The Element Team

NLJ    Neville Johnson

CJ       Cindy Johnson

JB       Joubin Bral

MA     Michael Albanese

            ELEMENT LIFESTYLE: THE ULTIMATE CONCIERGE

            Element Lifestyle, based in West Hollywood, California, is the ultimate concierge service. I had the good fortune to get to know the owners and was fascinated by their unusual business model. They smooth everything out for their clients. With my wife, Cindy Johnson and I sat with two of the owners, Joubin Bral and Michael Albanese in November 2012 for this interview.

NLJ:    What is Element Lifestyle?

JB:      We are lifestyle architects, a private lifestyle and travel concierge firm.  We charge an annual membership fee to high net worth families and we do everything, anywhere, anytime for them.  We are 24/7 and we design experiences. 80% of what we do is high-end, customized leisure travel, and there’s 20% of just off-the-wall, crazy. As long as it’s legal, the word “no” doesn’t exist in our vocabulary.

NLJ:    What’s your background that qualifies you for this?

MA:    I have a long background in the hospitality and service industry in New York City.  I opened three hotels, all of which at the time they were opened were the premier hotel in their locations in Tribeca and SoHo.  The very first hotel I worked for was Paramount with Ian Schraeger, known from the Studio 54 days and Steven Rubel had this idea of getting a hotel.  They bought this dilapidated building on 46th Street and they turned it into a 600-room hotel that was a rock and roll hotel in its heyday. It taught me an enormous amount with 300 demanding people, checking in and out every day.

The next hotelier I worked for was  Andre Belage who owns the Chateau Marmont.  Hewas opening a hotel called The Mercer in SoHo with 75 rooms.  I opened it  and became the concierge.  It was at that point where I basically had the keys to New York City.  I had access to anything and anyone I wanted on behalf of our clientele.

Paramount was a culture saying “no”.  It lacked of services, and was more about attitude.  It was more about image.  The Mercer was sit down and have a coffee with your guests while their room is getting ready, plan out their itinerary, get them into a restaurant that they can’t get in themselves.  When they’re there, arrange not only the best table, but complimentary champagne from me, and it was a culture of “yes.”  It was a culture of making the impossible happen, seamlessly.  I came into work one day and said, “This is really cool.”  The evolution of that is what we’re doing now but instead of the revolving door,  instead of clients who are mostly transient, we now have families that we work with every single day. We are very involved in their lives. For example, a client just came to us with their 16 year old daughter’s young adult fantasy novel they want to get published and because my other life as writer, they were picking my brain and asking a bunch of questions about the publishing world and agents, and the real world of getting art into those worlds.

My team and I are intellectually curious about many topics whether art or service or whatever so we can handle any request that comes.  I lived through 9/11.  My hotel was 10 blocks from Ground Zero so it transformed from a hotel to a refugee camp, handling the demands of people displaced who lost their homes.  I feel uniquely qualified to handle not only volume but demand.

NLJ:    Joubin, your background?

JB:      I have more of a business background, and am more of an entrepreneur, and I helped build the company in that regard.  I used to work for American Airlines, and I have much experience in ticketing for entertainment and sports events. Edgar Estrada is our  third partner.

MA:    Edgar and I met at Mint, where we were co-workers. Mint was a similar business to what we have, a private lifestyle and travel company.  At their height, they had about a 110 clients in all sectors of the business and creative industries with a huge, widespread demographic clientele.  they hired me to come in and be the people person to manage the company.  Edgar and I were the most senior people there – me by title and him by longevity.  Wehad a great working relationship because when it closed it was a very natural transition to continue servicing our clients.  Then we brought Joubin in and within a week we had a legal company.

NLJ:    How do you work, by retainer?

MA:    We charge $36,000 a year and we don’t lock clients into a contract.  It has to be the right fit so we ask for three months, initial $3,000 retainer fee, then four quarterly payments.    We have three clients who prefer to pay us yearly.

NLJ:    Did the Mint close because they ran into financial difficulties?

MA:    Financial difficulties and then a guy came in from New York and bought it and did things that didn’t make sense and.

NLJ:    And you took some of their clients?

MA:    We went to the first nine clients that invested in the old company – who had their guarantee of a lifetime membership and told them they had lost their money, which to them was a nominal amount because of the net worth, but the principle mattered. They said, “What are you going to do?”  I said, “Well, we’re starting a new company and we want you to be our client,” and everyone came with us. We just celebrated our third anniversary. We now have 30 clients, some of whom don’t pay annual fees because they were grandfathered from the old company.

NLJ:    How often are your clients in touch with you?  Do you go for long stretches, or is it a daily, weekly?

JB:      Sometimes you hear three or four times a year, and sometimes daily, and everything in between.

MA:    There is a client who will call in four times a year, but when he does it’s significant.  It’s – “I’m landing a plane.  I can’t find a landing strip in Africa.” In that case, Edgar was able to figure out where to land.  Another case in point is the hurricane that hit New York where we had a well-heeled client whoe can get anything done himself.  But every decent hotel in New York was sold out.  You couldn’t get anything, yet we booked him a suite at the Carlyle. He was thrilled, called me up and said, “You guys are gods.”  When you get a call like that, it justifies and affirms why they pay us.  Hemay not call us again for two months.  So when they call us and need something, it’s not they’re calling just to chit chat, they’re calling because they need something, and they either can’t accomplish it themselves,  they don’t want to, or they don’t know how to.  Sowe bring a level of creativity and tenacity to what we do.

NLJ:    Give me an idea of the kinds of clients you have that are, I take it they’re all multi-millionaires or billionaires?

MA:    In the beginning the average net worth was $200 million.  We had a couple of billionaires and we found that the billionaires were probably the least demanding and they proved the 80/20 rule.  We have a couple of clients who are in the $30-40 million dollar range – they spend more than the billionaires do.

NLJ:    What is the age demographics for your clients generally?

MA:    35 to 70.

NLJ:    Are they all Americans in North America?

JB:      They’re mostly in California, a great collection here in Southern California, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.  Our clients are generally located in cities with affluence.

NLJ:    Do you meet with your clients in person?

MA:    Yes.  Face-to-face is really important to us.  What they’re getting from us they’re not getting from automatons, they want to meet and deal with us.  So, in addition to meeting with them, we developed a 16-page questionnaire that we give to them.  In one case, we sat in the board room with all of their staff and spent three hours going page by page and question by question.  Theirlearned stuff about their bosses they didn’t even know.  It was very beneficial.

NLJ:    That brings up an interesting point, that most of these people have personal assistants.

JB:      Ninety five percent  of them have personal assistants and multiple personal assistants. We are another tool for the personal assistant, and a lot of times they come to us when they’ve reached a point that they couldn’t get something done.

MA:    We realize all of the assistants or all our clients are where they are because they have multiple resources.  They’re resourceful themselves but we don’t want to replace the assistant.  Rather, we want to augment what they have, and we want to position ourselves to be their most favorite resource.  We want to be an escape valve.  We want to say, “Look, when something needs to get done ….”

NLJ:    Let’s talk about the broad strokes of the categories and type of work you do.  I take it one type is planning vacations and travel.  What do you for your clients in terms of setting up travel?

MA:    Whether they’re going on a holiday weekend in New York to see some shows, eat some great food, or if they’re going on a 6-week safari in Africa, our goal is that the minute they leave their home to the minute they get back, everything is taken care of,  from the moment they get in the car and their favorite beverage is waiting and their driver hands them their boarding pass, to somebody meeting them at an international airport to expedite the security.  It runs the gamu

NLJ:    How do you know where to send your client?

MA:    First, it’s because we’ve all been there ourselves and we tend not to recommend places that one of us hasn’t been to and experienced.  Secondly, we attend international travel conventions where we meet with the hotel owners, the director of sales, and the general manager.  For example, we meet with people who have a specialty that only handles a safari in India. Our network is very vast.

NLJ:    Are your clients disappointed often?  Does that happen?

JB:      We’re human beings.  We make mistakes, but there’s been no attrition in three year

NLJ:    Are any of your clients celebrities?

JB:      We have one client who is a global name.  We tend not to work with celebrities. Some want everything for free.

NLJ:    You don’t advertise your client roster, do you?

MA:    No.

NLJ:    And why not?

MA:    Part of what they’re paying for is discretion and privacy.  We’re handling calls, their credit cards, their passports, all sensitive material, and we tend to pay for everything up front for our clients so when they get to their hotel, they’re escorted to their suite.  Our goal is when you arrive at the airport to have your driver hand you your room key and take it over from there. We have one client for whom we chartered a plane from San Francisco to take her children to Disneyland.   The weekend trip is going to cost her about $80,000.  But she can spend whatever she wants.  We did two little things for her.  First, we decorated the plane with all Disney balloons and Disney placemats and Mickey Mouse cookies, and then when they landed at the airport, all they saw from from the plane windows were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse waving at the plane on the tarmac.  Sothe stairs come down and there are Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse! The mom was blown away.

Another client has a son who is a big basketball guy. There’s only one hotel in the entire country that has a regulation-size basketball court in the suite and it’s at the Palms in Vegas.

JB:      So they had a father/son weekend.  We rented a Lamborghini for them…

MA:    From Los Angeles. They check into the suite and we found out, because it’s our job, that the son favors a particular sport drink, so we had the minibar stocked with it, and then we had a basketball jersey with his name on it laying on his bed.  The suite’s $25,000 a night and we got it for $18 grand and we got a bargain for him, but the key to our business is doing things that money can’t buy.

CJ:      Even though you have enough money that you can buy an entire country, is the discount or getting something like that still meaningful?

JB:      They appreciate it.

CJ:      You’re not just frivolously spending their money.

MA:    Our goal is to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

JB:      We had a client who got a $30,000 a night hotel room and she said, “I will take you if they give me a free breakfast.”

MA:    And we said, “We’ll come this morning… and make breakfast for you.”  You get into a world of defining values and each person values different things.  You may have similarities but values differ with every person, and getting into that psychology and finding out what motivates people.  It is rewarding when you can throw a free breakfast in on a $30,000 suite and it makes them happy.  You’ll make the hotel do anything to make it happen – even if we have to go there and do it ourselves.

NLJ:    Do you have competitors?

JB:      Yes, different levels of competition. The one that everyone knows about is the Centurion card.  The Black American Express.  They charge $5,000 a year.  They will do maybe 60 to 80% of what we do but not on a personal level.  You’re a card number to them.

MA:    You get a call center in Tulsa.  You have to repeat your credit card every time you call.

JB:     Then there’s a company called Quintessential that charges $10,000 a year.  They have offices around the world.

MA:    But they franchise.    So… Quality control.

JB:      And a handful of our clients were the $10,000 Quintessential members that liked their ideas but weren’t getting the personal service.  And for a person that’s spending $10,000, $36,000 isn’t that big of a difference.

JB:      That will be one small vacation.  That will be a charter to New York, and they want that personal service.

NLJ:    How do people find you?

MA:    Through other clients.  We have some clients that are just so in love with what they do, they wanna tell all their friends.  There are not enough of those, unfortunately, because most of our clients keep us as a secret weapon.

JB:      So we get client referrals.

MA:    The hoteliers, interestingly enough, are a great referral source because if they’ve got somebody spending $20 grand a night, $10 grand a night on a suite for a month, that’s our client.  So when they get to know this guest and they perceive me as outside of that hotel, outside of that city, they say, “Listen, call these guys up.  They’ll take care of anything for you.”

NLJ:    When you get a client, is it a family or individuals?

MA:    It’s usually a family.  We have one family, for example with a daughter, 26, who emails me for stuff almost weekly, and I don’t say, “No, I’m sorry, I wanna deal with your parents.”  You acquire a family.

MA:    But the kids are not going to think that some service provided it, they’re going to think their mom’s a hero. And that’s the point.

MA:    We don’t need the credit.

JB:      We don’t care for the credit.

NJ:      Do you have certain requests that are just impossible to do? What’s your success ratio?

MA:    We have a client who wants to have dinner with a major rock star. That’s a tough one we’re working on. We’re not perfect, so I’d say 99% of the time we succeed. We’re really tenacious and we’re very creative and sometimes you’re talking about getting into the French Laundry or into Per Se, which is the hot spot in New York.  Just simple dinner reservations, but you can’t believe the number of emails and calls and resources that one reservation will require.

MA:    Sometimes the client needs a jet.  It’s “Just get me a jet.  I’m going through San Francisco to London,” and it’s a half a million dollars in charter and it’s one phone call. You’re only as good as your last request.  So the guy who called me and said, “You guys are gods.  You got the hotel suite,” that high will run until the next request.

NLJ:    Do you get a commission when you refer a third party?

MA:    We do.  Our business model is very simple.  It’s a membership fee which  keeps the lights on, pays the salaries, and then we get standard commissions from hotels, ground transportation,  and those types of vendors. When there’s a really unique request that’s going to require something outside of our expertise, we’ll tell the client it will cost a premium to get this required item.

NLJ:    And do you charge extra if either one of you has to travel with a client?

MA:    We do. We had an Italian designer who came with a friend and did five cities in two weeks.  Edgar traveled with him everywhere.  We hired an Italian special ops security body guard to drive him. So in Italian in the back of the car all the way to a restaurant in Big Sur, the driver overhears the client say, “Mary J Blige is going on tour.  I would love to see her.”  He reports this back to Element headquarters, and all along we have been creating this document in Italian with these beautiful pictures, proposals.  “Here, you’re going to the Getty Museum.  Here’s what you’re going to see,” etc. — all translated into Italian.   When we got word that he mentioned Mary J Blige, we got her tour schedule for the next year in every city.  We translated it into Italian.  We put these big glossy pictures of her, we sent it to the restaurant.  The restaurant had it in his place-setting.  So when he got to the restaurant, he sits down and he sees her tour schedule, and exclaimed, “How in the hell did this happen?”

JB:      This client came to us from Donald Trump. We didn’t even know anything about him.  His plane landed at LAX and we escorted him to his limousine.  Edgar and I had our own car.  We were behind them and the first message we got from the driver was that they had read our itinerary closely.  Every other morning the client would sit with us at breakfast and he would plan out the next few days.  He would say, “Okay, I want this, this, this and we’re done.”  But he was very easy going and he wanted to be a tourist.  That was a lot of fun for us to be with him. Another simple thing, was that they had brought candy with them from Italy and they had it in their own car the whole time and we realized the candy was about gone.  So we hunted down this candy without telling him. There was one bag of this in L.A. We sent our driver, “Quickly get the bag.”  We bought the bag and didn’t say anything to them, we just placed the new bag where they would store the old bag and they appreciated it.  They just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

MA:    It’s all in the details, you know.

NLJ:    But you also worked 24 hours.

JB:      A true 24 hours.

MA:    He went to Vegas for five nights and he wanted to see two shows a night.  So we had a picture of the show with a description translated into Italian, ranked them according to what we thought his preferences were, and would send these documents every day.  At his breakfast table he would pick and choose and then we’d get the tickets.

JB:      To see two shows a night was actually very difficult for us.

NLJ:    Tell us some of your greatest hits.

MA:    We were trying to get one of our clients from the old company to come over to Element and I was pretty tenacious and he would ignore me, and then one day out of the blue I get an email from him, and in caps in the subject it says, “HOW TO GET ANOTHER MEETING WITH YOU.”  It was an either or situation.  Number one:  There’s this old Otis Redding record or, “There is a sandwich that I ate at the 02 Arena in London.”  He went when Led Zeppelin reunited in concert.  One of the concessionaires at the 02 Arena had this sandwich called salted beef and gruyere and it’s just beef, cheese, onions and on a pretzel bread, but there’s only one place in the world you can get that sandwich from that arena!  I got the Otis Redding record pretty quickly but it took us about eight months to figure out how to get the sandwich.  We were deciding if one of us was going to fly to London.  We were maybe going to fly privately, smuggle it back, but was the sandwich going to be any good by the time we get to Vegas? The chef who created the sandwich was the executive chef at Staples Center and he had been recruited to go and open 02 Arena. We got in touch with him, and got him to go to Vegas. I emailed the client, “Would you like the sandwich delivered to your office or would you like the man who created it to come to your office and make it?  And the client wrote right back, “Are you serious?”  And I told him yes. “Have him come here,”  said the client.  Next thing you know I’m at LAX and meeting a guy I’ve never met.  We jump on a Southwest flight.  We fly to Vegas.  We rent a car to drive out to a suburb of Vegas.  We get a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn to get to Whole Foods at 7 a.m. to buy the ingredients.  We had the cardboard boat and the cellophane wrapper, so he’ll have the same experience.  We get to the office.  My client, our client is so nervous, so excited. He tells me – “when you guys are done, just please leave because if the sandwich isn’t good I don’t want to have to lie and deal with…”  We get there and it’s somewhat of a makeshift office and  very hard for a chef to work, who is asking, “Where are the knives?”  as there are no knives and he’s got this brisket to cut.  I’m then running all over trying to find butcher knives, and find some, thank God.  We get back, the assistant serves sandwiches, we clean up…

JB:      And it’s 10 o’clock in the morning.

