MUSIC BIO SAMPLES 2
Forget what you think you know about Michael Lington. Now that he’s gone mainstream with his career and consciousness shifting new album Soul Appeal, he’s full steam ahead like no one’s ever heard him before, blazing a fresh, innovative road for himself with a freewheeling immersion into the heart of the 60’s and 70’s Memphis Soul vibe. From his 2000 breakthrough Vivid through 2012’s star-studded Pure, the charismatic saxophonist Lington has wowed and surprised his fans before. But he’s never had more fun, played more loose, solo’d more intensely or improvised this expansively. After years of playing it way too polished, it’s his time to jam.
All of the beloved saxophonist’s seven previous acclaimed albums, countless hit radio singles and hundreds of awe inspiring live performances over the past 15 years are now simply prelude to the fresh energy and live in the studio excitement he created at Los Angeles’ legendary Sunset Sound with veteran R&B/pop producer Barry J. Eastmond (Anita Baker, George Benson, Britney Spears, Yolanda Adams) and a handpicked group of his favorite musicians. These include a core pocket of Freddie Washington (bass) and Teddy Campbell (drums), organist Shedrick Mitchell (from Maxwell’s band), rhythm guitarists Paul Jackson, Jr. and Ray Parker, Jr., lead guitarist Phil Hamilton and percussionist Lenny Castro. Eastmond contributes to the retro sound with Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and piano.
Throughout his career, Lington has equated choosing the right players for a session to a director looking for the perfect chemistry in casting a movie. With Soul Appeal, he extended this to include best possible veteran engineer and mixer behind the boards in Ray Bardani. Bardani, whose credits include Luther Vandross, Beyonce and Will Downing, created the sonic vibe on the late 70s David Sanborn recordings that were among those that inspired Lington, then a budding musician growing up in Copenhagen, Denmark, to drop classical clarinet and pick up the sax for the first time.Soul Appeal features nine vibrant, hip and contemporary yet drenched-in-retro-cool originals (all co-written with Eastmond) and imaginative re-workings of the King Curtis classics “In The Pocket” and a blazing, horn section infused “Memphis Soul Stew.” The latter includes a playful rap by Campbell that approximates the way Curtis introduced each instrument into the mix on the original recording.
Soul Appeal also includes two fresh vocal ballads with renowned Grammy nominated vocalists that take everyone back to the days when Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett reigned: “Gonna Love You Tonight” (featuring Kenny Lattimore) and “Leave Me You” (co-written and sung by Ryan Shaw). The Eastmond/Lington instrumentals on Soul Appeal begin with the jamming and funky, classic Stax-flavored opening title track, whose swirl of vibrant sax melody, brooding organ and sizzling brass sets the stage for what Lington proudly calls “a different kind of ride.” He calls the infectious and bluesy, easy rolling “Taking Off” “the centerpiece of what we were trying to achieve, the twang of the Memphis vibe,” while as its title promises, “Uptown Groove” finds Lington soaring over organ and Rhodes in a brass fired landscape James Brown could groove in.The silky and romantic “Manhattan Nights” blends Lington’s torchy sax lead with a weepy lead guitar line and solo by Phil Hamilton that’s reminiscent of the great Steve Cropper’s work with Booker T.
After another emotional and bluesy ballad, “Going Home,” Lington and company swing back up for the jaunty funk-shuffle “Double Down.” Soul Appeal wraps in a gorgeous stripped down, heart on the sleeve place, with the beautiful Eastmond-Lington piano-sax duet “Follow Your Heart.” This was recorded almost as a bonus track after the “Memphis Soul Stew” sessions wrapped and everyone else had gone home.
Many instrumental urban jazz artists tout their latest recording as “different” or “something unique” when it’s more or less a variation on their trademark thing. In the case of Soul Appeal, Lington will let two legendary musical voices verify the reality that these sessions don’t just rattle that cage but joyfully transcend it. Lenny Castro, whose thousands of recording credits include Sanborn, The Jacksons, Eric Clapton, George Benson and Elton John, thanked the saxman after the sessions with the words, “My soul is so musically satisfied.
