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Interview - Gabriel Gordon
- Live Magazine
Guitarist for Natalie Merchant Goes Solo
Gabriel Gordon Finishing “Gypsy Living”
The man best known for playing lead guitar for Natalie Merchant is a talented
musician who is busy making his own music when not on tour with the former
lead singer of the 10,000 Maniacs. I first became acquainted with Gabriel
Gordon at The Viper Room last April. I went to see another band, but it
was singer-songwriter Gordon who grabbed my attention with his soulful
yet straightforward lyrics and intense stage presence. I introduced myself
briefly after his set, but was hurried away by a big security guard.
So, I sent Gordon an e-mail via his website at www.gabrielgordon.com to
tell him how much I enjoyed the performance. He wrote me back and invited
me to come interview him when he returned to Southern California. I even
got a surprise call on my cell phone from Gordon while I was attending
the Emerging Artists and Technology in Music Conference in Las Vegas.
Ironically, I took the call while standing in the lobby of the MGM Grand
trying to figure out where to find my seminar on “Getting A Record Deal.”
He was just calling to say hello and let me know when he would be in Southern
California next. It seems this is typical of Gordon, who is an approachable,
soft-spoken and sincere guy. He is the kind of person you want to see
succeed just because he is a very nice person on top of being extremely
talented. I finally met up with Gordon one cloudy afternoon in June. We
had lunch in the lobby of an Irvine hotel a few hours before he was scheduled
to play with Natalie Merchant and Chris Isaak at the Verizon Wireless
How did you first get into music? My dad is a musician.
His name is Ashford Gordon. He is from Mississippi, so he is really blues-based.
He gave me my first guitar when I was 10. I started performing in church
and then in local bands while I was growing up.
What did you do to get started in the business? I moved
to New York in 1992 when I was 19 and got a job as a general assistant
at Electric Lady Studios. I did everything from scrubbing the toilets
to answering the phones. I only made $10 a day, but the experience and
contacts I made there were invaluable. Plus it was kind of a dream come
true for me because Electric Lady was built by my hero, Jimi Hendrix.
Then I got a second job with Living Colour's management, which was great.
In the meantime, I was always writing music and playing parties. Then,
I started getting my own band together. The manager of Electric Lady,
Mary Campbell, let me record there because of all the hard work I was
doing. So, I was just in seventh heaven.
What happened next? In 1995, I ended up getting hired
to go on tour with a Scottish bands called the Soup Dragons. When I came
back, I started recording again and playing in a bunch of different bands.
I was also doing little things like jingles for radio spots. I was living
on the Lower East Side with a bunch of cool music people. People were
always coming and going, visiting from all over the place, hanging out
and playing guitars. It was so much fun. Then I had kind of a lull period
and needed money, so I got a job as a tour manager for Madeleine Peyroux.
Well, the $4,000 she earned from the tour got stolen from a car before
I could wire it back to the U.S. So, I had to go on a few more tours to
earn the money back and get enough money together to get back to New York.
When did you meet Natalie Merchant? I got an audition
with Natalie Merchant in 1998 through my friend Jason Darling and got
hired to be her guitarist. She took me to dinner and told me I got the
gig. This was on a Thursday night. She asked me what I was doing on Saturday.
I told her I was free, expecting to start rehearsal with her or whatever.
But she told me we were going to do “Saturday Night Live.” So, my first
gig with her was on national tv. I was shaking and everything, but I got
through it. We went on tours for the next few years, including the Lilith
Fair, and then made a record. I got to also open for Natalie playing as
a solo acoustic artist. We went to 36 states, plus Canada, Japan, Ireland
and England. A highlight of this touring period was being able to open
for Bob Dylan in 1999.
When did you start making your own albums? Well, I was
actually able to make two records during this time. The first was with
my band, 12th Planet. It was called “Global Refugees.” I then made a solo
album called Frequency. I made it in 8 days with a producer named Steve
Refling. He runs an underground recording studio in Venice Beach that
every musician in Southern California should know about called Lincoln
Lounge. Both of my albums are on Surprise Truck Records. I then did a
record with a DJ group by the name of Genuine Childs called “Agent 17.”
