Erika Luckett

Unexpected you are...

M5: Erika, let's just sketch your life in a nutshell here: you were born in Mexico, raised in Venezuela and Brazil, then off to Paris in France... You went back to the American continent to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and earn a degree in film scoring, you worked in this area for a couple of years... Then in 1990 you founded a world jazz ensemble named Wild Mango with whom you recorded three albums... And then at some point you decided to go off on your own again and make a definite mark in the singer-songwriter world... Recently your 4th album "Unexpected" was released, 5 years after your solo debut album "Tinted Glass"... Do you feel you've found a steady path to travel now or can we continue to expect the unexpected with Erika Luckett?

EL: Whew... you fit a lot into that nutshell, Gina! As for the "Unexpected" path, yes... I would say that the one thing you can count on is change. I like to stretch and grow, discover and uncover. Repeating the familiar is not nearly as interesting to me as exploring new terrain. By stepping onto new ground, I get the opportunity to learn more about the world and more about myself as a human being and as an artist.

M5: Your early years, the Latin influences... Or any musical influences for that matter... What music did you grow up with and what's the story behind you playing the guitar and writing songs... Did you take lessons or learn yourself or...?

EL: I first fell in love with the guitar when I was about five or six. My mother played and sang Mexican rancheras and boleros. I would sit next to her and get lost in the sound. When she finished playing, I would lay her guitar flat on the floor and pluck out melodies on the open strings. By the time I was eight, we were living in Brazil and I got my first guitar... a beautiful rosewood DiGiorgio. Nothing fancy, but a perfect round and responsive instrument that I could dig into. The first song I learned was "The One Note Samba" by Tom Jobim. Bossa Nova figured prominently in my early guitar forays.

Influences? That's a tricky one... besides the broad range of music that flowed from the radio and stereo (everything from Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nacimento, Soledad Bravo, Piazzola and Debussy, to Carol King, Willy Nelson, Steely Dan, James Taylor and Ella Fitzgerald) there were also the inherent rhythms of the streets, the conversations on the corner, the lime and chile powder on ripe mangos and cucumbers. My influences are multi-sensory: it's not just what I've heard, but what I've felt; the things I've witnessed, the flavors I've tasted, the experiences that have filtered into my heart.

When I was at Berklee I studied orchestration and film scoring. I didn't play much guitar or sing, for that matter. I spent most of my time writing and arranging. Usually my fingers were covered with ink stains from writing out charts for the various pieces I was working on. After leaving Berklee and working on a few different films and musicals, I realized that I missed the human connection that live performance offers. In the early 90's I started Wild Mango and had the opportunity to perform and begin to deepen in my expression as a guitarist and vocalist as well as a composer and songwriter.
The biggest shift, however, occurred when I left Wild Mango in 1999 and set out as a solo artist. I no longer had the comfortable support of six other musicians on stage so I began to explore the guitar from a whole new angle. I missed the bass and percussion, the background lines that the horns provided. Approaching the guitar as a self contained ensemble, I started using a two hand tapping technique to elicit as big a sound as I could.

M5: I'm curious about you studying in the direction of film scoring. What made you decide for this particular angle of composing? Do you still write scores?

EL: Focusing on film scoring came partly from interest and partly from practicality. The practical part was simply that I didn't want to graduate with a degree that didn't offer me any marketable skills. Choosing to graduate with a degree in music is very different from graduating with a degree in business. This way I could learn orchestration and composition with the added skill of knowing how to wed it specifically to an image, a scene or a story. I felt like I would have a greater likelihood of working as a composer if I knew how to write for film. The interesting part of film scoring was learning how to write music to support emotional communication. Visual information gets filtered most immediately by the brain. Music cuts straight to the heart and communicates emotionally. Learning to write music that would consciously communicate emotion was very valuable.
I had the good fortune of connecting with a brilliant director/producer in the Bay area named Dorothy Fadiman. I worked on five different films with her and they garnered a slew of awards including an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy. The last one we did together was a couple of years ago called "Woman to Woman" about village based health care in India.