”The other legend paying Lington the ultimate compliment was Steve Perry of Journey, a friend of Eastmond who came to the studio to check out the first session and kept returning because he was so inspired by the recording as it unfolded. He became friends with Lington and regaled the musicians on their lunch breaks, singing Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke tunes. At one point Perry called the saxophonist and said, “Thanks for letting me stay. You helped me find my emotional compass.”
That’s the perfect term to describe the way Lington’s musical life was world was changed as a teenager, when his interest in the soul-influenced contemporary jazz by Sanborn and Grover Washington, Jr. led him down a delightful rabbit hole of discovery into the heart of American soul music. He loved it all, from Jr. Walker and King Curtis to Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. Up till that time, he was a straight arrow classical clarinet player playing in the Copenhagen Tivoli, a miniature queens guard and marching band comprised of kids 8-16. Just as Soul Appeal sets Lington free from the restraints of highly produced, mainstream urban jazz recordings, hearing this music shifted his creative consciousness forever.
“This was the music that made me want to play the sax, all of that American R&B and instrumental funk becoming part of my soul in my mid-teens,” he says. “I’m not trying to discount any of my other records because I like them all, but my approach here was fresh and very different than anything I had done before. When you enter a space like this, where you’re by design tracking with a live band for the first time instead of building tracks layer by layer, you don’t know what’s going to happen. What made this so magical was that I was there in the trenches with the band for the entire process, working out arrangements and parts as we went along. I’m most proud of the fact that whatever you hear from me is 100 percent from these live tracking dates."
Another integral part of Lington stepping up both his technical and emotional game on the horn was simply letting go of his traditional obsession with perfection. “Over the course of my career, I would do live tracking dates with a rhythm group in the studio, but then redo my sax parts until I felt they were right,” he says. “With Soul Appeal, I wanted to just completely let go and let it flow all the way – which opened me up and liberated me as a player. The result might not be perfect in the conventional sense, but it’s not supposed to be. This record is all about feel and vibe.”
Dedicated, the title of Steve Cropper’s exhilarating all-star celebration of seminal soul guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling and his 50s-early 60s group The “5” Royales, says it all about the legendary Stax musician’s lifelong devotion to the life transforming power of soul music.
A Rock and Roll of Famer for his seminal, groundbreaking guitar work with Booker T. and the MG’s, Cropper likes to say that he’s had four or five careers, all of which helped shape and redefine the meaning of the term “R&B.” The latest incarnation on SLG Music features Cropper and a powerful “house band” of brilliant old friends and session greats jamming through selections (some famous, some obscure till now) from The “5” Royales catalog with superstar artists from multiple genres and generations: B.B. King, Brian May, Steve Winwood, John Popper, Bettye LaVette, Lucinda Williams, Sharon Jones, Shemekia Copeland, Delbert McClinton, Willie Jones and Buddy Miller. The opening track “Come and Save Me” is a duet between Sharon Jones and 21-year-old Louisiana singer/songwriter phenom Dylan LeBlanc.
As the concept and incredible recording experience of Dedicated took shape, Cropper—co-producer of the collection with Jon Tiven, who helmed the guitarist’s 2007 Grammy nominated dual album with Felix Cavaliere (on the revamped Stax label) Nudge It Up A Notch--came to see the project as a multi-faceted tool for educating the next generation on the sounds that spurred and molded his own musical evolution. No doubt thousands of guitarists over the past 50 years have cited Cropper as an influence. But the soul in his playing had to start somewhere—and the wondrous, infectiously grooving fourteen tracks of Dedicated pay homage to a group and a guitarist of an era gone by that inspired Cropper to in turn inspire multiple generations.
The guitarist’s first group The Mar-Keys became the studio session group for Stax Records in his native Memphis. After scoring the million selling, Top 5 hit “Last Night” in 1961, the group evolved into the MG’s, which defined instrumental cool with “Green Onions” and played behind all the great Stax artists of the era. Cropper went on to become the pre-eminent R&B axeman of his time, ultimately working with artists that defined a generation, including Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett. He co-wrote songs with these artists that endure as classics over 40 years later, including “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay,” “Knock On Wood” and “In The Midnight Hour.”
