Ready For "Change": Cindy Wilson Talks Upcoming Album, Stage Show, and New Collaborators
Ryan Monahan had no idea that taking a birthday party gig would change his musical life. Neither did the B-52's Cindy Wilson, who tapped the musician to help her create her first-ever solo release.
"Life is nutty," says Cindy Wilson, speaking from her home in Athens, Georgia, "so it's good to sing and have a good time." Wilson is chatting her new EP, Sunrise, which comes several months ahead of her first-ever solo album, Change, which will arrive in 2017.
Change itself is on the wind for Wilson: she's recently returned to living part-time in Athens, Georgia, the place where she was born and the place where she and her late brother, Ricky, launched The B-52s from 40 years ago. She spent more than a decade living in New York, then pulled up her stakes and relocated to Atlanta, close enough to her roots. But now, she says, with her children growing and some family members growing older, it's good to be back in the town that has given her lasting memories and friendships.
"There's still a huge artistic community here," she says, "maybe even more so than in the past. It's really inviting."
It was through that community that she found Ryan Monahan, one of the key collaborators on her new record. Monahan's music has appeared in television shows and film, in addition to the work he's done with a variety of bands including Easter Island and pacificUV. His friendship with Wilson began nearly a decade ago, not long after he'd come to Athens with the hope of launching his music career. He made a few tries at one idea or another, then formed a Beatles tribute act, Beatles For Sale. The group drew from the Fab Four's early discography, focusing on the years before John, Paul, George and Ringo gave up the road in favor of the studio. There was a MySpace page interested parties could use to book the band and so they weren't too surprised when they were contacted by a man named Keith who wanted to book the group for his son's birthday party.
"His son was turning 10 and he was really into The Beatles, going through a George Harrison phase," Monahan says. It wasn't long before they realized that Keith was Cindy Wilson's husband and that the birthday party was bound to be far from ordinary.
"It was, like, 'Oh! This isn't just a birthday party. This is like an audition!'" he says. "It's kind of like that cliché: Preparation meets luck. I had gone through music school and had been in several bands back in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. We had moderate success and did touring, so I'd always been active. When I moved to Athens, I was writing for Flagpole and was just some guy who played music. So, the birthday party was very lucky."
Wilson was impressed enough that she asked the group back to perform at her annual Halloween celebration. "Parties at her house are real events. People fly in from all over the place: there's artists, musicians, old friends from the early B-52s days," Monahan continues. "Cindy got up and did a song with us and it kind of blew people away."
Monahan and his bandmates were still in their early 20s and still fairly unknown, even in the small but tightly-knit circles of the Georgia music scene. There was, however, chemistry between them and their new friend and soon Wilson's pals were encouraging her to collaborate with the band. Before long the project was booking itself as Ola Moon, from a name Wilson had spotted on a headstone decades earlier.
"We mostly did covers," Monahan recalls. "We did a lot psychedelic stuff from the '60s; that's really what Cindy's into. It's funny, too, because we definitely take a more modern approach with the record but I really think that the psychedelic stuff trickled into our songwriting."
That songwriting, though, came late in the project, roughly eight years after Monahan and Wilson had met. "The intention was to write one or two songs and see how it went but things moved quickly from there," he says. "I was extremely flattered."
Wilson doesn't hold back in her praise for her musical partner. "He's amazing and, after having played with him for years, we decided, just for fun, to go into the studio," she says. The decided to work with Suny Lyons, whose engineering skills and musical knowledge would further shape the recording process and the project's overall direction.
"He has a very comfortable and unpretentious studio near Athens," Wilson offers. "He's a genius and works in a way that's just fun and easy. He had so many ideas that we just had to ask him to be part of the group."
Monahan adds, "He's ridiculously fast at editing. I've worked with so many different engineers in different studios. But he edits so fast that he literally has to replace his click wheel once or twice a year because it breaks. Because of how he works you can get creative ideas turned around pretty quickly, to a pretty developed level. It's not problematic for him to whip up a different presentation of a song. I think he's even said that he sees the computer as an extension of his brain, which I fully believe. Beyond the technical proficiency, he just brought a lot of great ideas to the table. He has a great ear for where a song can go. He was pretty instrumental in the overall vision and sound of the record, tying everything together."