M5: Has your future always been clear to you, like did you know at an early age you wanted to work with music professionally or was it something that started out as a hobby and gradually took over?

EL: No. When I was young, it seemed like writing songs, performing and traveling around the world as a musician was too much to ask for... like my dream was too big and somehow it was selfish of me to expect to be able to live it. After graduating from high school, I initially set out to study international law, thinking that somehow, that path would be more valuable or worthy. After two years and a lot of emotional struggle, I decided to try and follow my passion and see if I could make a career out of music. Later I realized that my greatest power was rooted in my deepest joy; that only by cultivating my talents, my vision and my authentic voice, I could truly offer something of value to those around me. I feel like I've been spiraling towards an ever clearer picture of what I am here to do, to create.

M5: The songs and mood on "The New Orleans Sessions" differ quite a lot from what the listener's exposed to on "Unexpected". From acoustic intimate and melancholy "songtelling" to a picture book of sometimes raw and passionate chants, combining styles such as rock/folk/pop/funk/jazz and not to forget your multi-linguistic skills, which make for a rare but beautiful "pastiche", as if each language seems to bring out an individual color in your voice and presentation... There's one thing though that connects these two completely different albums. Passion. Do you feel things would have been different if you'd grown up in a less warm-passionate, "normal" western culture, or is it simply part of you, who you are, no matter where you grew up?

EL: Passion... interesting that you found that to be the connective tissue weaving through all the songs. Passion to me is all about life force, the central breath of our humanness, the fire that breathes life into our experience. Whether it's the feeling of an early morning mist lifting off a quiet meadow or the howling ache of a broken heart, there's an ever present pulse of life. That's what I find compelling. No matter what our cultural background, what country we live in, what language we speak, as human beings we have all experienced joy, sorrow, hope, inspiration... My intention is to communicate the universality of the human experience by reflecting that life force, that passion, that thread of inspiration through music, regardless of the style or language. I think that because I grew up in so many different countries, in so many different environments - from huge cosmopolitan cities to small, dusty towns, I was given the opportunity to experience the unwavering core of our humanity. Variety, difference, stylistic range is an inherent part of nature. I guess it's just part of my nature to bring in a variety of styles while nurturing the vibrant, passionate core.

M5: One of my fav tracks from "New Orleans Sessions" is the song "Recognized", you call this "Folk Noir"... Care to elaborate on what triggered you to write this song?

EL: "Recognized" was born as a commentary on the capricious and peculiar nature of celebrity. We can be so seduced by celebrity. Those fifteen minutes of fame loom around every corner. What was intriguing to me was to consider the rich ground that is so often lost beneath the thin veneer and desire of being "recognized".

M5: And it's a real tough call, but "Deixa" on "Unexpected" is a song that keeps lingering, it brings forth so much warmth, and ease, a tropical breeze and very fine arrangements. I also feel having strings certainly add to the essence of your songs. There's another singer-songwriter, John Goodwin (Nashville) who also tells stories when singing, he has strings accompany him when doing so. To have a violin or cello involved can be such a significant detail in the ultimate mood of a composition, right? If you compose, do you have instruments in mind or is this like the blanks you fill in later, how do you work with this... What's first, the music or the lyrics or depending on?

EL: I like to think that the feeling comes first and from that emotional well, the melody and lyrics spring forth. I've found that the most powerful songs are the ones that usually come fully formed, melody and lyrics stepping out together. However, any and every possible variation on that theme also happens. Sometimes a few lines will come to me first; other times it's the groove that sets up a song; and then again, sometimes it might just be a melody that comes through and from that melody the rest of the song is formed.
Once the song is established - the basic frame of it: the melody and lyrics, then I begin working on the orchestration and arrangement. Initially, that tends to be solely on the guitar. Once I begin preparing for the studio, then the arranging and producing process begins to take place. I love that part! It's like taking pen and ink sketches and getting to color them in, bringing dimensionality to the initial expression. On my last album, "Unexpected" I spent a month or so with Jeffrey Wood in pre-production, laying out the musical color palettes we wanted to use for each song. Once in the studio, it felt like every day was about going into the sandbox and playing with all the toys there.

