Pop culture’s love-hate relationship with its artists presents an interesting conundrum. Music created for mass-consumption must be easily digestible, yet the public is quick to retaliate against content that lacks substance. Gifted musicians are often pigeonholed into a certain style or sound that may not reflect their true range. This myopic point of view focuses on one marketable facet of an artist’s talent without taking into account the fact that most recording musicians tend to compose in a variety of styles and genres.
Born in Cardiff, Wales, Donna Lewis grew up in a family of musicians. Exposed to the jazz greats at an early age, she left the UK for Canada to record with producer Pierre Marchand. After years of unsuccessful pitches to record labels, she caught the attention of Atlantic Records in ‘94 and released her debut album “Now In A Minute”. The album and accompanying single “I Love You Always Forever” went on to become major hits on both the US and global charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album certifying platinum.
In the 20 years since her smash hit, Donna Lewis has maintained a steady career as a recording artist and composer. Now, accompanied by longtime producer David Torn, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, Donna is set to release her first album in nearly decade. Light years away from her commercial radio hits of the 90’s, Donna Lewis’ latest release “Brand New Day” re-imagines work by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Neil Young, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Gnarls Barkley. We sat down with Donna to talk about her artistic influences, her history as a recording musician, and the demands placed on young artists by the popular music industry.
Ben Scholz: This album seems such a break from your other work, but it’s very much within the canon of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King,. Obviously, you chose to record with that band because of their collective sound—or am I missing something here? What’s your history with these guys?
Donna Lewis: I spent some time working with David Torn years ago on a project called “Chute”. At the time, he said “you know I can hear you in a really stripped down setting, like bass, piano drums...it would be so cool.” However, I didn’t want to do a covers record where people would say “oh here’s Donna doing what everybody else does.” At some point in their career everyone does a standards record. (laughs) I had met Dave King – he was playing with David Torn a couple of years ago at the Bearsville Theatre. Dave told me he had heard work I had done with David Torn, and loved it. At that point we started talking about how it would be great to do something together.
So, in talking about prospective musicians, David Torn said, “you know, we’ve got to get guys who view pop and songwriting with a jazz perspective, what about these three guys - Ethan Iverson, Reid Andersen and Dave King It would be great to get these guys because they play together all the time.” So, we carefully looked at the songs we were going to record, and David knew all of them, so it was he who really decided on that.
It was a complete change. I was a little bit wary because when we went into the studio we had to cut this record more or less live. Here I am, completely out of my comfort zone, with these three brilliant jazz musicians, and I’m thinking “oh my God, I hope I can do this”. It was an amazing experience, and I’m very proud of it.
BPS: One thing Dave King often talks about are his non-musical influences such as comedy, and visual art. I’m sure you had ample opportunity in the studio to chat with him about this unique perspective on music and composition, am I right?
DL: Yes, he’s a one of a kind, I have to say!
BPS: Do you find inspiration from non- musical forms of artistic expression?
DL: Lots of different things inspire me. I’ve been composing for a contemporary ballet, and this has been a very different experience for me. But Dave, yeah, he’s an interesting character. He’s a genius with his playing, and a great guy to hang out with as well. Photography has been a source of artistic inspiration for me as well.
BPS: What did you take away from the time you spent working with the rest of the band?
DL: Working with the band gave me the freedom to experiment. Coming from the pop world where everything had to be so perfect – lots of layering up, that kind of production --being in a room with these musicians who would take songs down a different road was liberating. The thing that I took away from the experience was the freedom to try anything that came off the top of my head. The best thing to do was not to think too much, just go with the flow. Those guys really forced me to do that. To just be free.
BPS: Before you had your big break, what sort of art were you creating?
DL: I was doing the kinds of things that a lot of artists do. I was trying to get the songs I had written, recorded. My job playing at at piano bars in Europe required me to do my usual piano bar thing. However, I was also able to perform some of my original songs. Basically, I was just writing and recording at home, and sending off my demos. I came to Woodstock very briefly to visit a friend of mine who had started working with Jerry Marotta. Robbie Dupree heard my demo and helped get it into the hands of people at Atlantic Records, and that started the whole thing. Before that I was just a normal, struggling musician who did any gig I could get (laughs). In the meantime, I would just write, write and write.