MA:    Yes, because our client is a trader, so he’s up early.  Their lunchtime is 10:30 in the morning.  We clean up and leave and get back to the airport.  He probably ate a $4,000 sandwich, and six weeks later – we let a lot of time go by – we didn’t hear a word from the guy – not a thank you, not a “sandwich is great,”  so I emailed him and  said, “So how about that meeting?”  He replies, “Can you fly to Vegas this weekend?”  So I went with my wife and he brought his wife and we had dinner at a steak house.             Our client doesn’t drink and dresses only in brightly colored Adidas track suits.

All the waiters are fawning all over him and he’s got a big ice bucket filled with Coca Cola bottles.  We get to the table and then he says, “You want some wine?”  I’m telling my wife, “Look, I’m paying for this, order a salad.  It’s the first date.  Don’t order wine.  I don’t want us to tick my partners off.” I say, “No, no, we’ll get a glass.  He calls the waiter over, “Oh, I know just the thing,” and he comes back with this 1977 Riojas.  I’m thinking, “Yeah, it looks great!”  He opens the bottle, pours it, I’m casually looking down the wine list… $1,200.  Good wine.  But I never let him see me sweat.  I decided “Well I’m going to enjoy this wine.”  I’m thinking, “This is going to be, you know, a $2,500 meal.  We don’t talk about anything, and after dessert, he says, “Are we going to talk business or what?”  And I said, well, we just wanted to try to get to know you and…”

He replies, “Well tell me about your company.  What are you guys doing?”  I said, “Okay, I do have one piece of business for you, and reached in my pocket, I put a passport down, and he opens it up and sees a picture of himself.  He says, “You have my passport.  How the hell do you have my passport?”  I said, “Well, you’re going to the World’s Cup this summer, right?” He goes, “Yeah, and he needed a special visa for Africa, and then I pulled out a document for his wife, and I said, “You’re going to Norway next month.  Here’s your itinerary.”  And they ask, “How did this happen?”  I advised that their assistants didn’t know what to do so they called us.  Behind the scenes we were doing stuff for them anyway.  So he says, “Sign me up,” and that was it.  That’s all he needed.

NLJ:    You also put on a rock concert, didn’t you? Tell us about that.

MA:    Our client built a 12 bedroom cabin, 9000 feet above sea level, in the middle of nowhere in a central state, that could sustain 50 people for five years.  He designed it to have all of  his closest friends there.  He loves Paul Rogers and Bad Company, and it was his dream to see them in concert, but he didn’t want to see him on tour and go to a concert, so we hired Paul Rogers and produced a full on rock and roll festival in his back yard, 9000 feet up, and flew in 400 people from all over the country.  We bought out two hotels and we got the tour manager on the t-shirts to add his concert to the tour schedule on the back.

MA:    It was a 1.1 million dollar event for five hours on a Saturday afternoon and it was awesome.

NLJ:    What is the secret of being an effective concierge?

MA:    To live it and just breathe it.  Just do it yourself, to not have to rely on any hearsay, to go to that restaurant to meet the owner, take time getting to know him, taking him to lunch, finding out that his passion is actually making cheesecake.  There’s one place in New York in Tribeca that just hands down has the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  So when clients would go in the hotel there, they would always send out cheesecake for me on the house.  And they’d come back, “Even if you hate cheesecake, you will love it.” It’s all in the details.  It’s going to see the Broadway shows and being able to intelligently talk about it, “So let me tell you what you do need to see.”  It’s being able to quickly offer an alternative.  It’s being able to just have a walking encyclopedia of knowledge .  At the hotel, if you were interested in working for my department, I gave a 100 question quiz before you even got an interview, and if you didn’t score 50 or better I wouldn’t interview you.  “Tell me where the Metropolitan Museum is.  What are the cross streets? What are the hours at the MOMA?”  You had to have an inherent love when you walk down the street in New York and just absorb it all and get to know it all. There’s so much to know, evolving constantly. If you don’t have that sort of personality, the “I’m a sponge.  I’m going to take it all in,” you’re not a good fit for concierge.  It’s relationships, like any other business.

NLJ:    And all of you have an innate curiosity about life, life’s experience and people and places, things…

MA:    100%.

NLJ:    …and then on top of that you have to have the ability to get along not only with your clients, who may be demanding or anxious… but also with people who are vendors that you need them to cooperate with. So there’s a lot of people, interaction and people skills required, isn’t there?

MA:    A client from a very prominent family in New York called us one day and said, “Look, I want to take my family for our Christmas vacation.”  He called in November, and there were very few things that we could do for a family of 25 because everything was booked in the Caribbean.  We managed to get accommodations. Three people were flying from New York to Puerto Rico and somewhere else, so logistically it was quite challenging.  The mom and dad get there and they’re very old school New Yorkers and I said to them, “Okay, you’re going to meet so and so in the lobby in 15 minutes after you arrive and they’re going to take you on a tour and they’re going to take you directly to your suite.  Again, you’re not going to check in.

Ten minutes after they arrived they got impatient and they went to the front desk and said, “I’m supposed to have this so and so suite.  Can we go ahead and check in?”  The front desk agent didn’t know who they were and knew that these suites were blocked for this family but didn’t make the connection.  He said, “I’m sorry, sir.  These suites are sold.”  The father went crazy.  He construed that as, “My family vacation is ruined.”  He ripped into his son, our client, his son, who called and ripped into me and said, “This is not the time to mess up,” “This is not the people to do it with,” and I said, “Wait.  What are you talking about?  Everything’s set.  I told you 15 minutes they’re going to be there.”  The agent at the front desk was somewhat clueless and he set the tone for the entire vacation.  There was nothing wrong.  They just perceived that it was something wrong. “I assure you everything’s fine, go back, make your mom and dad wait in the lobby as I instructed.  You’ll be taken care of.”  Sure enough, he called me a half hour later to say, “Sorry.”  So there are many moving pieces and people to manage.  It’s really difficult because one person can have a lousy experience when you check in with somebody and it’s a reflection on us. But how do you control that?  The way that we do it is we put the fear of God in our vendors.

NLJ:    One of the things you do is prepare events or something that will be delightful to your client.  They don’t quite know how to do it themselves.  You had one involving a well-known chef.

MA:    That was an almost impossible event to pull off.  A client in Vegas has a  wife whose favorite chef is in New York, and she wanted the chef to come there.  He doesn’t do that.  The chef was too rich, too famous, too prominent.  He doesn’t need to do that.  So it’s again about relationships, connecting the situation and explaining that what we do is not just a service, but it’s actually making a difference in the lives of our clients. The chef came out and he almost started crying when he saw that these people appreciated food and wine the way they did, he made such an emotional connection as in, “I’m not just being paid a fee.  I’m actually making a memory for the family.” So it’s not just, “I hire you to do something,” it’s “you’re coming on board and these are the type of clients that we have.  They want something that’s so special, that’s going to make a memory.”  We’re doing an event for a client’s daughter’s 16th birthday with a band that travels with 30 people and their entourage and backup performers and dancers.  It’s going to be another event like the rock fest last year, and it’ll probably be a million dollars when it’s all said and done.

NLJ:    Does that happen sometimes where the spouse will want to surprise the other spouse?

MA:    Yes, one thing we did early on was assist a client of ours in Rancho Santa Fe who said, “Look, our 25th anniversary is coming up.  She has all the bags, all the jewelry.  I don’t want to buy anything for her.”  I’m asked him what she liked.”  He replied, “She really loves tennis.” So we get to thinking, and a buddy of mine, a PR guy knows Pete Sampras.  So I called him up and I said, “Do you think Pete would even consider doing like a private tennis clinic?  Here is someone who doesn’t need to do it.  My friend’s wife, the PR guy, is married to Sampras’s sister who runs the tennis program at UCLA. So we proposed to our client, “Why don’t you make a sizeable donation to UCLA tennis program and see what we can do with that.  So I think he said, “How’s $50,000 sound?”   Sampras’ sister was thrilled with it and she convinced Pete.  So he took a day.  He went to the Bel Air Country Club and she flew up from San Diego with her girlfriend, and this was a total surprise.  She was told, “The limo will take you somewhere.  Bring your tennis gear” … and they show up at the country club and Pete Sampras is on the court, and they think, “Oh, my God, Pete Sampras is here.”  But he was there for them. So he plays tennis with them for a couple hours, has lunch with them and then signs autographs.  All in all it’s a four or five hour event.  That was her birthday present.  With wealth you can get that.

CJ:      What would you ask for and what would be your memory\

MA:    That’s a great qu

NLJ    Neville Johnson

CJ       Cindy Johnson

JB       Joubin Bral

MA     Michael Albanese

            ELEMENT LIFESTYLE: THE ULIMATE CONCIERGE

            Element Lifestyle, based in West Hollywood, California, is the ultimate concierge service. I had the good fortune to get to know the owners and was fascinated by their unusual business model. They smooth everything out for their clients. With my wife, Cindy Johnson and I sat with two of the owners, Joubin Bral and Michael Albanese in November 2012 for this interview.

NLJ:    What is Element Lifestyle?

JB:      We are lifestyle architects, a private lifestyle and travel concierge firm.  We charge an annual membership fee to high net worth families and we do everything, anywhere, anytime for them.  We are 24/7 and we design experiences. 80% of what we do is high-end, customized leisure travel, and there’s 20% of just off-the-wall, crazy. As long as it’s legal, the word “no” doesn’t exist in our vocabulary.

NLJ:    What’s your background that qualifies you for this?

MA:    I have a long background in the hospitality and service industry in New York City.  I opened three hotels, all of which at the time they were opened were the premier hotel in their locations in Tribeca and SoHo.  The very first hotel I worked for was Paramount with Ian Schraeger, known from the Studio 54 days and Steven Rubel had this idea of getting a hotel.  They bought this dilapidated building on 46th Street and they turned it into a 600-room hotel that was a rock and roll hotel in its heyday. It taught me an enormous amount with 300 demanding people, checking in and out every day.

The next hotelier I worked for was  Andre Belage who owns the Chateau Marmont.  Hewas opening a hotel called The Mercer in SoHo with 75 rooms.  I opened it  and became the concierge.  It was at that point where I basically had the keys to New York City.  I had access to anything and anyone I wanted on behalf of our clientele.

Paramount was a culture saying “no”.  It lacked of services, and was more about attitude.  It was more about image.  The Mercer was sit down and have a coffee with your guests while their room is getting ready, plan out their itinerary, get them into a restaurant that they can’t get in themselves.  When they’re there, arrange not only the best table, but complimentary champagne from me, and it was a culture of “yes.”  It was a culture of making the impossible happen, seamlessly.  I came into work one day and said, “This is really cool.”  The evolution of that is what we’re doing now but instead of the revolving door,  instead of clients who are mostly transient, we now have families that we work with every single day. We are very involved in their lives. For example, a client just came to us with their 16 year old daughter’s young adult fantasy novel they want to get published and because my other life as writer, they were picking my brain and asking a bunch of questions about the publishing world and agents, and the real world of getting art into those worlds.

My team and I are intellectually curious about many topics whether art or service or whatever so we can handle any request that comes.  I lived through 9/11.  My hotel was 10 blocks from Ground Zero so it transformed from a hotel to a refugee camp, handling the demands of people displaced who lost their homes.  I feel uniquely qualified to handle not only volume but demand.

NLJ:    Joubin, your background?

JB:      I have more of a business background, and am more of an entrepreneur, and I helped build the company in that regard.  I used to work for American Airlines, and I have much experience in ticketing for entertainment and sports events. Edgar Estrada is our  third partner.

MA:    Edgar and I met at Mint, where we were co-workers. Mint was a similar business to what we have, a private lifestyle and travel company.  At their height, they had about a 110 clients in all sectors of the business and creative industries with a huge, widespread demographic clientele.  they hired me to come in and be the people person to manage the company.  Edgar and I were the most senior people there – me by title and him by longevity.  Wehad a great working relationship because when it closed it was a very natural transition to continue servicing our clients.  Then we brought Joubin in and within a week we had a legal company.

NLJ:    How do you work, by retainer?

MA:    We charge $36,000 a year and we don’t lock clients into a contract.  It has to be the right fit so we ask for three months, initial $3,000 retainer fee, then four quarterly payments.    We have three clients who prefer to pay us yearly.

NLJ:    Did the Mint close because they ran into financial difficulties?

MA:    Financial difficulties and then a guy came in from New York and bought it and did things that didn’t make sense and.

NLJ:    And you took some of their clients?

MA:    We went to the first nine clients that invested in the old company – who had their guarantee of a lifetime membership and told them they had lost their money, which to them was a nominal amount because of the net worth, but the principle mattered. They said, “What are you going to do?”  I said, “Well, we’re starting a new company and we want you to be our client,” and everyone came with us. We just celebrated our third anniversary. We now have 30 clients, some of whom don’t pay annual fees because they were grandfathered from the old company.

NLJ:    How often are your clients in touch with you?  Do you go for long stretches, or is it a daily, weekly?

JB:      Sometimes you hear three or four times a year, and sometimes daily, and everything in between.

MA:    There is a client who will call in four times a year, but when he does it’s significant.  It’s – “I’m landing a plane.  I can’t find a landing strip in Africa.” In that case, Edgar was able to figure out where to land.  Another case in point is the hurricane that hit New York where we had a well-heeled client whoe can get anything done himself.  But every decent hotel in New York was sold out.  You couldn’t get anything, yet we booked him a suite at the Carlyle. He was thrilled, called me up and said, “You guys are gods.”  When you get a call like that, it justifies and affirms why they pay us.  Hemay not call us again for two months.  So when they call us and need something, it’s not they’re calling just to chit chat, they’re calling because they need something, and they either can’t accomplish it themselves,  they don’t want to, or they don’t know how to.  Sowe bring a level of creativity and tenacity to what we do.

NLJ:    Give me an idea of the kinds of clients you have that are, I take it they’re all multi-millionaires or billionaires?

MA:    In the beginning the average net worth was $200 million.  We had a couple of billionaires and we found that the billionaires were probably the least demanding and they proved the 80/20 rule.  We have a couple of clients who are in the $30-40 million dollar range – they spend more than the billionaires do.

NLJ:    What is the age demographics for your clients generally?

MA:    35 to 70.

NLJ:    Are they all Americans in North America?

JB:      They’re mostly in California, a great collection here in Southern California, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.  Our clients are generally located in cities with affluence.

NLJ:    Do you meet with your clients in person?

MA:    Yes.  Face-to-face is really important to us.  What they’re getting from us they’re not getting from automatons, they want to meet and deal with us.  So, in addition to meeting with them, we developed a 16-page questionnaire that we give to them.  In one case, we sat in the board room with all of their staff and spent three hours going page by page and question by question.  Theirlearned stuff about their bosses they didn’t even know.  It was very beneficial.

NLJ:    That brings up an interesting point, that most of these people have personal assistants.

JB:      Ninety five percent  of them have personal assistants and multiple personal assistants. We are another tool for the personal assistant, and a lot of times they come to us when they’ve reached a point that they couldn’t get something done.

MA:    We realize all of the assistants or all our clients are where they are because they have multiple resources.  They’re resourceful themselves but we don’t want to replace the assistant.  Rather, we want to augment what they have, and we want to position ourselves to be their most favorite resource.  We want to be an escape valve.  We want to say, “Look, when something needs to get done ….”

NLJ:    Let’s talk about the broad strokes of the categories and type of work you do.  I take it one type is planning vacations and travel.  What do you for your clients in terms of setting up travel?

MA:    Whether they’re going on a holiday weekend in New York to see some shows, eat some great food, or if they’re going on a 6-week safari in Africa, our goal is that the minute they leave their home to the minute they get back, everything is taken care of,  from the moment they get in the car and their favorite beverage is waiting and their driver hands them their boarding pass, to somebody meeting them at an international airport to expedite the security.  It runs the gamu

NLJ:    How do you know where to send your client?

MA:    First, it’s because we’ve all been there ourselves and we tend not to recommend places that one of us hasn’t been to and experienced.  Secondly, we attend international travel conventions where we meet with the hotel owners, the director of sales, and the general manager.  For example, we meet with people who have a specialty that only handles a safari in India. Our network is very vast.