In the late 70s and early 80s, after a fruitful period of session and production work with everyone from Rod Stewart, Tower of Power, Jeff Beck and two Beatles (John and Ringo), Cropper filmed, recorded and toured with The Blues Brothers—a role he reprised in the ill fated, but still musically magical sequel Blues Brothers 2000. Cropper received three awards in the past decade which reflect his influence on the rock era: a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (for Booker T. and the MG’s) and inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Dedicated, whose name draws from “Dedicated To The One I Love,” a “5” Royales song that was later popularized by The Shirelles and The Mamas and the Papas, was originally the brainchild of Tiven, a composer and guitarist who has produced albums by Wilson Pickett, Frank Black and Don Covay as well as a series of albums paying tribute to the songwriting of such legends as Otis Blackwell, Curtis Mayfield and Van Morrison.
“In every interview that I do,” says Cropper, “I get asked, ‘Who were your influences when you were growing up?’ and the main guy has got to be Lowman Pauling. I’ve been saying that for years. Jon called me up and I guess he’d read my interviews and asked me if I would be interested in recording an album paying tribute to The “5” Royales. I shot back, ‘When do we start?’” To truly understand the magnitude of Pauling’s impact on Cropper, we need to time travel back to the 50s when he was a teenager, when he first heard The “5” Royales through his bass player friend “Duck” Dunn, who has been part of almost every band Cropper has played with since high school in Memphis. Cropper heard the great guitar licks of “Think” and immediately said he wanted to sound like that.
Just out of high school, Cropper and Dunn were playing a place called The Tropicana; The “5” Royales were going to play there in the big room upstairs known as The Beverly Ballroom. They weren’t 21 yet, but they sneaked in. Cropper was mesmerized at the way Pauling had this long strap hanging down by his knees. He played the cool, shuffling rhythm parts on the neck, and when he would solo he would reach down and pick his guitar up and the strap would fall to the floor, where he would cradle it and play his solo licks at the top. When Cropper got home that night, he searched his closet for a belt to make his strap longer—all in the service of emulating his new hero when he played guitar himself in the Mar-Keys. There’s a famous picture of Dunn and his long strap, taken during a Mar-Keys gig at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta. Cropper didn’t know it at the time, but The “5” Royales had just played there.
“I think it was Lowman’s licks and stance that were unforgettable to me,” he says. “He had a way of weaving his fills in when there was a hole in the melody and vocal, then he would get right back to the rhythm. Early on, I drew my rhythm influences from Bo Diddley, whose solo picking I loved, but Lowman did a lot of stuff that no one could really duplicate. As cool as it was to see the way he worked with the strap live, he was good to listen to on record too because of those amazing fills. As I began working as a session guitarist, I applied a cardinal rule that I learned from watching and listening to Lowman. You don’t step on top of the singer. You’re there to lend support until your time for a solo comes up.” Aside from giving Cropper an opportunity to work with a handful of artists for the first time—including LeVette (who once dated Pauling’s brother!), Sharon Jones and Lucinda Williams-- perhaps the most remarkable aspect of making Dedicated was the serendipitous, speedy and old school way it all came together.
Logistics for such a project can be a nightmare, and Cropper and Tiven’s original plan was to cut the main tracks in a few days and then overdub each vocalist one by one. But as Tiven says, “when the singers found out who the band was, wild horses couldn’t drag them away”—and most of the vocals were cut live with the band in a two day session at Better Songs & Gardens studios (run by Dan Penn, who also contributes his own vocals to “Someone Made You For Me”). But seriously who could resist a lineup that includes David Hood (bass), Spooner Oldham (piano/electric piano/organ), Steve Ferrone (drums), Steve Jordan (drums, percussion) and Neal Sugarman (from Sharon Jones’ band The Dap Kings) and Tiven himself on saxes? Those logistics, of course, necessitated that some of the vocals—including those of Sharon Jones, Lucinda Williams and Steve Winwood—and Brian May’s guitar on “I Do” were cut in outside locations or digitally transferred.
