Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Conversation with Tony Dickinson

Tony Dickinson, the multi-instrumentalist from the great state of Colorado, just may be in the running for "hardest working musician" in the business.  While this talented musician and production whiz can often be found recording and performing in his home state with his funk/rock band Sylva, fans around the world have also gotten to know Tony over the last few years from some of his other compositions, production and performances.  In this career-spanning interview, we chat about his involvement in the forefront of the video game music scene, both solo and with his current band, The Tiberian Sons. We also touch on his deep musical involvement with Jeff Scott Soto and his hard rock/metal outfit, SOTO, as well as his role with the yearly Trans-Siberian Orchestra touring production.

Photo courtesy of Brenda Bowman

Dan Roth: Considering the various bands that you are involved with, you seem to have wide-ranging musical interests. What first got you into music?

Tony Dickinson:  My mom is a piano teacher and I started taking piano lessons from her when I was six or seven years old. Then, my K-8 school put everyone in a music program, and you chose between orchestra, band or choir.  When I was in Fifth Grade, my older brother, Adam had a garage band and he could not keep a bass player in his band. With that as inspiration, I chose the bass and started playing upright bass in orchestra.  When I hit Sixth Grade, I chose Jazz Band and got one of those school bass guitars that you could take home.  I fell in love with it as soon as I started playing it.  I liked the upright but with this, I could start playing the music that I really enjoyed at the time.  My parents got me my own bass - a Squier bass - and I played that non-stop.

DR:  What bands were you in to as you were learning to play?

TD:  At the time, the bands that I liked were Smash Mouth, No Doubt, Weird Al [Laughs].  It was a funny smorgasbord of music that I was learning to play.  Eventually my older brothers started feeding me bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Primus and Megadeth.  Megadeth was probably the first band that I really fell in love with. Around the same time, my mom was playing in a Gospel band and she invited me to play my bass with them. That was super fun and I got my taste for more of a soul, funk, r&b style in that church music.

When I was high school, I joined the Drumline and played bass with that.  That is where I was exposed to Dream Theater, Symphony X, and progressive bands of that caliber. I stayed in Jazz Band all through high school and had exposure to many different ensembles.  At my core, the progressive metal thing and Red Hot Chili Pepper's bass lines are probably where I can give credit to most of my development as a bass player. Flea's bass lines are pretty much how I learned how to play bass. From there I moved on to Les Claypool and learned a ton through listening to him.

DR:  Safe to say that Flea was your biggest inspiration?

TD:  He was the first one.  And then John Myung from Dream Theater too.  I was always amazed how he was keeping up with that insane guitar playing. Stu Hamm is another that I got exposed to in high school and I learned a lot of his solo stuff. His bass solos were pretty influential on my playing.  I played a lot of Symphony X in high school and it is crazy that I am now playing in a band with their singer.  It is still surreal to me that I started there and ended up here.  I did take some lessons, and my 7th grade bass teacher exposed me to Jamiroquai, who became a huge influence on me not just bass-wise, but also from a songwriting standpoint, especially with my band Sylva.

DR:  Were you in any bands throughout school?

TD:  My buddy Travis Moberg and I had a heavy metal band throughout high school but never really did anything with it. Most of the music that I wrote for it was really pretty terrible and most of it was plagiarism. [Laughs] When you start off, you often wind up mimicking the music that you know. I am never going to show the world anything that I wrote back then. [Laughs]  

Once in college, I got into more funk and r&b groups.  Earth, Wind and Fire easily became one of my favorite bands, along with other artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Chaka Khan.  I also had been playing in a classic rock cover band for years and we played a lot of great funk stuff from the '60s and '70s.

DR:  Very nice. As a bass player who has such an appreciation for funk, how much love do you have for Larry Graham?

TD:  Oh yes! I love Larry Graham.  On one of my early YouTube covers, I did "Pow" from Graham Central Station.  It's kind of a goofy song but such a great bass line.

DR:  A big part of your musical story is the remaking and remixing of video game themes.  How did you enter that world?

TD:  I just have to rewind a bit for that.  I was a member of the Megadeth forum, circa 2006.  They had a music sub-forum where someone had posted an amazing cover of Super Metroid music.  They made it into this big, long progressive rock epic!  I found the guy that had made it, which led me to the remix websites, one of them being Dwelling of Duels and the other OC Remix. Both of these were monthly remix competitions and I was really surprised at the high production level and playing caliber that I was hearing on these remixes. I just started trying remixing and playing some of the video game music from games that I had played when I was a kid. A lot of that music is surprisingly well written.  I eventually started submitting my remixes to these sites and really having some fun with it.

DR:  Were you a one-man band on these?

TD:  Most of them were all me.  If they were credited to "PuD", then everything you heard was me.  I was playing guitar, playing bass, playing keys, and programming drums.  All of the songs were my arrangements. Sometimes I had guests on my tracks to add a solo or something. I still do these to this day, but my production skills have improved a lot, so I don't really direct anyone to listen to those older tracks.

The video game remixing thing for me was really important. People will look at it and say, "that's really nerdy", and it is.  I am a shameless nerd. Doing that stuff was really important for my development as I cut my teeth on that learning production skills.  I learned a lot how to do arrangements and write for different instruments. With every Dwelling of Duels track, I would try something a little different each time. The first track I did was a metal medley of MegaMan music.  By the time I did my fourth track, "Command and Conquer Red Alert", I was doing heavy metal with orchestra. I had an orchestra library that I wanted to learn, and I arranged this Command and Conquer music.  That track is the one that led me to the whole Tiberian Sons thing and working with Frank Klepacki later on down the road.  Frank is great with interacting with his fans and I had emailed him to talk about the tracks that I was doing.  After that, we just kept in touch.  I had originally made this one, "Hell March to the Apocalypse" in 2008.  And that was a such a great moment - "Heavy metal music and orchestra!" [Laughs], which is funny because of where I eventually would wind up. That heavy metal/orchestra thing became one of my wheelhouses and sparked the idea for The Tiberian Sons.

DR: Somewhere in there, you did release a solo album - PuD's DuDs.  Was that an extension of what you had been doing on the Dwelling of Duels competitions?

TD:  PuD's DuDs had everything that I had released on DoD up to that point. For the album, I decided to go back, re-record, remix, and redo a lot of it because my production skills had gotten better over the years that these were originally recorded. These were a big improvement over the DoD versions. I want to emphasize for anyone that is reading this, that this album came out in 2010 and really sounds like shit compared to today's standard. [Laughs]  I am always going back and playing with those songs; the arrangements are always the same, but it is the production level that is increasing. I will listen to them and think how they could be improved with my current guitar tone settings or the drum library or orchestra samples that I am working on.

DR:  "PuD" stands for "Prince uf Darkness"? 

TD:  [Laughs]  Yeah.  "Prince of Darkness" was a Megadeth song and was the name I used on the Megadeth forum.  It doesn't mean anything to me, but I carried it over and used it as my nickname.  I made it even more ridiculous by changing "of" to "uf", which makes the initialism "PuD", which you may know is a phallus nickname.  I just wanted to make people giggle with my 12-year old humor.  [Laughs]

DR: [Laughs] OK, got it.  At what point did you form your band, The Tiberian Sons?

TD:  I kept on going back to the tracks that were heavy metal with orchestra and re-working those.  By 2015, I had started The Tiberian Sons because I needed another excuse to re-do these songs. [Laughs] For this band, I decide that I would play guitar instead of bass. Travis Moberg, who sings in my band Sylva, plays drums in The Tiberian Sons. I got Connor Engstrom, who I met through Trans-Siberian Orchestra, to be the second guitar player and got my buddy Max Noel to play bass.  The first show that we played was MAGFest (short for "Music And Gaming Festival") in 2015.  