NLJ:    Are your clients disappointed often?  Does that happen?

JB:      We’re human beings.  We make mistakes, but there’s been no attrition in three year

NLJ:    Are any of your clients celebrities?

JB:      We have one client who is a global name.  We tend not to work with celebrities. Some want everything for free.

NLJ:    You don’t advertise your client roster, do you?

MA:    No.

NLJ:    And why not?

MA:    Part of what they’re paying for is discretion and privacy.  We’re handling calls, their credit cards, their passports, all sensitive material, and we tend to pay for everything up front for our clients so when they get to their hotel, they’re escorted to their suite.  Our goal is when you arrive at the airport to have your driver hand you your room key and take it over from there. We have one client for whom we chartered a plane from San Francisco to take her children to Disneyland.   The weekend trip is going to cost her about $80,000.  But she can spend whatever she wants.  We did two little things for her.  First, we decorated the plane with all Disney balloons and Disney placemats and Mickey Mouse cookies, and then when they landed at the airport, all they saw from from the plane windows were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse waving at the plane on the tarmac.  Sothe stairs come down and there are Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse! The mom was blown away.

Another client has a son who is a big basketball guy. There’s only one hotel in the entire country that has a regulation-size basketball court in the suite and it’s at the Palms in Vegas.

JB:      So they had a father/son weekend.  We rented a Lamborghini for them…

MA:    From Los Angeles. They check into the suite and we found out, because it’s our job, that the son favors a particular sport drink, so we had the minibar stocked with it, and then we had a basketball jersey with his name on it laying on his bed.  The suite’s $25,000 a night and we got it for $18 grand and we got a bargain for him, but the key to our business is doing things that money can’t buy.

CJ:      Even though you have enough money that you can buy an entire country, is the discount or getting something like that still meaningful?

JB:      They appreciate it.

CJ:      You’re not just frivolously spending their money.

MA:    Our goal is to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

JB:      We had a client who got a $30,000 a night hotel room and she said, “I will take you if they give me a free breakfast.”

MA:    And we said, “We’ll come this morning… and make breakfast for you.”  You get into a world of defining values and each person values different things.  You may have similarities but values differ with every person, and getting into that psychology and finding out what motivates people.  It is rewarding when you can throw a free breakfast in on a $30,000 suite and it makes them happy.  You’ll make the hotel do anything to make it happen – even if we have to go there and do it ourselves.

NLJ:    Do you have competitors?

JB:      Yes, different levels of competition. The one that everyone knows about is the Centurion card.  The Black American Express.  They charge $5,000 a year.  They will do maybe 60 to 80% of what we do but not on a personal level.  You’re a card number to them.

MA:    You get a call center in Tulsa.  You have to repeat your credit card every time you call.

JB:     Then there’s a company called Quintessential that charges $10,000 a year.  They have offices around the world.

MA:    But they franchise.    So… Quality control.

JB:      And a handful of our clients were the $10,000 Quintessential members that liked their ideas but weren’t getting the personal service.  And for a person that’s spending $10,000, $36,000 isn’t that big of a difference.

JB:      That will be one small vacation.  That will be a charter to New York, and they want that personal service.

NLJ:    How do people find you?

MA:    Through other clients.  We have some clients that are just so in love with what they do, they wanna tell all their friends.  There are not enough of those, unfortunately, because most of our clients keep us as a secret weapon.

JB:      So we get client referrals.

MA:    The hoteliers, interestingly enough, are a great referral source because if they’ve got somebody spending $20 grand a night, $10 grand a night on a suite for a month, that’s our client.  So when they get to know this guest and they perceive me as outside of that hotel, outside of that city, they say, “Listen, call these guys up.  They’ll take care of anything for you.”

NLJ:    When you get a client, is it a family or individuals?

MA:    It’s usually a family.  We have one family, for example with a daughter, 26, who emails me for stuff almost weekly, and I don’t say, “No, I’m sorry, I wanna deal with your parents.”  You acquire a family.

MA:    But the kids are not going to think that some service provided it, they’re going to think their mom’s a hero. And that’s the point.

MA:    We don’t need the credit.

JB:      We don’t care for the credit.

NJ:      Do you have certain requests that are just impossible to do? What’s your success ratio?

MA:    We have a client who wants to have dinner with a major rock star. That’s a tough one we’re working on. We’re not perfect, so I’d say 99% of the time we succeed. We’re really tenacious and we’re very creative and sometimes you’re talking about getting into the French Laundry or into Per Se, which is the hot spot in New York.  Just simple dinner reservations, but you can’t believe the number of emails and calls and resources that one reservation will require.

MA:    Sometimes the client needs a jet.  It’s “Just get me a jet.  I’m going through San Francisco to London,” and it’s a half a million dollars in charter and it’s one phone call. You’re only as good as your last request.  So the guy who called me and said, “You guys are gods.  You got the hotel suite,” that high will run until the next request.

NLJ:    Do you get a commission when you refer a third party?

MA:    We do.  Our business model is very simple.  It’s a membership fee which  keeps the lights on, pays the salaries, and then we get standard commissions from hotels, ground transportation,  and those types of vendors. When there’s a really unique request that’s going to require something outside of our expertise, we’ll tell the client it will cost a premium to get this required item.

NLJ:    And do you charge extra if either one of you has to travel with a client?

MA:    We do. We had an Italian designer who came with a friend and did five cities in two weeks.  Edgar traveled with him everywhere.  We hired an Italian special ops security body guard to drive him. So in Italian in the back of the car all the way to a restaurant in Big Sur, the driver overhears the client say, “Mary J Blige is going on tour.  I would love to see her.”  He reports this back to Element headquarters, and all along we have been creating this document in Italian with these beautiful pictures, proposals.  “Here, you’re going to the Getty Museum.  Here’s what you’re going to see,” etc. — all translated into Italian.   When we got word that he mentioned Mary J Blige, we got her tour schedule for the next year in every city.  We translated it into Italian.  We put these big glossy pictures of her, we sent it to the restaurant.  The restaurant had it in his place-setting.  So when he got to the restaurant, he sits down and he sees her tour schedule, and exclaimed, “How in the hell did this happen?”

JB:      This client came to us from Donald Trump. We didn’t even know anything about him.  His plane landed at LAX and we escorted him to his limousine.  Edgar and I had our own car.  We were behind them and the first message we got from the driver was that they had read our itinerary closely.  Every other morning the client would sit with us at breakfast and he would plan out the next few days.  He would say, “Okay, I want this, this, this and we’re done.”  But he was very easy going and he wanted to be a tourist.  That was a lot of fun for us to be with him. Another simple thing, was that they had brought candy with them from Italy and they had it in their own car the whole time and we realized the candy was about gone.  So we hunted down this candy without telling him. There was one bag of this in L.A. We sent our driver, “Quickly get the bag.”  We bought the bag and didn’t say anything to them, we just placed the new bag where they would store the old bag and they appreciated it.  They just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

MA:    It’s all in the details, you know.

NLJ:    But you also worked 24 hours.

JB:      A true 24 hours.

MA:    He went to Vegas for five nights and he wanted to see two shows a night.  So we had a picture of the show with a description translated into Italian, ranked them according to what we thought his preferences were, and would send these documents every day.  At his breakfast table he would pick and choose and then we’d get the tickets.

JB:      To see two shows a night was actually very difficult for us.

NLJ:    Tell us some of your greatest hits.

MA:    We were trying to get one of our clients from the old company to come over to Element and I was pretty tenacious and he would ignore me, and then one day out of the blue I get an email from him, and in caps in the subject it says, “HOW TO GET ANOTHER MEETING WITH YOU.”  It was an either or situation.  Number one:  There’s this old Otis Redding record or, “There is a sandwich that I ate at the 02 Arena in London.”  He went when Led Zeppelin reunited in concert.  One of the concessionaires at the 02 Arena had this sandwich called salted beef and gruyere and it’s just beef, cheese, onions and on a pretzel bread, but there’s only one place in the world you can get that sandwich from that arena!  I got the Otis Redding record pretty quickly but it took us about eight months to figure out how to get the sandwich.  We were deciding if one of us was going to fly to London.  We were maybe going to fly privately, smuggle it back, but was the sandwich going to be any good by the time we get to Vegas? The chef who created the sandwich was the executive chef at Staples Center and he had been recruited to go and open 02 Arena. We got in touch with him, and got him to go to Vegas. I emailed the client, “Would you like the sandwich delivered to your office or would you like the man who created it to come to your office and make it?  And the client wrote right back, “Are you serious?”  And I told him yes. “Have him come here,”  said the client.  Next thing you know I’m at LAX and meeting a guy I’ve never met.  We jump on a Southwest flight.  We fly to Vegas.  We rent a car to drive out to a suburb of Vegas.  We get a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn to get to Whole Foods at 7 a.m. to buy the ingredients.  We had the cardboard boat and the cellophane wrapper, so he’ll have the same experience.  We get to the office.  My client, our client is so nervous, so excited. He tells me – “when you guys are done, just please leave because if the sandwich isn’t good I don’t want to have to lie and deal with…”  We get there and it’s somewhat of a makeshift office and  very hard for a chef to work, who is asking, “Where are the knives?”  as there are no knives and he’s got this brisket to cut.  I’m then running all over trying to find butcher knives, and find some, thank God.  We get back, the assistant serves sandwiches, we clean up…

JB:      And it’s 10 o’clock in the morning.

MA:    Yes, because our client is a trader, so he’s up early.  Their lunchtime is 10:30 in the morning.  We clean up and leave and get back to the airport.  He probably ate a $4,000 sandwich, and six weeks later – we let a lot of time go by – we didn’t hear a word from the guy – not a thank you, not a “sandwich is great,”  so I emailed him and  said, “So how about that meeting?”  He replies, “Can you fly to Vegas this weekend?”  So I went with my wife and he brought his wife and we had dinner at a steak house.             Our client doesn’t drink and dresses only in brightly colored Adidas track suits.

All the waiters are fawning all over him and he’s got a big ice bucket filled with Coca Cola bottles.  We get to the table and then he says, “You want some wine?”  I’m telling my wife, “Look, I’m paying for this, order a salad.  It’s the first date.  Don’t order wine.  I don’t want us to tick my partners off.” I say, “No, no, we’ll get a glass.  He calls the waiter over, “Oh, I know just the thing,” and he comes back with this 1977 Riojas.  I’m thinking, “Yeah, it looks great!”  He opens the bottle, pours it, I’m casually looking down the wine list… $1,200.  Good wine.  But I never let him see me sweat.  I decided “Well I’m going to enjoy this wine.”  I’m thinking, “This is going to be, you know, a $2,500 meal.  We don’t talk about anything, and after dessert, he says, “Are we going to talk business or what?”  And I said, well, we just wanted to try to get to know you and…”

He replies, “Well tell me about your company.  What are you guys doing?”  I said, “Okay, I do have one piece of business for you, and reached in my pocket, I put a passport down, and he opens it up and sees a picture of himself.  He says, “You have my passport.  How the hell do you have my passport?”  I said, “Well, you’re going to the World’s Cup this summer, right?” He goes, “Yeah, and he needed a special visa for Africa, and then I pulled out a document for his wife, and I said, “You’re going to Norway next month.  Here’s your itinerary.”  And they ask, “How did this happen?”  I advised that their assistants didn’t know what to do so they called us.  Behind the scenes we were doing stuff for them anyway.  So he says, “Sign me up,” and that was it.  That’s all he needed.

NLJ:    You also put on a rock concert, didn’t you? Tell us about that.

MA:    Our client built a 12 bedroom cabin, 9000 feet above sea level, in the middle of nowhere in a central state, that could sustain 50 people for five years.  He designed it to have all of  his closest friends there.  He loves Paul Rogers and Bad Company, and it was his dream to see them in concert, but he didn’t want to see him on tour and go to a concert, so we hired Paul Rogers and produced a full on rock and roll festival in his back yard, 9000 feet up, and flew in 400 people from all over the country.  We bought out two hotels and we got the tour manager on the t-shirts to add his concert to the tour schedule on the back.

MA:    It was a 1.1 million dollar event for five hours on a Saturday afternoon and it was awesome.

NLJ:    What is the secret of being an effective concierge?

MA:    To live it and just breathe it.  Just do it yourself, to not have to rely on any hearsay, to go to that restaurant to meet the owner, take time getting to know him, taking him to lunch, finding out that his passion is actually making cheesecake.  There’s one place in New York in Tribeca that just hands down has the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  So when clients would go in the hotel there, they would always send out cheesecake for me on the house.  And they’d come back, “Even if you hate cheesecake, you will love it.” It’s all in the details.  It’s going to see the Broadway shows and being able to intelligently talk about it, “So let me tell you what you do need to see.”  It’s being able to quickly offer an alternative.  It’s being able to just have a walking encyclopedia of knowledge .  At the hotel, if you were interested in working for my department, I gave a 100 question quiz before you even got an interview, and if you didn’t score 50 or better I wouldn’t interview you.  “Tell me where the Metropolitan Museum is.  What are the cross streets? What are the hours at the MOMA?”  You had to have an inherent love when you walk down the street in New York and just absorb it all and get to know it all. There’s so much to know, evolving constantly. If you don’t have that sort of personality, the “I’m a sponge.  I’m going to take it all in,” you’re not a good fit for concierge.  It’s relationships, like any other business.

NLJ:    And all of you have an innate curiosity about life, life’s experience and people and places, things…

MA:    100%.

NLJ:    …and then on top of that you have to have the ability to get along not only with your clients, who may be demanding or anxious… but also with people who are vendors that you need them to cooperate with. So there’s a lot of people, interaction and people skills required, isn’t there?

MA:    A client from a very prominent family in New York called us one day and said, “Look, I want to take my family for our Christmas vacation.”  He called in November, and there were very few things that we could do for a family of 25 because everything was booked in the Caribbean.  We managed to get accommodations. Three people were flying from New York to Puerto Rico and somewhere else, so logistically it was quite challenging.  The mom and dad get there and they’re very old school New Yorkers and I said to them, “Okay, you’re going to meet so and so in the lobby in 15 minutes after you arrive and they’re going to take you on a tour and they’re going to take you directly to your suite.  Again, you’re not going to check in.

Ten minutes after they arrived they got impatient and they went to the front desk and said, “I’m supposed to have this so and so suite.  Can we go ahead and check in?”  The front desk agent didn’t know who they were and knew that these suites were blocked for this family but didn’t make the connection.  He said, “I’m sorry, sir.  These suites are sold.”  The father went crazy.  He construed that as, “My family vacation is ruined.”  He ripped into his son, our client, his son, who called and ripped into me and said, “This is not the time to mess up,” “This is not the people to do it with,” and I said, “Wait.  What are you talking about?  Everything’s set.  I told you 15 minutes they’re going to be there.”  The agent at the front desk was somewhat clueless and he set the tone for the entire vacation.  There was nothing wrong.  They just perceived that it was something wrong. “I assure you everything’s fine, go back, make your mom and dad wait in the lobby as I instructed.  You’ll be taken care of.”  Sure enough, he called me a half hour later to say, “Sorry.”  So there are many moving pieces and people to manage.  It’s really difficult because one person can have a lousy experience when you check in with somebody and it’s a reflection on us. But how do you control that?  The way that we do it is we put the fear of God in our vendors.

NLJ:    One of the things you do is prepare events or something that will be delightful to your client.  They don’t quite know how to do it themselves.  You had one involving a well-known chef.

MA:    That was an almost impossible event to pull off.  A client in Vegas has a  wife whose favorite chef is in New York, and she wanted the chef to come there.  He doesn’t do that.  The chef was too rich, too famous, too prominent.  He doesn’t need to do that.  So it’s again about relationships, connecting the situation and explaining that what we do is not just a service, but it’s actually making a difference in the lives of our clients. The chef came out and he almost started crying when he saw that these people appreciated food and wine the way they did, he made such an emotional connection as in, “I’m not just being paid a fee.  I’m actually making a memory for the family.” So it’s not just, “I hire you to do something,” it’s “you’re coming on board and these are the type of clients that we have.  They want something that’s so special, that’s going to make a memory.”  We’re doing an event for a client’s daughter’s 16th birthday with a band that travels with 30 people and their entourage and backup performers and dancers.  It’s going to be another event like the rock fest last year, and it’ll probably be a million dollars when it’s all said and done.

NLJ:    Does that happen sometimes where the spouse will want to surprise the other spouse?