One of Cropper’s favorite “remote” sessions was “Baby Don’t Do It,” which B.B. King and Shemekia Copeland recorded at Digital Insight Studio in Las Vegas, where King lives. “Thanks to the great legacy of songs we were drawing from and the opportunity to work with so many great artists, everything about making Dedicated was a wonderful experience for me and Jon,” says Cropper. “But hands down, the most interesting and fun moment for us was being at the studio in Vegas with B.B. and Shemekia. It was just sheer joy just hanging out and watching him sit on the couch and play and sing. This was the last track we did, and metaphorically, I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter cherry on top.”
While Cropper played many of these “5” Royales songs back in the 50s, he says he had fun discovering the full extent of the group’s catalog and choosing the perfect lineup of songs for his band and guest artists to play. These include “Just As I Am” (Dylan LeBlanc); “The Slummer The Slum” (Buddy Miller); “Don’t Be Ashamed” (Bettye LaVette and Willie Jones); “Say It” (LeVette); “Right Around The Corner” (McClinton); “My Sugar Sugar” (John Popper); “Help Me Somebody” and “Think” (performed as an instrumental featuring Cropper); “Dedicated To The One I Love” (Steve Winwood and Lucinda Williams); “Messin’ Up” (Sharon Jones); and “Thirty Second Lover” (Winwood). As jazzed about making music now as he was as that kid in Memphis first listening to Lowman Pauling over half a century ago, Cropper perfectly captures the essence of Dedicated in the wonderful liner notes that accompany the recording:
“If I can educate these young ears as to where the music started, because they’re always asking, and if I can get them interested in The “5” Royales, I’ve done something. Lowman Pauling was a major influence on me, and I think what I got out of his playing was that as a one-man guitar he was able to play rhythm and then when it was acceptable, play fills or a solo. And I think that I carried that with me through my Stax days and most of the records I’m known for playing on, it’s that style of being one man on a session. His music is youthful, original, and full of spirit so that’s why I let his style influence me. It’s been the most fun I’ve had making a record in a long time.”
No Fairy Tale
Lisa Loeb’s highly anticipated return to the pop/rock world after years of recording popular albums of kids songs and camp songs may be called No Fairy Tale, but it has exciting glints of the musical fairy dust that trailed her charmed path in the mid-90s, when she emerged from the New York coffeehouse and club circuits with her trademark Grammy nominated hit “Stay (I Missed You)” from the soundtrack of “Reality Bites.” Still the only artist to ever have a number one Billboard pop single while not signed to a recording contract, the multi-talented singer/songwriter—co-producing with Chad Gilbert, guitarist and founding member of rockers New Found Glory—stirs up a raucous pop/punk rock vibe over the course of 12 tracks that’s coolly contemporary yet divinely 80’s-90’s retro.
Typical of Loeb’s penchant in recent years for working on an expansive array of recording projects beyond her roots, she was working on an album featuring jazz standards and originals with pianist Larry Goldings and a “sad, acoustic” record with singer Tom Monahan when Gilbert emailed her out of the blue with his idea for a collaborative project. Loeb and Gilbert first worked together when he asked her to sing on his band’s punky version of “Stay” on their film songs cover album From The Screen To Your Stereo Part II in 2007.
In 2009, Loeb joined New Found Glory onstage at the Nokia Theatre (now the Best Buy Center) in Times Square for a live performance of the song. In the interim, Gilbert had started producing other bands, receiving airplay for some mainstream groups while also delving more into the punk world. He had been on Loeb’s email blast list since their earlier collaboration and received an alert for a stop on her bookstore tour promoting Lisa Loeb’s Silly Sing-Along: The Disappointing Pancake and other Zany Songs book/CD project.
“I got the crazy idea to email her to say, ‘I know you do these kids books, but when are you going to let me produce a full-on modern indie pop/rock record for you. You haven’t done one in a while.” Loeb recalls that Gilbert’s email included the phrase “poppy-punky,” a concept she was immediately receptive to. He also felt that a recent influx of female fronted groups like Canadian duo Tegan and Sara—whom New Found Glory had toured with—made the time right for the singer to do an album that would, in his words, “make her sound like it was her first recording ever.” Gilbert adds, “Besides, she’s a character, and her voice has always been so cool and unique. There are a lot of great artists out there, but no one sounds like Lisa.”
