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An interview with Orianthi: Transitioning into Heaven In This Hell

“But you know, I’m definitely a blues-based rock player. So this record, “Heaven In This Hell,” was very natural to make for me.  ~Orianthi

By Phyllis Pollack

With the release of her third album, Orianthi has clearly made a transition. Having worked in the studio with Dave Stewart, who serves as the album’s producer, Orianthi ventures into new territory on Heaven In This Hell, making a departure from the sound of her sophomore release Believe.

In Guitar Girl Magazine’s interview with Orianthi, she talks about the writing process, and what was different in her approach when recording her current album, as opposed to her previous disc Believe.

Orianthi Panagaris has been playing music since the age of three. She began taking lessons on classical when she was ten. In 2005, she self-released her first album, Violet Journey, then reissued it two years later.

However, it is only in the last four years that she catapulted into fame.

Several recording artists were already familiar with her agile guitar playing, after Orianthi had shared the stage with artists including guitar legends Stevie Vai and Carlos Santana.

However, it was after backing up Carrie Underwood on the song “Last Name” at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards in 2009, that the proverbial pedal hit the metal.

Underwood won the two Grammy awards that night, one for Best Country Song of the Year, and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Taking the audience by storm with her guitar licks, now, everyone in Nashville would know who Orianthi was, and so would Michael Jackson.

The iconic performer, who was a fan of Underwood, saw the Australian born guitarist’s performance on YouTube. He then contacted her, asking her to audition for his planned This Is It tour.

After passing the audition, the rest was history.

As a solo artist, Orianthi had already been spoken for, having been signed to Geffen Records. Orianthi has noted that she was putting the final touches on her album when approached by Jackson.

In the tragic turn of events, with Jackson’s death on the eve of the ill-fated tour’s opening night, the guitarist was stunned.

Almost immediately after Jackson’s death, footage of Orianthi performing with Jackson was released to shocked television audiences around the world. Orianthi was now a household name.

With no tour, Orianthi would have her solo album to return to.

Despite the fact that Orianthi had proved herself to be a guitarist in her own right, Geffen executives, noting that the film This Is It would be released on October 16, 2009, had held the release back.

Her single was released four days later after the release of the critically acclaimed movie, and her album 10 days after its release.

In November of that year, her album’s single “According to You” from her Believe album was released, hitting Number 3 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 Chart.

Just one year after Orianthi’s stunning performance with Underwood, the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards held a nearly ten minute tribute to the late Michael Jackson. Underwood was among the performers who played in the tribute.

The guitarist was then asked by rocker Alice Cooper to be his lead guitarist.

Still waiting around the corner, there would be new solo material from Orianthi.

Her current album Heaven In This Hell was released on March 12, 2013, at a time when she would be available to promote it between touring dates, between legs of touring with Alice Cooper.

Orianthi is endorsed by Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars, and has been playing them since she went electric in 1997, after being inspired by Carlos Santana. Orianthi owns several of them, including her Signature model, the PRS SE Orianthi, in addition to her PRS 24s and PRS 22s.

She uses Dean Markley strings, and a myriad of effects, some of which she notes below.

Oianthi is also endorsed by EVH, thus her EVH 5150 III amps, although she has used Marshall, for instance, on Believe.

Her current album, released on March 12, is produced by Dave Stewart, most known for his work with the Eurythmics. However, that only tells part of the story. His extensive credits include his three solo albums, producing albums by other artists, co-writing, and many other musical achievements.

No stranger to Nashville, in 2010, Stewart recorded his Blackbird Diaries album there, filmed a documentary about its recording process, and also lensed one of his concerts at The Belcourt Theatre.

Now with Orianthi in tow for her new album, Heaven In This Hell, a new side of Orianthi is heard.

The album features an enlistment Nashville musicians, including country bassist Michael Rhodes (Wynona Judd, Dixie Chicks, Randy Travis, Dolly Parton), drummers Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Mark Knopfler), Shannon Forest (Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Gretchen Wilson, Rascal Flatts), keyboardist Mike Rojas (Dave Stewart, Blue Sky Riders, Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean).

Jimmy “Z” Zavala on harp, who famously played with Stewart on the Eurythmics track “Missionary Man” is also heard on the album.

Heaven In This Hell is mixed by John McBride (Dave Stewart, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks). Also contributing to the album are Nashville-based back-up singers Drea Rhenee and Wendy Moten.

