Orianthi - Winter 2020
Orianthi Penny Panagaris, simply Orianthi to you and I, is an Australian musician, singer and songwriter perhaps best known for her work with Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson and more recently with Richie Sambora in the RSO project. However, she also a highly accomplished solo artist with a body of work that includes her records Violet Journey (2007), Believe (2009) and Heaven In This Hell (2013). After 7 years, Orianthi is preparing to release her latest solo record ‘O’ on 6th November, and what a fine record this! A record with a huge sound and incredible vocals that match the virtuosic standard of Orianthi’s guitar playing. We catch up with Orianthi in Los Angeles to talk about how the album come together. Though travel restrictions means she is missing family and friends in her native Australia she is in fine spirits and brimming with positivity and pride as album release date becomes within touching distance. In the gorgeous LA sunshine our conversation begins…
You will be releasing ‘O’ on 6th November, and this is your first solo material for 7 years. You have of course been incredibly busy in the meantime with lots of different projects, but how does it feel to be back doing an Orianthi record?
This record I did a year ago in Nashville with my good friend, producer and writer, Marti Frederikson, and his son Evan, and we basically just went into the studio, did it in 28 days and it just kind of felt like the right time. I was actually over in Nashville doing a writing trip for a couple of weeks, working with his pop producers but that didn’t feel like the record I wanted to make, electronic, you know? All the songs were great and I was excited about it but ultimately I just wanted to make a record that I could tour with a band and have fun with and one that wasn’t over-thought. I didn’t want to travel with a guy with a computer, because that’s what the songs were kind of sounding like – very electronic and pop - that’s cool and maybe one day I will release all that stuff, but for the record I’ve just done I’ve incorporated a lot of different electronic sounds and stuff like that but ultimately it’s pretty raw sounding.
With just over a week to go, what sort of thoughts are going through your mind as you prepare for an album release?
Oh, God! When I think about it too much I get a bit nervous because every time I put out music or get nervous playing a show, it’s because I care and I want people to receive it well, especially the fans, the followers and the people who’ve supported me over the years. I want them to dig it. Because you know, I’m gonna make a different record next time and then a different record the next time. It’s not going to all sound the same, so when experimenting and all that kind of stuff you hope people take to it, and maybe I’ll get new followers from this record. It’s pretty eclectic song-wise too. It starts with Contagious which is a heavy Nine In Nails quality to it and then you go into Rescue Me which has got that earthy, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man-meets-Audioslave vibe. Some people have heard it and said it sounds a bit like St Vincent - a bit pop. I was listening to a lot of different records, a lot of 90s records, everything from Train to Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails to Counting Crows. It was all that kind of stuff where I’m just going back to music that I used to have CDs of! (Laughs!) I just hope people receive it well because I had a great time making it. And it was 28 days for the whole record.
You have used the term eclectic there and I agree with that but I also think it’s a very cohesive record. ‘O’ is a high energy record and right from the opening song Contagious there is a gorgeous hypnotic mood that captures the listener and holds us captive in the most beautifully powerful way throughout the record’s 10 tracks. I think what’s really interesting here is that there is something for everyone. There is a very modern quality to the sound, everyone will want to sing along to your astounding vocals and we have something for the guitarists here as you again showcase your virtuosity on the instrument. It’s also a very uplifting record and I think that’s what people need right now. Overall I think what you’ve created here is something that has the potential for huge mass appeal. But what was your vision for this album?
I wanted to create a new sound, I wanted to experiment and I didn’t want to overthink it and I just wanted to continue the excitement. Because getting in the studio with Marti who is a great friend of mine and who I’ve known since I was 20 years old, he is such a great musician and we kind of just have similar likes of different music and how we want things to sound. There wasn’t any head-butting or anything like ‘Oh, I want it to sound like this!’ or ‘No, I want it to sound like this!’ We kind of went with it and it was cool and it was great. We had Nikki Sixx who gave us some lyrics for Streams Of Consciousness. He was having shoulder surgery I think at the time so he was home. I became friends with him and his wife backstage at a concert when I jammed with Alice Cooper at the Hollywood Bowl. They were there and we ended up chatting and exchanging numbers. I didn’t end up going on the Mötley Crüe tour because I’d quit Alice Cooper before that. I’d left the band and focused on doing the RSO project and was travelling around extensively with that. I love Alice and Sheryl. They are forever family.So we were all hanging out and when it came to making this record I was just chatting with Nikki’s wife explaining that I was about to make a record and was collaborating with people. I said ‘If Nikki’s interested in collaborating that would be frickin’ awesome’ and she was like ‘Oh, I’ll ask him’. He texted me and we started chatting about stuff and he sent me through some lyrics and I was like ‘Wow!’. I was blown away! I think when people here Streams Of Consciousness they will see the really dark picture of LA that Nikki painted. Marti and I added some lyrics too and moulded the track. It was a fun process!
