artists.
As a subject, Wendy is refreshingly candid. It’s rare to find a musician who departs from the standard interview script. This honesty assumes a heightened pathos on the pair’s new album, “Girl Bros”, their first after a spell that saw them contractually bound to ZTT, a label founded by UK producer Trevor Horn (Seal, Art Of Noise).
Indeed, the childhood friends have recorded a tribute to Wendy’s brother, Jonathan Melvoin, who died from a heroin overdose in 1996 while on tour with The Smashing Pumpkins as a keyboard player. Due to the longstanding closeness of their two musical families, Lisa virtually regarded Jonathan as a sibling. They shared their grief with Wendy’s twin sister, Susannah Melvoin, who guests on the album.
While on one level “Girl Bros” is a private celebration of a single life, its songs of grief, anger and even release are sufficiently open-ended for listeners to appropriate for their own experiences of loss.
The album also has a place within an age-old musical continuum which focusses on the loss of the beloved as a way of exploring the mystery of death, grief and the need for healing. Part of that healing involves memorialising. Much of Western popular music stems from this impulse -- a common theme of the Black American spirituals was the crucifixion. Out of this early gospel tradition eventually came soul and the blues, which in turn gave voice to the myriad of human emotions in the wake of loss. It’s not so surprising then to find that even some of the biggest soulful pop hits of recent times deal in some way with death -- George Michael’s “Jesus To A Child”; Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and Janet Jackson’s “Together Again”.
The popularity of such material attests to the power of music as a means of sharing common experiences. By revealing their own pain, Wendy and Lisa have a struck a universally resonant chord.
In this interview, Wendy discusses the intensely personal nature of “Girl Bros”, accounts for the long delay between albums and talks about the pair’s ongoing musical projects.
CYCLONE WEHNER: “Girl Bros” is a great album -- very mature, complex and deep. It’s also quite a departure from your previous work. I can’t believe how long it’s taken though.
WENDY MELVOIN: Yeah, well you can tell me about it. Lisa and I are still like, in a complete puzzlement that it took quite this long but unfortunately the powers that be, it just happened to be this way. We did a record that was unreleased with Trevor Horn and that took a few years to do and unfortunately it didn’t turn out as well as we had hoped it would and by that time a few years had gone by and we were kinda disillusioned by that process, you see. So what we decided to do was just kinda concentrate on producing people for a couple of years and getting into film work but obviously with the intent at some point to get back into doing the Wendy & Lisa Project but we needed to take a break after the Trevor Horn thing. It just fucking killed us. Totally.
CW: What exactly went down with him because I’ve heard this from other people as well?
WM: Oh, well unfortunately, it came down to a money thing where he just, it was taking too long for the project to get completed. I don’t think, I mean obviously Lisa and I will take responsibility to a certain degree of the failure of the combination but ultimately I believe it was the amount of money that Trevor was spending on the project and taking way too much time to do it that kind of drained Lisa and I of our resources and we couldn’t work anywhere else ‘cause we needed to be available to him to finish this record. So, by the time he was ready to sort of concentrate on this project we were fucking broke. So it was like “Oh, man”. And I remember even saying to him, pleading with him and his wife: “We’ve gotta hurry this up. I don’t want it to be six years before this next record’s out. Well low and behold look at it, six years. Isn’t that funny?
CW: I’ve heard he’s a perfectionist.
WM: Well, I don’t know that it’s perfectionist. I think that he’s a creative doubter. And that’s what I call Trevor. He’s not so much of a perfectionist as he is someone who doubts everything he does and only exhausts everything until he feels he has a bit of comfort level. That’s my belief.
CW: This album deals in a very honest way with the loss of your brother Jonathan.
WM: Yeah. [softly]
CW: Did you find that you felt better for recording the album? Do you feel a sense of closure now?
WM: No, I don’t think I’ll ever really find closure to it but the process helped me put a voice to the grief and it helped Lisa and I deal with a monumentally, diabolical loss. So, but it hasn’t put closure to it because we’re both living without a limb, if you know what I mean. To lose somebody is like you gotta learn how to use one hand instead of two. So you never really totally get closure but you get used to it.
CW: Are you finding that people are coming to you now and telling you their own stories?
WM: Oh, indeed, absolutely. You know that’s funny ‘cause Lisa and I both said that to each other that when you connect with someone who’s had a loss you immediately unconditionally care for someone. It makes it very easy for you to care for a stranger when they’ve said “I lost my mother and my father in a plane crash.” You immediately can connect to them on a really deep, profound human level without having any baggage or any issues of trust. You immediately connect on that level and that is a really phenomenal and bonding moment that humans can have through an incredibly tragic circumstance. But that is part of the beauty of this kind of tragedy that you connect with people unconditionally who experienced that kind of loss.