M5: You record songs with both music and lyrics... You do know how to work your guitar, have you never written for guitar only? And if you work/record with other musicians, do you also arrange their parts or is this done together?

EL: I have written solo pieces for guitar and also instrumentals for guitar and band. On my first solo album, "Tinted Glass", there are a couple of guitar instrumentals ("Cinema Dolce" and "La Despedida"). When I work with other musicians, unless I have a very specific compositional part that I want them to play, I usually like to let them play what they feel and then take that as a starting point making whatever adjustments are necessary. I enjoy the collaborative aspect of making music.

M5: You've recorded 4 solo albums so far and play live a lot, for small as well as larger audiences... Do you have any preferences when you're on the road, like traveling in/to different countries or from town to town, or certain venues... What's on your list of places you'd like to go to but haven't yet?

EL: I do tour a lot and enjoy the opportunity to connect with all kinds of audiences. The beauty of live performance is that every night is different and every performance is a result of the unique combination of artist and audience. It's an organic experience that is different every time. I feel like there's an electrical current that unites the performer and the audience, and the gift of the experience depends on the clear connection between the two elements. Maybe it's more than just performer and audience, though. When I perform, I feel like my job is to show up, get out of the way, and let the music flow. So to restate what I said earlier: the power of live performance comes as a result of connecting three elements - the musical flow/inspiration, the performer and the audience.
As for places that I would like to perform but haven't yet - I'd like to go back to Europe and play in Japan and Australia as well. Looks like I may have the opportunity to play in the Middle East next year which will be a first for me!

M5: Being on the road, what are the things that matter the most... Like you've been touring the past months now ever since your new album was released, what's it like, where have you been and did you come across interesting things, people, places?

EL: One of the most important things, as an artist who spends a majority of her time on tour, is the sustainability of this pace. Staying healthy, eating well, exercising, keeping connected with loved ones is crucial to being able to be out on the road for months at a time and not feel depleted. I have developed an internal sense of "home", a rhythm that I can carry with me wherever I am so that I don't feel ragged or exhausted after a long journey. Things that are helpful for me? I tend to begin my days the same wherever I am: I wake up. Have my tea. Quiet contemplation followed by a morning run. I love to get to see my surroundings up close and sweaty! On this last Spring tour, I traveled through 15 states and about 25 different cities. As for interesting people and places... they're everywhere! I just have to pay attention.

M5: The CD release for "Unexpected" took place on the island of Kauai... Donald Fagen was in the audience and wanted you on his new yet to be released album. Can you tell us something about this, like what it's been like working with him and how well do you know the music of Steely Dan or Donald Fagen and are there any favorite tunes?

EL: Donald Fagen's "Nightfly" was one of my favorite albums as a teenager. My brother turned me onto Steely Dan's music and I was immediately drawn by the brilliant navigation between jazz, rock and smart lyrics. As someone who feels so at home in the hybrid center zone, my introduction to Steely Dan's music was a bit like a homecoming. Needless to say, when I heard that Donald Fagen would be sitting in with wonderful local artist, Kirk Smart, who was opening the show for me on Kauai, I was honored and thrilled. Donald's wife gave me a CD with some rough tracks of a beautiful song he wrote with Tom Jobim's grandson, Daniel Jobim. The song is entitled "Orchids in the Summer Rain". It was really lovely. That's all I know...

M5: Erika, to ask what your plans for the future are would be absurd perhaps, still, got any idea...?

EL: Lots of plans... always! As to how they unfold, that's the exquisite mystery and unfolding of everyday. I've got a number of different album ideas queued up and waiting to record. In the most immediate future, though, I plan to continue touring, reaching new audiences and expanding my range. Longer term plans involve international music exchanges, but we'll save that for another interview...

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