DR:  MAGFest seems to be the mecca for this scene.

TD:  Yes!  I started going to the MAGFests because a lot of the guys who I met online doing the video game remixing were going. I wanted to put a band together to play there.  We released a 4-song EP (Conquering MAGFest) that has some of those remixes.  A year and a half later, we recorded the full album, Collateral Jammage.  That has the heavy metal orchestral tracks that I had done for DoD, but versions 3 or 4 at this point.  It also had some new stuff, like the cover of  "Mighty Wings" from the Top Gun soundtrack. 

DR:  Collateral Jammage sounds like a real group effort.

TD:  Thanks! Travis is playing the drums throughout; I do most of the rhythm guitars, though Connor did all of the rhythms on the Mighty Wings cover. Connor and I split the guitar solos. Max did half the tracks on bass and I did the other half. I played the bass on the more complex tracks, like "A Coelo Usque Ad Centrum" and "Prancing Dad".

DR:  Where did the name come from?

TD:  When we first started the band, we didn't have a name for it.  That "Hell March" remix was our signature sound.  We had all played the Command and Conquer games and all loved them.  We were thinking of naming the band related to those games, because the games’ intense warfare themes matched the music. We went back and forth until Max came up with The Tiberian Sons.  "Tiberian Sun" was the third Command and Conquer game and this was just a play on words.

DR:  You have played MAGFest a few times now?

TD:  Yeah, we played MAGFest 2015 and 2017.  Last year we played there with the composer of the Command and Conquer music, Frank Klepacki. There is video posted of the entire concert ( that I edited together and Frank talks about how the whole thing came together after the second song.  Over the last few years, Frank had composer friends that have gone there and also urged him to go MAGFest.  Frank and I had stayed in touch ever since I had reached out to him when I was remixing "Hell March" and now he was asking me about MAGFest.  We exchanged a few emails and at one point he sent me an email saying that he wants to play MAGFest and wanted The Tiberian Sons to play with him!  I had been playing Command and Conquer games since I was nine years old, so now I get to play with one of my childhood heroes!  Frank and I talked about this for several months, but I couldn't confirm that I could do it until I heard from TSO management. MAGFest happens in early January and sometimes the TSO tour has gone into January.  It hasn't happened in a while, but you never know because tour scheduling takes a long time to finalize. Finally I got word from the management and I knew that I was free for that weekend!  Frank and I set it up and made a big production out of it.  I got my buddy Nate Horsfall who does a lot of the artwork and visuals for MAGFest and he helped make this the biggest production that MAGFest has ever had.  Our show with Frank has gotten a really great reaction.  We filled the room which holds upwards of 6,000 people!  And now Frank is looking at having us play at other gaming festivals around the world due to the huge response.

DR:  That's awesome. You mentioned having to check in with TSO management about scheduling.  I understand that you came on board with the TSO production a while ago?

TD:  Paul O'Neill really liked to work with young musicians.  One of the things that Paul believed was that because the music industry had changed so much and so quickly, he felt there was a vacuum in artist development now.  Because he had the resources that he had, he took it upon himself to give the chance to young musicians like me, like Connor and many other young musicians and singers.

DR:  He was basically grooming you guys and giving you some valuable real-world experience.

TD:  Exactly. There have been other young musicians working in their studio that were never part of the back-up band even.  So that is how myself and many others got involved.  Connor and I started the same year, in 2011.

DR:  Were you familiar with TSO before getting involved?

TD:  Oh yeah. I had the Christmas Eve and Other Stories album and I listened to it a lot. I also was always a fan of Al Pitrelli because he was in Megadeth. He played on The World Needs a Hero album and the Rude Awakening DVD and I really enjoyed those.  I was very familiar with him from listening and watching those.  It was a real trip to now be playing with Al.

DR:  How did TSO find you?

TD:  In my high school and early college days, I did a lot of YouTube covers. The first cover I did was "Domination" from Symphony X. That video was discovered by Adam Seidel, TSO's accountant. He sent that along to the rest of the office and recommended that they work with me.

DR:  Did you have an audition?

TD:  Yeah, when I did my audition for TSO, I had the entire 2010 setlist prepared. We only played "This Christmas Day" and "Mozart Figaro" and then I hung out with Paul, Al, Dave Wittman and Jon Oliva while they were also working with Kayla Reeves at the same time.

DR:  Did you get to spend much time with the bassists, Johnny Lee Middleton and Dave Z, over the years?
TSO L-R: Joel Hoekstra, Roddy Chong, Tony Dickinson, Chris Caffery
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Myszynski

TD:  I got to work with them at the rehearsals that I attended. I learned a lot from both John Lee and Dave.  They are both very different schools of bass.  Naturally, I think that I am more of a 'Dave Z' on bass but I learned a lot of stuff from John Lee.  John taught me a lot about playing more conservatively - tighter and shorter - and more appropriately in an arena. I definitely would not have been able to play this Show without spending the time that I did with them for the six years before I got the opportunity.

DR:  When I interviewed Dave back in 2013, I asked him about the backup role, and he said this: “The whole idea of them coming to the rehearsals is because sometimes we do things differently from coast to coast. The East Coast and West Coast might have a different ending or a different tempo on a particular song sometimes. The backup guys actually have a very difficult job because they have to learn both sides and both players and what they do and be ready to fill in for either one without a hitch. That's a tough task.” Can you speak to that?

TD:  I had to do that, and it is tough.  I had to learn each of their fills.  I really wanted to prove myself, so I studied very intently and made sure that I knew exactly how each of them played everything.  It was also very educational for me to see how each show varied a bit.  Over time, each show has gotten more similar because of the production, with the screens and more songs being synced to tempo. Now that I am the sole bass player on the East, I can do a little bit more of what I want to do, within reason.  Now I get to talk to the newer bass players, and I tell them that if they ever do get the opportunity, they need to play like the other musicians will be expecting them to play.

DR:  Besides being a great bass player, Dave Z was such an outgoing and lovable personality on stage and was a real fan favorite.

TD:  Dave and I were only ever in the same room together at the rehearsals, but he and I emailed back and forth a lot as we nerded out about bass stuff.  [Laughs]  Even though I had physically only been around him for a total of six weeks over the years, Dave always made you feel like you knew him really well.  He was so friendly and welcoming, so I felt like I knew him probably better than I realistically did. Dave was a music nerd too.  He and I would have music theory  and ear training contests.  Personality-wise, Dave and I are pretty different.  I am not nearly as outgoing as Dave was, but then again very few people are.  [Laughs]  Musically, Dave and I were really pretty similar.  We were both into Dream Theater, Dirty Loops, Michael Jackson, and the like.  Our playing styles ended up being pretty similar.  It was a natural fit for both TSO and SOTO because he played a lot of fills the same way that I would've approached them.  So, with both bands, I play Dave's fills and that is my way of keeping him going.

DR:  Any apprehension stepping into that role after what happened?

TD:  That is the really the hardest thing when I stepped into the role in 2017.  I knew the legacy that he had left and the affect that he had on people. Nobody wants to follow someone like that, but the show has to go on.  It really is about finding the balance of what came before you and trying to still remain your own person.  I was really worried about how the band and the fans would feel.  The band was really welcoming and were happy to have me, and the fans were amazing. I am so happy that the fans accepted me so warmly.

DR:  The TSO show calls for a lot of energy, movement, and interactions with your stage partners. Does that come naturally to you or did that take some time to develop?

TD:  I had to develop a little of it. It is a delicate balance.  For one thing, I am not dancer.  I know Dave was a dancer.  If I tried to do dance moves, it would come across really contrived; it is not who I am.  My movements are a little bit more "rockin' out".  I did develop a few certain things because I know the expectation is more of a visual involvement from the bass player position in the East band.  I just figured it out and do it in my own way.  As far as interacting with the other band members, there are a few things that are programmed in, but some of that ends up happening naturally.  If you watched last year during "Wish Liszt ", Dustin Brayley and I started doing this little fun bit of turning around faster and faster. If you're having fun on stage, and we are, that stuff just happens.