BPS: Did you move to NY immediately after signing that deal?
DL: No, I went to Canada first to record with Pierre Marchad and it wasn’t going the way we wanted. This was after the Atlantic deal in '94. So, we tried again in New York. That’s when I started spending a lot of time in New York City. I decided to move there, really just renting you know? I started working with Kevin Killen and took on the role of co-producer. That's when things came together.
When the record started to take off in 96, we just needed to be in NYC. It made so much sense. One of the reasons we ended up in the Woodstock area was because I was traveling so much. It was nice to come to Woodstock and have a few days off to sort of re-charge the batteries and then carry on. I didn’t move to New York straight after—it was a few months.
DL: Yeah, of course. When they were going crazy for this song, “I Love You Always Forever,” they also liked most of the demos I had done for the album. They thought they were pretty good, but the label felt they needed embellishing. An interesting aspect of all this is that when you go down a road with a producer that wants to strip them completely apart, it takes a long time, months, to get to the final stages. With “Now in a Minute”, we got there and then had to do the record again. (I feel like I recorded that album 3 times!) I think we finished it maybe in June, and by May of the following year, they decided they didn’t want to release it till May of ‘96. I remember Jason Flom saying, “well if you don’t sell 40,000 records, it’s all over anyway”. Well, not in those words, but something like that. Jason really championed “I Love You Always Forever”. I remember thinking, “40,000 records! I’m never going to sell that!” It was taking so long to release it, I began to think to myself, “well this has been a great experience”. But you know, thank God for radio. Radio really made that song.
BPS: It’s funny how radio is the vehicle that makes pop songs like that become part of the cultural zeitgeist. Did you have any idea that the song would become such a hit?
DL: No. I knew I had written this catchy song—I used to call it my nursery rhyme song. I knew it had something, but I never dreamt’ it would be a hit like it was. It was fantastic, but on the other hand, everybody seems think that’s all I’ve done.
BPS: Piecing together your history as an artist, it seems like you tend to produce something successful, and then sort of remain on the down-low for a while. Looking at your timeline, obviously you had your hit, then the music for the Disney movie “Anastasia”, then "chute" —and over the last 20 years you’ve had a very strong career, but it’s been in increments of 4 to 5 years. Has this pattern been a conscious decision on your part?
DL: Well when we were at Atlantic, it was almost like we had no room for another song at that time. If we had known better, maybe we would have waited to release “Without Love”. Then “Blue Planet” came about and a couple singles did well in Europe. After leaving Atlantic, I did an acoustic record, and a bunch of interesting stuff. However, when I had my son, I just felt like taking a back seat for a while. That was my choice because I really wanted to be at home with my son. At the same time though, I was still tinkering around with my music. In hindsight, one thing I’ve learned is that when you go away for as long as I did, it is very difficult to come back. Even though you may have had a couple of hits out there, people just forget who you are. Or they just remember you for your hit and don’t think you’ve done anything else.
So, since returning to the scene, I released “In The Pink”, which was another pop record, and I did a few live things, as well. I feel as though I’ve had this complete break, and am now coming back with this new record. This album is very different for me, but very right for my career right now. It’s been a breath of fresh air working and performing with other jazz musicians. Being on stage with incredible musicians has allowed me to hear my songs in a different way.
BPS: Your father was a jazz pianist. What were your early influences, and can you touch on the song choice for “Brand New Day”?
DL: My father was an amateur pianist and guitarist. I grew up listening to his collection. Lots of guitarists like Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, all the big bands - Basie, Ellington etc. The singers - Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald etc. All these incredible jazz artists. And Jobim. I probably knew every song Antonio Carlos Jobim ever wrote. That was the way I grew up. When I started writing myself I was really into artists like Elton John and then much later Kate Bush, and that sort of thing.
