Music

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers Examine Life's Endless Hustle With "Mess I'm In" (premiere + interview)

Photo: Greg Allen / Conqueroo

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers return with an inspired collection of covers and originals that play to the group's strengths and will leave even longtime fans stunned. Says Abair of the inspiration behind her latest single, "I love my life but I know it looks crazy from the outside."

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers will issue their third studio album, No Good Deed, on 28 June via Pretty Good for a Girl Records. Saxophonist/vocalist Abair is comfortable in a number of styles, as evidenced by her previous body of work, including turns with both Duran Duran and Aerosmith. She brings that sense of musical diversity to this new album. In addition to a series of originals, she and her bandmates (Randy Jacobs, guitar and vocals; Rodney Lee, keys); Ben White, bass, vocals; Third Richardson, drums, vocals) offer their renditions of songs from the Young Rascals ("You Better Run"), Ike and Tina Turner ("Baby Get It On"), and Etta James ("Seven Day Fool").

The LP, which was produced by Kevin Shirley (Rush, Aerosmith, Joe Bonamassa), was tracked in less than a week. "We're a live band," Abair notes. "We're out on the road all year. I'll get in a mood to write, and I'll tack on days in a city: If we're in Atlanta, I'll stay and write with friends there. If we're in Nashville, I'll stay and write with people I love there. I'll start that season of writing. When I feel like we've got enough material between all of us and some ideas for covers, we get together and go through everything."

She adds, "We had over 40 songs. I think we were overachievers on this one! You see immediately, when you bring a song to the band what gels, what feels right, what takes on a life of its own like it's supposed to and what falls flat. It's all about finding that material that we all feel ownership of and that we all feel we bond with."

One of those post-gig stays resulted in the newest single from Abair and the Boneshakers, "Mess I'm In". With an unstoppable groove that spotlight's the rhythm section's sheer might and a vocal performance which highlight's Abair's versatility and ability to sound at once like a hard rockin' pop sensation and a blues giant, the song seems poised to become a new favorite among the faithful as well as an excellent introduction to newcomers.

"I stuck around in Nashville after a gig and wrote with my friend James House," Abair recalls of the tune's origins. "He's an incredible songwriter, lives out in the woods in a log cabin. Literally, I was out in the middle of nowhere, in a log cabin. Nothing to do but write songs. That doesn't happen every day for me. It was a really nice chance to be and think about songs and come up with ideas. He started playing this riff, and I started singing along."

She adds, "We came up with 'Mess I'm In' together. It's a song about your own life, how it can be crazy. I'm an artist but I have friends who have 'normal' jobs, and their lives seem out of control. It's nuts. We've got five million emails to go through, and my friends' kids are running in 15 different directions. I've got a band. That's a circus of its own. It looks like a mess. But it's my mess, and I love it. I love my life but I know it looks crazy from the outside. I'm singing about the mess I'm in!"

Abair recently spoke with PopMatters about No Good Deed, working with Kevin Shirley and the reason she doesn't take more saxophone solos.

* * *

Was there a song that showed you the way for the rest of the record? How it would all develop?

This record was a deep record for us. We really let ourselves expand. We brought in a lot of our past and our personalities with us. Whereas our last studio record was really down the middle, blues rock, this one got us into some variations. There's a song ["Bad News"] that would be considered very traditional jazz. Very torchy, slow. You can feel yourself in an old jazz club. But we also covered The Young Rascals ["You Better Run"].

But it's funny, the one that we named the album after, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished," that kind of stayed as our true north. That was a song that we kept coming back to what we loved playing. It seemed to really speak to and represent the spirit of the band.

You worked with Kevin Shirley as producer again, a guy who is incredibly eclectic in the projects he's chosen.

There are producers who go in and make bands sound like whatever the producer's known for. Kevin really brings out the best in every band that he works with. That's what I love about working with him. His musical background is, as you said, scary diverse. [Laughs.] You look at what he's done and say, "How did you manage that?" But every one of those records has a feel and a tone and personality. But it's completely the band that comes out.

When I first started working with him, I got an email from Billie Perry, Joe Perry's wife, that read, "I see you're working with Kevin Shirley. We really loved him. He brought out the best in the guys." [Shirley co-produced Aerosmith's Nine Lives with the band.]

Aww.

It's one thing for the guys to say it but their wives to say it? That's love. [Laughs.]

Oh yeah.

