Can you guys tell us a little about yourselves and how Magnolia Memoir got started?
Alex: I moved to Chicago for college and wound up as one of the youngest musical directors for Second City. I wound up touring with TJ Miller and playing with Amy Poehler at IO (Improv Olympics) and with all types of other crazy people (in a good way). Then I moved to New York to be a jazz musician. Wound up getting some gigs as a film composer just through my friends and moved to LA, and I still do that quite a bit. And then one thing led to another and I wound up meeting Mela, and Magnolia kind of just took off. Beside that I wound up working as a session player and a composer. I’ve written songs for Iron Man 3, the new Ryan Gosling Flick, as well as playing on recordings for everyone from Fiona Apple to Billy Ray Cyrus.
Mela: I sang a little bit in high school, but really for me I did disaster relief and banking after college, which are ironically very similar. And then I started doing a little bit of voiceover in film and television for animations. At the same time I started writing some music. My father died when I was a little girl. I was visiting family and his grave and learning more about him, and I just put the stories in a journal, and it had some magnolias on it. So, I called it the “Magnolia Memoir”. And a friend of mine introduced me to Alex, who said, “These songs are really good”. I wasn’t a professional writer, but he was really positive. Alex had his Masters and is really talented, but he was very serious, which was extraordinary. And he believed in me and felt like we should follow through. At the time, I thought I could write these songs and sell them to a singer or maybe get a publishing deal. When we got into the studio, which was the same place where Aretha Franklin’s people were working, we had an engineer come in who thought, “This is pretty fantastic” and he really helped us to mic it professionally and record. Everyone believed in me so much, in the music so much, that I had to take it seriously. And All of a sudden we had a publishing deal. Alex is the one who put together the band though…
Alex: One thing with Mela is that she came to me and said I have fifteen hundred to do a record. She came from banking and Wall Street, and also I have a tendency to have ADD and not pay attention, so I thought she said fifteen thousand! So I wound up calling my dream team of players. And then halfway through the record we went over to her house and everything was gone, and we were like, “Where did everything go?” And she said, “I had to sell it all to pay for the record”. And I said, “Well we’re still five thousand dollars under budget.” …”no we’re eight and half over budget”. Which is kind of how the whole thing took off. With that dedication, everyone just saw it as a band
Mela: And the lineup that was supposed to be just for the recording is actually still intact, except for the drummer. Our original drummer was a jazz drummer for The Manhattan Transfer, but now we work with Matt Lucich, who’s kind of brought that drive to our music. He’s worked with Pat Monahan from Train and Paula Cole and he’s definitely a rock drummer. Aron Forbes, our guitar player, is still with us from the very first recording. And Gordon Bash, on bass.
Alex: Who is on our first record as well…
Mela: Yeah! We’ve been playing together as a lineup since 2010. And now it’s a bunch of brothers and a girl.
As a band that’s been playing together for 4 years now, how do you feel that your sound has progressed over time? From the first record to the forthcoming, “Pale Fire.”
Mela: Well, I think our first record, Magnolia Memoir, had a certain femininity to it because it was a story about my mother and my father and their love. They met in some great blues places in Mississippi, and so the album has got this sort of Mississippi jazz vibe. It’s very feminine. The second album, Perfect Crime, kind of feels like my story. Like ‘oh my gosh I get to be a writer.’ And you can definitely hear the influence of being in a band with four guys. But this album, instead of being my parent’s story, or my story, is really our story as a band. You can feel the story, and the striving, and the vision. There’s an edge to it that is a very good mirror of who we are as a group instead of just being an extension of me.
Alex: The other thing too is that the first record is really mellow; it was a jazz record. A lot of it, from the bass player to myself, well it was kind of our first big session before we even knew what was possible in the studio. So our first couple records are all live essentially. Everything is really a live take. The majority of the vocals were all recorded live in the room in an iso. This record has also been us learning how to be a studio band, not just a live band, and really sonically exploring. Like ‘oh cool, if we mic it like this way… or if we pull this back we can make the vocals sound huge and really pop.’
Along with the studio, are there any new stylistic influences you guys have incorporated for “Pale Fire?”
Mela: I think there the same ones we’ve always taken in. I think you’ll hear though that in the past we hadn’t been able to express some our rock influences. Like you are going to hear a little bit of The Who in there and some of the indie rock like Death Cab for Cutie and Spoon. I really think you can hear some of our indie and alternative influences that weren’t as apparent on the previous albums, which were a little bit more jazz-leaning. Actually one of the major influences, I’d have to say, is that we have a producer, Brandon Friesen, who is a rock producer and, among other things, close to the Native American Community. He’s really been able to let us maintain our identity, but recognized, even for me as a writer, that Southern kind of rock and Native influence. There’s a heartbeat about the new album that’s I think is going to surprise a lot of people, and it’s really resonating with the people who got to hear it first. As far as Odds And Ends, that’s the first song he produced for us. That’s our story of the band, but you can hear it. It’s very upbeat, and very optimistic sounding, but the opening words are “You’re in a downward spiral now…” That’s kind of how we felt after the last record deal (laughs).