CW: The record is also quite a departure from your earlier work. Was it a conscious decision to reinvent your sound?
WM: It was kinda conscious to be as honest and go completely the antithesis of where we were at with Trevor. That is the only thing that I can say that we made a conscious effort to do. Unfortunately the subject matter was out of our control. But it was an honest and conscious effort to make it as honest and stripped as we possibly could without second guessing one thing we did.
CW: You’ve collaborated with an incredible array of artists across the musical spectrum. How have those exchanges influenced your outlook as music makers?
WM: It’s been fantastic, to play with all these people, is an absolute honour and what it has done for both Lisa and I is it’s kinda opened us up even more musically. We like to be able to facilitate an artist so that they can become the best that they can be. So by playing with them what we try and do is be exactly what they want it to be, musically. If they’re not playing the keyboard, if they’re not playing the guitar, if they’re just going to sing then we need to be an extension of that voice and it’s been an incredible journey to do that.
CW: For this album you chose to bring in Tchad Blake to produce, why not self-produce?
WM: The subject matter was a little bit too close for Lisa and I to dissect and to be that kind of focussed. We needed to kinda just express ourselves without thinking about the technical side of this and the only other person that Lisa and I really ever wanted to work with on that level was Tchad because of the kind of work that he does. He is the antithesis of Trevor Horn. You couldn’t get further from that and he had, when we met each other, we had all three of us collectively had experienced losses in our lives so the three of us in the studio kind of like processed together. So it’s been this great combination. He’s been an incredible help musically. He’s an amazing, amazing producer and engineer. I don’t think there’s anybody better other maybe than his partner Mitchell who’s quite good too.
CW: How did you actually connect with him?
WM: I got his home phone number and called his machine, literally. I was like, I gotta find this guy. And I got his number and there you have it. Called his machine and said “I don’t know if you know me but blah, blah. Lisa and I are gonna put a record out, we’re not gonna have it signed. We’re not going for a commercial endeavour here. This is what the story is blah, blah, blah. If you’re interested we’d love to hook up with you. And he called right back and he said “I’m in”.
CW: Why did you make the decision to go independent with this album?
WM: For two different reasons. One, a lot of record labels have a kind of weird look about ‘Wendy & Lisa’. It’s almost as if we’ve had our shot kind of attitude in a way but they think “Oh, but they’re incredible musicians, they’re so talented this and that, blah, blah, blah but they’ve been signed and they had their shot in the pop world, da, da, da”. And we kinda didn’t want to offer this project up to that kind of rejection. And so that’s where we decided through our management and the two of us that we’d go ahead and try and do this ourselves. I mean, I think that we could do just as well or even better than what a label could do for Wendy & Lisa right now. I mean if you’re not Alanis Morissette then you’re fucked, you’re fucked, you just are. It doesn’t matter if you’re talented and you have a career as a musician and want to make records for the rest of your life. That’s not what a record label is about. They’re a bank. They don’t give a shit about that. They’re just a bank and they want to make sure that they can sell their product. And if it’s about . . . well art and commerce just don’t mix when it’s a record label anymore. It just doesn’t exist so it’s up to artists now who want to make records for a living to kinda lower their spectrum a bit. You know, okay, I know I won’t sell a million records but maybe I can sell 50,000 to some really, really important people, who really want to hear my music. And that’s a huge success. That’s huge.
CW: There are a few independents now who are power brokers in the industry, I guess the Master P phenomenon is one of the most interesting.
WM: Oh, yeah Master P . . . yeah but the rap thing’s different because you know those guys can just throw up product and like get an incredible revenue in a matter of weeks. It’s a different phenomena but for song writers I think it’s quite different. But for the rap scene, they’re still just hungry for whatever they can get their hands on. The community’s just hungry for it.
CW: Would you consider aligning yourself with a major in the future or have you “been there, done that”?
