Zola Moon Interview with Pat Benny
Today is Friday, June 19, 2003,
and I'm Pat Benny for Southbound Beat Magazine. I'm visiting today
with the First Lady of Postmodern
blues, the one and only Zola Moon and her producer, Richard Vidan.
Zola, Richard, thank you so much for
spending this time with us today. First of all, could you explain to us,
what is post modern blues?
It's something that is built in the
tradition of blues, but it's done like post modern art, where you just arrange
things a little
differently. It's the same thing, it's just differently arranged so it's going forward. It's not old.
It's not just new, it's more than
Pat: It's not your standard twelve bar blues...
Zola: Instrumentally, some of it is. The blues to me, has become so expansive. There's blues swing, there's blues rock, hardcore Chicago blues, there's folk rock...
Pat: Delta blues...
Zola: It always has an appeal to it when it's right. The feeling is the bottom line.
Richard: And also, In a lot of so called old style blues, or even modern blues up to, like 1980, the nature of what the material was often about was: Oh, my baby left me, that kind of thing, where Zola writes songs that are making social or political
commentary. That sort of refers to the post modern thing.
Zola: They're almost like deep, emotional thoughts. Like the song, SAME OLD STORY. That was kind of an abstract song in away, but it wasn't. When I was writing it, all these things were coming out. People haven't changed a bit, yet the world has become so much more complex around us that we've become more complex. So, it's like the blues; the foundation remains the same, but it's rearranged itself so that it's become more vast.
Pat: That song, The Same Old Story, that's on the EARTHQUAKES, THUNDER, AND SMILING LIGHTING CD, When that track came up on the CD, it had such an emotional impact on me...
Zola: That's wonderful to hear, because that's the point, to make people feel something and release emotion.
Pat: Right, and the feeling I got was that the specifics of the emotions you were experiencing when you wrote it and the emotions that I felt when I listened to it were entirely different, yet that feeling of someone just crying out that, you know, I've had enough! I just can't take it anymore. It's very moving. Your new Cd, TALES OF LOVE AND DESPERATION, is just fabulous, just incredible. How long in the making was this?
Richard: Some of the songs, she had been doing for awhile, but the actual CD itself came together pretty quickly. We started in December, 2002, and it was all recorded, mixed and mastered in about six months.
Zola: The two
newest songs were BLUESVILLE, which we wrote for the CD. I wanted a shuffle, I wanted something with a Chicago feel, and I realized that was the hole in the CD. It was like a body of work, and it needed that extra foundation, so to speak.
Pat: The record really runs the gambit of emotion and style, and it's really a great example of your work. STEEL BARS, which is also on your acustic
CD, DOWN TO MY BONES. How much truth is there to this story?
Zola: That is an actual experience! Musicians struggle, like everyone else in the world, but musicians and artists really get beat down. So, I'm driving around in these old junkers. You know, L.A. is so spread out that every gig is a drive, and I always had these old junkers that could barely do it. So, my old band got a sponsor from Coors, so we had a little money coming in. So I finally had a little bit of money that I could buy a car that would be reliable. This is where some women make the fallacy that, because someone thinks we're cute, that they're going to be nice and do right by us. Well, this guy, he says: you gotta drive the car, Zola. Drive this around and see if you like it. Well it was a Toyota truck, an 85, or something, the most modern car I'd ever driven. (laughs) This was a few years ago...
Pat: I've been there, myself!
Zola: It was driving like a dream and I was in heaven! I had my car! So, then he comes up, and he's acting all squirrelly, and he says: No, you don't want this car, and I say: Yes, I do! I'm keeping it, here's the money! (laughs) So, I go to Long Beach to make the transaction, and it's in this terrible neighborhood, you know?
Pat: This was at the DMV?
Zola: No, this at the car lot where I bought it. So, apparently it was from the gambling casino. So I had the pinkslip and I go to the DMV to register it. They tell me to stand over to the side, where I waited to be arrested for forty five minutes, going: What's going on? I mean, I had no idea!
Richard: Apparently the
registration number popped up a red light on the computer...
Zola: So they told me: Just wait over there...