As you mentioned, Alex, you guys were going from being a “live band” to a “studio” band. Did you find that transition difficult? To translate the energy of the previous albums being live takes?
Alex: It went great actually! We were all at the point of being ready for it, too. Speaking for myself, when I first started to record, I came from the jazz world, so I was a purist. If you’re not actually able to play this live, you don’t do it on the recoding. If you can’t knock this out in one take, you don’t record it. I was very much coming from that kind of pompous, instrumental world. And the more time we spent recording, the more time we spent in the studio, we were slowly kind of building to this point. It was a real exploration now. Brandon is amazing now. He’s produced all these A-list acts. And having someone in the studio that really sort of guides you and that you have 100% trust in will help push you to leap off the building and just know there will be a net there creates a real sense of security. This record’s actually felt more creative than anything I’ve ever done. It’s just been such a joy, and I’m sad to be done with it.
Telly: I want to shift gears a little and talk a bit more about the new single, “Odds & Ends,” particularly the new video. I think one of the cool things about it, and one that I imagine strikes a lot of viewers, is that it features a lot of celebrities, including Will Forte (SNL’s McGruber/Nebraska), Fred Willard (Best in Show), Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond). There seems to be a lot of buzz for you guys coming from Hollywood. You guys both have strong ties to Hollywood, and I was just curious to get your own perspectives on how you think this influences your music, or the way in which people may react to the music?
Mela: I think as far as an influence, we still have our roots as a jazz band. I’m glad we’re becoming commercial: commercial in a way that means popularly appreciated. But in a town where everybody is larger than life, it really keeps you humble. You have a sense of wanting to create something extraordinary. You can’t control the outcome, or how much people like it, but you’d like to create something that’s lasting and honest. And I think when you’re surrounded by so much talent, you want to do that. I think it has influenced us in a way that is very humbling. It’s not about being famous, it’s not about press: it’s about creating art. And we are surrounded by people at such a high level that it makes Alex and I try a lot harder to do something like that.
Alex: I think Gordon, our bassist said it best, and he said “My goal is always to be the one who’s entertaining the entertainers.” When you have a gig and there are people from the Industry there, the compliment of excitement isn’t just ‘Oh, there’s this person you recognize here who made this cool movie at the show.’ It’s ‘Oh, you guys know what great art is, and you’re around great art, and you’ve come to see us multiple times.” And that’s really the amazing feeling about it.
And I imagine reaffirming as well…
Mela: It’s very reaffirming. You put it much better than I did, Alex (laughs).
Alex: And it’s reaffirming because L.A. is a really ridiculous, terrible town. And the city also makes you bipolar because every single day you are offered your wildest dreams, and then they are taken away. And then other things you never imagined could possibly happen will happen. So this city is really good at making somebody bi-polar (laughs). And having friends who are also in the Industry too, who are like “Oh you guys got a record deal…? Oh, I’ve got three television deals and a movie deal! Welcome to L.A. it’s all good. Let’s have a drink!”
Mela: Yep! And as far as even knowing the people, you don’t call in favors unless you really think you’re ready for them. And this was a beautiful opportunity in the video where we just said hey, we’ve got a great song and everyone’s all into it, and showed up that day. And really that’s the song. It’s a pocket full of friends and that’s what’s getting us through. And it certainly is an extraordinary video and I think people are responding to it. But the day itself was a huge party, which was awesome.
And now for the part of the interview where reveal my own personal nerdiness. You mentioned that Magnolia Memoir had its roots in a book, in the “Magnolia Memoir” of stories you collected about your father, so when I hear ‘Pale Fire’ I think, literature. So is that a Vladimir Nabokov reference?
Mela: Ironically, no, but there are some connections.
Alex: That’s actually one of my favorite books. I wrote a track on my own, and then gave it to Mela. Afterwards, she’s was like “I love the song. I’m calling it Pale Fire.” I’m like “Oh, like the Nabokov book?” And she was like, ‘what?’
Alex: ‘You know, like the book. It’s not after the book? That’s probably one of the greatest books ever written. How do you not know that book?’
Mela: We keep each other sane. I know a lot about math. Alex knows about books. We are the perfect pair. But I love the story now. Pale Fire became the title track, but it didn’t start out that way. Pale Fire is about the fiery passion that is required to ignite a revolution of the heart, or mind, or a people. It’s that bright white light that pierces darkness. And I think for us, we were in kind of a dark place as a band a few years ago, not really knowing what to do. But this music was music that had to be made, and it really cuts through our past, for anyone who has heard our previous music. The response has been that it’s so intimate, and vulnerable and present. And that you can feel that light in the album. It’s burning though each of the tracks. From the kind of angry ones to a really, really beautiful track called “Silence & the Ache” that Alex and I recorded in New Zealand. It’s just piano and vocal, and it’s literally the heart of the album, it’s in the middle, but you can feel that flame barely holding on kind of thing.
Going back to influences, I wanted to discuss some of the selections for the playlist you guys provided rara.com. You mentioned earlier The Who being a more apparent influence on the new record, so can you tell us about the “The Real Me.”