Loeb says, “Chad thought I would be shocked by it, but it made sense when he mentioned Tegan and Sara, because I was very inspired by them and actually listened to their music while writing a lot of recent songs. It’s funny that Chad and I have always gotten along so well. He’s from a different generation, he’s tattooed up and I’m very petite, but we’re an unlikely pair that totally makes sense. He brought a whole new vibe to my music and it was great to work with many of the musicians he works with down in Orange County (California). My daughter Lyla was just a year old at the time, and the fast pace Chad works at was perfect for this time in my life, especially compared to the way I usually labor over every element. I didn’t want to spend six months working on the album. It was a challenge for me, but I worked well under his direction, doing my vocal takes quickly and with more energy than usual. His faster pace demanded that I sing live with the band in the studio, and it was a very liberating experience for me.”
While Loeb enjoyed deferring to Gilbert’s snappier production schedule, she’s no less an audiophile now than she was back in her earlier days as an emerging pop star. Sonically, her goal on No Fairy Tale was to somehow meld the “professional largeness” of the sound she had achieved in the past with the “not perfect but edgy” style she and Gilbert created. The tracks sat incomplete for a while while she sought out the perfect mixer—which she ultimately found in veteran mix engineer Brad Wood, whose credits include Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Pete Yorn. Though she had been concentrating more in recent years on children’s projects and other media endeavors, Loeb actually brought a cool arsenal of strong new material to her and Gilbert’s first get-togethers at her house—with him drumming his hands on his lap and visualizing how a full band might flesh the songs out.
Eight previously written Loeb tunes were ultimately chosen for No Fairy Tale. She penned the high energy power-pop title track opener, about the upside of imperfect love, with fellow singer-songwriter Maia Sharp. “Weak Day,” a heartfelt ballad about living through a tough emotional time, was originally written for a “sad acoustic” record Loeb was working on. “Sick Sick Sick” has a rollercoaster of rhythmic moodswings throughout that reflects the crazy and unpredictable dysfunction in an oddly co-dependent family. Taking a more optimistic tack, Loeb infuses a playful pop/rock energy into “Swept Away,” a story about a fallen star looking to escape after a downfall.
Her ultimate advice: it pays to keep trying. Loeb employs some talk-sing amidst her soaring harmony-laden vocals on “He Loved You So Much,” a song about just who is doing the breaking up. Loeb’s other songwriting collaborations include the explosive new wave scorcher “Matches” (with Morgan Taylor); the raw garage rocker “Married” (with Chuck Wolverton), about the foolishness of being the other woman to a broken man in a bad marriage; and the stripped down, folky sad song “Ami, I’m Sorry,” which she wrote with Marvin Ebioni. Loeb and Gilbert wrote another of No Fairy Tale’s key tracks, the 80s new wave pop flavored “Walls,” which Loeb says was like “channeling Patty Smyth and Molly Ringwald” at the same time.” In line with the stylistic influence of Tegan and Sara over the recording of the album,
Loeb for the first time ever includes songs fully penned by an outside writer on one of her solo recordings. Tegan and Sara Quin’s fiery rocker “A Hot Minute” (an emotionally charged “in love and stalking” song) and the encouraging closer “The Worst” (about the way the ugly trials we’ve been through can comfort us down the road) fit Loeb and Gilbert’s overall aesthetic perfectly. Both tracks feature Tegan on harmony.
“To be honest,” says Tegan, “I had no idea that Lisa would ever consider recording songs that anyone else had written. I was overjoyed, over the moon, ecstatic and crazed when I heard she was going to cut a few songs of mine. I grew up a huge fan and remain a huge fan of everything After meeting her I was an even bigger fan. She is so smart and confident. I was just so impressed by her work ethic, her presence and her ability as a writer and singer. I really related to a lot of her stories. It's not a stretch that something that happened to me could have happened to her. For me, it’s nice after 15 years, to feel a renewed joy and sense of adventure when it comes to writing.” No single track on No Fairy Tale captures the driving aesthetic of the album like “The 90s,” a raw, stomping, tongue in cheek blister-rocker (penned by Loeb and Gilbert) that includes direct references to making the video for “Stay”—including wanting to make her Betsey Johnson dress shorter and asking shoe designer John Sleubog to “make my platforms a little higher.”
