Erin Dickins: In Her Own Voice

Chris M. Slawecki By

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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.

AAJ: Who is in your current band? How did you meet and how long have you been performing with Rob Mounsey, for example?

ED: I have two words for you: Face Book. Rob is an old friend of mine. I worked with him in studios in the 1970s. He was the hot young arranger, so we've known each other for years. We reconnected on Facebook. After I decided that I wanted to record, I wasn't really making progress locally, so I made some ridiculous comment to him on Facebook and then said, "Why don't you play on my new CD?" He messaged me right away, "I would love to. Who do you want to work with? Why don't you come up and we'll put it together? We'll do it." What a gentleman he is, and a singer's dream. There are so few pianists with such great talent, who listen so perfectly and become one with you so quickly. He's extraordinary.

Rob's suggestions for my rhythm section were spot on. Of course, I knew of David Finck, who's played with just about everybody—crazy good. I did not know Ray Marchica, who is now my favorite drummer. He is right up there with Chris Parker. Ray is just made for me. And I had a great surprise: We did a couple of dates with a bassist who I did not know, François Moutin. He is fantastic, so melodic. That boy can swing.

I first decided to make a CD because my great friend and producer Jesse Frederick had moved home to the East Coast and had a wonderful studio. I said that I kind of feel like recording, and he said, "Come on over—I'll produce it," which was a great gift to me. So we tracked and sweetened with Rob in New York—and also Nick Vincent in LA—and cut vocals and mixed at Jesse's studio.

AAJ: How satisfying has it been to release your solo debut about forty years after your first recording experience?

ED: When you say "forty years," I kind of think that maybe you're talking about my parents or something. It's so surreal that I almost don't even connect with it. An old friend, the great drummer Ed Shockley, used to call me "everybody's everything" because that is what is required of a studio singer. Being whatever personality that they were looking for that day. So I spent many years really not expressing my musical voice—not knowing what that voice was, but knowing that I had one, from all the things I had learned from Leonard. So "satisfied" maybe isn't quite the word—maybe "relieved," maybe "grateful," to be expressing "me."

Jesse has known me since we were teenagers, has sung with me, and knows my voice inside and out. He didn't let me do a lot of takes. He wanted me—he didn't want "studio me." He wanted honesty. The feeling of connecting with my authentic self, and then listening to the playback and saying, "Wow, that's what this sounds like," was very cool.

AAJ: Nice Girls runs a nice maturation of emotions, beginning with the doe-eyed naiveté of "I Just Found Out About Love" but moving through some pretty mature themes and moments, such as "Long Ago And Far Away." Did the songs suggest kind of a theme when you looked them over in total or programmed them in order?

ED: I did the sequencing and I think I did have in the back of my mind going down a path. I didn't see that the dots necessarily connected directly to each other, but I didn't want to get into the heavier stuff until later on, that's for sure.

More than anything, I choose songs that choose me. We demoed about thirty songs, all of them great. There are a zillion great songs. But I'm not a standards singer. I'm not only a jazz singer. I like a lot of genres. What is consistent in my song choices is that the lyric has to move me profoundly, and I really am a sucker for a great feel, especially a great swing feel. So these were the twelve that I fell in love with. I've felt all those feelings and I am all those girls when I'm singing those feelings. So it's consistent for me, and it reminds me of Jukin' in that it's a little bit eclectic musically. It's got pop feels, some more obscure older tunes; it's not just straight jazz standards. That's about as much of a theme as I had in mind.

AAJ: "Long Ago and Far Away" is just so beautifully, almost timelessly, sad. Could you explain a little bit about recording this tune?

ED: It took me weeks before I could sing all the way through that song without crying. Lyrics make me cry often and I had to practice and practice that song in order to make it through. It almost didn't make the CD. It's an original composition by Jesse and he thought that it was too sad. "We've got a good groove going here, everybody's feeling the love," he said, "and now you're going to bring them down." But I don't think it's sad. The reason it makes me cry is because I see my own past in that lyric. I feel as if I was that person. I feel that regret for not being kinder. I feel like I hope that I have achieved some of the growth that Jesse has, as he was writing about his own youth.

When we're young, we have a lot to learn about grace. You see kids being cruel. You see teenagers being cruel. You see twenty-somethings so full of themselves and not really knowing what's going on around them and how they're hurting other people. I don't think the song is sad because such great hope is expressed in the fact that Jesse got it—he made the change. He learned to cry and feel, and that kind of gives you hope that the rest of us can make changes. I find it to be a look at the past with great hope for the future. And some regret. And some melancholy.
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