Dan Dugmore on lap steel and Stewart, who plays rhythm, provide additional guitar playing on the album.

GGM: What was the writing process you used, when working with Dave Stewart and the other writers?

Orianthi: I started writing this record about two years ago for this record, just jamming out on acoustic guitars with Dave Stewart. Writing this record, I actually was jamming away with Dave Stewart on some acoustic guitars. We had written so many songs we worked on for like a year or so. I went to Nashville for two weeks to do a sort of writing thing, and I compiled a bunch of material.

GGM: Dave was in Nashville then?

Orianthi: Then, Dave was in Blackbird studios, and he called me, and asked me to come to Nashville, and asked me to come check out the studio was making his record over there, Blackbird (The Blackbird Diaries). He said, ‘Can you come to Nashville and check out Blackbird Studio?’ So I went over there to check out the studio and the musicians, and I just loved the place. So I was back there in Nashville, two weeks afterwards, making my own album. I made the record at Blackbird Studio.

GGM: Why was the decision made to work with artists who come from a heavy country background?

Orianthi: Well, I love Nashville, and as far as musicians there, they’re just the best. I love them, and I wanted a bit of a country flavor. There’s sort of a rootsy flavor to this record. They have a way of recording a record that’s really organic. We made the record kind of the way they did back in the Seventies or the Sixties, where everyone’s in a room together, and vibing off one another. And that’s the kind of energy I wanted to capture in Heaven In This Hell.

It just felt great, because I love performing. It was like capturing a performance.

GGM: I could obviously catch the country influences, and I thought a lot of that was heavily underplayed in the reviews and articles I had read. Nobody had really addressed that very much.

Orianthi: There are sprinklings of country. It’s definitely not a country record by any means. It’s got more of rooty rock blues. But I definitely wanted to have the lap steel guitar, and there’s banjo on one of the tracks, which I did, and it’s still got that kind of edge to it.

GGM: You were recently on the cover of the April issue of Guitar World. In that interview, you stated that among the effects you used when recording Heaven In This Hell, you used the Cry Baby Wah Wah, and a Boss Octave Pedal. What pedals do you like to keep in your daisy chain when you’re out playing gigs?

Orianthi:  Well, it changes. It depends on who I’m going to be playing with. My first tour, you know I use TC Electronic effects, and I used a whole rack mount on my first tour with Glam Nation, and then when I was out in Australia touring.

And with Alice Cooper, I’m using the TC Flashback Delay, I’m using a whammy pedal, a wah, and then the distortion from the amp, and you know, it’s pretty straight-forward. I run a Decimator pedal through my EVH.

But then live, like the other day at the Whisky, and I literally quite played through the amp with my wah pedal, yeah, that’s it. Just distortion from the amp.

GGM: So you keep it relatively simple. You don’t use a whole lot of effects.

Orianthi: No, I don’t like to. So, yeah.

GGM: It’s probably been a while, because you’ve been on the road so much, but when you’re not working, and you have time off, which isn’t much, how many hours a week do you spend playing?

Orianthi: Oh, I have no idea. It really depends, because usually when I pick up the guitar, it’s to write a song these days. I just really want to just create more tracks, and more ideas, and when I have an idea, to pick up the guitar. And I think jamming away for a few hours to you know, to half an hour a day, if I’m not rehearsing or learning stuff.

But sometimes it’s good, especially when you’ve been playing a lot, to take a bit of a break. Because this past week has been intense, so it’s sort of good to play for like half an hour, and then play for an hour, and then sort of mix it up when you’re not out playing. When you’re on tour, you’re playing two hours a night, plus we go through stuff in the dressing room before the show. So I’m playing a lot on the road. Your hands and your muscles, sometimes you sort of need to rest, then get back to work.

And I love playing piano, as well. I took piano lessons when I was like three or four, then that was the end of it. I just sort of try to write tracks on the piano, and knock around. I’m not a great piano player, but I enjoy playing it.

GGM: Which brand of keyboards do you play?

Orianthi: I don’t even know the brand of it.

GGM: Which model 12-string did you play when recording the album?

Orianthi: I actually used one of Dave Stewart’s 12-strings. I think it was called Rock Fabulous. I don’t know who makes it. It was in the studio, and it looked so cool, I had to play it. It sounded so good. I don’t know the make of the guitar.

GGM: I love playing 12-strings. They have such a great sound with the octaves.