MA:    Yes, one thing we did early on was assist a client of ours in Rancho Santa Fe who said, “Look, our 25th anniversary is coming up.  She has all the bags, all the jewelry.  I don’t want to buy anything for her.”  I’m asked him what she liked.”  He replied, “She really loves tennis.” So we get to thinking, and a buddy of mine, a PR guy knows Pete Sampras.  So I called him up and I said, “Do you think Pete would even consider doing like a private tennis clinic?  Here is someone who doesn’t need to do it.  My friend’s wife, the PR guy, is married to Sampras’s sister who runs the tennis program at UCLA. So we proposed to our client, “Why don’t you make a sizeable donation to UCLA tennis program and see what we can do with that.  So I think he said, “How’s $50,000 sound?”   Sampras’ sister was thrilled with it and she convinced Pete.  So he took a day.  He went to the Bel Air Country Club and she flew up from San Diego with her girlfriend, and this was a total surprise.  She was told, “The limo will take you somewhere.  Bring your tennis gear” … and they show up at the country club and Pete Sampras is on the court, and they think, “Oh, my God, Pete Sampras is here.”  But he was there for them. So he plays tennis with them for a couple hours, has lunch with them and then signs autographs.  All in all it’s a four or five hour event.  That was her birthday present.  With wealth you can get that.

CJ:      What would you ask for and what would be your memory?

MA:    That’s a great question.  I don’t want to be surprised.  Fully have a plan, hand me an itinerary and say, “This is what will happen.”If somebody could orchestrate a lunch or coffee with all the people that I want to meet who are dead that would be great.   If I could sit down and have lunch with William Faulkner, for example, but it’s not going to happen.  Even we can’t pull that off.  But somebody like that;  if I could have some literary giant to sit with, have a beer, a coffee, that would be something.

estion.  I don’t want to be surprised.  Fully have a plan, hand me an itinerary and say, “This is what will happen.”If somebody could orchestrate a lunch or coffee with all the people that I want to meet who are dead that would be great.   If I could sit down and have lunch with William Faulkner, for example, but it’s not going to happen.  Even we can’t pull that off.  But somebody like that;  if I could have some literary giant to sit with, have a beer, a coffee, that would be something.

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Aside  —  Posted: 02/20/2013 in Uncategorized

Meet Singer-Songwriter Kelley Ryan

Posted: 01/27/2013 in Uncategorized

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Kelley Ryan, a singer-songwriter, who divides her time between Ireland and Palm Springs, California, makes modern tasty pop music. Often assisting her are Marti Jones, a great vocalist and writer, and Don Dixon, the legendary bassist and producer. Kelley is not only a talented musician, but also very pretty with a great personality. This interview was conducted in Ireland and Palm Springs.

            TM: Cocktails is your newest work. How does this project continue the

evolution of Twist, your previous cd?

            KR:  In hindsight I can say that it is a logical extension of Twist in that its tone is more personal than ever.  I love the idea of following a single thread of strong emotion, deep into its roots, and then trying to capture it with words, music and mood.  Also, I was extremely lucky to be able to work with Don Dixon, Marti Jones and Jim Brock again.  They “get it,” whatever “it” is; all three of them have an amazing talent for opening up and getting on the same page of whatever the song is saying.  Tracing emotions down to their core to find out how they might sound if they were a song.  That is the road I like to travel. Hopefully the next stuff I write will continue down that road.

            TM: Lyrics or music first? Explain your songwriting process.

            KR: It’s pretty simple: whatever works. I’ve done it every which way.  Usually it starts with a melody for me.  When that is established in my mind’s eye (or ear in this case) I can write the words anywhere, anytime. Melodies just circle inside of my head constantly. Looking for words.  And I keep my mind open until I find the ones that I think fit the best.  Words, themselves, are melodic you know.

 

            TM:  You are not always writing from personal experience, I gather, but from

observations or imagination; am I right?

            KR:  Almost always personal experience in some way. There is a major piece of my own experience in everything I’ve ever written. My struggle is to be true to the way I feel about it and express it without chickening out.

            TM:     Twist, your last record before the latest, Cocktails, is under your name, while your previous four records were by the “astroPuppees.”  Why?

            KR:     Twist came out differently than the astroPuppees’ collection.  I never really wanted to do anything other than showcase the songs, and so I would just write songs until I had enough for a record. I worked with lots of different people, like Jesse Valenzuela (Gin Blossoms) or Bill Demain (Swan Dive).  We would co-write and brainstorm in my basement studio in Los Angeles, and I just wasn’t really interested in being Kelley Ryan.  It was more about the songs and the groups of different revolving characters that they came over to record.  So it wasn’t really totally about my perspective.  Twist was actually going to be an astroPuppees record. I started from the get-go, co-producing it with Don Dixon, which I’d never done before.  As we got going on it, he heard my songs that I was intending to be the core of Twist, he said, “I think this should be a Kelley Ryan record.  It sounds different.”  And I said “I think I wanna stick with astroPuppees.  I just feel uncomfortable being ‘Kelley Ryan’.”  But by the time the record was finished, it was plainly from my perspective, and it made sense.  It was also so much more of a solid-core, group-effort.  Dixon and I produced it from start to finish.  Then Marti Jones is the consistent voice, other than mine, throughout the whole record.  On the other ones, I had different girls singing. And Dixon was the bass player all the way through.  I had various people playing bass before, including myself.  Jim Brock did all the percussion.  So it was more of a band than previously.  The other thing was that I co-wrote one song with Marti, co-wrote one with Dixon and Marti, one with Dixon, and besides the one cover on there, I wrote all the words.  So it really ended up coming from my own perspective.  I was empowered to just go ahead, speak my own emotions and lyrics, not hiding behind an aka.

            The working title was “About a Girl,” which is the first track.  And although nobody necessarily has to get this, every song is about a woman or a girl in my life, fictional or real, who inspired me or was a heroine to me.  There’s one about my grandmother, one about my aunt, “The Lady’s Daughter.”  “Bridie’s Eyes” is about a woman who lives up the road right here in Ireland.  She lives in a super old, little cottage,  with the old Irish walls that are 3 feet thick.  No bathroom.  No running water.  She lived with her dog Rose.  Every day we would see her walk past our cottage here with a walking stick.  She’d climb down the cliff to the beach, carrying a little sack-like thing, and she’d come up with driftwood that was her heat for her cottage.  She was completely from another era.  I could barely understand her when she talked.  She’s always laughing.  Her eyes were almost too blue.  She was a walking song.  I’d always wanted to write a song about her.  In this case, Dixon had sent me a lovely melody, and as I was sitting outside playing it, Bridie walked by and I thought, “there are the words!”.   I even tried to write one about the daughter I never had.  It was so hokey that I couldn’t quite get it to be a song, so I ended up writing about somebody else’s daughter that I know. So Twist ended up being kind of love songs to women, or more specifically, I wanted to celebrate the ‘feminine side’ that we all have as humans.

            TM:     Did you ever play it for Bridie?

            KR:     She has Alzheimer’s. And, when you listen to the song, that is partially what it’s about.  She started wandering around the hills here and people couldn’t find her.  People in the neighborhood would kind of take care of her.  So now she’s actually moved to a rest home, but I swear her spirit continues to roam the fields and cliffs around here.

            KR:     I went up to the home where she stays, and took my guitar and sang, and she was there.  She was great.  She recognized us.  She goes in and out.  But I didn’t sing that song.

            TM:     What has the reaction been to the record?

            KR:     I have never had as wonderful a reaction as I’ve ever had with this one. 

            TM:     You went on tour, didn’t you?

            KR:     Yeah, a little mini tour a few places with Dixon and Jones and Brock in tow, and then a handful of just Dixon and Jones.  We played in New York twice, Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, and L.A.  We did a show, that NPR radio show Mountain Stage, in West Virginia. It’s radio, Garrison Keillor-style, a big stage, awesome, a great place to see music.  There’s five or six different acts, and you do five or six songs, and then you  do  a thing at the end.  Larry Gross, runs it, he had a song, in the 70’s…

            TM:     Junk Food Junkie.

            KR:     He’s really nice.  It’s in front of a live audience.  They treat you like a king there.

            TM:     You live in Ireland three-fourths of the year and then in Palm Springs the rest of the time. And Dixon lives in Canton, Ohio.  How are you able to collaborate?

            KR:     I’m a studio rat at heart.  Some people like to get up and play and perform and sing.  I love to hole up for days on end and make it sound good.  Over the years, Dixon’s been my mentor. I have digital stuff, a little hard drive that I can take back and forth between Ireland and Palm Springs.  I make a copy of it, throw it in my suitcase, and  I have the same equipment in both places and Dixon has the same machine, so we recorded in his studio in Ohio, and Palm Springs, and most of the “after stuff in Ireland” ‘cause we did the basics with Dixon.

            TM:     What does Dixon add to the record?

            KR:     The overall everything.  He usually doesn’t co-produce either, but takes the whole captain of the ship tack.  It was really a three-way thing, because Marti (Jones, Dixon’s wife) is such a good friend. It was an amazing, wonderful two-year long experience.  I take a long time to make records, but this was especially nice ’cause we just did everything we wanted to, when we wanted to do it, in very fun situations.  Marti came out for a week to do half the vocals in Palm Springs, and then she came to Ireland a couple months later.  We did the other half, and I went with Dixon and met Brock in South Carolina.  We did the basics at Brock’s studio, actually, with Dixon’s equipment.  We just did different mixes of stuff and kept getting together shaping it as we went along. Dixon plays bass on everything, but he also plays wine glasses.  We would just do little mixes and put little weird noises on.  I do the same kind of thing, so we’d just go back and forth and just keep adding to it, sort of like a paper mache.

               TM: When does Dixon come into the picture, before or after the

song is completed?

               KR:  Dixon is one of my best friends, let alone a hero of mine in the recording studio, so he comes in with influence before, during and after.  Most markedly, in my case, during.  He is without a doubt the skeleton and spine of what I call a record.  He contributes infinite amounts of his time, knowledge, talent and energy to whatever he happens to be involved with musically.  He lends everything he’s got to your ‘cause’ as an artist, but steps back and let’s you be who you are.  He is an incredible producer and musician.  There are no words to describe his awesomeness. He is epic.

               TM: Is he there for basic tracking?

               KR: Yup. He is the spine! He and Jim Brock. Usually, the three of us will go for four or five days and they will track the stuff and I will just sit back trying to learn by osmosis. Again, it is an amazing experience.

               TM: What is it like to work with him; is he bossy? How do achieve a consensus on how to produce?

               KR. I’m laughing! Bossy? We actually co-produced this record as well as the last one. Let’s just put it this way..I am actually the bossy one, but I always do whatever Dixon says. Without question he is the Captain.

               TM:  How long does it take to make a recording once you’ve got the tune written?

               KR:  The whole process of recording, from the scratch idea in the middle of the night blabbed into my cell phone recorder to the mastering lab in NYC, is part of my process.  Writing a tune, and recording it, are one and the same to me.  When it’s mastered and pressed and you can’t change anything anymore then the song is written.  You do have to learn how to “put a fork in it” however.  Not too soon…not too late.  I think the song itself will tell you when it’s done.  Writing and recording and even video making are all part of the same animal to me anyway.

            TM:     Who is Marti Jones?  Why is she in your life?

            KR:     She’s my best friend, the most amazing singer/songwriter voice on the planet.  She’s had records on A&M and RCA in the 80’s.  That’s how she met Dixon.  He produced her. She’s since gotten into her original love which is painting, and isn’t doing music that much.  She’s  just painting, painting, painting, which is what she always wanted to do.  But as she puts it, the music thing got in the way.

            TM:     Where did you guys meet?

            KR:     Through Dan, my husband…

            TM:     Your husband is a music publisher and…

            KR:     And Dixon was a client. I met them and they were great from the start. We went to see a show that they did with Janice Ian and John Hiatt at the Palace in Hollywood and they were wonderful.  They banter and make you feel like you’re in their living room.  When I did my first astroPuppees record, You Win The Bride, in 1996, Dixon mixed it.  That was right after I went to cookery school in Ireland and HighTone picked up the record. I sent it to him and asked him would he mix it?  And he was into it, so he asked me to come out to his home studio in Canton, Ohio.  So I flew there for three or four days to hang out with him while he mixed it.  I stayed at their home and ended cooking dinner for them, (cause I’d just come back from cookery school), and Marti and I became friends. Ever since then, we make it a point to see one another a couple of times a year.  She comes here, I go there.  We have projects. 

            TM: Marti Dixon seems to have a greater presence vocally on Cocktails, at

times you are arguably in duet format, a la Simon and Garfunkel. I’m wondering whether this came about intentionally, organically or a combination of both?

            KR:  A combination of both.  As far as the evolution of the songs it is organic. That’s how I work. I don’t really ever have a game plan. I just try to follow the path of least resistance wherever that may lead.  It just happened that Marti and I ended up traveling a lot together over the last few years, and as we did, it informed the songs that eventually became Cocktails.  It was natural for us to both sing on the recordings.  We ended up co-writing three of the eight tracks as well, so it made sense. I would love it if she were to sing more.  But these days she is much more interested in her visual artwork and painting, so it’s rare to get her in front of a mic for any amount of time.  I grab what I can from her vocally. And without fail whatever I manage to record is just exquisite.  The intentional part of the equation is that we planned for Cocktails to be sort of a complementary piece for her most recent painting exhibition called 3D: Drinking, Dining and Dancing. The release of Cocktails was in Nashville at the LeQuire Gallery where we played live (me, Marti, Dixon and Brock) amidst Marti’s paintings and an unbelievable collection of art and invited guests.  It was shining.

            TM: How do you work the vocal parts out? Do you send her the parts, or try it out live?

            KR:  Both.  But mostly we work it out live.  I come up with stuff…she comes up with stuff…we keep riffing off one another until it is all layered up and sounding juicy, hopefully. You have to remember that we’re really good friends so one of the best motivations for us to work together is the fact that we get to hang out for a few times a year at least in order to do the recordings.  And then if we’re lucky — play live.  The more we can hang out, the better.  I think we inspire one another.  At least we make each other laugh.

            TM:     Let’s get some background on you.  Where are you from?

            KR:     I’m from Portland, Oregon.

            TM:     And how is it that you wound up in the music industry?

            KR:     I’ve been playing and writing songs since I was 12, and I’m sure it had something to do with impressing my father.  He was a disc jockey in this little town in Albany, that I grew up in.  I remember one time when I came home, maybe I was eight or nine, and Strawberry Alarm Clock were in our living room, and playing guitars by our fireplace.  Having a DJ for a dad is kinda wacky and wonderful.  I would hang out at the radio station.  I did jingles when I was in high school and got to record. Yes, my Dad pretty much set me on my musical course.

            TM:     What was your instrument, guitar?

            KR:     Yeah.

            TM:     How did you learn to play?

            KR:     I had a Mel Bay guitar book.  I went to a couple lessons.  The first song I learned was On Top Of Old Smoky, I was 12. Then I immediately started writing, just making stuff up.  I made up this song called Come Fly With Me.  I can still play it.  And I remember going down to my mom, she was making dinner, and I played it for her and all she said was – and I love my mom, “Now, honey, you just don’t wanna be too much of a showoff.” That was her reaction.  I remember.  But it didn’t deter me.  There was nothing else to do.  That guitar was connected to me.  I’d climb trees with it.  I would sit up for hours talking to it!  Just like my pal.

            TM:     You said that to me once.  I mean is that literally true?  You would actually climb a tree…

            KR:     Literally true.  With the guitar, climb a tree.  I’m a tomboy.  I lived in the country, you know. What else was did I have to do?  I’d just sit up there and play.  I’d take it everywhere we’d go on vacation.  When I got older I remember taking a beer, a joint and a sandwich, out on our boat.  We would be in Lake Tahoe.  “Bye Mom and Dad,” and “Don’t go so far where we can’t see you,”  “Okay.”  I’d go far enough so that I could smoke my joint.  And I used to take my guitar and play for hours.  I mean that’s all I ever did.

            TM:     So you came to L.A.

            KR:     When I was 19.

            TM:     To do what?

            KR:     I wanted to be a rock star, but I shortly gave up on that one.  I finished college.  I had two years into college and my parents were like “You gotta go to college.”  I somehow convinced them that I needed to transfer from University of Oregon to Long Beach State, which was as close as I could get to Hollywood. Because my aunt and my cousin lived there, I convinced them I should go there. I moved to L.A. for music.

            TM:     Did you graduate?

            KR:     In radio and television.

            TM:     And then what did you do?