Richard: Of course, they were calling the Police.
Zola: I'm totally in shock, because I had borrowed money from my Mom and Dad to purchase it. So here's a girl who's looking at going to jail; they fingerprinted me several times as a felon. They treated me like a piece of...they gave me a cold burrito! It was like: Feed the prisoner! Here's a cold burrito! It was just a horrible experience. I told the cops: I'm the victim! Where's my money? If I hadn't bought it at a car lot, I'd have been screwed. They did give me my money back...this mean, fat cop--they did get mean in there, and their whole thing is to totally
humiliate you. They assume that anybody coming through the door is a scumbag loser. I asked him: Can I call somebody? He says: If you keep this up, we're going to send you to Sybil Brand. (laughs) I thought: Oh, Jesus!
Richard: That's a notorious women's jail, it's just a horrible, horrible place.
Zola: The detective showed up. He took one look at me and one look at the circumstances. So, I asked him: Where's my money? I'm the victim here. He said: We don't know if you're the victim or not. So, I was looking at the car of my dreams--one that ran...
Pat: That's the best line in the song!
Zola: What is was, the jerk lost the car gambling in a casino, and the thug that owned the casino was selling it. But the guy who lost it reported it stolen, because he wanted to get his car back, the prick! (laughs)
Pat: He was experiencing gambler's remorse. (more laughter) The song, MECHANICAL BEAST, sort of represents to me, the dangerous side of you. It has a whole different mood than most of your songs. It has that relentless, pounding rhythm that is sort of like watching an accident, or a scary movie. You want to turn away but you can't wait to see what's going to happen. What was the inspiration for that?
Zola: Sometimes, songs start picking at me. I started thinking of these lyrics: The wolf is coming to town to eat the people, and I wrote them down. Some of my song lyrics really walk the wire, and this is probably my most post modern. I've written several more in this vein that I haven't recorded yet, but I wrote them all down because they started pushing at me. I'm on the gate, there, because I really don't rehearse with the guys. But I'm yelling at them. Well, not really yelling at them, but after a four hour show, I'm in the Psycho world. So, I say something to the guys like (she
pantomimes the guitar rhythm), and they're like: Zola's gone again, she's crazy! (laughs) And God bless Eric! He steps forward and says: How about this? We started in and I really loved the melody. I already had the lyrics in my head, so we did it and Richard said: You know, that's a really good song. I trust Richard, because I just do the songs, and I don't always know if they're good or not, so I trust Richard's judgement.
Richard: She works very much like John Lee Hooker, who wrote by performing. A lot of people sit down to the piano or with a guitar and say: Okay, I'm going to write a song. Zola doesn't do that. More often, it's from an inspiration that's been struck on the bandstand...and then, there's that harmonica from
|Zola: I credit Richard with that, because Richard was listening and says: What about just one note?
Richard: She was playing it sort of busy at first, before the song evolved.
Zola: So, I tried the one note and of course, the song was so demented, I was playing in the wrong key for the first six months of performing it. Even on the video, I was actually playing with a C harmonica...
Pat: I caught that. I play a little harp. (everyone laughs) Actually, it worked! For one thing, the look on the faces in the audience made it worthwhile! (more laughter)
Zola: I said to the audience one night, right before we recorded it: I didn't write this song, the devil did. Now that I've been cured, I know what key I'm supposed to play in!
Pat: Well, you know I've seen you perform this on your DVD/video, ZOLA MOON AT REDONDO BEACH and also at the Long Beach Pride Festival. When I reviewed your new CD last issue, I compared you to Jim Morrison, and I think this song really shows that. For one thing, you performed it with such abandon. You were almost trancelike.
Zola: That song is like that. And the one thing I love about it is that Vince doesn't mess with it. He keeps that relentless rhythm. I had to tell him not to crunch that first note, because it's kind of blues theroy to crunch that first note, but Vince doesn't try to put a bridge in it. He doesn't try to stick in any extra notes, which I'd have stopped him anyway. His instincts are like Muddy Waters'. Jim Morrison was into that. He was into that deep, trancelike blues, but his band wanted to go into more jazz.