Alex: The Who was the first rock band I ever got into. I was obsessed. And “The Real Me” is just the most unhinged thing ever. You can really feel that they captured a moment that if recorded five seconds earlier or five seconds later would have been something completely different. The entire thing, from the dirty horns and the way they’re used, which aren’t traditional, especially in that era. How the whole song feels like one giant bass solo. The way that it’s so complex and so unhinged, you feel like it happened on a tightrope and is about to collapse, which is something we strive for ourselves.
Mela: Well, following from The Who, there are quite a lot of people on this list that are independent or indie artists. In the last five years, things have really changed. Things that you thought would never be on the radio are really taking hold. We were in New Zealand when we first started writing this new album, and Macklemore’s Thrift Shop came out, and seeing that was a huge change. Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer: these are all people we connected over, even though Alex and I came from very different backgrounds. We actually share a certain love of music. I’m overall pretty excited about the music industry right now. I think people were worried about the Internet and playlists and how it feels like you’re in a candy store every day. But you have something you love, and then there are all these platforms that say, ‘By the way, you’re really into the Dresden Dolls. Or The White Stripes. So here are some other folks you should check out.’ Every day when I’m looking for music, I’m overwhelmed by how much more music there is that moves me. And I think 10 years ago, that wasn’t as easy. These were all super random, and you had to dig a little deeper to find them. I’m pretty excited right now that those things that we used to really hold on to, and I’m not saying we don’t hold onto our favorites anymore, but there are a much bigger bag now. And there’s a community of other listeners who love the same thing. It feels like such a huge community, instead of the five people you met at Amoeba Records that were really kind of in the corner.
Another song that jumps out at me personally on the playlist is “Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits who I feel is in a similar vein of taking traditional musical elements, particularly jazz, and updating them.
Mela: We love Tom Waits.
Alex: I’m obsessed. Actually picking a Tom Waits song was painful, because I could have thrown thirty or so Tom Waits songs on there. My whole playlist could easily have been Tom Waits. It’s funny, I actually first heard him backstage at Second City. Some of the actors were playing The Heart of Saturday Night and I was like, ‘What is this?’ That’s my all-time favorite records. It’s the perfect combination of jazz, spoken word, avant garde, rock, pop. I love everything. Bad As Me, his latest, is one of my favorites too. The thing about Ruby’s Arms for me as a Tom Waits fan is that it’s kind of the the one that bridges everything. You can hear the early Tom Waits and the later Tom Waits of where he’s going and what he’s becoming. That’s kind of the one song that I feel can really show who he is. If you play someone that song you can almost jump to almost any other song and they can hear the similarities. As opposed to if you were to play someone Ol ‘55 and then Bone Machine, they’d be pretty confused. Or God’s Away On Business. They would be like, ‘Wow that’s the same thing? That’s the same person.’ But with Ruby’s Arms, I feel like could play anything that came afterwards and people would understand that it’s the same person, the same artist. Also every time I hear it, it breaks my heart and makes me stop what I’m doing and just sit and listen. To me, Tom Waits has always sounded like a demon that’s been allowed to go to heaven for a weekend. It’s this very bittersweet celebration of life and beauty, but with a certain darkness underneath it. He’s the one person I can always listen to.
Mela: Tom Waits is just a force. He’s transcended genres, and the status quo. And I think as a band, all of these artists on this list, have reminded us that our honest voice, or our story, has the ability to resonate. And as we’re writing, both Alex and I are aware that we’re actually talking to someone out there, and connecting. And seeking to do what some of our favorite artists have done, which is walk the wire.
I know you guys play a lot of shows in the Los Angeles/Hollywood area, but are there are plans for maybe a national, or even an international tour in the near future for the rest of us who aren’t in Southern California?
Mela: Absolutely. We’re actually talking to booking agents right now. We’re looking forward to getting out more. We’ve been really lucky because some of my animated series have flown us out to Australia and New Zealand, or the UK. But then it’s like ‘What about America?’ We’re super looking forward to that. We have some meetings this week and look forward to announcing some dates soon.
Any last words you want to leave our readers with? What we should be looking forward to from Magnolia Memoir in the future?
Alex: A lot more. As cliché as it is, with us, we’re just now getting started. We’ve just really come into our own.
Mela: I agree.
Alex: The second the record was finished, I could not wait to get back into the studio and start recording more and start working on new songs. And I’m equally excited to explore these songs live and start touring and really playing with the more. It’s the first time I’ve completed a project and been this excited to play the songs live and not be done with them. As well as starting to create new songs.
Mela: Definitely. And I’m looking forward to people getting to know, not just Alex and I as writers, but the band. There’s a friendship and a story and a tightness that’s magic. Not just when we write, but when we play live. I’m looking forward to connecting to fans. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. It’s a pale fire, its magic when we get to play together and explore the music and connect with people. I’m looking forward to doing that.
And I’m looking forward to the new album, and hearing much more from Magnolia Memoir in the future as well.
Check out Magnolia Memoir’s very special playlist here – exclusively on rara.