            KR:     The week that I arrived in Long Beach, I went to Hollywood. I got a job at a studio on Larrabee.  I worked nights when I went to college.  I would drive to Hollywood and be the night manager.

            TM:     Where did you work?  Larrabee Sound?

            KR:     Yep.  Night manager, and I’d go to school in the day.  The kind of thing you can only do when you’re 20, and then I’d be up all night.

            TM:     That’s a long drive.

            KR:     Yeah, and it was night, and it was  in the heart of West L.A., but I met great people..  I met Stevie Nicks and Glen Campbell.  There was a lot of disco goin’ on then at that time and it was heavily gay around there.  Very hip.  John Stewart, who was a great guy, I met there.  The couple that owned the studio, a husband and a wife, were really helpful and encouraging.  I met Doug Weston and played The Troubadour, and I after I graduated I got a job at Capitol Records so I could live up there.

            TM:     What did you do there?

            KR:     I worked in the lowest totem pole office.  People would wanna get on top of the tower and be the assistant to the A&R guy or be in the studio.  I took the typing test and I kept going “fuck it, fuck it.”  Okay, and I failed it, “Can I do it again?”  The person administrating said “Okay.  Just try to do it without swearing.” I took it three times.  She must have liked me though, cause she gave me the gig even though I couldn’t type.  So I had a job and it paid enough for me to move up and into an apartment on Grace Ave. in Hollywood.  I was there for a year.  Then I got married which lasted about a year.  I reluctantly moved back to Newport Beach, with my surfer husband.  I got a job in a carwash.  I was writing music the whole time, in a bad marriage, and I was nowhere near Hollywood, and I had a degree, and I was freaking, polishing guys’ hubcaps with a short top on.  I finally, I sat down one night and I said. “I have to get a real job,” and I wrote down all the places I wanted to work, and one of them was Bug Music.  It changed my life.  I called Barbara Kirkner at Bug Music and that turned out to be one of the best calls I ever made in my life.  I started working there and moved back up to Hollywood, guitar in hand.

            TM:     And what did you do at Bug?

            KR:     Everything.   I was a Kell(e)y Girl, literally

            TM:     So there you were, did they know you were a musician at Bug.

            KR:     Oh, yeah, they did.

            TM:     But they were not interested in your material?

            KR:     No.

            TM:     You didn’t pitch it?

            TM:     At at some point you got involved with the boss. (Dan Bourgoise)

            KR:     Yes, I did.

            TM:     And then you ultimately married him.

            KR:     Yes, I did.

            TM:     When and how did you blossom or come forth as a recording artist?

            KR:     It goes back to Dixon again. I would send him stuff and he would be nice enough to listen and encourage my writing.  Dan talked to him once and said, “You know, I feel weird promoting Kelley, because she’s my wife and I don’t want to upset other writers. I like her songwriting a lot, but I don’t really know how to go about this.”  And Dixon said to Dan in so many words “You’ve gotta go out there and say she’s great, because if you don’t go out and say she’s great, then everybody else is gonna think you don’t approve.” Dan gladly took that advice to heart and it’s just really natural now.  I went on my own and I got a little success. Music in a few television shows, and a couple movies, and little bits here and there.  But if the truth be told… if I had to survive on the money I make from my music, I’d be dead. I do it for the same reason I always have: FOR THE LOVE OF IT

            TM:     So then how did the first astroPuppees record come out, You Win The Bride?

            KR:     That was when I came back after being in Ireland.  I went to cookery school for three months, out of frustration, lived in Ireland for three months, wrote and brought my guitar.  After I came back to Los Angeles, I just had an outpouring of recording that came out pretty good.  About that same time, Dan was contacted by a little label called HighTone that was looking for  some new acts, and he threw my rough CD in with a bunch of others.  He sent like five or six things and they wanted mine.  Since it was called astroPuppees,  it wasn’t like “Oh, that’s your wife.”  That’s another probable reason I was still afraid to say I was Kelley Ryan in a way.  Dan has done everything to help me and always been really supportive. 

            TM:     That record came out when?

            KR:     1996.

            TM:     You put out records about every three years since then?

            KR:     The last, this last one was a little longer, but yeah.  I put out four astroPuppees records, two by Kelley Ryan, and then I have a virtual one called Lost Valentines which is available on Bug Digital.

            TM:     That’s a whole album?

            KR:     It’s outtakes and covers and things. Like a one-off I did for a Shoes tribute record, called, The Tube.  There’s a couple things, and they’re pretty good.  They just never went on any of my records officially.

            TM:     Musical influences?

            KR:     Everything. My stuff is not reinventing the wheel, but between my father and my husband, who’s a publisher, and my dad, who was a disc jockey, and the fact that all I ever did was write music and play guitar, I’ve listen to music constantly my whole life.  I never have to put anything on.  It’s always going.  My number one favorite in the whole entire planet is Ella Fitzgerald. I like a lot of things.  It changes all the time.

            TM:     What are your three favorite songs of all time?

            KR:     Music Of The Night.  I’ll just pick one, from Phantom Of The Opera.

            TM:     What are some thrills that you’ve had in your musical career so far?

            KR:     The people I’ve gotten to meet probably.  Playing with Van Dyke Parks. Making my last two records were the most amazing musical experiences of my life in everyway almost that’s connected with it imagined.  Playing live with Dixon and Jones and Bro TM:  Van Dyke Parks, how did you get to work with him?

            KR:     I’ve known him.  He’s an old friend of Dan’s and I’ve known him and his wife, Sally, for years through Dan, and he knew my music.  He was one of the people I could send my cd’s to, when they were done, and he encouraged me.  So I got up the guts to ask him if he would consider arranging some strings for a song on Twist and he ended up doing two songs.  He sent me back 24 tracks of “Van Dyke Parks-o-rama arrangements”.   It was awesome and it was thick with beautiful Van Dyke riffs.  He told me, “Do not be afraid.  Whittle it down.  I don’t want you to freak out.  I know what you do. And I like it”.  So I got to have full rein and spent days cherry picking the best lines and lived in Van Dyke cartoon world.  I’d go turn on my equipment in the morning, and it’d be like “La da da da da, lu lu lu,” everywhere.  Just awesome.  So that was fun, but it was scary to ask him.

ck is unbelievable. I die.  I’m so excited to get to do it again. It’s just amazing.

            TM:     And Iggy’s fun?

            KR:     He’s great, really smart, really nice, really funny, not scary, kooky in a good way.  And I got to meet a lot of really good people at Bug.  Marshall Crenshaw, is one and I co-wrote two songs with him for his latest record, Jaggedland.

            TM:     Why did you go to cooking school and what was that like?

            KR:     I didn’t know what else to do.  It was like climbing trees with the guitar.  I just was at an end in Hollywood where I wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed.  The job that I was in was at a dead end.  There was nowhere for me to really go and I was dying to record more and get my music out, and I wasn’t sure how to do it, and I just kinda went off and, whoosh three months shook the foundations of my spirit.  As I say to Darina Allen, who runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, if you can make it there, you can make it ANYwhere.  Forget New York.  I came home with a lot of confidence, and luckily enough, HighTone picked up my record, out of the blue, and it just worked out.  And I thought, “Yeah, I can do this.” 

            TM:     What do your mom and dad think of your musical career now?

            KR:     My dad thinks I’m Barbra Streisand.  They’re mom and dad.  They love it.

           

            TM:     Do songs come easy for you?

            KR:     I’m kinda crazy, so they just go, in the middle of the night, they’re like a hamster on a wheel, and I get going and I can’t stop.  It’s therapeutic! If I didn’t do it I’d probably be insane. Oh, I probably am anyway.

            TM:     Advice to other songwriters and singers from what you’ve learned in your life.

            KR:     Gotta do it for the love.  Gotta go down that path of least resistance.  Don’t force anything that feels weird.  Stay totally true to yourself.  Write what you know.  It’s not about money.  It’s about love, loving what you do.

           TM: When will you be performing live?

           KR: I have some things in the works for this year. The live stuff will happen but it’s rare.  You can find me on youtube.com on my kelleypie1 channel.  And, of course, you can see me on Facebook.  Dates will be posted there and on my website kelleyryan.net.  How’s that for shameless self promotion?

 

 

 

 

 


Saw Buffalo Springfield last night at Wiltern.

Awesome show, all the old songs done impeccably. Sold out crowd loved it. They were a great group then, as now. I remember seeing them in ’67; they were great then.

They’re doing a tour in the near future. Stills is in good shape, Young always is and Furay is a great singer. Harmonies were tight.

For information on their tour, check this out Buffalo Springfield tour


Sharon Corr is one of the gorgeous Corr sisters, the violinist of and a vocalist in the Corrs, the great Irish recording act, which has sold over 26 million albums, and toured the world to sellout crowds. The Corrs and U2 are the reigning stars of Irish contemporary music. Sharon has recorded her first solo album and it’s simply wonderful. We had the good fortune to get to know her when we had an extended vacation in Ireland and she was kind to allow us to interview her in July of 2010 in Dublin. She’s charming, great fun, down to earth, and personifies class. As you will read below, Sharon has a full life as a musician, wife and mother. She’s married to the handsome, dashing, successful Irish barrister, Gavin Bonnar.

TM: Why are you doing a solo album?

SC: Because I make music, that’s what I do.  I perform, write, sing, play, and I’ve always wanted to make a solo album.  I’ve been working with the Corrs for about 20 years, and my family, been with them for like 100 years, and we all took a hiatus to have children and stop touring, get off the road and get some normal life going. But in the couple of years that I was having my children, I was very inspired and wrote a lot music, and that spurred me on to make an album.  So it was a very organic, natural process.

TM: Is the music different from what you were doing with the Corrs?

SC: It’s different in that I’ve changed emotionally.  I’m a little more mature.  It’s not drastically different because for me to do so would be for me to deny myself, so what I wrote for the Corrs is what I was naturally inspired to do.  What I write for me is what I’m naturally inspired to do. There’s a similarity as in it’s very melodic and the violin runs the whole way through.  It’s my main instrument.

TM: Is it different instrumentation than what Corrs’ music traditionally has been?

SC: The Corrs’ music is your basic rhythm section, drums, bass, guitar, lead guitar, keyboards, violin.  I’ve got the bodhran on the album, a single drum with a skin on it.  It’s an old Irish drum that I hit with a stick which is actually called a tipper.  It’s sort of fat at either end and makes a beautiful, very ethnically Irish sound.  So, no, the instrumentation isn’t very different from the Corrs.

TM: In terms of songwriting style, do you consider this to be different in the sense that it’s more Celtic, pop, folky?  Are there any strains of styles that are different?

SC: It’s a little rockier, it’s a little heavier.  Violin-wise I wanted to explore my classical side on the album as well.  I was brought up playing classical violin and then switched over to more traditional later on in my teens.   I’ve explored variations on how to play the violin so it would feel more classical one minute, or more bluegrassy, and then the next minute it would be back to traditional Irish.  I’ve wanted to explore myself vocally on this album and violin-wise and stretch myself more.

TM: On the Corrs’ albums, was there violin on most tracks?

SC: On the earlier albums, on every track.  Later albums, there were maybe a couple of tracks without violin on it, but it is a very strong part of our sound.  It is part of the intonation that I suppose identified the Corrs’ music.

TM: Who, besides Charlie Daniels  of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,”  is both a vocalist and a violinist at the same time?

SC: Alison Krauss, and one of the Dixie Chicks, of course, but it is still a rarity and for that reason it’s very identifiable.

TM: Let’s talk about the songwriting process.  How do you write these songs?

SC: Almost every song on the album was written on piano.  What I basically do is spend a lot of time in and around my piano.  If I’m making a cup of coffee, the piano’s nearby.  Or minding the kids.  I’m coming in and out of the piano all day.  I don’t like to force myself to write.  I like it to be just something I’m continuously doing, because I don’t respond well to a schedule. I like to have it as something that’s part of my organic day.  I’m always writing, and I chose to do it that way because if I ever stop writing, I find it hard to get back on the writing horse, and grapple back what I knew from the last song I wrote, and it takes me awhile.  I find a chord progression on the piano that inspires melody.

TM: Then do you come up with lyrics?

SC: Yes.  Usually the lyric is something I will start singing while I’m messing around on the piano.  I’ll find like a word like “butterflies.” I wrote a song called “Butterflies” – I kept finding butterflies in my life.  Everywhere I looked there was a butterfly.  At Christmastime, there was a butterfly around our table and it wasn’t the time of year, and it was sort of out of sync, so I was inspired to write something about butterflies, and it almost comes out before I think about it, and then I have to discover the lyric around what I’m thinking.

TM: Songwriting comes easy?

SC: Yeah.  I used to find lyrics incredibly difficult. To really touch people, you have to create a lyric that you yourself understand, that you know that perfectly encapsulates the situation, and there are only certain writers that can really do that, that will say something in a way that puts you in the situation where you can touch it, you can feel it, and you can smell it ­– if the lyric is saying something.  You have to feel it.

TM: Are they all songs about love?

SC: No.  “Butterflies” is about that moment before you get on stage, butterflies in your belly. When I took time off to have my children, I missed the road desperately.  I more desperately wanted to have children at that stage of my life, but I missed playing music and what happens before you get on stage.  I was on tour for almost 20 years of my life so that was more my norm than the other … I wanted to get back out on tour and knew the only I could get do so if I created an album that created an interest, so that people would want to buy tickets.

TM: But you do write about love, I presume.

SC: Oh, yes.  A lot of it is love.  “Butterflies” is about love of music.

TM: Have you done any covers or anything traditional?

SC: I have covered the The Corgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.”

And I’ve covered “Small Town Boy.”  Sort of flipped it on its head and made it really, very dark.  It was an 80’s gay anthem, and I’ve just tried to focus on the lyric and turned it around. Traditionally, I have done “Mna Na h’Eireann” which is a piece by Sean O’Riada.  It means “Women Of Ireland,” and it’s a hugely famous piece. I did a new arrangement of that with Jeff Beck.

TM: Is that in Gaelic, the song?

SC: The name of the song is in Gaelic but it’s an instrumental, and then there also have been lyrics written to it, maybe over the years.

TM: On the Corrs’ album, the songs say “written by the Corrs.”  Is that really what happened?  All four Corrs get together and write?

SC: All four of us are writers, but we didn’t necessarily all write together en masse at the one time, Caroline and Andrea wrote a lot together.  I wrote a lot on my own.  Jim and Andrea wrote a lot together.  So we were each writing, at least a quarter of the album each, so we just went “The Corrs.”

TM: So it’s one for and all and all for one.

SC: Yeah, but if you picked out the individual songs, they would be different individuals writing.  If we’re in an interview and somebody said, “Okay, who wrote “So Young?,”  well everybody would say, “I did .”

TM: You mean “you?”

SC: Yeah, I did, and then if it was “Queen Of Hollywood,” we would say Andrea wrote it, so…

TM: How about “Breathless?”

SC: “Breathless” was Andrea and Mutt Lange.

TM: There’s no doubt that the Corrs have a tremendous pop aspect to them, but there’s also a folk aspect to them.  When you got signed or started putting out your first music, was it as poppy or as, as near pop as it ultimately became?  Or were you pushed in that direction?

SC: Oh, God, no, no, that was our idea.  Originally, when we started writing together, before we were signed, it was pure pop.  It was very electronic, very pure pop, and then we introduced the traditional Irish because I played the violin so we introduced it into the music.  And then we developed our sound over a couple of years of writing.  We got a record deal ultimately because we chased David Foster into a studio in New York while he was recording Michael Jackson. The edge of the Irish music really appealed to him, he really got that.  The harmonies he loved.  I think we got signed because of that combination.

TM: How did four siblings end up in a group with each other?

SC: I don’t know.  I say our music was our life because it actually was; there was a lot of music in our life.  My parents were both musicians.  My mother had a voice like Karen Carpenter.  My father was a keyboard player, piano player.  They played gigs at the weekends.  Mom was a stay-at-home mom and then a singer at the weekend, and then dad worked in the local electricity supply board and then played at the weekends with Mom.  So it was our lives.

TM: What did your dad do for a living?

SC: He was the head of accounts in ESB.  That’s Electricity Supply Board.  So he was like an accountant.

TM: I take it he encouraged the kids.

SC: Oh, yeah.  My mom and dad found their greatest joy in life was music.  It was where they were most happy.  And I think they found if you can be in the music business, you can have a very special life if you can be in the music business.  Obviously, it’s a very precarious industry, a very difficult industry, but I think they really believed in following their dreams and certainly following their talent.

TM: When the group first began, what were the ages of the kids?