WM: At this point, kinda “been there done that” but we would consider having a distribution deal so that we could get product to the stores like in a really expedient fashion. We’re having to learn this process, without any kind of resource to look upon. Other than Ani DiFranco I don’t know anybody who’s done this and really done a good job at it. I know that Prince has done it but from what I understand there were some problems in it or there is problems in it. He had price wars and I mean I don’t know the details of it but I wouldn’t look upon that scenario as “Oh, I’m going to emulate that, that’s gonna help my career.” So we’re kinda going into this blind right now and we’re not going to ask all the right questions and we’ll probably learn from a lot of these mistakes but I think we’re dedicated to kinda going along long haul on this. We can’t get the support of a label at this point. They don’t wanna risk what it costs to break an artist. You know, it costs a million dollars for even a brand new artist and yet they rarely ever make that money back and they’ve kinda “been there done that with us”. So it’s like we need to kinda just go “Okay”. Look Lisa and I can’t let the record label dictate what my career is. I want to make records for a living right. So I can’t just wait for the label to pick me up. Fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves. Like again, if we sell 25,000 copies or 50,000 copies, that’s a huge success. Huge! It would be a failure on a record label but for us total success.
CW: Your live concerts are receiving rave reviews and I’ve actually got a friend from Melbourne who’s over there and saw you in LA and he was raving about it. Are you enjoying that live thing at the moment and will you ever travel abroad?
WM: Oh, yeah, totally. We love doing it. Still love doing it. As matter of fact we’re gonna do it tonight. We’re thrilled about it and yeah we’re gonna do Europe. All of that is a yes. All of it. A big emphatic yes.
CW: Your remix album of a few years ago featured an incredible line up of producers who are now hot tickets in the dance thing. Are you into some of that very cutting edge electronic music?
WM: I have been for years, for years.
CW: Have you heard much jungle and drum and bass?
WM: Tons, tons.
CW: What do you make of that?
WM: Right now what’s really interesting about the scene is that it changes like every three weeks. There was a scene that was really cool with jungle for me about a year and half ago, two years ago. Jungle to me was awesome and it had like this . . . the ambient jungle that was happening was really killer but right now it’s kinda in a weird place because it’s commercialised. You can hear jungle music on like advertisements. It’s been commercialised right now so it’s not quite so sub-culture but I love it and I think it’s got an energy that we’re lacking right now in a lot of music. I like being able to feel music with rhythm without having to listen a lot of the times to lyrics and because it makes me study my work too hard if I have to listen to the craft of a song. But if I hear these guys who do this dance music, it’s more like an expression or more like a vibe and I love it. It just puts me into a good mood, in a good place, or introspective without having to really have to dissect myself. It just puts me in a good place.
CW: There’s this rumour going around that you’re going to contribute to a Madonna tribute album and if that rumour has any foundation, which is the track that you’re going to cover for it?
WM: Well, it’s news to me. Jesus! . . . Really. Okay, let’s think here. Man, I’d have to think about that. I really would. I don’t know off hand. Because that’s news to me and I’d have to think about that. Can I get back to you on that one?
CW: There’s a whole tracklisting on the Internet. It looks like it’s come from a fairly good source and it’s actually got you down and whole lot of other people too. Sort of groups like a Flock of Seagulls.
WM: Oh funny. So what are they -- like all 80s bands doing covers of Madonna or something?
CW: A few and a few I don’t know. So I wonder if it’s a hoax.
WM: It could be, it could be.
CW: I guess it gives you something to laugh about today, anyway.
WM: That’s funny. Yeah, I’m gonna say that at my show tonight. I’ll bring it up at the show.
CW: I believe Susannah’s got a record deal as well. If that’s true is she going to produce a record and will you be involved with that?
WM: Well, she’s kinda like not doing that right now. She’s been writing for a lot of people. And as a matter of fact she’s the one that wrote a song for Madonna on her last record. So she’s doing that and she just got married so she’s enjoying being in love.
CW: That Madonna track was wonderful.
WM: Yeah, it was a good one. I actually really liked that one alot.
CW: How did she place that with Madonna? Does she know Madonna?
WM: We’re friends with William Orbit. That’s how it happened.
CW: It surprised a lot of people to see her name there.
WM: I bet it did.
CW: I’ve always thought that you did some of your best work with Me’Shell Ndegeocello. How did you work together?
WM: Well, we have a really great competitive, like healthy competitive, atmosphere together because we both like playing funk. So when we got the chance to play together on that last record it was like two kids in a candy store. So it was a great combination. She’s subsequently become a very good friend of mine and we just like playing together. We’ve been doing little things here and there and still writing together and she’s writing for her new record and there’ll be more involvement on that. She’s a hot shit, she really is and she’s doing her best to grow and to be a really good artist.
CW: Is there anyone else that you and Lisa are dying to work with?