It's down tempo, hip-hop and trance. I also made a record with my father.
I am now finishing my new album, “Gypsy Living,” with the original bass
player and drummer from 12th Planet and a new keyboard player. It's truly
magical to work with these people. We have really cool chemistry.
How does being on an indie label (Surprise Truck Records) compare
to being on a major label? It's exciting. I like the fact that
I'm on an indie label, because if I were on a major label I couldn't just
go off and do an electronica record or make a record with my dad or do
any old-school R&B or whatever. I can make my own decisions, for good
or bad. But it feels good because it's creatively fulfilling.
How would you describe your music? I always have a hard
time with this, because I don't have a good “catch phrase,” you know?
I don't really know what to call it. I'm still searching. I'm more interested
in what people who hear it have to say about it. I guess if anything,
I would call it hotel music, because most of it was written in a hotel
or on the road.
What inspires you to write music? A lot of things inspire
me to write music. An encounter with a person in a bar or a look on a
stranger's face will inspire me to write a song, if I have the time and
the energy to follow through on an idea. Sitting down to compose is one
thing. But when it's supposed to happen, it does. The creative process
is something you can't really force.
Do you have a favorite song? Uhhmm, I really like “Gypsy
Living” and that's on my new record. I played it at the Viper Room the
night you saw first saw me perform.
Is that about your life? Yeah, yeah. The lines are like,
“I never stop moving except to watch the sky, oftentimes I want to rest
my bones, people can't understand and they don't even try, to put themselves
in my worn shoes.” The chorus is, “Gypsy living, the constant moving may
someday take its toll, but the other side of the coin, it could save your
soul,” which means you're always moving and everything, and it might take
its toll physically, mentally or emotionally because you're never in one
place. But on the other hand, it's a really great experience. A lot of
people just stay in one place their entire life.
How do you like living in France? I love it. It's incredible.
The respect they have for American music is amazing. People in the U.S.
don't realize it. In Europe, you go over to somebody's house and they
have rows of vinyl, albums I have never even heard about, like funk bands
from the seventies.
Would you say they almost revere it? Yeah, it's almost
like a religion or something… people over here take it for granted, but
there, it's an import. They look at our music like we look at their wine
What city do you live in? Montpelier in the South of
France. It's really close to Barcelona, it has a really intense mix of
cultures and ethnicities. There are a lot of Arabians, Africans, people
from all over the world. And it's only three hours by train to Paris,
which I love.
What are your plans for the next few months? I think
I am going to finish my album in L.A. and then go back to France to promote
it. It's so hard here in the U.S. In Europe, I will at least be a little
more distinctive. A number of people I have met in Paris have been really
receptive to helping me out. Plus, when you're in Paris, you're close
to London. I find that whatever happens in that whole music scene comes
over here a year later.
Have other musicians been successful with this approach?
Yes. Jeff Buckley was huge in France, way bigger than he was here. Jimi
Hendrix went to London and the Beatles were like, “Yeah, he's great' and
he came here and people were like, “Who are you?!” You get taken more
seriously over there when you are first starting out. Our two cultures
are inextricably linked, we feed off of each other, even though we all
say nasty things about each other! The level of “scenedom” in Los Angeles
is kind of crazy. If you go to a club to see a band, it's more about who
was there than if the music was good. There seems to be a lack of appreciation
for music here, plus a lot of distractions.
After spending a very enjoyable hour with Gordon, we said goodbye and
he dashed off to his sound check. I took two friends to see him perform
with Natalie Merchant later that night. Gordon is a reserved performer
when he is playing a supportive role on stage. But despite his efforts
to keep a low-profile (apparently as a show of respect for Merchant) he
is definitely a scene-stealer. You can't help but want to keep an eye
on him once he starts singing. He has a clear, resonant voice and a beautiful
smile. Merchant likes to dance up to Gordon to make sure fans know he
is an important part of her group. The camera is also drawn to Gordon.
He appeared frequently on the big screen hanging over the stage. I look
forward to seeing Gabriel Gordon perform again when he returns to L.A.
and invite everyone who likes funk, rock, soul and intelligent lyrics
to check out this promising artist. Check out www.gabrielgordon.com for
more information on upcoming gigs.
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