Adding to the autobiographical flavor is Loeb’s declaration that “they say I’m folk but I like Bowie”—and that while those days were a blast, she doesn’t want to go back. “I’m usually more abstract as a songwriter,” she says, “but it was fun writing a story that was more direct and pretty literal about the time.” A lot of amazing things have happened in Loeb’s life professionally and personally since then, as she has successfully parlayed her talents into a powerful multi-media career that includes prominent work in film, television, voice-overs and children’s recordings. Her acclaimed studio recordings include her major label debut, the gold-selling Tails (1995) and its Grammy nominated, gold selling follow up Firecracker (1997).
In 2002, she distributed her album Cake and Pie through Interscope and later re-released it on Artemis Records with additional tracks as Hello Lisa, whose cover featured the singer in her trademark cat eye glasses appearing with Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty” character. In 2003, Loeb reunited with her college music partner Elizabeth Mitchell on the award-winning children’s CD and companion book Catch the Moon, then released another solo pop/rock album The Way It Really Is on Zoe/Rounder in 2004. In 2011, she continued further explored her passion for children’s music with her first children’s book (Lisa Loeb’s Silly Sing-Along: The Disappointing Pancake and Other Zany Songs) whose accompanying CD included four original silly songs and six all-time kids favorites. Just as three children’s videos from Catch The Moon (“Catch The Moon,” “Stop and Go,” “Jenny Jenkins”) were captivating the hearts of children around the world, the singer released The Very Best of Lisa Loeb. She later officially put out Purple Tape, an acoustic guitar and vocals album featuring performances from her early NYC days.
In 2008, Lisa also took her talents to the non-profit sector to launch The Camp Lisa Foundation, to help raise funds to send kids to camp. She enlisted her musician pals such as Kay Hanley, Jill Sobule, Nina Gordon and funnyman Steve Martin to record a companion CD, Camp Lisa, and released it via partnership with Barnes and Noble, with the proceeds all going to charity. The singer’s breakthrough in the acting world came in 1997 with cameos on the TV hits “The Nanny” and “Cupid”; she later appeared on “The Drew Carey Show,” “The Chris Isaak Show” and “Gossip Girl.” In 2004, she starred in the first of two television series “Dweezil and Lisa,” a weekly culinary adventure show for Food Network that included her then boyfriend Dweezil Zappa; the show found the two musicians touring the country, sampling unique and diverse dishes. Loeb’s second show, “Number 1 Single,” a reality series about her inspiring journey to find love, appeared on E! in 2006.
Her feature film credits range from her first starring role (with Oscar winning actor Geoffrey Rush) in “House on Haunted Hill” (1999) to a small role in the horror remake “Fright Night” (2011). Expanding to the realm of voiceover artistry came naturally, and Loeb has appeared in several animated TV shows and video games. In 2003, she gave voice to Spiderman’s gal pal Mary Jane on MTV’s animated “Spider-Man.” She later provided the voice of Milli the Microphone on the animated Disney show “Doc McStuffins” in 2011 and is currently the voice of Princess Winger on the Disney Junior show “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.”
For Lisa’s millions of fans worldwide, it was only a matter of time before she found a way to turn her trademark eyeglasses into an entrepreneurial endeavor. She is in the process of releasing a new eyewear line, in partnership with Classique Eyewear, called Lisa Loeb Eyewear. Each type of frame is named after one of her songs, and while most models are for women, there are also items for young girls and men. The mother of two, including infant son Emet, is currently working on her second children’s book, “Lisa Loeb’s Songs for Moving and Shaking,” due in April 2013.
“The funny part when I think about my life is that I always thought success meant singing the highest note, making the top grades in school and winning on every level,” she says. “But the older I get, I realize it’s more about simply enjoying my life while challenging myself with new creative endeavors all the time. A lot of the fun has come from learning to collaborate more than ever before, starting with the kids albums and continuing now by working with Chad and creating the unique vibe we have on No Fairy Tale. It’s very satisfying for me when I realize I have been writing and recording for over 20 years and the songs on this album are completely
different from any I’ve ever done. There’s always room to learn and grow.”