Lets talk about some of the tracks. Firstly in advance of the album’s release we have of course been teased with a couple of tracks, one being Impulsive. Now this track is entirely uplifting, one that makes you want to get up and dance and a fantastic showcase for what ‘O’ is all about. How autobiographical is this track? Do you consider yourself to be an impulsive person?
Yes, definitely! At times in my life I’ve made some pretty like – I’ve got to be honest with myself – impulsive decisions sometimes and then pay for it later! (laughs!) The weird thing in my life is that somethings I really thought through, like I overthink to the point where it’s ridiculous and then other times I’m like ‘Oh, let’s just…’. That’s the way I’ve always been and that’s my personality so it definitely is autobiographical for sure!
A change of pace on the album comes with Crawling Out Of The Dark, a beautiful ballad about re-emerging following a heartbreak, and it’s perhaps the song that might hit people hardest on an emotional level, especially those who have experienced that wonderful feeling of happiness and empowerment as you reach the other side. It’s a hugely positive message your conveying here. What inspired you to write this song?
That song was written between me and Candi Carpenter who’s a good friend of mine and a great country writer. She went through a terrible marriage and bad relationships and a lot in that song is about her story. And then I was in quite a few different relationships so I sort of drew from those and different things – just stuff we both went through and also other friends’ experiences too. We made a story out of it and it’s a collective kind of thing. It’s kind of going ‘Well, this is not just my story, it’s everyones story’. Like sometimes in different ways we all go through a lot of darkness, whether it be with relationships, friendships, family - whatever it is - we all have a lot of crap we have to deal with a human beings that people don’t even see. Everyone has different struggles. It’s kind of getting to the other side and stepping into the light. Crawling Out Of The Dark is like saying it’s a gradual thing but once you step away you can heal from things – the past, trauma, crap, toxic places relationship-wise. You can stay stuck in there and honestly I think we’re all guilty of that at some point in our lives where you just stay and it’s so detrimental to your mental health, your heart and everything. So it’s just feeling that you’re worth happiness and I think that song hopefully will help people.
I think it definitely will. Given that this is focusing on the most personal part of someone’s life, was it helpful to write this song with a friend?
Yes it was. It was actually a dark country song when we first wrote it and we were kind of going for a Chris Stapleton vibe – I’m a big fan of his. Especially with country songs, they are such great stories and I am a big fan of country music because of the fact that they tell great stories. This was digging deep and going ‘Okay, let’s do something that’s kind of heavy’ because I hadn’t really gone there before with a song like that and I really wanted to. I’ve seen people’s struggles and I’ve been through it myself and it’s a crazy situation when you’re stuck in darkness but there is light at the end of the tunnel. So it’s giving people hope.
There’s actually a very poignant closure to ‘O’. The song Moonwalker is perhaps the most spiritual track, all about hoping that a friend is at peace. This appears to be something much more than simply a beautiful song. Is this perhaps a song that you felt that you needed to write?
Absolutely! The song is about not facing reality and escapism, drug use and a lot of different things that people do – alcohol abuse, running away from your problems and not facing them. Now I’m not saying about the drug thing or anything like that but from myself I’m guilty of running away from a lot of things from my past and not facing them and moving on to the next thing. There’s only so many times you can get hurt from whatever it is and then emotionally you shut off whatever it is, and it’s just like coming down and facing the truth, facing your problems and dealing with things. And it’s also saying it to a friend, ‘Hey man, when are you gonna come down?’. They want to escape reality and not face it, and that’s what the song’s about. A lot of people are like ‘Oh, is this song about Michael Jackson?’. No. Yes, it’s called Moonwalker and my friend Lynsey Garrick actually had the title. She came in with it and it just made sense to call it that because of the fact that, you know, you’re on another planet. Yes, that song is pretty spiritual and we get it pretty church-like with the harmonies at the beginning.
As you mentioned, you worked with the supremely talented producer Marti Frederiksen. As well as playing bass on Rescue Me, how did he shape the sound of ‘O’?