Richard: Mechanical Beast is also about what a hard world it is to live in. It's like: The machine is eating the hungry children. It's not overtly a political song, but it's there. And Jim Morrison did that in a lot of his songs, too. A subliminal, pictorial commentary.
Pat: Another song that you performed at the Long Beach Pride Festival was I'M MAD. That's off your ALMOST CRAZY CD?
Pat: I have to ask you, when you performed that song, did you kick that sign on purpose?
Zola: It kind of got in the way.
(laughs) It was a good mistake!
Pat: It was so perfect, because you were marching across the stage, belting out: I'm Mad! and then you just kicked that sign and then tossed the microphone stand. I was loving it! (laughter) All of your
CDs are so fabulous, I just love them, but your new TALES OF LOVE AND DESPERATION to me is just a continuation of what you've been doing. As far as quality, all of these songs are excellent, but the only thing that makes them better than your previous work is the outstanding production in the recording. Not to say that the earlier stuff is not recorded well, because they are. But this is really something.
Richard: What happened is that, through a connection of mine, a guy who does music for movies wanted to use one of Zola's songs for one of his movies. So, we had to take it from one medium to another, so he takes us up to this really nice studio. He was a pretty nice guy and we ultimately ended up recording there. He ended up respecting Zola as an artist quite a bit. He literally got people to help us that we couldn't have afforded, otherwise.
Pat: He became a fan!
Richard: Exactly. We like recording on the fat, two inch 24 track tape because once you have that, you can go back and mix it just about however you want. You can go digital or any way you want.
Pat: I have only one experience in the studio. I was playing harp and the first thing we did was record what they called a scratch recording. Then we went back and re-recorded each instrument, which they then recorded digitally. I have to say that I thought the scratch recording sounded best.
Zola: You're more relaxed and you're playing as a group. When you isolate a blues musician, what you usually get is a very lifeless, stiff sound because they're not used to being isolated.
Pat: When you're sitting alone in that sound room, it's very intimidating.
Zola: You're so right.
Pat: Your version of HOUSE OF THE RISING SON...
Pat: The best version I've heard since the Animals.
Zola: Thank you. I love that song. I've got a show coming up with Eric Burdon, and I hope he loves it, too. I started doing it in our shows and people's response was so strong that I said: Okay, we've got to record this one.
Pat: HARD LIQUOR...
Zola: Oh yeah. That's the song from true experience. I've cut back lately, although I'm still not a teetotaler by a
long shot. I've had to rethink this lately, because when I say that I'm dying in the morning, that's exactly right. The way I felt the night before was not what was
happening in the morning! (laughs)
Pat: The song really gets across that there's beer drunk, there's wine drunk, but that hard liquor...When you go onstage, what are you thinking about? I recently interviewed a band called THE BROKE AMERICANS, and they told me that they are the same onstage as off. They said that they don't even change their clothes for the performance...
Zola: Well, they're very different from me.
Pat: Because I talked to you before your performance at the Long Beach Pride Festival, and then you went onstage. It was a lot like seeing Mick Jagger sitting on a couch giving an interview, and then seeing him onstage. There is a total transformation. Is it that way with you?
Zola: Yes, yes. People have told me that. They see me in the grocery store, and I'm one way, and they see me onstage where I'm completely different. It's not a different person onstage. It's just that the person onstage is so focused. I'm in my music world, which is completely different from the person that is just tooling down the street and just trying to get by, pay the rent and so forth. I can't explain it...
Richard: It's not a fake persona that she's putting on, she's got this deep, powerful thing inside of her that she let's out when she goes onstage.
Pat: Zola, I wanted to touch on your writing methods, but your DVD/video, ZOLA MOON LIVE! IN REDONDO BEACH, CALIFORNIA, has a great thirty minute interview with you at the end of it. You really describe the process beautifully. Who was that doing the interview with you?
Zola: It was a combination of three people. Michael Carter, who you hear playing guitar on the acoustic CD, DOWN TO MY BONES. Richard did some of it...
Richard: And Ron Mansfield, the man who actually filmed it.