DR: You are often seen playing high above the crowd in cranes or lifts or catwalks, any trepidation about that?
Chris Caffery, Tony Dickinson
Photo courtesy of Pamela Lovell

TD: Surprisingly, I was really cool with it. [Laughs] They strap us in really good before going up.  It can be a little weird when the platform moves in a way that you're not expecting; that's when the jelly legs kick in. [Laughs] As long as the platform is moving with you, it is not that big of a deal.

DR:  Now that you have done two tours with them, have you had some time to reflect?  Anything stand out? Favorite crowd, city, tunes to play?

TD:  Grand Rapids, Michigan is always great!  Green Bay last year was incredible. TSO hadn't been there in a couple years and the response was so good, that TSO's manager Adam Lind booked the next year's show there on the spot. One unforgettable moment was when we played the matinee Show in Washington, DC - the show before Christmas Eve. Two dudes in the front row - one dressed as Santa and one dressed as an elf with inflatable guitars. They basically air-guitared and mimicked the lyrics to the entire show! We were eight shows in on that stretch, we're tired and loopy, it's almost Christmas and then the curtain comes up and you see these two guys in the front row.  [Laughs]  Oh my God!  For the entire first act, I could not look at them or I would burst out laughing. I know the singers had a much harder time with it; the first song of that show was "Night Enchanted" and these guys were right in front of them. [Laughs]  I know Russell and Dustin had a hard time keeping a straight face with these two ridiculous-looking guys right before Christmas Eve having the time of their lives. And you know what?  Bless them for that.  It was great having them there because it was something out of the ordinary and it was so much fun.  Those are the moments that you live for; it was awesome!

DR:  Have you had a chance to record anything with TSO in the studio yet?

TD:  Not yet, but when they are ready to have me, I will be ready!

DR:  For this year, TSO is bringing back their original storyline, Christmas Eve and Other Stories.  You mentioned earlier that you had prepared that entire 2010 set, so are you excited to finally play it?

TD:  Yeah!  My first year, 2011, was the last time that they had done this show.  So, I know the show already.  Plus, many of the songs were also in the show from the last four years. It is a great story and I am really happy that we are doing it again.  And I am really happy that the fans are excited about it.  I am really stoked for the fans to see this show with so many more of the bells and whistles that we didn't have back in 2011; I think they are going to be thrilled with how it comes out.

DR:  Let's talk a bit about SOTO.  I assume you met Jeff Scott Soto through working with TSO?

TD:  Yeah, I would interact with him at rehearsals and then see him when the tour would come through Denver.  In 2013, Jeff was working on what would become the Inside the Vertigo album. At the time, Connor had already worked with Jeff and gotten to write and record two of his tracks. At rehearsals, I really pushed Jeff, "Hey man, let me just write you a song". [Laughs]  At the time, he was already at 14 songs and he had to whittle it down.  He finally let me write him one and that ended up being "The Fall", which also ended up being the lead single!  I played all the guitars, bass, keys and did the drum programming on that one.  And then for their second album, Divak, I wrote "Freak Show".  For that one, Jeff had his drummer, Edu Cominato, play live drums on it.  I played bass, keys and rhythm guitar, but I brought in this friend of mine, Chris Feener, who is an amazing guitar player, to solo on it.

DR:  Do you and Jeff mesh musically pretty well?

TD:  Jeff really likes the early songs that I wrote for him.  He felt that musically I was hitting the spots that he wanted to sing. Jeff is great to work with.  For the most part, I let Jeff do his thing on the vocals.  He is great at it; he has great ideas and is really easy to work with.

DR:  On the new album, Origami, you are now an official member of the band.  You also co-produced the album.  Can you talk about that role?

TD:  I do the production work that needs to be done, like much of the keyboards.  I also reamped all of the guitars.  There are two "invisible" members of SOTO that deserve a shout out: Leo Mancini and Luiz Portinari are guitar players who collaborate with our drummer, Edu.  When Edu is working on songs, he often writes and record with them. So, on the album there are guitar parts from me, Jorge Salan, BJ, Leo and Luiz. With five guitar players on the album, they all needed to be reamped, so I did all the reamping. I did the horn arrangements and some additional guitars as well. I end up doing a lot of the nerdy, technical stuff because that is one of my specialties. I also wrote three songs for the album, including the title track.

There is one song that we included that was really special to us - "Detonate", a song that Dave Z had written with Edu. It was the last song that Dave recorded with SOTO, but it wasn't completed before he died.  Dave had recorded most of the bass for the song, except for the middle section.  He had recorded that middle section in demo quality while they were on the tour bus. We felt it was really important to preserve all of the basslines from Dave on this song, so it was my job to work some studio magic and try to get his bass to sound the same throughout the song.  It took a lot of EQing and reamping  and nerdy studio work, but we finally did get there and ensured that you could hear Dave playing bass on the whole song.

DR:  You mentioned Sylva earlier - this is your ongoing band that recently released its first album?

TD:  Yes.  The idea of my band Sylva kind of morphed a couple different ways. Even though the album just came out recently, a lot of that music was written as far back as 2008. We just never ended up doing anything with it over the years because of me going to college and Travis going through firefighting and paramedic school which ate up almost eight years of our lives.  It finally started moving forward recently because I finally found people who want to play the music and I don't have to pay for them to come to rehearsals. [Laughs]

DR:  The band’s music reminds me in places of Tower of Power, Umphrey's McGee and Jamiroquai Are these influences on the music that you write for Sylva?

TD:  Absolutely. All of those bands that you named and also early Maroon 5, Muse and Snarky Puppy.   Sylva is really a big conglomeration of all of my influences.  There is a little bit of prog rock, a little bit of jazz, a lot of dance, funk, soul...pretty much everything except for metal and classical, which is reserved for SOTO and Tiberian Sons.

DR:  Is Sylva your main gig when not touring with SOTO and TSO?

TD:  Yes.  I write and arrange most of the music.  With the rock thing, I have so many different avenues.  Sylva is the other stuff that I really want to do. It is music that I have a lot of creative involvement in and love playing. I'm hoping that it is a band that I will be in for a very long time.

DR:  Do you have a favorite brand of bass?  One that you gravitate to the most?

TD:  I have two favorite basses.  The 6-string that I play with Sylva and SOTO is a Muckelroy bass. Brady Muckelroy is a luthier from Texas and once I tried one of his instruments, I said, "I cannot believe that a bass can feel this good and be this playable!"  I had to have one and it is amazing. It is a 6-string and does everything I need it to.  The other bass that I really connected with is the Sunburst Music Man Sterling that I take on tour with TSO.  I am a big fan of the Music Man sound and I love having the double-humbucker set-up for flexibility.

DR:  Tell me about your gig with Warner/Chappell.  Is that commissioned work for media?
Photo courtesy of  Nikolai Puc Photography

TD:  I write library music and trailer music as one of my primary gigs. I started as a session guitar and bass player with them in 2013.  Later on, I started writing for them as well. Most recently they have had me doing the big orchestral trailer music, like anything you would see on a Marvel trailer.  I had started working with Lisle Moore, who had been doing the NBA and ESPN music for ten years. In 2016 ESPN contacted him to update the theme and he asked me to help out updating the music package.  I ended up arranging and creating some of the primary themes and title sequences, so the current NBA music you hear on ESPN are my arrangements and performances.

DR:  I know you are about to tour Europe with SOTO and then a couple months on the TSO tour.  What is 2020 looking like for you?  Any big plans yet?