Lyons also brought his own influences into the process, with Monahan citing My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. "If you listen to his other records," Monahan says, "his work with Dream Boat and pacificUV you'll hear this thread in all of those records. It's this ambient, ethereal, shoegaze kind of thing. I think that brand, which he does really well, worked for this record. He ties in the psychedelic pop thing that Cindy and I were doing but giving it this modern shoegaze-y edge."
For Wilson, having two solid collaborators was instrumental to the project's success. "It's kind of magic to me," she says, "to see what's inside their heads and what they think. It makes me more modern, working with them. I might have been stuck in some pattern that I'd been doing years ago. This gets me out of myself, which is fantastic."
Striking the right balance between new and old influences was, Wilson says, something that the collaborators spent a good deal of time working out. She points to the track "Sunrise" as an example of the confluence. "I got to bring in this more soft, kind of soul thing," she says, "it's very, very delicate."
The EP features five songs, three of them covers, including "Brother" by the long-defunct Athens band Oh-OK. Formed in the early 1980s, the group brought together Lynda Stipe (sister of R.E.M.'s Michael) and Linda Hopper (later of Magnapop). Mathew Sweet would also spend time with the outfit. Wilson had known and loved the tune "Brother" and performed it at a special concert that found a number of Georgia musicians paying tribute to music they loved best from the state. "I could do anything I wanted, so I sang that and people really loved it and wanted to hear more of it, so it had to go on the record," she says.
"Take My Time", originally recorded by the Danish pop act Junior Senior also impresses and was one of the first pieces tracked during the sessions. "We wanted to have something that you could groove to and you could hear it in, I hate to say disco, but a place like that," she offers. "It's got a great energy."
In addition to the album, Wilson has also put together a multimedia show titled Change. Monahan says that from the start the band wanted to avoid standard music venues. "I think we had talked about taking it into art museums, just something so that we didn't do the normal tour of mid-sized rooms, the kind of thing people usually expect," he says.
Rather than simply performing the songs in a traditional concert setting, Wilson wanted to take the music to unexpected places. "I think we had talked about art museums," Monahan says. "We didn't want to do the normal mid-sized rooms, the kind of thing people would expect."
Titling the show Change, performances offer fans a full multimedia experience and allows Wilson the chance to stretch both musically and emotionally.
"It's very different from a B-52's show," she offers. "I get to play around with different ideas and beautiful melodies. I don't have to yell in a rock voice. I think you can get an emotional depth in the types of rooms we're playing that you can't find in larger rooms."
The visuals include some of the final works by late Athens artist Jeremy Ayers, who had written lyrics for REM and The B-52's. He was also an integral member of the New York art scene and deeply beloved in his hometown. "He took a lot of the photos associated with this project," she says. "I'm very proud that we got to have him do us as one of his last projects. He was a dear friend."
There is something that the new material does have in common with the music of The B-52s (besides Wilson's voice): there is an undeniable sense of adventure. That eclectic nature, the singer says, was integral to the success of her first band. One wouldn't necessarily call The B-52s avant garde but you got the sense that the members were aware of it; you wouldn't necessarily call the music disco but could hear flecks of it at the corners right beside surf music and an affinity for the songs of the past.
"We were an American band," Wilson says. "We were just having fun with all the different kinds of music. To tell you the truth, we were entertaining ourselves and our friends. We had no idea that it would be popular."
When her brother, Ricky Wilson, one of the group's driving creative forces, died in 1985, the band's greatest success still lay ahead. She, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider returned to the studio to make Cosmic Thing, which would feature the hits "Roam", "Love Shack", and "Deadbeat Club". "Ricky was in the room with us, in a way, when we were writing that. It was a way for us to get together and be nostalgic and healing. It's amazing to me, to this day, how successful that record was."
She adds that music has been a consistent source of healing in her life and, looking back on her decades in the industry, says that there have ultimately been more good times than bad ones. "It's incredible to have people come up to you and tell you that you changed their life when their life was really, really dark. That you brought some light in. You also learn that it's OK to be a weirdo and not follow the rules," she says. "This new record has been great for me too. If something's upsetting me, being able to go in and work on new music makes all the difference in the world."