Orianthi: They’re a pain in the butt to tune, though (laughs).

GGM: What is it like being on the road with Alice Cooper and the band, being the sole female? Are you all just like buddies? Do you hang out together?

Orianthi: Yeah, they’re like brothers to me. I didn’t even think about being a girl at any point. I just think of myself as one of the guys. So we all just hang out, and we’re friends, too. So when we’re not on stage, we’re hanging out together, and jamming away, and we all go out, sort of shopping. It’s good to have that vibe off the stage, as well. It’s beautiful. They’re a great bunch of guys. Yeah, they’re great.

Alice is one of my favorite people. He’s just an incredible performer, and just one of the nicest people. He is very down to earth, completely different from what he is on stage. And you’ve got to get away when he’s on stage. When he’s in Alice Cooper mode, and it’s like, you’ve got to dodge knives and whips, and all this kind of stuff!

GGM: This is your fourth album now, in that you re-issued your debut self-released album. Heaven In This Hell is far different from your previous album, According To You. You had done an interview that ran in the May, 2010 cover of Guitar Player, in which you stated that you held back on some of the guitar playing on that album, because you wanted it to be pop-oriented release. Do you have any comments on how radically different Heaven In This Hell is from your previous album?

Orianthi: The first album I did with Geffen Records was According To You. “According To You” was a great pop song. It was a pop song, and it had this sort of metal guitar solo in it. I thought that it reached a lot of people, and inspired a lot of girls to play guitar, and that was great. But there were a lot of tracks on that record, too, that were kind of bluesier and rockier, which I kind of wished had came out after, as the second single, that would have been something like “What’s it going to be?” or “Bad News” I wrote with Desmond Child.

There were a little heavier songs, but then there was a lot of pop on that record, and I think the pop weighed out the rock, you know.

GGM: Can you comment on what you mean? Are you trying to say it buried it?

Orianthi: Yeah. There was definitely more in the choices on the record. I’m not saying that was a bad thing. That was the kind of record that I made back then. That was me then, and this (Heaven In This Hell) is definitely me now.

GGM: Are you saying that you think the rock part of your playing kind of got lost with all of the pop parts on Believe? Is that what you’re trying to say?

Orianthi: Yes, that came off as the perception. They could have thought, because of the song (“Believe”) being more pop, and that was shut out because there was the second single (“Shut Up And Kiss Me.”) When you came to a live show, you could see it’s definitely a rock show, and everything. But you know, because it was on Top 40, etcetera, it was like, oh, I’m a pop artist, or whatever.

But you know, I’m definitely a blues-based rock player. So this record, Heaven In This Hell was very natural to make for me. I’m very proud of that last record. I’m not saying anything that I’m not. But I think this represents a more sort of bluesier, rockier side of me, and as of who I am as a player, it’s all sort of there.

GGM: You’ve been playing since you were a little kid, and then your career suddenly took off pretty quickly, once you were ‘discovered.’ Then there was unfortunate death of Michael Jackson, just prior to what was to be his This Is It tour. It is interesting that despite all of the footage that exists of Jackson, that the television media repeatedly showed the footage of Jackson standing next to you, listening intently to your guitar playing, riffing through “They Don’t Care About Us.” This was the part of This Is It when Michael died that was all over the media. It was Jackson listening to you playing guitar. Then sometimes, they showed that footage with you playing as far along into it, as breaking into the song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Orianthi: Yeah.

GGM: You were so much a part of the focus of that media coverage, visually and sound-wise. Television news broadcasts constantly flashed back to your electrifying playing guitar. Then from there your career took off so fast, with your sophomore solo album, touring, and then as Alice’s lead guitarist. Because your career took off so fast, is there anything that you wish you had been more prepared for in any way before all of this?

Orianthi: I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for what happened with Michael. It was so intense, and being such a fan of his, and being part of something like that, which was so awesome, it was like a dream.

I was making my album when I got this call, asking to come and audition for Michael. He chose me from YouTube, and I went in and played for him, and he hired me. We put the record (Believe) on hold.

I told Geffen I wasn’t going to be there, because I really wanted to work with Michael. It was just a crazy time, and I…We really didn’t have that much time to…for it to all sink in after he passed. You know, also, the record was done, and it was just sort of put out right after.

And I was like, obviously like everyone else that was like his family, was very upset and like, wow, it was very sudden, and we didn’t expect it to happen. And being such a fan of Michael’s and then every interview was questions about him and his health.