SC: We began in 1990, the oldest is Jim, my brother.

TM: How old was Jim?

SC: I was 20, Jim was 26, Andrea was 16, Caroline was 17.  It sort of fell together.  There was an idea to have a band.  Jim always wanted to have a band with his sisters.  I’m not sure how keen we sisters were actually, but certainly he was into that idea.

TM: What were you doing then?

SC: I was managing a record store.  I was working in a pub.  I had finished school.  I was playing violin

TM: Where were you living?

SC: I was living in Dundalk, our hometown.

TM: And that’s up near the border of Northern Ireland.

SC: Yes, it’s about 15 miles from the border.

TM: What kind of a town is that?

SC: It’s a great town, and for music.  Great traditional sessions, great players, there’s a great orchestra in the town.  It got a bit of a bad rap because a lot of the Troubles (how the Irish refer to the conflicts between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), a lot of guys causing the trouble in the North would cross the border and move to Dundalk just to get away from the police over there, and it got a bit of a bad rap at stages but it was a good town to grow up in.  We were very happy there.

TM: You formed the group with the intentions of getting a record deal?

SC: It was a lot more naïve than that.  We formed a band.  We really liked the implications of forming the band and trying to have a career.  What actually happened was we formed the band almost by mistake because we wanted to audition for the film The Commitments, which was running open auditions in Dublin at the time.  The guy who became our manager was MD on the move and he knew Jim, our brother, because Jim had done some recordings for him, and he said, “You guys, why don’t you audition?”  So that’s when we first got together and started rehearsing some songs together.  The first time we played together was on stage for Alan Parker, auditioning for the movie.  That day, the casting director for that movie, who was a good friend of John Hughes, said out of the blue to him, “You should manage them,” and to us, “You should let him manage you,” and that was it.  It was fate.

TM: Then what happened?  Did it take of quickly?

SC: No, no.  It took us four years to get a record deal.  We had to start writing.  We really started learning our craft, started writing and understanding the whole process of writing, just feeling our way through it and making it up as you go along.  We spent four years doing that.  We pursued a lot of different record companies over the years, none of them were interested, and the same guy who turned down the Cranberries, also turned down us, so we knew it wasn’t that bad.  Eventually we played a gig in Dublin and the then Irish ambassador was Jean Kennedy Smith.  She came to the gig with a friend of ours, Bill Whelan, who composed River Dance, but that was after this.  She then invited us back to the Kennedy Library to play for the World Cup. So we went out there, and John, our manager, obviously thought, “Well, this is a prime time to hit the American record labels.”  So we did.  We went over to L.A. and hit all the labels over there, and were just total fish out of water.  L.A. was just so terrifying to us, and New York was so big and so scary, and we were just these little country bumpkins with our violins and tin whistles.  And it was bizarre but it’s where the chances happen in life when you take yourself completely out of your comfort zone and land yourself in somewhere you don’t understand and you’re just trying to make your way through it.

It was the last day before we were supposed to go home and no record company was interested.  John, our manager, had the wonderful idea of gate crashing the Michael Jackson session in the Hit Factory in New York, because he knew David Foster was producing.  He’d been told by Jason Flom, who was with Atlantic Records at the time, that this guy was their in-house producer and he was amazing:  “You should get to meet him.”  So John didn’t wait for an invite.  We went.  We arrived at the date.  Big burly black guys are minding Michael Jackson.  We said, “We’re here to meet David Foster,” and they thought we had a meeting.  So we arrived, and we looked official, we had all the instruments, so we could have been there – although we looked probably a bit oddly dressed.  David come out and he because he was curious, and we just said, “Can we play for you?”  So we got round a piano in the studio.  Jim played piano, I played violin, Caroline bodhran, and Andrea tin whistle, and we all sang harmony, and three songs that we had written.  Then we played him some pretty well-produced demos, and we were signed the next day.

TM: Are you doing harmonies on this album?

SC: Yeah, and interestingly, I have used some male vocalists for harmonies on this album as well because I wanted to explore the more male sound on the album as well and see how that worked with my voice, because I know my voice with my sisters works amazingly, and I wanted to try it out with other people.

TM: Were you singing lead on Corrs’ product?

SC: I sang lead on one song on one album, but we liked to keep our roles fairly defined, so not a lot.

TM: You write the song, then how do you judge whether it’s record-worthy, whether you want to take it to the recording stage?

SC: I pretty much know straight away.

TM: Do you play for your husband, your producer, for an A&R person?

SC: I play it for my husband and then I tell my producer, “We’ll go into the studio to record another song.”

TM: How do you get your musicians together?  Do you rehearse before you go in or lay it down first in the studio, your basic track?

SC: It depends on the song.  For the initial recordings on the album, I was actually rehearsing for the Isle Of Wight Festival last year and also for Glastonbury.  In rehearsing those, they started to sound so good that we just went, “Okay, we need to start recording these immediately,” because we just knew we had the right five.  Probably the best way to record is to rehearse first.  It depends on the track.  If it’s only me, piano and vocal, well then, obviously, I don’t need to.

TM: When you played Glastonbury and Isle of Wight, were these Sharon Corr performances, or performances with the group?

SC: Sharon Corr, yes.

TM: You’ve been going out and performing individually?

SC: Yeah, I also released a single last year as well,

TM: Those are pretty big gigs to play, aren’t they?

SC: Yeah.

TM: Have you been playing any other places or you just only play for 100,000 plus?

SC(laughs) I was very aware that if I told people I was doing an album, because I didn’t sing lead in the Corrs, they would think I’m doing a violin album, an instrumental album.  I knew I needed to identify myself as singer/songwriter, as a vocalist.  Even though I’ve always been that, the public didn’t know that because they were Corrs albums and seeing me play violin and sing background vocals.  So I knew I had to introduce myself to them as I know me.  How I did that was I took some high profile festivals.  I asked the guys that I know, “Can I play them?”  I did.  I went in with a bang.  I took a big band with me and it was scary for me because I hadn’t played live in a couple of years, but I loved it, and I was exhilarated, and it got my name out there, and people went, “Oh, yeah, Sharon Corr,” and then they just started immediately identifying me as a solo artist.

TM: And how did it go, the shows?

SC: They went great, really well.  I was so sick beforehand, ill with nerves on the Isle Of Wight, because I hadn’t played a live gig in five years, but I wanted to do it more than anything that could pull me back.

TM: And who was the band?

SC: The band is Anthony Drennan, which also played with the Corrs.

Fantastic guitarist, Keith Duffy on bass, Jason Duffy on drums, Gerry O’Connor on mandolin.  I had two backing vocalists with me. I had another guitarist, Conor Brady, so it was a really big band, because I was very aware that because I’d left stage at the height of our success, for me to come on in like an any way small with a tiny band, and “Here’s me and my violin,” was not gonna cut it.  I needed to go on and out there big so people wouldn’t have to start wondering.  They’d just go, “Oh, yeah, that’s Sharon Corr, the solo artist, and she has a big band.”

TM: Did the Corrs intend to go on a hiatus as long as they have?

SC: I don’t know what we intended.  We knew we needed a break; we’d been on the road a very long time.  I certainly knew my biological clock was ticking very loudly and I needed the opportunity to have children.  It was getting late, we had huge success, we had toured the world a couple a times over and it was time to find our own identities and our own lives.

TM: What are the plans now for the Corrs?

SC: I think we’ll do something next year, another album next year.

TM: Then tour again.

SC: We’ll see.  It’s harder to get everybody to agree.  Some people want to tour, some people maybe don’t.  I think we’ll do gigs.  I don’t know if it’ll be in a standard tour.

TM: Did you have children?

SC: I had a boy first, Cathal, we call him “Cal” after the lovely piece Mark Knopfler wrote, “Cal,” and Flori is our second born. He’s four, she’s three.

TM: How’s that been, motherhood?

SC: Frantic.  Certainly a huge eye-opener.  I never realized I was so vulnerable in this world until I had children, so it’s been scary, wonderful, exhilarating, really hard work, harder than touring, and I’m just delighted.  They’re great, terrific little kids and they are my world.

TM: And your husband supports you as a musician, doesn’t he?

SC: He loves it.  He really gets, he gets a huge kick out of it, and I think he could see me when I wasn’t playing that I wasn’t quite myself, that I didn’t feel good, that although I had my children, I wasn’t expressing myself, and I really need to do that.

TM: What is your background in music, how have you been trained?

SC: I started playing piano from probably as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keyboard.  My dad gave me a couple a lessons and then I taught myself, and I then started violin lessons at six.  I was classically trained up until about 15, and then I just wanted to explore it myself, and wasn’t really into the incredible discipline it took to be a top classical musician – and I also wanted to play music as I interpreted it, not as Beethoven wrote.

TM: Did you go to university at all?

SC: I went to college.  I did science for about eight months and then left.  It just was not me.

TM: When did you first realize you could be a professional musician?

SC: I suppose I always thought I could be a professional musician.  I was playing music almost all my life, so I could have always gotten a gig. There was never a time I thought I couldn’t be.

TM: When the Corrs started playing, during that four-year period before you got signed, what kind of gigs were you playing?

SC: We did a couple of small tours.  Went though Ireland where it would be one guy and a dog there and then you’d get the complete opposite at the other end of the country, and all of a sudden they’re totally loving you and then you’re coming offstage shaking because people adore you.  When you were new, a young band and people don’t know you it’s just from gig to gig, touch and go.  We did every gig there is to do.

TM: Are you surprised at how successful the Corrs became or have become?  You’ve sold 30 million albums and toured, played stadiums and gotten great reviews besides U2, the biggest band in Ireland.

SC: We’ve outsold U2 in a lot of territories as well, which a lot of people wouldn’t know, but am I surprised?  You’re always going to be surprised because that’s just something that mostly all of the time nobody gets, that sort of success, but we certainly worked for it.  We worked, we worked, we worked.  We sold every album door-to-door…

TM: And did all the promotional activities you had to do.

SC: I was just speaking with a guy from the Times yesterday and he did our bio years ago.  He became a great friend of ours, and he said, “You were the hardest working band in the world.”  And we were.  We sold every record.  That’s the only way you do it.

TM: But you enjoyed it, too, right?

SC: You have to have the talent and the music.  We loved it but it was exhausting.  If you were doing 18 hours of interviews in Taiwan for like six different territories on the one day, that was exhausting, but we always respected the fact that we were getting a chance to do this.  It’s remarkable.  It’s remarkable that anybody experiences that much.

TM: It’s been tremendous fun, hasn’t it?

SC: Incredible, brilliant fun, the laughs I have with my sisters and brother,  talking about old stories and manager and stuff we used to get up to.  Experiences all over the world.

TM: Can you think of any disadvantages to the fact that you were in a band with you family?

SC: It was hard to tell each other just to go get lost, because they’re your family.  They don’t get lost.  They stay with you, and we were at quite a tender age, the days where you’re developing your independence, your sense of yourself, and at that age we got all immersed in a sense of ourselves, of a unit, rather than a sense of our own personal identity, so it was very, very difficult to bring out and form your own identity within, and as, for the sisters, even more difficult because we’re so alike.

TM: That’s one of the reasons probably why taking a break has been good.

SC: Absolutely wonderful.

TM: If not absolutely necessary.

SC:  Oh, totally necessary.  I mean we would have had total burnout and I’m very grateful, and respect getting that chance, because I would have been maybe so immersed in being together too long.

TM: Was there pressure from the outside, the record company, the promoters, the manager to, “No, just stay together.  Do one more tour, one more album?   How can you stop now?”

SC: Absolutely, but we worked with a team.  Our manager got us our record deal.  He worked with us from the really early days, so he was also a parental symbol, he knew us all very emotionally, and that we were jaded, wrecked.  He couldn’t for his own conscience force us to have stayed in that mode, although there would have been many other tours to do. Caroline already had a child at this stage.  He got it.

TM: Are your mom and dad still alive?

SC: No.  My mom passed away in 1999.  My father’s still alive.

TM: Your mom must have been so proud of what happened, right?

SC: Yeah.

TM: She was thrilled, right?  And dad is, was thrilled.  Is still thrilled?

SC: Delighted, yeah.  It gets me every time.   (tears up remembering her mother)

TM: Dad doesn’t work anymore?

SC: Dad took retirement, and many years ago while mom and him could still have a bit of fun.  It was a really beautiful thing because we hit the big time and Mom and Dad had been our inspiration our whole lives. We booked them first class tickets to Australia to come see us in concert and put them up in five-star hotels.  And from where we came from, that was dramatic.  I remember buying her a Donna Karan skirt for Christmas and that was a huge treat. Mum saw the biggest concert we ever did, and the following November she passed away…

TM: What was the biggest concert?

SC: The biggest concert we did on our own right was here in Lansdowne Road and it was 45,000 people.  Other concerts we did were for 100,000 but they were with other bands.  We toured with the Stones which was insane.

TM: You toured with the Stones?

SC: Yeah.  It was fun.

TM: How did the Stones audiences react?

SC: They loved us because they didn’t see us coming. You would never put the Stones with this sorta sweet Irish band, family band, and it worked because the minute we launched into the Irish stuff – and they could see we knew our stuff, so they loved us.

TM: Did you get to meet the Stones?

SC: Yeah, for sure.  We hung out with ‘em .  Very interesting bunch of guys.  (laughs)

TM: Tell me about this concert you played for 45,000 people.

SC: That was 1999.  It was in July.  We were the second Irish band ever to do it.   I think U2 did it and then we did it.  It’s a traditionally a rugby venue called Landsdowne Road.  Our promoter said “You guys can do it.  You can sell it,” and we did and it was phenomenal.  To do a gig that size in a country this size, on your home turf is pretty spectacular.  It’s amazing to get that many people from your own country turning.

TM: That must be one of the great joys of being a musician is to get the recognition and the appreciation from fans, which I take it you get all the time, don’t you?

SC: Yeah.  It’s certainly something I missed while was having my children was getting feedback.   You’re sitting at home on a piano.  You’re getting no feedback except from your husband, which is lovely but I was used to a lot more feedback than that.

TM: When you go to the supermarket, do you get recognized and stopped, or do people leave you be?

SC: They’re pretty cool in Ireland.  Very often you’re hanging out and somebody says, “Are you one of the Corrs, Ma’am?”  I go, “Yeah,” you give an autograph.  But they’re really nice about it.  Ireland is a small country.  They’re used to seeing the likes of Bono and Aiden Quinn and Liam Neeson showing up and down the street and they don’t bother them.  They say, “Hi, how’s it going?  How are ya?”

TM: The story of you and your husband needs to be told from your perspective.

SC: Oh (laughs). Okay.  The Corrs hadn’t released an album yet.  We were about to release an album and we were recording our first video to our first single “Runaway” in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, where the zoo is and where the president lives.  The L.A. girl who was the stylist for the shoot begged us to stay in Dublin that night, and said “Don’t leave me. I’m stuck in Dublin.”  So we booked a room in the Shelbourne Hotel, three of us girls into the one room with a single bed because that’s all we could afford, and we went out with this girl.  Then she decided to go home and she left us because she was tired.

I had just broken up with a guy a couple a weeks before and I was like, “I’ve had enough guys.  I’m not goin’ out with them anymore.”  Same old story and it’s not happening, and so I just was not looking for a man in my life at all, no interest.  And I’m standing in this bar at the Gaiety Theatre, which is a very famous theater in Dublin, and this guy walks up to me and I’m like, “Okay.”  I couldn’t really hear him because the music was very loud so I said, “Well, do you want to go outside and talk,” and that was it.

TM: Didn’t you stay up all night talking to him?

SC: We sat outside on the bench on Stephens Green until 7 in the morning  talking about everything, and it was just one of those nights where you said, “So do I,” about 150 times.

TM: Did you know that night that you were, he was the one?

SC: Yes, I went home to Dundalk the next day and I remember opening the back door and my mother had her head stuck in the oven,  cleaning it, and I went, “Mum, I met the guy I’m gonna marry.”  She just took her head out of the oven and went “Aahh,  really?,” and I said, “Yeah.  We both knew.  It was just instant.    Absolutely.  And I used to say to people, “How do you know?  What are you talking about?  How could you possibly know that that’s the person?” and they could never give me an answer, and I know why, because you just know.

TM: And your mom said something about it, too, when she met him, right?

SC: He arrived up in his morning gear which is what the barristers wear into court, and he’s obviously run out of court in Belfast to come up and see me, and he rides up in his car, he is walking up the driveway, and of course my mum’s got the squinty windows going.  She goes, “Oh, I’d like him for myself.”  (laughter) To which my dad said, “No way!”