Steven Tyler may have called Colton Dixon’s elimination and 7th place finish “beyond shocking”--but true to the musical passion and deep faith that led the 21 year old singer/songwriter to American Idol’s coveted Hollywood week in both 2011 and 2012, Dixon saw the moment as a huge opportunity. While his fellow contestants battled it out for the Season 11 finals, he got right to work collaborating on 13 new songs in 13 days, the start of a songwriting process which ultimately netted him 22 potential tracks and led him to sign with 19/EMI-CMG/Sparrow Records. His highly anticipated debut album A Messenger, due January 29, 2013, features 11 powerful and infectious pop/rockers that showcase Dixon’s trademark balance of vocal tenderness and intensity, his energetic piano playing and, above all else, a sense of hope and inspiration even in the midst of life’s most challenging trials.
With the built in goodwill of millions of “Messengers” (his nickname for the fans he made during his Idol run) behind him, Dixon has been laying the foundation for months for an exciting breakthrough 2013 that will include the release of the full length album and a late winter/early spring East Coast/Southeast tour as a special guest with Grammy winning contemporary Christian rockers Third Day. While touring with his fellow Top 10 finalists on the 2012 American Idol U.S. summer tour, Dixon was one of only two (along with winner Phillip Phillips) who sang an original song during his three tune set. That song, the uplifting power ballad “Never Gone,” was heard by over 360,000 on the tour and was an immediate hit digital single, selling 21,000 units its first week and heading straight to #1 on the iTunes Christian & Gospel singles chart and Billboard’s Christian Digital Songs and Christian/Gospel Digital Songs charts. The instant success of this track put him in unique company: he and Jennifer Hudson are the only 7th place finalists in Idol history to reach #1 on a Billboard chart.
“You Are,” Dixon’s subsequent debut radio single—a fiery anthem declaring the infinite power of God in our lives--also hit #1 on those same charts and was selected as USA Today’s Song of the Week upon its digital release October 30. The unique timing of the song’s release--during the week Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast—gave special poignancy to its heartfelt lyrics: “When I can’t find the words/To say how much it hurts/You are the healing in my heart…You are the light that’s in the dark … And when my circumstance leaves me with empty hands / You are the provider of my needs…”
The healing power of these lyrics and the song “You Are” is one example of how Dixon embodies the collection’s title concept of A Messenger, which comes from a favorite scripture about a messenger never being greater than the one who sent him. The title also comes from the name of the Christian rock band the singer fronted for several years in his late teens in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In the years before Dixon went after his dreams on American Idol, Messenger led worship at Dixon’s current church (New Vision Baptist Church) while also performing original material doing various gigs around the Nashville area.
His musical journey started some years before this, when he started taking piano lessons at age seven.When he was 13, his piano teacher tapped him to play MercyMe’s classic “I Can Only Imagine” for a recital—and insisted he sing for the first time. His vocal performance moved his parents and those of other kids to tears—and prompted his pastor to give him words of encouragement that never left him and continue to inform him as an artist today. “Sometimes,” he was told, “God’s gifts come out of nowhere when that’s what you are called to do.” Fans who have watched Idol the past two seasons know that Dixon’s journey with the show began in the Summer of 2010, when he and his younger sister Schyler stood in line under the hot summer sun, warming up for their duet version of Daughtry’s “What About Now?” While he didn’t make it to the Top 24, he never lost his resolve, and continued working on songwriting and developing himself as a performer.
A year later, unbeknownst to him, he had been signed up for an audition with Schyler, whom he had accompanied to offer moral support. Judges Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson convinced him to sing for them. This time, they put both of the Dixons through to Hollywood. Dixon’s success on American Idol--and the recording of the new album--are the singer’s latest steps towards fulfilling this unexpected calling.