TD:   Definitely some shows with Sylva and Tiberian Sons.  I will be producing an album for a  singer/songwriter from here in Colorado.  And some more Warner/Chappell stuff. I am also going to put more energy into my social media, hoping to get the YouTube thing going again.

DR:  Tony, thank you for taking the time.

TD:  No problem, my pleasure.

For more information:

Tony Dickinson:


Tiberian Sons:


Monday, July 1, 2019

A Conversation with Chloe Lowery

Vocalist Chloe Lowery has a commanding, exquisitely powerful soprano voice. The kind of voice that you don't easily forget after hearing her sing a song or two. She signed her first major record contract when she was twelve years old, sang lead for Big Brother and the Holding Company, but first hit the public eye in a big way when she teamed up with Yanni in 1989 for his Voices album and tour. Since then, she has been a fixture in the touring productions of both Rocktopia and Trans-Siberian Orchestra and can often be found as a guest soloist with symphonies around the USA. She has been equally at home performing classics and covers along side Classical Crossover Vocalist Chris Pinella or rocking out with Whitesnake guitarist Joel Hoekstra.  For the last several years, she also fronted the rock band Chameleon, releasing several EPs and becoming a fixture in the New York City music scene. But it took a tumultuous relationship change with a long-time musical partner that finally propelled her into creating an album that she can call her own, one that is "Just Chloe".  We got together in Manhattan to discuss her new solo album, "The In-Between".

Dan Roth:  You describe it in the liner notes of your new CD, but for anyone that has not yet gotten this album, what is “The In-Between”?

Chloe Lowery:  For a long time, this was a nameless record.  I was even contemplating calling it "Chloe" or "Just Chloe".  There really wasn't a lyric that really embodied the whole thing, until I wrote "The Words You Wanted.  I took the phrase from part of the chorus, "And I’ll always love you, But somehow I lost me while I was busy holding onto you, And somewhere in this in-between...".  For me, "The In-Between" is where I wrote this record. I was not at a peak high in my life, I was somewhere in this in-between where all of this change that was happening, personally, professionally, life and everything.  It just made sense that that is what the record was.

DR:  Were there any particular musicians or voices that influenced you in making this record?

CL:  I actually did myself a favor because, like my old band Chameleon, I am a little bit of a chameleon myself.  Because I have sung in so many different types of Shows, I have had to put on my "rock" hat, my "pop" hat, etc.  I can emulate different genres. But for this record, I really shut out music for a minute.   Without judgment or criticism, I wrote things from a place where maybe no one would ever hear these and they would be purely for myself to find out what my organic voice and authentic voice was saying without any outside influences.

DR:  You have been very up front with letting listeners know that this album was the result of you going through a major breakup. When did you know that you wanted to express what you were going through in song?

CL:  It was more or less an accident.  When I split with my ex, it was a huge life change. I felt that life was just going to carry on and be fine, but the ramifications of all of the decisions I was making - it was just a lot all at once.  I didn't know how to process it.  Also, professionally, I was going through a lot of changes and not knowing what the next step was.  I started writing as a form of venting and what came out was a "word vomit" of everything that I was going through.  It was really an organic thing, as I was going through all of these emotions which were almost like the stages of grief. It wasn't planned, it didn't happen until it was sitting right in front of me. 

DR:  You have toured or recorded with some substantial acts, but always singing songs someone else wrote. You had your own band, but even those releases were more collaborative in nature. You only get one debut album. How scary was this? Did you feel ready?

CL:  It is still scary because we're in the beginning stages of getting people to connect with the record. It is such a different market now.  The record business has changed so much from when I started at twelve years old.  I have made several solo records over the years that never saw the light of day for a million and one reasons.  I felt very proud that I was able to do this record by myself and write it with no judgment.  It was really a personal self-accomplishment and I got to the point where I was feeling like, "OK, I am ready to share this with the world" and ready to share my story.  It was scary but easy at the same time.  I am really excited to see the impression of it, to see what's next.

DR:  Your ex is someone that you did work with very closely in two of your musical worlds, but his name never comes up in interviews.  Is that by design?

CL:  Outside of our TSO and Chameleon family, listeners don't know and don't need to know.  I wanted to leave his name out of it.  For those that know, they know.  For those that don't, albums are meant to be related to your life.  If I bring up name and details, it takes away from the listener's point of view.  The record is specific to me, but generic enough where it can relate to you.

DR:  Both lyrically and visually, can I ask how specific you got with what you went through?

CL:  I've taken some liberties with the record and with the videos. It is a story and it's dramatized for sure. The honesty behind the intention is 100%. No mistaking the accuracy there but like all story-tellers, you take liberties to connect the dots. There are certainly situations that are hinted at that might be true, but they might not. Listeners can decide what they want there.

DR:   In early 2018, you released a stunning rendition of the Roy Orbison classic “Crying” which segued into “How Could You”. “How Could You” kicks off the album, but what happened to “Crying”?

CL:  We left that specifically for Pledge supporters.  Everyone that pledged had access to the song and it was an enticement for those supporters.  We did leave it on YouTube though if you still want to check it out.

DR:  The album is set up in a unique fashion, with complete songs, but interspersed with a series of musical interludes: Betrayal, Denial, Letting Go, Reflection, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. Just looking at those Interlude titles can give someone a quick idea of the album's theme, but what made you set it up this way?

CL:  I have always loved records that had interludes or had a constant stream of music that never ended and told a story.  It's funny that we're listening to Janet Jackson right now [Ed. Note - a Janet Jackson song happened to be playing in the background at this time] because I listened to her records when I was growing up and she was known for having these interludes between her songs.  I always really liked that.  I also wanted the listener to engage more with the storyline of the record with my versions of the stages of grief. I felt that they helped further the story as the interludes helped set up the emotion for the song.

DR: Were any of these interludes conceived as entire songs?

CL:  No,  I sat down one week and wrote all of these 20-30 second little songs.  "Reflection Interlude" is a little piece of "Something in the Water", which is a Chameleon song, and that is on purpose.  One that seems to be getting  a lot of notice and listeners seem to like is "Acceptance Interlude".  That one is more of a verse/chorus set-up and I have heard from some of who wanted me to "finish" that song.  Maybe my next record will be of all of my Interludes completed. [Laughs]

DR:  What was the first song written for this album?

CL:  The first work I did for this album was "Don't Let Yourself Down".  In the very beginning of my split, my move to Brooklyn and all of this change, I was just in a daze and crying a lot.  I went on a family vacation and I think my mom got sick and tired of all of my crying.  One day she said to me, "Honey, don't let yourself down".  Besides being great advice, that really hit me because I had never heard that before.  I sat down at my Aunt and Uncle's piano in North Carolina and wrote the chorus to that song.  I then put it away for a long time because I didn't know how to finish it.  The first complete full song that I wrote for this album was "Shiny Toy". I wrote that while I was in Prague for a gig.  I walked around Prague and it all came together for me there.

DR:  I would like to touch on the songs on the album, so let's start with "Shiny Toy". You’ve mentioned that this song is about seeing your ex with the new “shiny toy” in his life. It’s a very powerful song to really kick off the album – asking in the chorus “Did I mean nothing at all, Did We mean nothing at all?” How hard was it to write that song?

CL:  That one was actually really easy to write because it was very circumstantial to me and what just happened to me. It is not just about seeing my ex with his new "shiny toy", but more about the feeling of being replaced so quickly and so easily. That was more of the underlying layer of the song.  Ex's are supposed to move on and move forward, so there was nothing that he did wrong,  but the quickness and swiftness of the situation is what really got to me. I created the track and just vented; here are the words.

DR:  One of my favorite lyrics from this album comes from this song: "If happiness is just a smile, but you never walk a mile, then love means nothing to you". Very poetic, but it says so much.