TM: Do you go to legal functions then with him sometimes?

SC: The odd time, oh yeah, I do.  Over the years I was permanently on the road so I would always miss the one thing he needed me to go to, which was hard on him.  But, yes, I’ve gone to a few over the years.

TM: Do you like those?

SC: Depends on the people involved.  It’s all about personality.  Everything you do.  I find what he does very interesting.  He’s in libel, and I find his perspective on it very interesting.  Certainly from somebody in the limelight, these guys are just so necessary and can change your whole world when they get it right, so I think it’s a lovely combination that we have.

TM: Jeff Beck is on your record.  How and when did you first become interested in Jeff Beck?

SC: I knew about Jeff Beck my whole life, but I didn’t know him. This last year my manager invited me to see Jeff Beck  play Vicar Street, a small venue in Dublin, about 1,000 people.   The audience was full of guitar guys and it was an amazing gig, and he had Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and he had a girl called Tal (Wilkenfeld ), a bass prodigy, about 19 and an incredible player.  The gig was mind blowing and I know most of the guys in these venues because I live here. So I said, “Can we go back and meet Jeff?,”  so we went back and it was really refreshing.  He’s so young at heart, very happy and cheery, and goes, “You know a friend of mine, Rod Stewart,” because we sang on a record with Rod Stewart before and we just got talking.  Walking out of the venue with my manager and I said, “Wouldn’t it just be amazing if Jeff could play on the album.”

We knew it was an incredibly long shot because Jeff’s very choosy about what he works on and it’s never about commercial success It’s about a love of what he’s doing.  We knew we’d kind of have to inspire him to get involved, to give him a piece of music that he just wanted to play on.  So we came up with the idea of doing “Mna Na h’Eireann,” the arrangement of it, and we knew when we started working out the arrangement that we were onto something pretty special, and that if he got it and heard it, because the thing is to get the track to the person, he’d want to do it.  It’s hard to get tracks to people but we got it to him eventually and as soon as he heard the track he wanted to play on it. He recorded it in his studio.  I gave him the track, said “You do what you want on this, Jeff,” and he come back with dazzling work.

TM: You put out your own record, didn’t you?

SC: I financed my own record.  I started up my own record company, which is basically just a company that finances your record, which is basically just my money.

TM: What’s the name of the company?

SC: Bobbyjean Records.

TM: What is that from?

SC: Jean’s my mom.  Bobby is my father-in-law.  I put out a single, “It’s Not A Dream,” last year.  I was finding it very difficult to get a record deal.  The credit crisis happened.  I was offered a new record deal the year before and Lehman’s –  Lehman’s Bank – collapsed and then the record deal was un-offered the following week!  So then I was in a limbo.  I was tied to the record company, negotiations went on and on and frustrated me recording, but eventually I got it sorted was able to record and then I just went “Okay.  Forget this.  I’m putting it out.  I need to get myself out there.”  So I put out a single.  I employed independent pluggers in the U.K., and it got great rotation and it got the A-listing on BBC Radio 2 — the highest you can get! It was phenomenal, and I knew the public liked it.  I knew the radio guys liked it, and I thought, “Well, just because you don’t have a record deal at the moment doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t hear your music,” because at the end of the day they’re just bankrolling the project.  That’s what they do.  So I bankrolled it myself.  I did the whole thing myself, and now I’ve just been picked up by a record company.

TM: And it’s a major and there’s gonna be a big push.

SC: Yeah, it’s Warner Bros.  U.K.  And the album is called Dream Of You.

TM: Desert Island Discs.  Name me five CD’s you would take.

SC: Nick Drake, Treasury.  Joni Mitchell, Blue.  It’s really hard! Oh, Paul Weller, Wild Wood.   Jose Gonzalez …and maybe Stanley Road by Weller too.

SC:  Stanley Road, it’s a really great album.  I’m missing other classics, because you know when you ask that question, you go blank.  I would like to take some individual songs. Sarah McLachlan, “Angel.”  Such an amazing song.  And I would take Billy Joel’s “Lullaby.”  I would take “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin.

TM: What are two or three memorable thrills, moments you’ve had in your career?

SC: Playing “Long and Winding Road,” in front of Paul McCartney.  That was tough, and the sound was really difficult. We had nothing in the radio monitors and it got slower and slower because we were tryin’ to catch up with each other. That was a painful, a memorable moment.  Playing for Nelson Mandela and his getting up and dancing to the Irish music.

TM: That was in South Africa?

SC: No, it was actually in Galway, because he got an honorary degree at the University in Galway and we played for him that day.  Meeting the Stones, my gosh, they are just legend, those guys.  That’s ridiculous.  Now you just see those guys walking around you like, “Uuuuh. That’s Keith Richards!”

TM: How scary is it to play in front of a big audience?  And do the other Corrs also have jitters?

SC: They do.  Jim less than all of us, I think.  It’s less scary to play to a 100,000 than it is to 100 people, because when you’re playing to 100,000, it’s a sea of people.   You’re not identifying individual faces, and then you don’t feel like they’re seeing into your soul while you’re playing, so you can act it even if you’re not feeling it.  But when you’re sitting in a club, a small club, and your audience is there, they can see if you’re scared, or they can see if you mess up, because you’re whole face reacts to a wrong note or a lost lyric, and so I find it more scary to play to a small audience.

TM: Why didn’t the Corrs continue with Foster?

SC: Well, we did.  We did two albums with David, and we wanted to do different things.  On the second album we also worked with Glen Ballard and Oliver Lieber, so we had three producers, and then we produced some ourselves.  We worked with Mitchell Froom then.  As you get on and you get your credentials in the music industry you want to explore more, other areas.

TM: Who’s producing the album now?

SC: Billy Farrell, who has worked with the Corrs for years. He’s from here in Dublin and I’ve worked with him forever. He’s worked with the Corrs as well. We understand each other musically incredibly.

TM: Describe the experience of working with David Foster and Mutt Lange.

SC: David has a really big personality.  He is quite cheeky, quite bold.  He’s has this glint in his eye, which is great.  Very, very attractive, very, very fun.  One of the first things you notice about him is his gift.  He’s so unbelievably talented.  He has perfect pitch.  If somebody plays something, he’ll play it immediately on the piano exactly.  He is just perfect.  He was our first real producer and we learned everything from him.

TM: And you cut in L.A.

SC: We cut in L.A.  Yeah, we did, and Jim co-produced the album with him.

TM: You like L.A.

SC: I like L.A. but I didn’t like it then.  It was too much of a shock for me culturally.  I didn’t really know how to negotiate it.  I didn’t understand what the people meant when they said something to you.  The way to approach L.A. is to expect very little, and it’s a city you use for your own ends, and you can meet some great people there, but it’s quite transient.

TM: Mutt Lange, what was it like to work with him?

SC: Incredible.  Mutt is very focused,  probably the most focused person I’ve ever met in my life, like a train running in one direction when he’s doing an album.  I know there’s no sidelines, there’s no nothing else, and he would work 24 hours a day.  He would do a vocal 20 times, 50 times.  He would do background vocals again, again, again and again and then to infinity until he gets exactly what he wants.  His techniques for backing vocals I find very interesting and have used it, taken it with me, some of the techniques.

TM: Where did you cut with him?

SC: Most of “Breathless” was cut in Switzerland in his home there, and some of it, lthe violin, the backing vocals for “Breathless” were all cut in Dublin.  And the other stuff that we did was cut in Dublin.  Mutt always writes with you so that’s his deal.  If he’s workin’ an album, he’s writing the album with you.  He did two songs, we cut half in Dublin, half in Switzerland.

TM: What’s his instrument?  What does he play?

SC: That’s a good question.  I mostly just saw him behind the desk.  I think guitar.  He’s got a beautiful voice.  You can hear his voice on Shania Twain’s records.  Really beautiful.

TM: What do you do in your leisure time?

SC: I don’t have much leisure time.  (laughs) I look after my children.  I read.  I run, and I love dinner and wine.  That’s great.  Socializing is one of the best things you can do.  Friends.  I love friends.

TM: What are the other Corrs doing now?

SC: Caroline has three children, she’s very busy with them.  Jim has one child, a boy, and everybody’s doing a little writing, for maybe gearing up to do something next year.  Andrea got married last year, so she’s in the middle of wedded bliss at the moment and having a real good time.

TM: Do you stay in touch with your siblings?

SC: All the time.

TM: You’re talking on the phone, you’re seeing each other.

SC: Yeah, we’re always talking.  We need each other to talk about every situation.

TM: You were Miss Twitter, U.K. What was that about?

SC: Twitter is only something that came about maybe a year and a half ago, and Gavin (her husband) said to me,“You should get into that,” and I was like “Yeah.  Why?”  and he said, “Steven Fry is doing it”, and (I said,) “Okay, well then it must be cool.”  So I started trying it out and…

TM: Steven Fry?

SC: He’s a very famous comedian/actor.  Friend of Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie, House? I got into it.  I was tweeting and then I found all these fans all over the world would come on and start asking me questions, and it was great way of interacting with people in Indonesia and Brazil and in the States and wherever they would come in from.  And it was funny, I started to see the depth of the Corrs’ fan base and then my own fan base emerging from it.  It’s literally 140 characters.  It’s like a text message but it goes out simultaneously to everybody who’s following you.  So then they see it and then they can reply and you can reply to whatever you want.

For me, it’s a brilliant thing just to go, “I’m on radio, BBC Radio 2, in five minutes, tune in.  I’m doing the Wogan show tomorrow night.  I’m doing this or that.”  It’s a great way of sort of self-publicizing, and it’s also a great way of having what you say undiluted.  So it doesn’t go through somebody else’s filter, you know, so I like it.  It’s fun.  People talk a lot of crap on it and that’s great fun too.  Anyway, they had a Twitter competition for Miss Twitter U.K. and my fans kept voting for me.  They would go to sleep for 20 minutes, and then vote again when they could vote, and they just kept voting on rotation, and then I won Miss Twitter U.K.

TM: And what kind of a ceremony was there when you were awarded…

SC: There was none. (laughter) I’m disappointed.  I’m still waiting on my crown.

Cindy Johnson (my wife):  Can I ask a couple?  Cal and Flori, are they musical?

SC: Funny, I was driving the car yesterday and I was singing the ABC’s to Cal and Flori, and Cal started to sing and I could hear that he was almost in the right  pitch   and then pitching to the next note quite well, so I can see it’s coming.  Flori, yeah, for sure.  They love music.  She starts crying.  I covered “Danny Boy” as well.  That’s one of the tunes I did on the record and, not vocally, I did it instrumentally, and she cried.  She doesn’t want me to play it because it’s a sad song.  So I know she’s very musically in touch

CJ: And you encourage them as you were encouraged?

SC: Big time.  I want it to be a very organic thing for them.  There’s a piano, a violin, guitars in the house.  So they will just be part of their everyday thing.  I want them to start messing around, and then I’m not gonna get them formal lessons for quite awhile, and I may teach them myself up to a certain point.  But most of all, I just want them to enjoy music because I think it’s the greatest therapy in life.  I want them to have that, what I had.

CJ: Do you have any other plans for other writing?  Like a book, or a musical?

SC: I toyed with different ideas over the years.  I’ve been quite attracted to doing maybe scoring for movies, maybe the incidental work on movies, but that takes an awful lot of time, and for the moment I’d probably just rather pitch a song for a movie. But I have written an awful lot of instrumentals over the years and I did write a piece called “Rebel Heart” for a BBC series called Rebel Heart and it was nominated for a Grammy, which was really cool.  So I love writing instrumental music.  It’s always been part of what I do.

TM: Will you ever do a bluegrass album?

SC: I don’t know, I’m not trained in bluegrass, so for the purists, they’d probably go, “What the hell’s she at?  That’s not bluegrass,” but I’m very interested in all forms of music.

TM: Maybe a straight, straight Celtic Irish roots album you might do someday?

SC: I could, but you know what I’d probably more likely do is a country album.

The funny thing is is because it’s just that I know my voice suits it, because every time I sing like a country song, people go, “Well you sing country music.”  I sang “Jolene” recently, and what a great song.  The lyrics are phenomenal.  She (Dolly Parton)  is some writer, that woman.  She is incredible.  So I sang that recently and everybody was going, “You should do a country album,” and I’ve always kind of known that about me that there’s something country going on inside me.

CJ: Two more things.  Now you’re going to Spain.  Can you talk about that?

SC: I’m shooting a video in Spain for the single, in the Alhambra palace, which is an old Moorish palace  And they’ve never done anything like this before in the Alhambra, and it actually made me worried that they agreed because I thought, “This is just too good to be true,” because I’ve waited a long time on a record deal.  I’ve waited a long time on getting things done, and now things are happening, I’m almost a little scared.  But I spoke to a guy in the record company months ago, just happened to be talking about my favorite spot in the world, which is the Alhambra in Andalusia in Granada, and I said, “I always wanted to launch a record there,” like they would ever do that.  And he said, “You never know.  Let’s look into it.”  So they have agreed that I can shoot a videoI’m absolutely stunned.  I mean it’s so beautiful and it’s so spiritual, and mystical, and such an incredible place, and the history is enormous.

CJ: Advice to new artists?

SC: Write, write, write, write, write, write.  Keep writing and write more.  Try to control your own music.  Try to write it yourself because it’s very hard to make money from records nowadays, and at least if you can get songs published, you can make some money, but stay true to yourself.  Be very open to every idea that’s pitched out to you, because it could be just the one that tips you like John Hughes saying to us, “Let’s just go to the Hit Factory.”

TM: Your fans.  All race, creeds, colors and ages, right?

SC: Yes.  It’s a beautiful thing, and I think we were most surprised when we hit Japan. Because it was our first experience in Asia and the Japanese audience just responding like crazy to traditional Irish music was a huge thrill. They are so quiet while we’re playing.  So respectful, and then we started to pick it up as, “They don’t really like the show, do they?  They’re not enjoying it, and actually it was like the quieter they were, the more they were enjoying it.  But I remember when the Irish stuff came on, they went nuts.

CJ: A dream team of who to work with in the future. Just one name.  Someone you’d like to sing with.

SC: Oh, to sing with.  Oh my gosh.  Robert Plant.  I’ve met Robert.  He’s a cool guy.  I’d love to sing with him.

TM: People that you’ve been excited to meet as other than the Stones and Jeff Beck.  Any other musicians?

SC: I was very, very excited to meet Neil Finn.

TM: Sure.

SC: Because their album Woodface..that would definitely be a Desert Island  Disc for me, you know, something you never tire listening to.  Desert Island Disc without a doubt.  I just think he’s an incredible songwriter I love him, and the reason we worked on In Blue with Mitchell Froom was because he had worked with Crowded House on Woodface.  I did meet Neil Finn and I actually wasn’t really able to speak  because I was too star-struck.  It was, it was embarrassing, because all the guys were looking at me, “He’s your favorite.  Will you get on with it.”  And I was like, huh?

For more information about Sharon Corr, visit her website at http://www.sharoncorr.com


Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin, achieves bestseller status because it is a very serious book by a very serious man about how he became the most successful live comedian in history, selling out arenas, and why he abdicated stand-up at the top of his game. Consistency, the reader learns, is what make a comedian have a great career; this comic achieved that via a tremendous work ethic and the analytic skills of chess-master Gary Kasparov. There are light moments, healthy dollops of gossip, self-deprecation to endear the reader, the kind of rigorous self-analysis one rarely gets and rings true, let alone from a comedian, and a compelling view of his dysfunctional family in Orange County California where he grew up and spurred his interest in comedy and magic. This surprisingly candid book from a very private man is required reading for anyone in or who wants to be in showbiz.



Bill Knoedelseder burst on the Los Angeles scene as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times where he built a reputation as a fearless, intrepid investigative reporter, especially in regard to the entertainment industry. His first book, Stiffed, A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia, remains a highly regarded classic. His last book on the “comedy wars” of the late 1970’s is a delicious read. We met up with him over a delicious cheese repast in June, 2010.

TREVOR: Why did you write I’m Dying Up Here?