When David Torn and I got together we both made lists of songs we wanted to do on this record. We had huge lists. He said “I really want to you do something from the Chocolate Genius catalog,” which I hadn’t heard. And he wanted me to do “Disco King” by Bowie and “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. I wanted to do some Jobim material, and David would say, well have you heard “Waters of March”? That’s how it all came about. We spent time choosing the songs carefully because we wanted them to be incredible songs. Then we put two of my new pieces in, and at the very last second somebody suggested I do “I Love You Always Forever” as a cover. I was not interested at all. I thought, “Why would I do that? Everybody already thinks it’s all I can do.” But then when we thought about it, we said well let’s just go in and try it. David did an arrangement of it, and that was the hardest song for me to do. It was very much a live record—cut it all in one take, but it came out very cool. I thought, “well no one else has done a cover of ‘I Love You Always Forever,’ why not me?” I think it fits in well with the record.
BPS: Yeah, listening to it, I felt it fits in with the other hits. But the Jobim tune, when I saw that, that one was a little more surprising to me.
DL: That was a little surprising to me, too. Before we went into the studio, David would make little demo arrangements of the songs for me to take home to my studio, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. And then when we were in the studio it wasn’t really getting to the point where we were happy with it. So David (Torn) said, “you know I think you should just sing it in your own time, Donna. Just do whatever you want. Take your time, speed up, whatever you want. And we’ll work around you.” And it was amazing because that take was probably the first take we did. You can tell, they were in their element, because that is what they do best. And then I wasn’t fighting—you know what I mean—fighting it? They were just with me.
BPS: Especially on “Bring Me The Disco King”, with that unison piano and bass riff. That was when the concept really popped for me.
DL: I think that song really dictates the sound of the record. People say it came out so well. If I played one song on the record it would probably be "Disco King". I know we’re all proud of it—I know Dave King was thrilled with the way it turned out. And David Torn’s arrangements are so great, and watching him do his thing in the studio—he’s so talented. He knows how to get the best out of everybody. It was a real joy watching him work.
BPS: I have one question to wrap this all up. What are some of the demands made by the industry on young artists? Do you feel that creative control of your art is important?
DL: I do. But I also admit that I made mistakes. When I was in the pop world (I’m kind of out of it now), I wasn’t a 19 year old—I was 30 or something like that. But anyway, I was so thankful to get a record deal and have my music out there.
But, I really stuck to my guns. People would say I was obsessive about songs, but I knew what I wanted it to sound like. Before “Blue Planet” came out, Richard Marx and I weren’t keen on the demo that was given to us. The record label said to my managers, if you want support for the next record, Donna needs to do this or that. They really wanted you to do certain things, you know what I mean?
BPS: They wanted you to look a certain way, or present yourself in a certain light?
DL: Yeah, there was some of that. But I have to say, through and through, I really did stick to my guns. Maybe because I was a bit more mature. Stylists would bring in a stack of clothes, and I would think “That is sooo not me.” I remember dressing up, but in the end going on some of these shows in a pair of my own pants and boots and a T-shirt, and I realized very early on, I have to be me. That’s the only way it’s going to work. I might not be one of those stars that is glamorous and all about fashion, even though I do love fashion, but I can’t be somebody else.
It’s the same with the music. Maybe I made mistakes along the way, digging my heels in, and maybe if I had done certain things the record label wanted me to do, maybe I might have gotten a bit more support on my second record, but that’s the way it is. I’m sure it’s even more pressure on young artists today.
BPS: I don’t feel that younger artists today necessarily have that outlet. Having a stylist come in and make you wear clothes that you don’t feel comfortable in—that’s got to affect your performance.
DL: I know, you’re right. And it’s not that they MADE you. But the label brought people in to create an artist. Young kids today who are on a show like American Idol and other shows, they might be very talented as singers but they haven’t got the experience. The whole thing about my background is that I trained classically, and then I spent years in bands and doing my thing—learning my craft. So by the time I got my deal, I really knew how my song writing and how my voice should sound. I knew what was me. These days some young artists don’t get that chance, and they are molded into being a certain ARTIST. It just depends on their personality. If they’re very strong-willed and know themselves, they’ll probably be fine. But I wouldn’t relish the thought of being a new pop artist these days.
DL: I’m a big fan of Sia, and I feel that she got it right. I love the fact that she said, “I don’t want anyone to recognize me because I don’t want to be criticized on the Internet for what I’m wearing." Good for her. You are critiqued. In the pop world it’s not just about music, it’s about everything else. The nice thing about jazz is you can go on stage in a pair of jeans and just play your music.
Article by Ben Scholz