CL:  I have to actually give some credit to my ex for that.  That is one of his favorite lines that he used to say, and we even used it in a Chameleon song, "Everybody's Going Down".  I sing "Happiness takes a while" on that one, but he originally wanted me to sing [Chloe sings "Happiness is just a smile"].  He and I debated that line though, because happiness is not just a smile; you have to work for happiness, happiness is a choice. So that lyric in "Shiny Toy", while it is mine, I twisted it a bit.

DR:  “Renegade”, musically is a song that is very upbeat – a good “sing-along” chorus – but it’s really all about your ex and his renegade-type lifestyle?

CL:  My ex is a very free spirit, which is one the things that I really loved about him. Down the line, it just didn't fit with my life anymore.  It's not about control, but more about making sense of someone's choices.  It just wasn't working for me.  It was like, "OK, there ya go again!"

DR:  There is a line in the song “Something in the water we thought brought us together now undone”. Is that a nod towards your previous band that had a song with that title?

CL:  [Laughs]  Everything that you can probably think, just go with it.

DR:   "Giving up on You" is a duet between you and vocalist Nathan James.  Did you write this with a duet in mind?

CL:  No. I wrote this by myself on the piano - just the melody and bass line.  I knew I wanted to do a duet on the record and Nathan was always in the back of my brain.  When I got the first draft back from my producer, Travis Laws, it just felt like this might be a good opportunity for a duet.  I restructured it and changed some of lyrics, so it made sense for a second voice to sing.

DR:  “Crazy” kicks off what feels like the second half of the album. This song feels like it is about dealing with things and moving on.

CL:  You are totally correct.  Some have said that this record feels heavy or really sad. You have to listen to the whole thing, and it is a fun party at the end of it.

DR:  The video for this is particularly clever, with you and your significant other backstage at a venue, reliving the same scene every couple of years, showing how the relationship was at each point.  Having seen you perform at so many clubs around the city over the years, was this based on a particular venue in your mind?

CL:  We struggled with what was the best thing to convey with that video.  The Digital Sparks team and I were in Charlotte at the time and we had come up with a few different ideas and this is the one that really stuck. They found a venue in Charlotte to use for the shoot, but it is very much like an Arlene's Grocery or Rockwood Music Hall.

DR:  This song features a guitar solo near the end of it by Al Pitrelli. It is one of two songs that he contributed guitar to on the record. He has also been involved in most of your live solo performances thus far. How did you get Al involved?

CL:  I'm really lucky.  I have a special relationship with Al.  We've been great friends since we met in 2010 and have always checked in with each other over the years.  There is a mutual admiration for talent there, but we also have this great working relationship and we're friends. With TSO, I am the Dance Captain for the West tour, so I handle the dancing and some of the singing. He calls on me a lot in that capacity. He has always said to me, "If you ever do anything, let me know." so I took him up on it.  I have a lot of great guitarist friends, so don't get me wrong, but Al plays with soul and heart and so much artistry behind his playing.  He came in and played on two songs and I have been lucky that he has been there for me at my live performances so far.

DR:  You did a unique cover of Roxette’s "It Must Have Been Love". What made you want to cover this?

CL: I knew I wanted to do a cover but hadn't found one yet that made sense. I was halfway done the record while I was on a TSO tour and I was listening to songs with [vocalist] Ashley Hollister and we were listening to some of the 80s and 90s songs and "It Must Have Been Love" came on. We started talking about why no one has covered it before. Vocally, it is really high, but you can forget about that because of the poppiness of the track. I knew I didn't want to do it the way that Roxette did it; I wanted my own interpretation.

DR: I want to call out the production of Aurelien Budynek here.  Not only did he contribute some tasty slide guitar passages, he really created such a subdued atmosphere that really changes the feel of the original song.

CL:  Aurelien killed it on this one.  He really did.  Aurelien has a really great ear and is one of my other favorite guitarists.  He also knows how to create a mood or atmosphere in a song. He is also the one who played on "Crying". For this one, he came back with this amazing guitar arrangement and added a string track.  Asha Mevlana came over and recorded the violin and viola and it was done in a day.

DR: "Dirty Disco" is a fun, upbeat song that has a bit of feel to your previous band.

CL:  We actually wrote this when we were in South Carolina and writing songs for Chameleon.  This was one of the fun tracks that we came up with and I have always loved it. With all of the band members in Chameleon, we just couldn't get it right. It just never felt right for that band.  I told Travis that I wanted to do it and we collaborated with Georgios Pesios, who mixed part of the album.  I love this song and it is a bit of a departure from the heaviness of the early part of the album.

DR:  “Don’t Let Yourself Down” is a song we touched on earlier.  It has that big epic-feeling song of the album, puts me in the mind of Chameleon songs like "Up There" and "Stay/Wait". I find your voice to really be suited to songs like that, where there is a quiet, tender introduction to the song that builds into something really loud and powerful. Do you feel the same way?

CL:  My whole platform is that I am a big singer and I sing emotionally about emotional topics. I am one of those artists where you are supposed to feel things. I think that is just my gift and is something that I do even with TSO and Rocktopia.  I totally gravitate to the more intimate songs where there is a conversation happening and by the end I am soaring and showing my range.

DR:  The closing song on the album, "The Words you Wanted", feels like you have come out the other side, moved past all of the heartbreak feelings and come to terms with the where things are now.  You refer to "All these damn songs I had to write". Were these the words you wanted to say to him but couldn’t? "We both got what we need to breathe, I found myself and set you free" – looks at things differently than earlier in the album.

CL:  My ex had sent me the guitar track to when I was on tour with Rocktopia a couple years ago and we were still writing back and forth. I actually wrote a completely different song on top of that guitar riff.  I then put it away and didn't think about it again.  When I was creating this album, I was going through some of my older songs for some ideas for the album's closer and came across this track.  I completely re-wrote the lyrics for it but left the guitar parts intact.  The subject matter came from a conversation that I had with my ex.  When he heard that I was making a record about him, he said instead of being mad, why not say the things that you always wanted to say?  This was much later after I had come to terms with things and there was some closure.  It is inspired by him and that conversation.  The guitar parts are still his and left just as he recorded them in The Red Room, probably two years before I finished it.

DR:  Over the years, you have sung so many songs written by others in various touring productions and shows, all of which come with a certain amount of direction. You do work with a producer on this record, but was it hard to find your own voice? To say, “this is me”?

CL:  It is both a blessing and a curse that I can sing in so many styles.  Going through this forced me to stand on my own and speak honestly and what came out is very authentically me without someone telling me, "you should do this, you should do that". Travis was the greatest producer and collaborator for that.  I would hand him the basic tracks and his production just really complemented what I was creating.

DR:  You have made a music video for each song and interlude for the album.  Where did that idea come from?

CL:  The industry is so weird.  It is so challenging to find ways to get people to sit down and listen to music these days.  I thought it was a good way of getting people to sit down and listen to the album if there was a visual element to it. I'm one of those people who will tend to stick with a song or album longer if there is a video to it.  It was a marketing plan that would help get people to listen to the album and listen to the story. It is a concept record and you really need to listen to it from top to bottom to understand it all.

DR:  Some of these videos puts you alone in these big empty scenes – a forest, an empty parking garage, a spacious empty meadow – is that done intentionally to help convey how you were feeling?

CL:  I never even realized that until you just said that. There may have been a subconscious reason for that.  For this record, I was alone.  I wrote 90% of it alone in my apartment and was on my own for the first time, which is why my hashtag is 'justchloe'.  It was always Chloe with Yanni, Chloe with TSO, Chloe with Rocktopia, Chloe with Chameleon.  Now it was "just Chloe".  I think the team at Digital Sparks studios understood that and shows the struggle to find answers, clarity and the struggle of being alone.

