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Donna Lewis: Brand New Day

Ben Scholz By

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I spent years in bands, doing my thing, and learning my craft. So, by the time I got my record deal, I really knew how my song writing and voice should sound. —Donna Lewis
Pop culture's love-hate relationship with its artists presents an interesting conundrum. Music created for mass-consumption must be easily digestible, yet the public is quick to retaliate against content that lacks substance. Gifted musicians are often pigeonholed into a certain style or sound that may not reflect their true range. This myopic point of view focuses on one marketable facet of an artist's talent without taking into account the fact that most recording musicians tend to compose in a variety of styles and genres.

Born in Cardiff, Wales, Donna Lewis grew up in a family of musicians. After years of unsuccessful pitches to record labels, she caught the attention of Atlantic Records in 1994 and released her debut album Now In A Minute. The album and accompanying single "I Love You Always Forever" went on to become major hits on both the US and global charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album certifying platinum.

In the 20 years since her smash hit, Donna Lewis has maintained a steady career as a recording artist and composer. Now, accompanied by longtime producer David Torn, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, Donna is set to release her first album in nearly decade. Light years away from her commercial radio hits of the 90's, Donna Lewis' latest release Brand New Day re-imagines work by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Neil Young, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Gnarls Barkley. We spoke with Donna about her artistic influences, her history as a recording musician, and the demands placed on young artists by the popular music industry.

All About Jazz: This album seems such a break from your other work, but it's very much within the canon of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King. Obviously, you chose to record with that band because of their collective sound—or am I missing something here? What's your history with these guys?

Donna Lewis: I spent some time working with David Torn years ago on a project called Chute. At the time, he said "You know I can hear you in a really stripped down setting, like bass, piano drums...it would be so cool." However, I didn't want to do a covers record where people would say "oh here's Donna doing what everybody else does." At some point in their career everyone does a standards record. (laughs) I had met Dave King—he was playing with David Torn a couple of years ago at the Bearsville Theatre. Dave told me he had heard work I had done with David Torn, and loved it. At that point we started talking about how it would be great to do something together.

So, in talking about prospective musicians, David Torn said, "You know, we've got to get guys who view pop and songwriting with a jazz perspective, what about these three guys—Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King?" It would be great to get these guys because they play together all the time." So, we carefully looked at the songs we were going to record, and David knew all of them, so it was he who really decided on that.

It was a complete change. I was a little bit wary because when we went into the studio we had to cut this record more or less live. Here I am, completely out of my comfort zone, with these three brilliant jazz musicians, and I'm thinking "Oh my God, I hope I can do this." It was an amazing experience, and I'm very proud of it.

AAJ: One thing Dave King often talks about are his non-musical influences such as comedy, and visual art. I'm sure you had ample opportunity in the studio to chat with him about this unique perspective on music and composition, am I right?

DL: Yes, he's a one of a kind, I have to say!

AAJ: Do you find inspiration from non-musical forms of artistic expression?

DL: Lots of different things inspire me. I've been composing for a contemporary ballet, and this has been a very different experience for me. But Dave, yeah, he's an interesting character. He's a genius with his playing, and a great guy to hang out with as well. Photography has been a source of artistic inspiration for me as well.

AAJ: What did you take away from the time you spent working with the rest of the band?

DL: Working with the band gave me the freedom to experiment. Coming from the pop world where everything had to be so perfect—lots of layering up, that kind of production —being in a room with these musicians who would take songs down a different road was liberating. The thing that I took away from the experience was the freedom to try anything that came off the top of my head. The best thing to do was not to think too much, just go with the flow. Those guys really forced me to do that. To just be free.

AAJ: Before you had your big break, what sort of art were you creating?

DL: I was doing the kinds of things that a lot of artists do. I was trying to get the songs I had written, recorded. My job playing at at piano bars in Europe required me to do my usual piano bar thing. However, I was also able to perform some of my original songs. Basically, I was just writing and recording at home, and sending off my demos. I came to Woodstock very briefly to visit a friend of mine who had started working with Jerry Marotta. Robbie Dupree heard my demo and helped get it into the hands of people at Atlantic Records, and that started the whole thing. Before that I was just a normal, struggling musician who did any gig I could get (laughs). In the meantime, I would just write, write and write.

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