He wanted to do the shows, and he was just so excited about it. That’s what we remember. His energy and his adding more and more things to the show. It was just this crazy, dream atmosphere, and constantly adding more props and everything. It was just going to be an incredible show.

I’m grateful to have had that time with him, and yeah, it’s madness, really.

GGM: Dave Stewart did an amazing job producing your album.

Orianthi: There’s one of my very favorite people for sure. He’s just very easy to work with, and his instincts are amazing. He’s coming up with ideas all of the time. I’m just so honored that he wanted to make a record with me.

GGM: How would you say that playing on the road with Alice affected your playing, working on the road with him?

Orianthi: You know, yeah, it’s great. There’s a lot of energy with the shows, and I’m a better player, for sure, for joining his band. There are a lot of parts to remember, a lot of parts to play. And also, I had to be an entertainer, too, because we all have to be part of the show. We have to be like characters in it. I just enjoy the whole thing.

GGM: I would think that experience would have had to be like guitar boot camp.

Orianthi: Yeah, I mean, yeah. I had to learn 25 songs in a week.

GGM: What are you doing next after promoting Heaven In This Hell?

Orianthi: I’m starting a tour with Alice in June, and we’re going out with Marilyn Manson on sort of a big tour, and then we’re going to tour on, until the end of the year, I think.

But, in between that, before that, I’m going to go to Japan and do a tour with my band, and then do some shows out here, in the US, and then possibly go out to Australia.

GGM: Do you have any advice you’d like to give to younger girls starting out playing guitar?

Orianthi: Never give up, you know. And when your fingers start bleeding, obviously let them heal, but keep playing. Because that’s what happens. You can blister, and it’s really painful. When I was younger, it really hurt, and I got cuts on my fingers. But that’s what you have to do. Then you get the callouses going, and then it’s all good.

GGM: You did an interview with Melinda Newman for Hitfix. She also noted in her Cause And Effect blog, that at your Grammy Museum appearance, you mentioned that you had been bullied as a kid, because of your playing electric guitar. How did that affect you, and how did you deal with it?

Orianthi: I actually left school when I was 15 because of being bullied actually. I had to move schools so many times. There were drummers that liked that I played guitar, but the other guys that played guitar didn’t really like it.

GGM: You changed schools because of this?

Orianthi: I changed schools, because I was I thrown into lockers, I was head-butted, you know. It was pretty intense, I’ve got to say. I had music there with my family, thank God. It was really a difficult time, because you know, I’m an artist.

I knew I wanted to be a performer, songwriter and guitar player since I was about six. I my signed my first contract when I was 14, and I would sometimes come to school late, because I would be doing radio in the mornings.

I got picked on a lot, because I was more, sort of arty, you know.

GGM: They say, ‘Success is the best form of revenge,’ and if that is true, you’ve certainly got more than your share of revenge. What would you tell anyone going through that now?

Orianthi: You know, it was so difficult when I was going through it, and I realized that I had found music, and my path when I was pretty young, so I knew what I wanted to do. I was very depressed about it.

The guys, I was going to the same auditions as them. They were (hostile), especially when I’d get the gig, as the school funk guitar player, or the school jazz band, or whatever.

It was an ego thing, whatever it was. They really hated it.

But the thing is that if you love it, if you love it, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy. It should be that in this day, it doesn’t matter.

Just stick with it, and don’t give up, because those people that put their negativity on you, there is something going on with them. You wonder why. If they are just set on what they’re going to do, they’re going to do that.

But it’s just someone putting negativity on you, which is obviously just a reflection of the negativity in themselves, and nothing to do with you.

GGM: I totally agree. It can be either a male or female in some cases. They have insecurities and they want to dump their insecurities on you, to try to make you feel insecure.

Orianthi: Yeah, it’s like, if I don’t dig their band, I don’t go on their website and start bagging on them and writing stuff. It’s a very strange thing. If you don’t like that kind of music, just go do your own thing.

But a lot of people think that their opinions, or whatever, by showering you with negativity, it’s going to help them deal with whatever their insecurities are, or whatever their problem is.

But that’s really why I don’t read message boards. I get a lot of ‘Oh, she’s a girl, and that’s why she got signed,’ but I worked my ass off. So I don’t really care for that, unless it’s constructive, and the people are speaking out of respect, like people that I work with. That’s the thing. If you respect someone, you listen to them, but if you don’t, whatever.