DR:  I want to ask about the musicians on the album. You certainly seemed to surround yourself with players not only from your previous band Chameleon, but also from the productions that you tour with, Rocktopia and TSO. Was this a matter of just calling someone up if they were available to fill a need on the album? Was there anyone you wanted on the record that wasn’t available?

CL:  I'm really lucky to have really great friends and have developed really great relationships, especially with my TSO family. I do like collaborating and I wanted my friend's input on what I had written for this album.  From Chameleon, I had Aurelien Budynek, Georgios Pesios, and Andrew Ross contribute.  Everyone was shocked that Andrew was on the record, but he came in and added some percussion and backing vocals on "The Words You Wanted".  From TSO, I had Asha, Jodi Katz, Al and Nathan of course.  I actually had another interlude where Ashley Hollister and Natalya Piette sang, but unfortunately it didn't make sense with the record, so it got scrapped. And of course, Travis Laws who I got to know from Rocktopia was just amazing as a producer.  I even got involved playing some synths and keys, which I was very excited about.

DR:  As part of your crowdfunding campaign, you offered up the opportunity to record a cover song for fans. Did you get many takers on this? And what sort of covers did you wind up singing? Any that were a favorite or fun?

CL:  Yes!  I forget about how many we did, but that was a popular item!  Georgios Pesios and I sat down for a couple days and did acoustic versions of all the songs. He played guitar and mixed them. It was a wide range from Pat Benatar to some classic rock songs.  I did "Painkiller" from Judas Priest! [Laughs]  It was fun, it was great to put my spin on some of these.

DR:  Thus far, you have done release concerts in Florida and NYC, opened up for Myles Kennedy, and done some of these songs at a music festival in upstate PA. How much fun is it to sing these creations to fans in person? It seems like there would be a difference between writing a song in your apartment and recording it in a studio and then singing how you were feeling to a crowd full of people.

(L-R): Al Pitrelli, Chloe Lowery, Travis Laws
Rockwood Music Hall, April 2019
Photo courtesy Bill Passannante
CL:  It's exciting. As an artist, our job is to touch people and relate to people and help people. When people respond well or sing back words that you wrote, that is so rewarding.  We are building our whole live thing.

DR:  Back in the 70’s, you would have a record label behind you which pushed an artist's music to the stores and radio. In the 80’s, there was MTV which helped put artists on the map. How difficult is it in today’s industry to establish yourself as a name or a brand? Is it more social media and networking?

CL:  It's really all about connecting. Whether it is getting a song into a movie or TV show, or building your social media following.  Social media is obviously a big part of things now.  There are artists that are launching careers just off of Instagram. I find that cool and strange at the same time because it is hard for real talent to shine through. The market is just completely flooded.  You just have to find your way of connecting that works for you. With me, people seem to like to see what I can do when I perform live.  That is a priority for me to get on the road, which is all in the works.

DR:  Good to hear that there may be some touring coming up.  Anything else in the works?

CL:  We still have several videos to release.  The "Must Have Been Love" video is next and you guys will like it for a specific reason, but I won't say what it is yet.  The "Dirty Disco" video is also very exciting with everything going on with Pride Month. Something else that is in the works is a virtual live show for everyone that can't get out to the live shows.

DR:  For the fans of your previous band, is there any chance of hearing any of those songs again?  Maybe in a live setting?

CL:  Those songs are all still mean so much to me.  My producer was a really big fan of "Up There" and we tried to revisit it production-wise and make it more something catering to me, but it fell by the wayside.  Maybe I will revisit one of those songs live? My ex and I were a good writing team and I would like to work with him in that capacity again, so you never know.

DR: You have been involved in two touring productions over the last decade – Rocktopia and TSO. Do you still enjoy doing those Shows and do you plan on continue fitting them into your schedule as long as they still want you?

CL:  TSO is such a blessing.  I didn't quite understand what I was getting into when I did my first tour.  I thought it might just be one tour and done. They have really become my family and I think that was Paul's gift.  As long as TSO will have me, I want to be there.  We are always complaining towards the end of those tours about how exhausted we are, and we want to go home, but we always look forward to it starting up each year.

DR:  Chloe, thanks for getting together today and finding the time.

CL:  Thank you!  It's always a pleasure.

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Saturday, May 4, 2019

A Conversation with Jennifer Cella

Jennifer Cella has been gracing us with her expressive and powerful voice for close to twenty years now through the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and her work with dance-music producers Anton Bass, Jason Nevins, and Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr).  Though out of the public spotlight for several years while she began raising a family, Cella has recently come roaring back with two new bands that she not only sings lead on, but also is involved with creatively.  I recently caught up with Jennifer to discuss her time with TSO as well as her own bands Beauty in the Machine and Cover Girl.

Photo courtesy Marianne P. Stone

Dan Roth:  By way of some background, I'd like to ask about your first recordings. In 2001, you were high on the Billboard dance charts with "Begin2Rise" and then later that year, a featured vocalist on the Karmadelic full-length album, Flip Your Mind.

Jennifer Cella:  That was when I had started working with Anton Bass.  He had a deal with Jellybean Records at the time and those were my first real recording sessions.

DR:  This is when you were known professionally as Jayella?

JC:   [Laughs]  The dance world had a lot of artists using one-word names and I needed to find a way to shorten mine.  Cella is still a shortened version of my given name.  My real last name was too long and too Italian to use.  The record was coming out, so we threw a couple names in the air and we went with Jayella.   It's one of those things that I shake my head and roll my eyes at when it's brought up. [Laughs]  

DR:  You sang and co-wrote two songs on that Karmadelic record, one of which led off the album and was co-written with Anton and keyboardist Carmine Giglio, "Things I See". Was this the first time you had a hand in writing a song?

JC:  I had dabbled in song writing but this was the first time I had any success with it.

DR:  With you seeing some success in the dance world and having a couple records out there, how did you get involved with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

JC:  I had an agent at the time who was submitting me for Broadway auditions.  That was where I thought I wanted to go with my career.  I had gone to the Tisch School for the Arts and a couple other schools and studied acting and musical theater; that was always my focus. I was getting really burnt out on the rejection.  In that business, you get a hundred "no's" before you get a "yes".  I had started to shift my focus more to music and I was in a cover band on Long Island. What I loved about that was the instant gratification.  You rehearse for the gig and then you go do the gig - you don't audition for the gig; you go and perform.  I was really falling in love with that.  I was done with auditioning and really didn't want to do that anymore.

My agent got me this audition with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  They were using a Broadway casting agent back then.  I really did not want to go; I was really done with auditions and had no interest.  My agent pushed me to do it, explaining to me that it was more of a "rock thing" and they were asking for a Pat Benatar song for the audition.  I was like, "Alright, I'll do it."  Paul O'Neill wasn't in the room when I auditioned, only David Krebs and Taro Meyer.  I sang "Love is a Battlefield" and Paul came into the room about halfway through the audition. When I was done, he looked at their clipboard and they had put an 'x' through my name; they were going to completely dismiss me. Paul wrote "yes" next to my name and asked me to sing a Janis Joplin song.

I got what I thought was a callback, but it was basically Paul and I sitting in this rehearsal room and he was telling me about this awesome gig. I didn't know that I got it, but that was Paul's way of telling me that I got the gig.  I was really excited, but I still didn't know what I was getting myself into. At that point, the Show wasn't what it is today and nobody knew what it was going to turn into.

DR:  Did you know going in that this was for a lead vocalist position in the cast?

JC:  Actually, this was an audition to be a background singer. That quickly changed once we got to rehearsals and Paul started changing some things around.  He took "Promises to Keep", which on record was done by a children's choir, and reworked it for me to sing live. He really shook things up for me and I am grateful for that.

"Promises to Keep" followed by singer introductions  - TSO with Jennifer Cella from Jennifer's first tour (2001).  

