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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 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 Amphitheater.

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 or something.

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 for more information on upcoming gigs.

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