The thing is with Marti is that he is so talented – you’ll get a demo back from him and it will sound like a record! So I got the first song back that we wrote together, which was Rescue Me, I was like ‘Oh shit! I want him to produce my record!’. We’d worked together before but I just thought ‘that’s the sound’. I called him and he was working with Aerosmith in Vegas at the time mixing their show and I was like ‘Hey, Marti, would you like to produce my my album? That would be awesome!’ and he was like ‘Yeah, totally! Let’s do it!’. It was a collaborative, energetic thing where I brought my energy in there and he is a real rocker hippy and we share a very similar vibe like that. That’s the thing when you work with friends, you don’t hold back. It was very relaxed, where we’d go into the studio and go ‘let’s try this, let’s try that’. There was nothing uptight, we had friends over like Chuck (Garrick) from Alice Cooper’s Band who lives down the road and his wife, and different people would come in… It was just great and a really good vibe.
Let’s talk about guitars for a moment. You have been collaborating with Gibson and now have your own signature acoustic model. How does it make you feel to know you have your own Gibson signature guitar?
Crazy! It’s a bit wild. To have PRS signatures and a Gibson signature now, I’m very honoured that these companies wanted to work with me and have my crazy Australian input! They followed me down a rabbit hole with this one! I walked into the factory in Montana and tried all these different guitars. There was a Sonngwriter and all these different ones I’ve used before and then I picked up the J200. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were one of the reasons I wanted to play music in the first place. So I’m going ‘Well, can we do something with the J200 because the neck is always too fat to play leads on’ – it’s like a boat neck! ‘Can we put a 345 electric guitar neck on a J200 body?’. I thought that would really work because you’ve got a big sound, you’ve got everything going and that guitar is as solid as hell. And now you can play leads on it and we can modify the pick up to make it really cut through. LR Baggs, Robbie Johns and I were on Skype a lot really honing in on this pickup which is really amazing actually the way it picks up the entire sound of the guitar. A lot of pickups don’t, they tend to sound very thin with acoustics but this picks up the full body sound of the J200. I’m very much about the sound and the recording, and it comes from when I was like 13 or 14 and I was studying engineering and trying to figure out how to record things. So I’m all about how the sound comes across and I just wanted an acoustic guitar where if I’m playing a gig, where usually if you’re playing corporate gigs or acoustic shows – whatever it is – the sound guys are out to lunch. I’ve played so many shows like that where the sound is awful and the sound of the guitar is awful. So I wanted like a foolproof situation with an acoustic guitar so that literally if the sound guy is drunk under the table or as high as hell the guitar is going to sound good! (Laughs!)
You mention that you created this album in 28 days. Now to create something of this standard in only four weeks is phenomenal. How did you manage to pull this off?
It’s really funny because I felt no pressure. It was kind of a thing where we just had the mindset of ‘we’ll get it done’ and we were actually ahead. Marti and I, we work really fast and we got the songs done in a few hours really. Then we came back and did vocals the next day or whatever we needed like harmonies or a specific guitar part in the chorus. So it was kind of like we would do the tracks perhaps one day, then go back and add stuff. Pretty much the barebones of the tracks, the outlines and the skeleton were done each day, and we then went back and filled it up. So that was kind of the vibe.
We are of course living in crazy times and the opportunities for performing live are limited, but what are your plans or ambitions for touring to ensure that ‘O’ fulfils it’s full potential?
Yeah, this is been a tough thing to be honest with you. I’m just talking to my management and agent now and all that kind of stuff and we are figuring it all out, how best to go about all this because I was supposed to be touring this year and I’ll be supporting the record and going everywhere – Japan, Australia, Brazil, just around America and all that kind of stuff… Yeah it’s been really difficult because that’s obviously where all of us make our income. To make a living you tour. You don’t really make money off records anymore. It’s definitely been really crazy, stressful times for everyone in this industry and I’m not just talking about people who have just started, it’s also people who are on top of their game who have had huge multi-million dollar tours that were booked and had to be postponed, so it goes for everyone who is involved in this industry, the entertainment world and even movies too. There’s a lot of stuff going on which is crazy so it’s just keeping a positive mindset, keeping people around you and reaching out when you need to because mental health right now is so important. Just supporting each other as artists and as friends. I can’t stress that enough because you never know what people are going through right now. But I would love to come to the UK and I’ll be over there as soon as it’s safe to. I always have a blast!
As our conversation draws to a close we reflect on what an incredibly strong album ‘O’ actually is. It’s fresh and it’s uplifting and that’s perhaps exactly what we need right now!
To find out more visit www.iamorianthi.com and in the meantime check out the video for Impulsive below.