GGM: It wasn’t just that you wanted it, but that you had enough faith in yourself enough as a player to pursue it, regardless of whatever trips people wanted to lay on you. So much of playing guitar is a mental thing, really.

Orianthi: You have to just play, and just go for it. Whatever you want to do. That’s the way I look at it. Whatever it is you want to do in life, whatever you want to be.

GGM: Carlos Santana has spoken a lot about his spirituality, which he has says affects his music. Did he ever discuss any of that with you? Do you have your own philosophy on life and playing?

Orianthi: I just believe in letting go of things. And when you’re on stage, transcend and just play. Not think too much. You’ve got to play from your heart, and let it just come through. You have to turn your brain off sometimes, because you want people to go on that journey with you.

You can hear yourself think when you listen to it, when you watch a concert back, or something, and then it’s just too much going on. It’s freedom, and music is a sense of freedom.

GGM: And playing guitar is a form of expressing yourself. If you’re just doing it to please other people, you can’t lose yourself in that mix, or you lose your identity as a guitarist, I think.

Orianthi: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.  I’m really lucky, because I’m playing with Alice, and I’m playing my own thing.

GGM: You have the best of both words.

Orianthi: Yeah, it’s like this really crazy Rocky Horror Show. I love being a part of it.

GGM: There is a similarity between your work with Alice and your work with Michael, in that you are not just working as a guitarist, but as a performer. With Michael, there were so many choreographed moves while you were playing.

Orianthi: Yeah, definitely. That’s why I say sometimes that it’s a real performance-based thing. You have to be part of the whole show. You can’t just stand there and play guitar. You’ve got to be a character.

With Michael, it was much darker, and much more of a Rocky Horror thing, but pretty similar in that Michael was all about his band, Alice is too. Michael was super sweet, and Alice is, too. I’m just very grateful that I got to work with Michael, and that I’m working with Alice.

GGM: Don’t you feel you have more control, and that you are able to make more choices about things when you’re on an independent label like Robo, and when working with Stewart, as compared to being on a major label like Geffen?

Orianthi: Yeah, completely. I think I went through the whole major label thing, and that was cool. And then I wanted to do this record this way, because I made the record myself, with Dave out in Nashville. You know, with no A&R, or anything. That started it.

Then Rob (Christie) from Robo heard it, he heard the EP, and then he came on board and we finished the album. A lot of freedom, and that’s the record I wanted to put out. Yeah, the fans are liking it, which is cool, on Twitter, and the shows are so much fun. We’ve played quite a bit of the new material, and it seems to be going down well, which is cool.

We’re coming out with another version of the album at the end of the year, as well, with some bonus tracks on it.

GGM: Yeah, you said you had written over 70 songs.

Orianthi: There was so much material we had. We decided we had enough material, from my Nashville writing, writing before, to writing with Dave. We decided, let’s choose tracks that go together, and put this sound together that will kind of meld.

It definitely was this really rock, blues sound I wanted, with a bit of country. Some softer songs are definitely more on the country side, but the other ones are heavier.

GGM: I thought it was really interesting listening to this album, because here is another completely different side of Orianthi, which we hadn’t heard before.

Orianthi: You want to keep evolving musically, and you don’t want to make the same record again. It’s a new book, a new part of your life. It’s a fun journey.

GGM: I heard Clive Davis say the same thing last night. He said that too many record companies make the mistake of having their artist re-do the same album, and it gets boring. It’s really true. If you look at a lot of artists, like The Beatles or Clapton, every album was a complete departure from the next. People want to hear where this artist is going to go next.

Orianthi: Yeah, that’s the thing. You want to take people on another journey. I think it’s a job, where performers have to do that, and not repeat yourself, because then it gets boring for everyone else, and you sort of feel like you’re cheating your audience, too. Because you want to give them something new. It’s like putting out the same painting every day. If an artist did that, people would stop buying. You’ve got to just do your thing, and express yourself. Just get inspired by this music, as well.

The artists I like are so diverse. It’s like from Keith Urban to Justin Timberlake. I listen to Steve Vai, Santana, Aerosmith. It goes all over the board.

GGM: If you play guitar, you have to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. You have to listen to it if you want to be able to play it on guitar. The more you listen to, the more you can play.

Orianthi: Definitely, definitely. And if it’s a good song, it doesn’t matter what genre it is.

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