Pat: The description of the writing process was very good, very informative. Have you ever written for other artists?
Zola: Yes. Since I've been writing, I've had people like Cynthia Manley, a wonderful singer, has called on me to write some songs, she's taken a song that I wrote and wanted to colaborate with me, so there's that going on. My songs are so personal, but I feel that they are strong enough that if another artist wanted to use them, I would be thrilled. Being a singer is one thing, being a songwriter is another. I don't do it like most songwriters, I do it like storytellers do it--you get inspired, and then you do it. But, being a singer, I have the advantage of doing the material as soon as it comes to me. Like I said, it's all on my CDs, and if someone comes to me and says they'd like to do one of my songs, that would bring tears to my eyes!
Pat: Because I intend to push Bonnie Bramlett to do your song, SAME OLD STORY.
Zola: If she does...Hallelujah! (laughs) She's a killer singer!
Pat: She's a killer singer and just a good person, a good soul with a good outlook on music. One thing she said to me that sticks in my mind is that: "Everybody is just way to famous!"
Zola: I agree, I think that we need to redefine Americsn individualism. It goes back to when we became too greedy and full of ourselves. American individualism now stands for the lottery winner, the basketball player, the one movie star who makes it really big, while the rest of us can't make a living. We need to redefine teamwork so that we can have classes again!
Richard: This cult of fame thing, like Britney Spears, for example, where the emphasis is on the fame aspect, rather than the substance.
Pat: I often compare music to sports. In the NBA, for example, there are only 250 players in the world that are good enough to be in the NBA. The best boxer in the world will eventually win his title. In music, the cream doesn't necessarily rise to the top.
Zola: It's more like a lottery.
Richard: It's also a manipulated process, where somebody gets ahead because of their connections. They are manipulated, or raised to the top. Whereas, somebody who would not have made it to the top, does.
Pat: I recently had a heart to heart with the publisher, Ray Carver, because of some of the things I said in Zola's CD and live reviews. He thought that I was mad at Madonna and other big stars, in that I resented that Madonna made so much money. It's not that I have anything against her, it's just that there is such a huge disparity between income and talent in the music business that isn't fair. I'd just like to see a little of that bling bling dispersed among artists that deserve to drive a decent car and pay their rent, just for starters. I tend to put that responsibility on the listeners.
Zola: I've noticed that in these hard economic times, even though I'm doing better than ever, but I've noticed that there is this huge, ignored market. I don't feel that people need to be made to feel like losers because they're not a millionaire. Why can't we just grow at our own pace, produce good material, do it for the right reasons and feel good about ourselves?
Pat: And step to the music that you hear...
Zola: And not because somebody says that you have to do it at this time, that time, or anything else.
Richard: The record companies now control with the attitude of: "Well, we know what the public likes...
Pat: They've done the demographics!
Richard: And if you look back to the 60s and 70s, you think: would Bonnie Bramlett be able to get a record contract, or Eric Burdon or Janis Joplin. With the focus they have now, you wonder if these people would have been able to get arrested, so to speak, nowadays.
Pat: They actually said that on the AMERICAN IDOL show. Simon was asked if Aretha Franklin could have been an American Idol, and he said No, she doesn't fit the profile. Isn't that a shame for all of us?
Zola: Things get bad and then they get good again. The music business has always gone through powder puff fazes of comercial talent of stuff that sells once and never sells again. That's why people like Janis Joplin continue to sell records. I believe the mold will be broken--when the time is right. That's why I'm selling more CDs than ever on the internet. The market is there.
Pat: Bonnie Raitt is a good example of someone who did the tours, played the small venues, paid her dues and is now getting the recognition that she deserves, not because she caught a break, but because she earned it. That's what I'd like to see for you and alot of other artists out there. I'd like to talk to you some more about your DVD/video, ZOLA MOON LIVE! AT REDONDO BEACH. The sound is not perfect, the stage is a bit stark, especially the first half of the show until the lighting improves with the coming evening, but it is still something to see. I'm reminded of some of the old footage of the Beatles and the Stones, for example, where the technology isn't perfect, but yet the material is such that you know you are witnessing history being made. It's quite an experience.
