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Erin Dickins: In Her Own Voice

By Published: December 20, 2011
AAJ: Part of the reason for asking is because that album was sort of the beginning of the end of that band. Did any of that tension or hostility meet you in the studio?

ED: Not one bit. They were extraordinarily professional. Tina (Weymouth) was producing that particular session.

AAJ: Do you remember what songs you appear on?

ED: I was on "Stay Up Late" and I think I'm on "Television Man"—you know, I've listened to the album so much that I now no longer remember. They did two sessions with professional, New York background singers, and the one that you can really hear my voice on is "Road to Nowhere." The beginning, in the top part: "Well, we know where we're going...." You can hear my voice so clearly on that, and I love that, as does my husband Tony, who plays it for everybody. Tina knew exactly what she wanted, and it made it a very tension-free session, but David was not in the studio. Maybe that's why it was tension-free. I equate working with her like an actor working with a great director: It makes your job very easy. I remember, in between takes on the first date we did, we were discussing (singer) Ellen Bernstein's balsamic vinegar, raspberry, and walnut oil salad dressing. No one was going, "Oh, my God! We're singing for Talking Heads!" That happened about ten years later.

James Brown was very different. James was someone with whom I simply worked on a session. It was later in his career and I think he'd gone through a couple of arrests and he was certainly a little worse for the wear. Not vocally, but he almost seemed kind of absent emotionally. I felt no connection with him. He was blank. He wasn't reachable. I don't know why that was. He was very happy with the background vocals, so I don't think it was anything like that. He used them; damned if I can remember which album it was.

I was the vocal contractor. I hired a good friend of mine, Gail Kantor, a fantastic singer—kinda straight, a little more cabaret, not so much an R&B singer but so good that she's an asset on any session. I also had been working with Janis Ian, who was a friend. We had done stuff on a project of hers when she said that she wished she was doing more studio work but no one ever called her because they thought she wouldn't do it. So I called Janis Ian. It was kind of an odd bunch, really, to do a James Brown thing, but she was fantastic. As I recall, she sang the bottom part and she was earthy and funky. She's such a good musician that I wasn't worried about her molting into whatever was called for.

Like most of these sessions, it was a one off: You went in, you met James, you worked up an arrangement for him, you sang it, and you went home. Sometimes people will say to me that they loved me on this, that, or the other, and I have no recollection of doing it. Which proves that I really was around in the seventies, right?

AAJ: And the poet laureate of Canada, Leonard Cohen?

ED: Leonard is extraordinary. I don't think you could even begin to touch who he is; he's so complicated and powerful. I toured with him extensively, in the States and in Europe. I had the great pleasure of doing the backgrounds for New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974). That was produced by John Lissauer, who was also musical director for our tours and wrote the arrangements. He did another record for Leonard that I also sang on; I forget the name of it but it had "Hallelujah" on it, which was amazing, too [Various Positions (Columbia, 1985)].

Leonard is dark, and he can appear sinister, but he plays like a child. He never discusses his artistry. He's a great theorist. He likes to explore thought. And he's so commanding onstage. I remember in Berlin, girls were screaming like it was a Beatles concert, throwing flowers at his feet, and he was so composed and gracious, such the elder statesman. He was forty at the time, which is not so "elder," but he was like a grandfather figure. He's got such an old soul and I think he is almost amused by the darkness he has.

But he also is hilariously funny, in completely unexpected ways. He would do stunts on airplanes that today would get us thrown into jail. Onstage, we would do a set, then take a short break, then he would come back out and do three or four solo songs, which were usually pretty poignant and heavy—"Famous Blue Raincoat" and stuff like that—and then the band would come back out. One time, he insisted that, when we came back out after his solo set, we all crawl back out. We thought it was pretty funny. The audience was baffled.

Another time onstage in Barcelona, he held a bunch of hotel keys in his hand as he began to introduce the band. He'd say we're all staying at such and such a hotel, and this is Johnny Miller on bass and that Johnny Miller is in room 358, and then chuck the hotel key into the audience. We didn't know that they weren't really our keys, but imagine being a twenty year-old girl singer at that moment.

Leonard probably played the biggest role in shaping me as an artist. He taught me about authenticity. He taught me the difference between being a singer and being an artist, and caring about art, caring about authenticity in your voice, and caring about being real, and valuing and honoring that by not selling yourself short. He is a huge mentor to me. Not that he ever said a word about it.

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Download jazz mp3 “I Just Found Out About Love” by Erin Dickins