“Calling the album A Messenger was a good way for me to put things in perspective in terms of my personal faith,” he says, “to make sure people realize that while I am sharing honest emotions and experiences based on this, that I’m just playing the role of messenger and putting God first. The album moves along like a rollercoaster ride, and there aren’t two songs that sound alike, which is something I worked hard to achieve and am excited about. Working with my amazing team of writers and producers, I wanted to, track after track, share different experiences that I’ve gone through…the lows and the highs…wanting to shed some hope on people no matter what they’re going through. “We’ve all been deep in that valley, and I know what I’ve been through, Dixon adds. “Whenever I’m in those dark places, I feel that God has pulled me through, and I want to inspire others by telling them about my experiences. That’s the central message of A Messenger. Those who never saw me on Idol will get to know where my heart lies pretty fast when they listen. Musically, I also think that it’s important to present a vibe that has a unique and fresh energy and point of view. I grew up on contemporary Christian music and want to be respectful of that format, but I’m excited about the idea of bringing something new to the table.”
The platform of American Idol was instrumental in helping Dixon hook up with a solid veteran team of writers and producers who could take Dixon’s artistry to the next level and help him realize his vision for the project. Chief among these is Red Decibel, the team of Adam Watts, Andy Dodd and Gannin Arnold—whose goal with each artist is summed up in three words: INSPIRE. CREATE. REPEAT.
In addition to writing and producing on over 50 million albums sold worldwide, Red Decibel have had songs and productions in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 every year for the past eight years; their diverse list of credits include Kelly Clarkson, Jesse McCartney, Jeremy Camp and one of Dixon’s chief influences, Switchfoot. Among the tracks the trio worked on with Dixon are “Never Gone,” “Shape of Your Love” and “In and Out of Time”—a tune the singer says is about “wanting to make friends with what’s going on now, wanting to move on, but being held back by the past that’s haunting you.” Dixon’s other collaborators on A Messenger include mega-producer Busbee (Daughtry, P!nk, Switchfoot, Smash Mouth, Keith Urban), who co-wrote “You Are” (with Dixon and Dixon’s friend Jared Martin) and the dramatic, theatrical “Noise”; renowned Nashville based songwriter Zac Maloy (Daughtry, Plain White T’s, Carrie Underwood), who penned the power anthem “I’ll Be The Light” with Dixon; and Dave Bassett (Shinedown), co-writer of “This Is Who I Am.”
Dixon also wrote “Where My Heart Goes,” a scorching ballad about God being the rock he treasures when all else goes to pieces, with top gospel writer/producer David Garcia (whose credits include former Idol contestant Mandisa) and Ben Glover, named ASCAP’s Christian Songwriter of the Year for 2012. The stripped down, acoustic driven “Let Them See You” was written by Scotty Wilbanks, touring keyboardist with Third Day. Dixon, always pro-active about building his fan base, sent out a blast to his fans on Twitter and Facebook, asking a penetrating question whose responses inspired one of A Messenger’s most powerful songs, the haunting, hard hitting “Scars.” He simply asked them to send in stories about some of their more difficult life experiences and how their faith played a role in dealing with them.
“I was overwhelmed with the responses I received both via social media and email,” he says, “and the one central word that kept popping up was ‘scars.’ I was really blessed to grow up in a home with a wonderful family, and learning about what these people had been through to get where they are today made me very thankful, but it was also humbling. I told some of these tales I heard in abstract way through the song’s verses, while the chorus is my way of offering symbols of hope. Because I really do believe, like the song says, that today’s another day to learn from our mistakes. Our scars shed light on where we’ve been and remind us who we are no matter how far we’ve come. It’s all about redemption and realizing we’re not forsaken no matter how far we’ve fallen.”
While Dixon is unabashed in his desire to reflect his day to day faith walk in many of his songs, he really believes that some like “Scars” are tunes that everyone can relate to, no matter where they are in their lives, spiritually or otherwise. “I think the songs on A Messenger are songs that go beyond specific religious traditions and creeds, and reaching beyond the Christian genre is an important part of who I am as an artist,” he says. “I have a lot of passion for what I do, and I believe that people respond to artists who pour their hearts into every performance and connect with the songs they sing. For them to believe in what I’m singing, I have to believe it first. It’s all about being yourself, sharing your heart and being genuine. Those are the things that make a difference.”