I think [Kevin] brings out the best in the band. He's very musical and stays out of most of what we create. He lets us have our sheer abandon and play. He lets us do what we do but then will come in, change one thing and make it 100 times better. There are intangibles to what he does. He just makes it better. All of our backgrounds are incredibly diverse too. I've toured with everyone from Aerosmith to Duran Duran and played on American Idol for a couple of years. Randy [Jacobs, guitar/vocals] is a founding member of Was (Not Was) and played with Bonnie Raitt for years. We understand diversity and odd resumes. So, with Kevin, I think we found each other and vibed.

You mentioned that you spend a lot of time touring, that you're primarily a live entity. Do you feel like that helps you once you go into the studio? That you get the right takes faster?

I love going into the studio with this band because we have such a bond from playing live together so much. There's an unspoken language. I can look over at Randy, and he knows what I'm thinking just by the look. I can sniff over my shoulder and Rodney Lee, our keyboard player, knows exactly what to do. I love that.

We all know our place. We know how to complete each other musically. That makes it fun. It only takes a couple of takes in the studio to get what we need. We're not the band that beats it to death. We're not in there getting snare sounds for 10 hours. We go in, play a song down a few times and after that we're thinking about it too much.

Your name is out front but, hearing you talk, you use a lot of "we" statements, as though there's no separation from you and the other members. It sounds like you're all in it together.

We are all in it together. We've all done this a long time. I think it adds to our sound. It adds to what we can accomplish. It adds to the longevity. This isn't just something that was thrown together or that some manager put together.

Randy Jacobs and I have played together off and on for over 20 years. There's just this incredible respect for each other. We were in this rock band together and, one night, literally mid-guitar solo, he did a backflip into the audience.

[Laughs.]

He kept playing, kept rolling. The audience went crazy. People went nuts. That was the start of my friendship with him. He started his band, The Boneshakers, right after that. I was a big fan. Cut to many, many years later: Half of my band was playing with him, he was playing in my band. I sat in with them one night because we were on the same bill at a big festival. It was just electric. That's what music is supposed to be. You're supposed to stand up there and feel like you're taking over the world with friends.

Randy and I looked at each other afterward and went, "You know what? Maybe we do this every night? Maybe we join forces. We've got the family here. We love making music together." So that's what we did.

Tell me a little bit about how you go about selecting covers. Your choices are somewhat unexpected.

We choose things that move us. It could be jazzy. It could be punk rock. It could be R&B. We literally said to each other, "We should do a couple of covers. We never do covers. What do you got?" We think it's cool when a song hasn't been done a million times.

Kevin Shirley came up with "Seven Day Fool". He was in some underground club, like a speakeasy, where you have to know someone to get in. He was sitting at the bar, drinking, and that song came on. He thought, "Whoa, what's this?" He called me straight away and said, "I'm listening to this song, and I think you guys should do it. You'd add this whole muscle to it." So, we did an Etta James song. I'd never heard the song before that.

With the Rascals song, we thought it was this very cool guitar riff, sheer abandon, mojo from this early punk band. It was just fun. Tina Turner has always been an idol of mine. I always wanted to sing like her, which I can't. But I can play sax like Tina Turner sings. You find your way. That was one of my earliest influences. I found this track ["Baby Get It On"] that was all attitude, all day long. I showed it to Randy, and he was, like, "Oh yeah." We just started recording something on our iPhones.

It's just about finding songs that move us that don't feel are overdone.

It's interesting that you mention Tina Turner being an influence on your sax playing. I hear so many guitar players who take inspiration from John Coltrane for instance. Do you take a lot of inspiration from other instruments?

Absolutely. I grew up listening to my father first. He was in a blue-eyed soul band. They were high-energy, so much fun to watch. That band broke up, and he started putting together rock bands. I thought that's where it was at. Then I grew up an MTV kid. I would sit for hours glued to MTV. There weren't a lot of sax players on MTV! I didn't know what jazz was.

I was watching Tina Turner, going, "I wanna be that!" Or the girls from Heart. [Then] Clarence Clemmons. I saw him and said, "Yeah, that's a sax player!" I found my role models were different from [the ones] almost everyone I went to college with [had]. [Laughs.] When I got to college, everyone said, "What kind of jazz do you play?" "I don't know. I don't really play jazz. You wanna tell me something, I'll tell you if I like it?" That was my first experience with jazz, and I loved it.

You seem to be careful about the sax's place in your songs.

No gratuitous sax solos! [Laughs.] If the song doesn't sound like it should have a saxophone, then it shouldn't have a saxophone. Just because I play saxophone doesn't mean it has to be everywhere. That's just dorky. We always try to feel it out as a band. "What feels right? What's the right thing to do here?" We put the sax where it can add rather than everywhere. No one wants that.

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