DR:  "Promises to Keep" certainly was a staple of the set for many years.  Were you the first to sing that?

JC:  Yes.  It was written for a choir and Paul was looking for material to give me in the show. 

DR:  When you went on the 2001 TSO East tour, was that your first real tour?

JC:  Yes.  I had done some regional theater in Tennessee, but this was my first real tour.

DR:  The cast was such a melting pot of performers, with musicians and singers with metal, theater, R&B and club experiences.

JC:  And we all really bonded as a family back then. I first got to know many of them when we drove down to QVC to film an appearance before the 2001 rehearsals even began.  That's when I met Mee Eun Kim, Chris Caffery, Bob Kinkel, Mark Wood and Alex Skolnick.  We all piled into a van and drove to QVC and I was the new kid on the block.  I believe I sang "Dreams of Candlelight".

DR:  For your seven years on the tour, you were always on the East production.  Did you ever have the opportunity or desire to sing with the West cast?

JC:  I never had a choice, but I was happy that I was on East because that meant my family and friends got to see me perform.  It would have been nice to work with the people on the other tour, but honestly, we quickly become a family on the East, especially back then.  There was such a complete bond because everything was still so new, and we were building this all together.

DR:  I understand that back then, Paul O'Neill spent more of his time on the East tour rather than the West dates.  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul?
Jennifer Cella with TSO - Toledo, Ohio, November 29th 2007
Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps 

JC:  Yes, Paul was around our tour a lot. Paul's vision was always that it was one band and one show.

DR:  On the TSO records, you sang lead on five of their songs over the years. Often Paul dialed in on a particular way he saw or heard a singer and it seems like he used you for songs that needed that tender, emotional touch.

JC:  Yes, Paul saw me as the female vocalist with maternal instincts and as the one who could sing the rock ballads.  He always got me to express emotions in the songs that I sang. The songs that he would write for a female had a depth to them and he would often model them after that 80's rock sound.  He found that I could deliver those and that was area of my voice that he loved.  I was classically trained, did musical theater for years and was also in rock cover bands so I could do it all.  Paul really didn't want to explore the more legit side of my voice at all.  He found that little section of my voice that he loved the most and took it from there.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" is certainly the song that you are most identified with, sort of your "signature song".  Do you like that it is what has become your legacy from your work with them?

JC:  Oh, definitely!

DR:  I want to ask about that note you hold at the end of the song.

JC:  When we recorded that in the studio, I just went for it.  Paul didn't tell me to do that, but I went for it and it turned out to be amazing and we kept it.  After I did it, I sat back and thought, "Oh shit.  I'm going to have to do this every night on tour." [Laughs] Doing it in the studio is one thing, but doing it live every night on tour...some nights you might just not feel the greatest, or have a tickle in your throat, you might be tired, you have adrenaline flowing - all that stuff that plays a part in the physiology of your voice.  It was something that I was very conscious of when we recorded it.  If I'm going to do this in the studio, I must do it live every night.  It was so rewarding to hear the applause at the end of that note.

DR:  The performance that you did for QVC has now been viewed almost nine million times on YouTube. We know the band are playing to the recording, but are the vocals live?

JC:  Yes, the vocals were done live, and the music was the recording, but the guys were still playing over it.  It was the same way we did it on Regis & Kelly.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" featured - besides your stunning vocals, very prominent "hair flips" which have become a bit of a thing that TSO is known for.  Was this song sort of a ground zero for that?

"Christmas Canon Rock" - TSO with Jennifer Cella (lead) and Danielle Landherr, Heather Gunn (background) (2007)

JC:  No.  The hair flips came from when us girls were singing backgrounds off to the side and we were just there without choreography.  I started flipping my hair as sort of a "rock move" and that became our thing.  When we were doing Canon, we had to do something while standing there during that canon melody and turning our heads on the beat is what we came up with. [Laughs]  It's funny, I still do that in all of my performances.  It was who I was before I was in TSO and it sort of exploded  in TSO.

DR:  You sang two songs that were very quiet ballads, "Different Wings" and "Remnants of a Lullaby".

JC:  Sometimes Paul would take what I thought were my worst vocal takes and he would use them because he heard a vulnerability in them.  For me as a vocalist looking back, I sometimes think, "I could have sung that line better" or "Why did he use that take?".  Paul liked to capture the rawness and the emotion that he heard and felt.  Both songs were just Al Pitrelli and I in the studio. "Different Wings" in particular is such a pretty song and I remember singing that to my son when he was born and thinking how lucky I was to have a lullaby like this to sing to him.

DR:  You finally got to stretch out a bit more with a song from the Nightcastle album, "Father Son & Holy Ghost".  There is this intense 90-second section in the middle of the song where we get to hear that rock growl that you have and you rapid-fire that section of lyrics, starting with “The night it keeps burning While twisting and turning”.  How hard was that to sing?

JC:  It was really difficult, actually.  It is a hard song to sing because of that.  Paul knew my capabilities with breath control from Canon and he went with it.  I am breathing in there of course, but it is challenging.

DR:  The most recent song you had released with TSO was "Past Tomorrow" which is a somewhat stark, minimal piece of music, with just the keys and piano behind your voice.

JC:  Paul tried a lot of people on that song. It started out as a very, very different piece of music.  It was a very over-the-top, Broadway-ish kind of song with this high belt vocal and completely different to how it turned out. We were in the studio and about 99% done with it; we just had some background vocals left, when Al started changing it and put it in a minor key.  We then took out the entire chorus which had the phrase "Past Tomorrow"  in it and really just changed the entire feel of the song.  We started layering my vocals and doubling the harmonies, and it was coming out great.  I am really, really happy with how this one came out.  Of all the songs that I have sung for TSO, this is the one that I had the most creative input on.  It was a very cool experience to be involved in the transformation of a song that we just took two weeks to record and then sit there with Al and Paul and work out this totally new arrangement and made it really a different song.

Jennifer Cella with TSO - Nassau Coliseum in 2007
Photo courtesy Donna Searing McDonald

DR:  It's great that you continued to record even after you stopped touring in 2007.

JC:  Yeah, Paul always wanted me on everything, and I was thrilled to continue doing that.  In fact, I was working on a song for his next project when he died.  In the days leading up to his death, he had me working on demos for his next project. I was working with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle Sample on getting Paul exactly what he had wanted. I was actually waiting on a call back from Paul the day that he died to hear what he thought of what I had sent in. The call that I got was not what I expected obviously - very shocking.

DR:  Was it a hard decision to leave the TSO tour after seven years?

JC:  I was ready to start a family and I was afraid that if I waited too long, I wouldn't have that opportunity. As much as I loved the touring, I also wanted to be a Mom.  You have to make choices in life, and I didn't want to look back one day and find that I waited too long. To this day, I miss it.

DR:  Looking back at your time with TSO, what did you take away from your time?

JC:  So much.  You don't get to perform in front of 20,000 people unless you're in a group like that. It is something that most musicians don't get to experience. I really learned from every bit of it.  One thing that Paul really taught me was connecting with people. He cared deeply about the experience people took away from the shows and that sticks with me to this day. We were up on stage with the opportunity to make an impact and I feel really blessed that I was able to make an impact on people's lives.

DR:  After you left the tour, you were out of the public eye for the most part.

JC:  Yes.  I wasn't out there touring, but I wasn't going to stop singing because I was a Mom.  I was involved in a wedding band which was great money and helped to keep my chops up.  I actually really grew a lot in that job because you get requested all kinds of material and you have to be able to do it. With singing, it's really "use it or lose it" and I still got sing every week  to make sure I didn't lose it.

DR:  Over the course of the last few years, fans started seeing you on stages again, collaborating with some of your TSO bandmates like Alex Skolnick and Dave Z.