WM: Yeah, Liz Fraser, The Cocteau Twins, yeah.
CW: Is there anyone else?
WM: We’re working with them all right now. We’re just having a great time right now. I’m doing some work with Sheryl Crow which has been great. I’m doing “Saturday Night Live” with her on Saturday so. Jesus, that’s at the top of the list right now -- Liz Fraser. That’s what we’re putting all our energy into. “Where are you Liz? We want to work with you!!” [Laughs]
CW: She last did that Massive Attack record.
WM: Yeah, right. Which I think only just touches the surface of where she could go.
CW: A lot of people felt unsatisfied with that collaboration.
WM: Well, she’s fantastic and the melody that she put on the songs was great. I just think that she needs a bigger platform to let herself go. I’d love to work with her.
CW: One area where you’ve really made a name for yourselves is in film scores. What sort of discipline does working in that area involve?
WM: It’s entirely different. There’s a lot of discipline, there’s a lot of people involved and you’re literally facilitating the vision of the director so you have a lot of work to do. It’s very different. We’ve just finished doing some music for Ron Howard’s new film “Ed TV” that we did 20 minutes of music for. And working with someone like Ron Howard you don’t get any more professional than that. This is a guy that does, you know a hundred million dollar pictures so when he gets involved in every aspect of his career including what’s going on with the music he’s extremely precise about what he wants and as a composer you have to be able to facilitate that but at the same time be creative so it’s really, really challenging but quite easy for the two of us ‘cause we love doing it.
CW: Did Babyface give you space?
WM: Oh completely. Totally. He doesn’t know about composing films. He just said “Compose my film and do a great job”. “Soul Food” turned out great.
CW: Is there any foundation to these rumours of you hooking up with Sheila E or is that another Internet gossip thing?
WM: Gossip. I mean we’ve talked to Sheila. I haven’t talked to her in a few years actually but we used to talk about putting a band together with Sheila and me and Lisa and Me’Shell but everyone’s kinda doing their own thing. Sheila went and did the “Magic Johnson Show” which was her thing and Me’Shell stayed on the road and Lisa and I were doing films so it never really hooked up.
CW: I heard from Chaka Khan that she was part of that too.
WM: You know, she, absolutely, yeah sure why not. She probably got that, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . A really, really good really good female band. Not just a pop band. A really good musical song band that happened to have chicks in it. Oh man, it hasn’t happened yet. There’s been pop bands with women that’s a given, tons of them, pop and rock but not like they got as big as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It hasn’t been on that level at all. It’s always been about “Oh, the cute girls in the band” and “Oh yeah, they play guitar”. The cute factor is always first.
CW: Have you been conscious of the gender barriers in the music industry? Are things getting better?
WM: No, they’re not getting better you just learn how to dodge the bullets better. Just with time and experience you learn how to avoid certain situations that are going to put the barrier in front of you. The thing with film music is that it’s run by men and it’s a man’s world. There are now a handful of women that are, well not a handful, there’s a lot of women that are behind the helms as producers and editors, but in the film side of composing it’s all a man’s world so we’re fighting a major struggle but thank god there’s a woman by the name of Rachel Portman who won best composer of the year a couple of years ago at the Oscars. She’s the first woman to have won a film score, as a composer. It’s starting but I mean, phew. Phew. It’s heavy, it’s heavy, I’m telling you. It’s heavy but you just try not to pay too much attention to it. Dodge the bullets and fucking keep going.
CW: How does the discrimination manifest itself? Is it overt or is it a vibe?
WM: Oh, no it’s a vibe. It’s not overt. I suppose it would be overt with someone who didn’t have the awareness that it was going on but Lisa and I are very aware of that and carry ourselves in a certain manner so that that isn’t the case. When it does occur it’s pretty subversive . . . . I think we’re dealing with it better. I think us women are dealing with it better. I don’t think it’s really going away.
CW: Even Madonna gets these accusations of “Oh you’re too old”.
WM: Right but she’s using it now, she uses all of that as a power tool and she’s fucking brilliant at it. Are you kidding? She uses exactly what everybody else puts on her as a negative and turns it into a positive. “Okay, look if you’re going to tell me I’m fucking too old, well bring it on. Let see what I, maybe I can work with this.” She’s always trying to twist it, you know. Awesome.
This interview was conducted by telephone on Friday, 2 October 1998, while Wendy Melvoin was in New York. “Girl Bros” is available in US stores (Virgin Megastores and Borders) and through Music Boulevard at www.musicblvd.com