Zola: I really like that video because it's so honest. My vanity took a beating here and there, because the lighting was harsh and I didn't look absolutely beautiful in every shot. To me, it was like those French jazz videos, where they just use two microphones to capture the sound and then get some great camera shots. To me, it was real. It captured a good performance and a point in time.
Richard: We didn't even use a board, it was just two microphones hung out there.
Pat: Given those circumstances, its really an amazing recording.
Zola: The sound on the DVD, which you haven't heard, is much better. The guy that did it re-mastered it digitally.
Pat: Yeah, Pro Tools! (laughter) We can fix all that! (laughter) Zola, can you tell us a little bit about your band?
Zola: I love my band. They're excellent musicians with tons of playing experience. They're total pros and tremendous in the studio. I have worked with Jerry Olson for 6+ years. He has been drumming forever, years and years. He's not old, he just started early. We call him "the Hat" because he wears a beret 99% of the time, onstage and off. I call him the pit bull of drummers because he's relentless. His sound is super solid and super clean. He is very versatile and he has a truckload of heart. He's also got something that you can't buy--he's got great instincts as a drummer. He power hits when it's needed and knows when to finesse. Jerry is a great guy and a great drummer.
My bass player, Eric Williams, has been with me for a little over two years. Eric has been playing a long time and comes from a musical heritage. His father played lead alto sax for the Woody Herman band and he also played with the Gene Krupa and Charlie Barnett bands. Eric is a very classy musician who holds down the bottom and makes it groove, selflessly. He never plays extra notes for the sake of playing more. He's a great, sweet guy and a flashy dresser. I love working with "Easy Street" Eric.
Vince Joy, also known as "The Silver Fox," is my guitar player. I've worked with Vince for about two years. Vince is a real veteran. He's been playing for 35 or 40 years. He had his first charted hit when he was 19 and was originally a bass player. Vince is very rare, in that he is a blues player who wants to play blues--not jazz, not swing, not R&B or funk, he plays the blues, thank you, and he plays with great power and intensity. He's a pleasure to work with and a riff monster. Vince comes up with these giant, crunching chords. He does the unexpected and it works perfectly. He's not a self indulgent player; no endless, noodling guitar solos. Vince is right to the point, boom, and he goes after it like a dog with a bone.
Pat: What do like best about your band, collectively?
Zola: I write a lot of original songs and what I love about my guys is that they play for the songs, unlike so many musicans in bands you see that are off in their own little world, doing their own thing, and not paying attention to the stories and nature of the songs they are performing.
Pat: Have you ever had any formal voice training?
Zola: I took choir in school, two hours a day, five days a week. I studied classical, mandrecals, and all that kind of stuff. They taught you all the basics of opera and that kind of thing.
Richard: She's never had any formal voice training...
Zola: Unless you count sitting down and listening to Billie Holiday until three in the morning. Listening to Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, singing along to the people that I thought were the greatest--Bonnie Bramlett, the people I loved, I would sing at the top of my lungs. God bless my Mother; I would grab her big jug of wine...(laughs) I'd blast my records, singing my head off, and Mom never once told me to shut up!
Pat: Linda Ronstadt was like that. In fact, Nelsen Riddle said when they recorded all of those old standards, that he had never heard someone with no training to have such perfect pitch and range to her voice. I hear that in you. You can sing as soft as say, Aretha--but you can also shout, and I mean shout!
Zola: Etta James is one that I forgot to mention. I got that from listening to her, the way she could just dig in and go after it. I learned how to do that from listening to those records.
Pat: Well, this has been really nice, and I want to thank you again for allowing us to pick your brain a little bit, to hear what's inside Zola Moon and what makes her tick. Richard, I'd like to thank you, as well.
Richard: Thank you for letting me toss in my opinions on the side, I appreciate that.
Pat: Like we said, http/www.zolamoon.com
is your website and Zola's CDs can be purchased at
http://CDbaby.com, which is a big online source for music. Thanks again!
Zola: Thank you!
Interview by Pat Benny Of SBM