JC:  That was so much fun and nostalgic.  I have the utmost respect for all my TSO bandmates so any chance that I get to play with them is amazing.  I'm really glad that I did those dates with Rubix Kube; those are memories that I have with Dave that I otherwise wouldn't have.

DR:  Let's talk about your current band, Beauty in the Machine.  That is a collaboration with Electronic Dance Music icon Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr). How did you two get together?

JC:  I knew Anthony as far back as when I was working with Anton Bass in Karmadelic.  Anthony and I were signed to the same management and were always moving in the same circles.  In fact, I sang lead on a bunch of songs for the Jason Nevins album (2004's The Funk Rocker) and Anthony was involved in one of those songs as well.  At one point, he and I formed a band and were going to record and play out.  This was around the same time that I was making the decision to leave TSO and start a family.  I wound up taking a step back from that band as well.  As time went on, we didn't really talk as much as life just took us in different directions.  After Paul died, I had posted something online which prompted Anthony to call me.

Anthony had a band that he started called Beauty in the Machine which he had abandoned a couple years earlier.  He had one song written from that time which is called "Again".  We actually got together, re-worked it, changed the key, and re-wrote some of the lyrics.  That came out so well that he presented me with a snippet of a song that he had started writing called "Morning After" and I finished that.  Things were really clicking between us musically and he asked me if I wanted to do this and I was feeling really thirsty to do something creative. I worked with him in the past and knew how talented he was, and it looked like Anton was going to be involved with it as well.  I was looking forward to writing on a creative level and really developing something.  Two years later, here we are on this journey.  It's been slow because we are self-funding it, and sometimes I have to take a step back for family responsibilities and obligations.  It is going slower than if we had done this ten years ago, but it is fun and really rewarding.

DR:  Apart from those songs on the Karmadelic album that you had in writing, is this first time since then that you have been involved in the songwriting process?

JC:  I wrote and recorded a Christmas song that I put out myself, but I spent a lot of years not exploring that creative side.  Motherhood is a lot of work and really took me out of the loop of a lot.  Now that they are a little older, I have some freedom to dive back into stuff like this and it's been great!

DR:  How is your collaboration process between the two of you?

JC:  A lot of times he will come up with a musical track and ask me to add a melody and a lyric. What has worked out best is that he will come up with a track and we will do a writing session together, just bouncing ideas off of each other.  We wrote "13 Days" in about two hours. Another song that we recently completed, "Hold On", we wrote in less than two hours and that is my favorite so far. I was at his studio for three hours and in that time, we were able to write the song and record the demo with background vocals in that time. It's still got the beat, but it's a little darker and has a lot of heavy grungy guitars in it.

DR:  You both have that dance background, but the music that you are creating is more of an electro trip-hop sound, reminds me a bit of Massive Attack.  Does that sort of music come natural to you?

JC:  I have my toes in a lot of different genres and I do love a beat.  But I also love a good rock vocal. Obviously, Anthony does bring with him his dance music experience, but he also was in a rock band years ago that coincidentally opened for Savatage a few times back when Alex was in it; so, our backgrounds really gel well together.

DR:  The first song that you released was "Morning After", which is kind of ethereal and stark and really captures a feeling of loneliness.

JC:  Anthony had the track written and the first stanza [sings "You looked into my eyes, I was hypnotized"] and I wrote the other verses and the chorus. Honestly, I wrote the rest of the song while I was at my son's baseball game.  I had my earbuds in and a notebook and wrote the lyrics while watching the game.

DR:  I understand that there will be a dance remix of that one?

JC:  Yes.  We did a gig on New Year's Day at the House of Yes which is a dance club.  We felt that we needed to rework some of our songs to fit that crowd, so he remixed it and it translates really well for live performances. That version has so much more energy so that will probably be the version that we do when we play out.  The Remix for "Morning After" will be released on May 21st  with an accompanying video on May 28th (Edit: Now out here:  I can't wait for everyone to hear and see it! It will be playable and viewable on our website along with all of our music.

DR:  Both of your singles so far have music videos and big rollouts for them.  And now with adding the visual element to the shows, is having that visual presentation to your music and presentation important to you?

JC:  It is an aspect that we want to develop.  We want our shows to be an immersive experience. We want people to come out to listen to music but also to see a show.

DR:  I was pleasantly surprised to see a real drummer as part of your live band configuration, as it is drum programming on the recordings. And, not only do you have a drummer, but it is John Sawicki who really takes the live performance to another level.  How did you know John and why did you pick him for this project?

JC:  John Sawicki and I go way back; he was in the cover band that I was in before I joined TSO. He has always been one of my favorite drummers. When I left to go with TSO, John left to be part of Stomp.  When we talked about bringing a drummer in, John was just a perfect fit.  His percussion set-up has been evolving also, he now has kick drum set up so he plays that standing up and his snare is mounted to his percussion set-up. It's a more visual aspect and sounds really cool. He is also my drummer in Cover Girl.

DR:  What is next for Beauty in the Machine?  Two songs have been released so far, with many more written and full live sets are happening.  Any timeline on when a full EP or album will be ready?

JC:  We just got a monthly residency at The VYNL in the East Village; last Wednesday of every month. We do have a plan to release an EP.  It was supposed to be out by now, but we got derailed by the video of "Again"; we weren't happy with it and that put everything on hold.  I hate to put a timeline on it, but we are on track for a Summer release for the EP.  It's coming, I promise. [Laughs]

DR:  Tell me about your Cover Girl band.  You are obviously doing covers, but you are calling it a "mash-up band"?

JC:  Well, we do a lot of straight covers, but we throw in some mash-ups that might be unexpected.  For instance, we will start with "Seven Nation Army" and go into "Sweet Dreams" but keeping up the bass line from "Seven Nation Army".  It comes out awesome.  The first gig we did, I was so scared because I didn't know if people were going to get it or understand or if people were going to like it.  So far, everyone seems to be loving it. Sometimes they look a little confused - they'll hear us start off with "Every Breath You Take" but I go into singing "Stand by Me".  It's just a different experience and shows you how fluid music is from one song to another. It's doing covers but in a creative way.  We also pay tribute to some iconic bands; we do a Led Zeppelin medley, a Nirvana medley that are really craftily done.  And John Sawicki is our drummer in this band too!

DR:  Nice.  Jeff Allegue is in the band also.  Did you know him from your TSO days?

JC:  I didn't work with Jeff in TSO.  I knew him more as Paul's friend and he was always at the New York Shows.  Jeff laid down some guitar tracks in the early days, before I got on board, so we never actually worked together with TSO.

DR:  Thus far, you have been playing gigs just on Long Island.  Any plans to expand your area a bit?

JC:  Right now, we are building a following and going into good clubs.  We all grew up on Long Island played in bands on Long Island.  There is a really strong music scene on Long Island.  People go out to hear bands and there are a lot of good places to play. We all bring in people from our reputations and history on Long Island.  It just makes sense right now to stick to that area.  Eventually we will play some gigs in other places.

DR:  Last question I wanted to ask about is the recording that you are doing for Joe Petrucelli's project for A Sparrow's Tale. Are you doing voiceovers for the animated project?

JC:  That is an exciting project that is in development.  It is going to be animated and it could be a TV project or a video; it could go a couple different ways. It's a story about a sparrow who wants to learn how to fly, but every song is also a music lesson.  It's a cool immersive way of teaching music without kids knowing that they are learning music. I'm singing the parts of Allegra, the mother sparrow.  It's coming along; it has some really good people behind it but is really early in the developmental stage.  It's a cool little project and I am looking forward to seeing it come to life.

DR:  Great!  Thanks for taking the time today.

JC:  Thank you!

For more information:

Jennifer Cella:

Beauty in the Machine:

Cover Girl Band:

Sips & Gifts: