We spoke with the keyboardist Lisa Coleman about her new piano based instrumental album Collage, her work in the duo Wendy and Lisa, their days as members of Prince and The Revolution and Lisa’s special collaboration with Alice in Chains.
By Warren Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Melissa Dragich-Cordero, MAD Ink PR
GOLDMINE:Thank you so much for your beautiful music. My wife Donna and I just love your new Collage album. It is relaxing. There are periods of time where Donna will want to hear something like light classical recordings and read. It was during one of those recent weekend afternoons where I introduced her to your eleven song collection and she loved it.
LISA COLEMAN: Wow. That is fantastic. I can relate to that. I always have trouble when I want to read and listen to music, it has to be instrumental music because if there are lyrics I get all mixed up singing along and reading at the same time.
GM:Before we get to Collage, let’s look back at the ‘80s. After years of charting singles with Prince, you and Wendy Melvoin achieved your post-Prince and The Revolution Top 100 single debut “Waterfall.” Its flip side, “The Life,” seems to have the most connection to your new album with its gentle delivery.
LC: It is funny that “The Life” was the flip side of “Waterfall,” because, as time goes on, I think that “Waterfall” has fallen by the wayside. It was a product of its time as a very ‘80s sounding record but “The Life” has stood the test of time with an acoustic sound. We still play it now from time to time. People always respond emotionally and just love that song. There is something magical about flip sides.
Wendy and Lisa
Flip side: The Life
A side: Waterfall
Top 100 Debut: September 19, 1987
Peak position: No. 56
GM:It is a nice discovery. If someone bought “Waterfall,” with its steady dance beat, and flipped it over, they would say, “This is nice,” and quite different from the A side. I think “The Life” links nicely with “Piano Bytes” on the new album. There are echoes in “Piano Bytes,” with a watery sound, reminding me of early Pink Floyd and their song “Echoes,” which took up all of side two on their Meddle album.
LC: I guess I must have been really influenced by them without really knowing it, but I see what you mean. I love how experimental Pink Floyd were so early on. We were teenagers and we would play Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon and turn off all the lights and listen to the music. It was like magic. We just never heard anything like it. “Piano Bytes” is the most Wendy and Lisa track on Collage. It is so full. Wendy had such a huge part of that track with the beautiful guitar part and her bass playing. Wendy is one of the best kept secrets as a bass player. She is amazing. I think that track could have gone on a Wendy and Lisa record. It is kind of a bridge from what we did with the last record and what we might do next.
GM:I sway along to “The Black Box.” The opening reminds me of the opening of “I Honestly Love You,” which I spent a lot of time last year listening to that song through a great Juliana Hatfield cover.
LC: It reminds me of a lot of things which kind of made me nervous if it is something people may feel they have heard before. I was concerned if it was original. I can’t compare it exactly to a song, but there are parts that may sound familiar and that did concern me, but thank you for that comparison.
GM:Then I’ll do another comparison, which may help the readers, and certainly helps me in distinguishing the instrumental pieces. With “There’s a Song in There,” I hear a touch of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” when listening to the piano part, but it is updated. It is modernized. It is another one of my favorites.
LC: That’s so funny. Now that I am singing it in my head, I can hear it, “Da, da, da, da-da,” that little section of the song, repeated. That is exactly what I mean about Collage. We take these little pieces, these little snips, here, there, of things that we just like or that affect us in some kind of way and they become part of us. I try to get myself out of the way and all those little pieces come flying out, and are glued together in a new way through improvisation. Its like that little part, like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” is looped around and explored. That is beautiful. That is the whole idea behind Collage.
GM:You mention improvisation, which brings me to “Piano Improv 77” and “ Piano Improv 777a,” with both songs dedicated to your mother.
LC: My mother unfortunately has passed away. She died from cancer, which is a horrible thing for so many people. She was an artist and a singer and a Mexican, born in 1936 and she had to live the life of a woman in this country, first facing racism in school, not being allowed to speak Spanish and had to learn to speak English. She met my father, who was white, and he helped her a lot and took her out of the barrio. She wanted to be a singer. My dad actually played in her band for a while. When she was a teenager, she sang in jazz clubs. She eventually gave all of that up to raise a family. She was such an inspiration to me as a person because she always honored her life as an artist, however she could. She started painting. She took drawing classes. However she could let it out, she would do so. She supported me completely with everything that I did. She’s my mother, of course. Nobody is more important. I never conciously played for my mother. With those two improvs, they are examples of how I was really able to get out of my way and let a lot of very deep influences come through. I find the improvs draw from a classical influence, deep inside of me from my childhood. Those pieces are the most personal on the collection. The second one was supposed to be “77a” but there was a typo making it “777a” and my little associative brain starting thinking that 7+7+7=21 and a = April and April 21 is the day that Prince died and I started thinking about Prince. Also my niece was born on April 21, so that is a really important day for me, so I just left it there.
GM:So did A&M records in the ‘70s when a stack of singles were printed as “Strawberry Letter 23,” even though The Brothers Johnson were singing about a “strawberry letter 22.” So sometimes a typo works. In between “77” and “777a” you perform another piece, “Because Cello,” with a sampled cello bringing warmth and emotion.
LC: I lost my brother ten years ago and he was a cellist. So that was a little visit with my brother. A family reunion.
GM:What a nice tribute, with the two piano improvisation pieces and the cello in between. That order, as the beginning of the Collage album, reminds of how Emerson, Lake & Palmer opened their Trilogy album with “The Endless Enigma (Part 1)” followed by Keith Emerson’s piano “Fugue” and then the return to “The Endless Enigma (Part 2).”
LC: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I remember that stuff. One of my neighbors, my best friend’s brother, used to listen to Emerson, Lake & Palmer all day and all night. He wasn’t an air guitar player. He was an air keyboard player and he used to crack me up. He knew every part in the air, including their entire Brain Salad Surgery album.
GM:Let’s go through the prophets songs now that Michael Perfitt recorded for you at Henson Studios. The film Fargo is a family favorite and and I know Michael has done score work for the “Fargo” television series. “Prophet 1” is the most Fargo-like with its eerie beauty.
LC: These are probably the oldest selections on Collage. The actual Prophet brand keyboard belonged to Michael. So he brought it in one day and said, “Let’s fool around with this.” It was a highly creative time. He worked on “Heroes” with us, when we scored that television show, which was one of the most creative times of my life as a composer. We created everything from the ground up and it was just so much fun. This was part of that process at Henson Studios, which used to be A&M Studios, and before that, it was Charlie Chaplin’s first studio. The room with the grand piano that I played has a huge crystal built into the wall. It is supposedly haunted in there and the crystal is to keep the ghosts happy. It is really interesting to sit in that room and play. The crystal in the wall is the size of a big screen TV, so we turned down the lights where it was just me and the ghosts, supposedly. It was an interesting place to be for a few hours.
GM:“Prophet 2” opens with chords that remind me of “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” Our daughter Brianna is a big Meat Loaf fan and I will have to play her this one.
LC: I just love hearing your impressions of my music. Your references are fantastic. Keep going.
GM:Thank you. OK, the finale of the set, “Prophet 3,” seems to have a touch of gospel chords making it a little spirtual.
LC: I think it kind of went there. That one is particularly searching for me. I feel I keep moving, I keep stretching, I keep looking. It all sounds kind of pleading which is very much like a prayer. It is soberitory but also an “I love you” plea with a mixed joy feeling.
GM:The album ends, with a pair of short songs, like the show is over. There is a scene in the film Pretty Woman, not Julia Roberts singing “Kiss” from your Parade album, which we will get to, but Richard Gere, at the end of the night, alone in the bar at night playing piano. That is what “Unused” and “Unused1” remind me of, a very relaxing and gentle goodbye or goodnight.
LC: That’s a nice reference. I think there is even a subtle sound of wind and an emptiness, letting you down easy. I am not wanting you to know that the album has ended. I am so delighted on how Collage has turned out. I put it together for myself, really, and was encouraged by people around me and now by you. It is so delightful to have such a good response. Thank you very much.
Folded poster included in the Purple Rain album. Lisa and Wendy on the right. Photo by Larry Williams.
GM:Thank you very much for all your music over the years. I know Purple Rain was the biggest selling album for Prince and The Revolution. My long-time friend Philip Polsinelli, a Philadelphia bassist, a recording engineer and music professor, told me that he loves the entire Prince and The Revolution 1986 album Parade. Donna and Brianna saw your song “Sometimes it Snows in April” come to life in 1993 in Chigaco in a special performance of the Joffrey Ballet Billboards. Brianna was one of the select 51 students for that elementary school field trip and Donna was a chaperone. Brianna told me that she has a great appreciation on how unique that experience was. What a beautiful ending piece on the Parade album too. What an album side, with the big hit “Kiss” in the middle and the other Top 40 hit, “Mountains” as the side two opener, which Philip told me is, “an amazing song that always stood out for me.” I think the timing was perfect for “Mountains.” That single came out between Michael Jackson albums and captured that spirit nicely.
LC: Yes. That’s right. There was a hot pop war going on. We were part of it, but we were a bit clueless because we were really wrapped up in what we were doing ourselves. Prince just had a sense of our generation and where he could put emphasis to break through. The Parade era was so much fun. We had a lot of good success and we were able to do things we hadn’t been able to do before. We were traveling all over the place and the band exploded and we had new members. Sheila became more visable and joined the band. It was a highly productive time. I am so thrilled that you have selected “Mountains” to discuss. The piano part for “Mountains” is something that I had been playing since I was thirteen years old. I was just thinking the other day, what a funny kid I was to play that at thirteen. It’s such a good groove. When Prince heard it and fell in love with it I was so grateful that it got to have a life. People really respond to it. I think it is because it has that joy and innocence of a thirteen year old. There is something about it that is kind of pure.
GM:It is a fun celebration with you, Wendy, Prince and the others. What great group collaboration and speaking of collaborations, who would have thought you would be featured on vibraphone on an Alice in Chains song and that their “Black Gives Way to Blue” could be so pretty.
LC: I know, right? Those guys are great. They were working in the studio where my room is. I had my father’s vibes at the studio and they asked to borrow them. Then about an hour later they came back and asked, “Can you play them?” I said, “Sure.” They are such nice guys. I didn’t really know them before that. We had just been seeing each other in the hallway. They needed this little vibraphone part and luckily I grew up playing the vibes because of my father. He was a vibraphonist and percussionist. It was just a simple line and the song is so great and so beautiful. We had in common that we both lost a lead singer. Those guys were still going through it back then. It was such a special connection to me.
GM:What acts did your father, Gary Coleman, do session drums work for?
LC: He did Supremes recordings, lots of Motown. He worked with Phil Spector too. He played tambourine, always on the 2 and 4 beat. In the ‘70s, when they started personalizing license plates, he got one that said “2 AND 4.” When you hear tambourine on 2 and 4, that’s my dad.
GM:Speaking of dads, I remember seeing Mike Melvoin on a mid-‘80s award show, in his tuxedo, before getting to the section he was scheduled to cover, exclaim so proudly, “Did you see my daughter Wendy winning an award with Prince and The Revolution?”
LC: That’s right. He was so proud. He was flying high. Wendy was so embarassed at the time thinking, “No dad, you’re blowing my cool!” Like we’re all up there mysterious as Prince and The Revolution. “That’s my Wendy!” That was great.
1985 American Music Awards, photo by ABC photo archives/ABC via Getty Images
GM:How often do you see Wendy now?
LC: I still see Wendy every day. We continue to write together. We score film and TV productions. Now we are writing songs with Maya Rudolph, which is very exciting.
GM:I was just listening yesterday to her mother’s Minnie album from 1979, which ends with Jose Feliciano joining Minnie Riperton for a version of “Light My Fire.” One of my favorites is one she co-wrote with Dick Rudolph called “Lover and Friend” and another that Dick co-wrote called “Return to Forever.” What a great album, released just two months before her passing from cancer. You can really see Maya in Minnie’s face on that album cover.
LC: Her mother was a fantastic singer and her father is still a very good songwriter. They were really a very magical couple and of course they produced the wonderful Maya Rudolph who is such a ball of talent and such a good person. She’s really got it all.
GM:I heard from Louise Goffin that she is a huge Wendy and Lisa Girl Bros album fan. She also has a great album that came out last year called All These Hellos and Louise and fellow songwriter Paul Zollo have a songwriter podcast series called The Great Song Adventure. She says, “hello.”
LC: How cool is that? She is so great. We met a long time ago and it is like we should know each other. We have got to get together in Los Angeles.
GM:What about outside of Los Angeles? With Collage out now, do you have any touring plans?
LC: Wendy and I are starting to talk about putting together some Wendy and Lisa shows which, of course, would mean that I would take a few minutes of my own for a few Collage numbers, probably in the fall. We have a couple of Revolution gigs coming up over the summer. We are kind of regrouping The Revolution for now and maybe next year we’ll also do something fun. I am very thankful to Goldmine for giving Collage time and space. It’s a big thrill for me. Thank you.
Photo courtesy of WendyandLisa.com
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.