WK:  It was a story that I covered when I was just starting out at the L.A. Times.  The core incident was a story I covered thirty years ago when I was a cub reporter at the Times, and it remained really close to my heart over the years because it was a very affecting story. I had just arrived in Los Angeles so I was a new Angelino, and my editor called me into his office and  said that the thought that there was something happening in the comedy scene in L.A. that had the feeling of Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, and he thought something was really gonna happen.  There were all these young people arriving in town and they were gonna change things.  He wanted to know if I would be interested in covering that as a beat. I had always loved stand up comics and comedy, I’d grown up watching Johnny Carson and all the comics on there.  So it was like “Oh, my God.”  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

When I took the assignment to take on the beat, what I quickly found out was that all the funniest people of my generation were leaving their homes all across America and moving to Los Angeles because Johnny Carson had just moved the show to Los Angeles.  Back then there were no videotapes that you could send around.  There was no cable television.  If you wanted to get on the Carson show, you had to be performing in a place where the Carson scouts actually went after work.  There was only one place.  You had to be on stage at the Comedy Store, so that’s why they all started appearing at the Comedy Store, and after a couple years of this invisible migration of funny people, I realized that there were a couple hundred of them, young people, 25 years old, college educated, the funniest people of my generation, all living in cheap apartments all around the Comedy Store. There was this very finite, wonderful world going on.  It was Paris in the 20’s for young stand up comics, and it was amazing.  I had a front row seat to the stage performances and the hi-jinks that were going on.  The staying up all night long, partying and making each other laugh.

In the middle of this good time, this Camelot story, something dramatic and in fact tragic happened.  That is the main plot point of the book.  Thirty years later, I’m reading in the L.A. Times … I’ve gone on, in my career, done other things, and I saw that one of the comics who was involved in this incident and very involved in the scene back then, who had been David Letterman’s best friend at the time, died, George Miller, and it said there was gonna be a public service for him at the Laugh Factory.  So I thought, “I wonder if all those guys will come back?,” because he was really popular, he was Dave’s best friend.  So I went, and sure enough, a lot of them did, and when they got up to eulogize their friend, to a person, everyone who got up, all their reminiscences were about this four-year period, 1975 to 1979, when the incident happened, and it was clearly the time of their life.  That’s what they looked back on.  This was the greatest time.  It never got any better than that.  I walked out of that thing on a Sunday afternoon and I thought, “Geez, I just gotta write a book about this because it’s a better story now than when it happened, because they didn’t really appreciate what was going on, the bullets were flying.

TREVOR: How long did it take you to write it?

WK: When I finally got rid of all the other jobs I had to do and actually wrote it, it probably took less than a year to write, but given that I was doing it in part time, it took a few years.

TREVOR: Who did you interview?

WK: Everyone, Letterman, Leno, Richard Lewis. Robin Williams didn’t talk, that’s okay.  I interviewed them all at the time, “back in the day.”  I knew them.

TREVOR: What do you mean, Robin Williams didn’t talk?

WK: I couldn’t get an interview with him. I never got through.  It didn’t matter.  He wasn’t the key to the story.  He was the biggest, hottest young act in town at the time, but I didn’t really expect to get much from Robin anyway because he performs in an interview.  You wouldn’t get a lot of reflection I don’t think.  I knew who the main players were in the story who were actually the movers and shakers in the strike which is what took place.  These comics worked at the Comedy Store, between ’75 and ’79 actually ’72 and ‘79 and they worked for free.

That was the deal.  You worked for free in exchange for being seen by the professionals and your career will break from there.  But the woman who was running the Store got rich, and she wasn’t paying the people who were bringing in the customers, so they went on strike and that’s the gist of the story, but most people don’t even know that that happened.  They’re not aware that there ever was a strike by comics.  “What are you talkin’ about?”   In fact it was an historic event that didn’t get a whole lot of coverage, and I’m not sure why.

TREVOR: The other place in town was the Improvisation.  When did that start?

WK: That started in, in late ’76 or ’77, but it was not as big a success or as big a draw as the Comedy Store was, so it’s not the place they chose to strike.

TREVOR: Was Budd Freedman paying?

WK: No. If the Comedy Store didn’t pay, nobody paid.  If you went to clubs around the country, they paid, but not the showcase clubs. There was one in New York, the Improv — Freedman had pioneered the concept of the showcase club where performers didn’t get paid.  In the beginning it made sense for everybody because it did work in the beginning.  He didn’t make any money.  He was broke.  He had this little club where all the actors and people who would perform, so they would all come in and do stuff for free because you’re an actor in New York, you go in and play the piano and perform, and comics.  It was a great idea when it started, and he wasn’t making millions.  He was barely getting by, so no one really ever said, “Hey, how come you’re not paying us?”

Mitzi Shore turned it into a really big viable retail comedy establishment, and started making a lot of money, and they started resenting it.  And it’s okay not to pay people for their work as long as they don’t mind, and the minute they mind and say, “Hey, wait a minute,” then you’re talking slavery.  You couldn’t go anywhere else. There wasn’t any other club.  Or, if there was a club, the Tonight Show guys weren’t sitting there watching you and putting you on for that, so you were captive.  You had to either perform for free or not have a career.

TREVOR: So what actually happened?

WK: They asked her, they started talking about it.  They had some seditious meetings where they discussed it and they went to Mitzi Shore, the owner, with a select group of comics and asked to be paid and she said, “No,” and they asked again, and she said, “No,” and they kept trying to come up with formulas for her paying.  Her idea was, “This is a workshop.  This is a college.  I’m not your employer.  I’m just giving you the opportunity,” and that wasn’t her vision of how it worked.  After a while, you can’t just keep threatening, “You gotta pay us,” they were forced to go on strike.  That’s how they saw it, so they did.  They formed a quasi-union, threw up a picket line and shut the place down for six weeks.

TREVOR: Did they really shut it down?

WK: Yeah. You could go in if you wanted to cross the picket line, but there were only a half a dozen comics that were working and they weren’t the best ones.

TREVOR: Did the audience stay away?

WK: Oh, yeah, they killed her business, and what really hurt was when the Teamsters backed the picket line so they wouldn’t deliver the liquor across the line.  They would just put it on the sidewalk, so they’d have to lug it in themselves. She had a dozen loyalists who were like in the bunker, but they had put the lines up 24 hours a day for six weeks, and she finally capitulated.  She buckled and agreed to pay them, and there was celebration for a while until they realized that it was a Pyrrhic victory because she, in starting up her operations again, excluded a lot of them from the stage, and they thought it was retaliatory and even though the contract she signed with the Comedians For Compensation, which was the group that was formed, said that there’d be no retaliation.  It was hard to prove what was retaliation.  She just didn’t put some people back on the stage.  It wasn’t Letterman and Leno because she wasn’t about to do that because they were big draws here in town.  They weren’t stars nationally but she picked some of the strike leaders. One of them was Richard Lewis’s best friend; they’d been friends since back in New York.  His name was Steve Lubetkin.

He’d been struggling, never made it big, been out here for a couple years, and he’d been a favorite of Mitzi’s for awhile, and he was just about to break through, he thought, when the strike came and he sided with the strikers, and after the strike was settled, she didn’t put him back on again.  He was convinced his career was over, and had a weird idea — he had some emotional problems, too which was evident in the end — that if he did this certain thing it would help bring about fairness.  So he went up on the top floor of the Continental Hyatt House right next to the Comedy Store 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, June 1st, 1979, and jumped, dove actually, and died, right on the ramp to the parking lot right there as  you are coming into the Comedy Store while they’re all getting ready to go on.  If you say to everybody who was present back then, all the comics who were my age and around that, “What was the first line of Steve Lubekin’s suicide note?,” they’ll be able to repeat it for you.  It said, “My name is Steve Lubekin.  I used to work at the Comedy Store,” and then it said goodbye to a bunch of people.  That was such a horrific thing to happen.  No one ever figured that something like that would happen.

A lot of the people, like Letterman and Richard Lewis, never went back to the Comedy Store.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to go back in and perform.  I think Letterman went back a couple times, but it was the proverbial car crash on prom night or graduation night.  It was like “Oh, God, geez – this isn’t about being funny, somebody died, “Steve killed himself.  We weren’t paying attention.”

TREVOR: Did the Comedy Store ever regain its cachet?

WK: It did in a way.  Actually it had even better years.  It made more money. The free comedy disappeared just in time for the huge comedy boom of the 1980’s where they realized that comedy is really cheap.  You just need a microphone and some chairs and a comic, somebody who’s funny.  It doesn’t cost, not like making a record, certainly not like making a movie.  From five comedy clubs between New York and L.A., all of a sudden there were nine in Los Angeles and then a 100 around the country or 200.  It was huge!  There were 12, 13 Improv franchises all over the place, and people made good money.

Had Mitzi been able to force the no pay thing it might, that might not have been as lucrative — not all of them — but Letterman, Leno, they all became fabulously wealthy, had big careers, lived huge lives, and there was a circuit where all kinds of people — you would never know their name — made a good living for the next ten years traveling around, working in these comedy clubs.  They worked 200 nights a year and made 50, 60, 70, 80,000 dollars.  You’d never know who they were but they were they’re out there and that’s what a comedy career was if you didn’t go really to the top.

TREVOR: Where’s the Comedy Store at now?

WK: It’s gone down now.

TREVOR: She passed away?

WK: No, she’s still alive.  She’s got Parkinson’s or something, she’s not physically well.  She’s aged.  The years were not kind but it’s still running.  It’s a shadow of its former self, but after this period that I wrote about, Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Rosanne Barr, and Jerry Seinfeld, although he didn’t really like the Comedy Store, passed through there and were born there.   Sam Kinison was the last major star to be born at the Comedy Store. You still go there on the weekends, but it doesn’t represent what it used to represent.  It used to be Mecca.  It used to be the place.  She had a monopoly.

TREVOR: Is the Improv in better shape?

WK: It might be because it’s more of a restaurant hangout, it always was.  Some people preferred the atmosphere at the Improv because it was more of a place where you could hang out at the bar, whereas at the Comedy Store, if you wanted to hang out, you had to hang out in the parking lot because they didn’t have a bar there; it was in the back, you couldn’t sit at the bar.  There was no place to hang out and talk.  It was a show.  You were at a table.  It was a different, different sort of feel all together.  I always preferred the Improv as a place to go.

TREVOR: Can you generalize about comics? One hears sometimes that they’re all miserable people.

WK: There is that.  They bring a lot of baggage. They’re really saying “Love me!”  They’re not playing somebody else.  They were sort of a tortured lot, not the happiest bunch of people.  Once I got to be known as “The Guy” on the comedy beat, I’d get calls all the time, I’d get calls in the middle of the night.  The night that Steve Lubekin died I fielded lots of calls.  After the whole thing was over, after he died and I did the story about him and the funeral, and the strike was over — I’d been on the beat for a year, a year and a half — I remember going to  Irv Letovsky, the Calendar editor, and saying, “It’s time for me to get off this beat.  Can I get something a little lighter than this?” I went to organized crime and it was kind of a relief, so they are sort of a sad lot in a lot of ways.

TREVOR: Was it hard to write the book?

WK: No, it was an easy one to write.  The other one here was much harder, and the other one before that was harder, and the new one’ll probably be hardest but this one was easy because I knew this story. I lived the story.  I had the notes from thirty years ago. The beauty was I know what they thought at 27, I had talked to them and I could talk to them at 57. It was very rich because when it was all going on, they’d tell you certain things.  Like I said, the bullets were going on.  They knew what was going on then, but they had no perspective on what this meant to their life, because you couldn’t know.  Thirty years later they look back and they know what it meant to their life, because they know how it changed the way they looked at things and how they behaved, and it was a much better story.

TREVOR: So how many victims were there who didn’t work again, dozens?

WK: A lot of them didn’t succeed, but I’m not sure it’s because Mitzi Shore didn’t put them on.  The strike proved that she wasn’t all powerful, that after the strike, you could make it without going on at the Comedy Store.   I don’t think Lubetkin’s suicide didn’t affect anything other than it marked the end of all their innocence.

TREVOR: In a way they had nothing to lose because they weren’t getting paid anyway.

WK: Exactly, right.

TREVOR: What’s your take on Mitzi Shore?

WK: She was at the right place at the right time.  Very smart woman.  Had a really good idea.  She was very driven, she really made her way in a man’s world that’s for sure.  A lot of admirable things about her, but she really had a controlling side where she wanted to be completely acknowledged that … she actually said to me one time: “Richard Pryor, he got his big break for ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ from right after performing on my stage,” making the point that if not for her and this little club, Hollywood would have never noticed Richard Pryor’s talent?  Come on.  It’s just a place.  Richard Pryor was not going to be denied because that club wasn’t there.  But she had it in her mind that she was responsible.

TREVOR: Did she give you an interview for the book?

WK: Yeah.

TREVOR: Is she bitter?

WK: Yeah, she’s never gotten over it, because she feels like a mother betrayed.  They turned on her.  They didn’t appreciate what, what she was doing for them and they went out on their own, but again, the reason the story was so rich is what Mitzi said back at the time.  She said, “Look, you guys, if you make this about money it’s not gonna work out for you because it’s not about money.  Don’t make this about money.”  In truth it shouldn’t have been about money in a way, because what they’ll tell you now is, and I think you’ll hear the same thing, if you went and interviewed, Dylan and Ian Tyson and all the people who were in Greenwich Village, the singer/songwriters, that whole thing in ’64, ’63, they will all tell you, “Yeah, we went on.  We had hits, we became more comfortable, we bought our ranches, but it never got any better than when we were poor and trying to find our voices and knocking around and hanging out in each other’s apartments and trying to impress each other with our songs and feeding off one another, and nobody had any money.  That was the best it ever got.”  They wouldn’t wanna stay there forever but they remember that as when they became who and what they are.

So she was right about that.  She was wrong in the sense that she tried to control them and make sure that, that all whatever they got, she got a piece of it because that’s not how it works.  If you talk to Mitzi, you realize that that she gained this reputation as this big comedy expert, but I sat and talked to Mitzi and, and I said to her, “Okay, you’re the person that an entire generation of funny people had to come in front of you and perform their hearts out to get on their stage,” and so we went through naming the people, and Mitzi really couldn’t talk about that comedy and humor.  She could talk about the Store.  She could talk about the club that she owned.  That’s what she saw.  That was her thing.  She was a shopkeeper in a way.  I mean brilliant and really captured something, and knew how to do it, but …

TREVOR: But she also booked the talent.

WK: Oh, she knew what was funny.  She knew what made her laugh, and she also knew what made comics tick because she had been married to one.  She knew the life.  Her idea of painting the whole place black and having just a spotlight on comics so when you walked in the room that’s all you saw is actually a pretty good idea.  Before that you’d walk in, you’d see the audience, you’d see the bar, you’d see everything else, but you go into the Comedy Store and, man, there was a spotlight and there’s a comic.  That’s all you see.  The tables are painted black.  The table cloths, everything’s black.  The outside of the building is black.  So that was kind of genius.  She was a tough personality, boy. I remember when I interviewed her, she’s (imitates shaking) but she was all there.  She was very gracious. My articles probably hurt her over the years, as there was some tough coverage, but there she was.

I told her, “That’s the last line of the book,” when she said it.  I asked her, after all this time, thirty years, “You’ve seen all these people,” and she really alienated all these people.  They never came back and honored Mitzi every year like they could have.  “Is there anything that you had to do it over again, you would do differently?”  And she said, “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing,” she said. “The Comedy Store was the light.  And if they couldn’t see that the Store was the light, then fuck ‘em.”  This is coming out of this little 80-year-old woman.  “Well fuck ‘em!”  Thirty years later and I thought “Whoa, okay, that’s where she is!”

They’ve all gotten past their anger at her and they realize that they, like Letterman said, “wouldn’t be where I am without that woman.”  He broke with her.  He went on strike with them and supported the strike and broke her heart and broke her spirit when Dave went over to the other side.  It was a dramatic scene.  Dave hadn’t sided for a couple weeks and he hadn’t showed up because he was preparing for his first guest host performance on the Tonight Show.   It was the night of the Oscars, and the reason he was, he was picked as guest host is that was Carson was doing the Oscars.  So Dave was on and Tom Dreesen was on the show, his other best friend with George.  And after the show, David made a commitment to go walk on the picket line for the first time.

All the comics knew that Dave was subbing for Carson that night.  It was a big deal.  It meant a lot.  They all knew exactly what that meant, it was such hope.  “This is all good for all of us.”  Nobody had ever really come from where they work out of nowhere.  David had only been on the show twice.  Six months before he was a complete unknown.  Now he was absolutely sitting in for Johnny Carson.  Nobody knew who he was but he was on the show.  They were so excited.  After the show, Dave came back with Tom and all the picket lines are out there, picketers are out in front of the club, and Dave drove an old red truck.  He pulled up in the truck and as he came down the ramp to join them, they all cheered and started doing the Tonight Show Theme.  “Da, da, da, da, da,” As he came down, of course Mitzi is watching out the window and she sees Dave and that’s when she knew it was all over.  You lose Letterman, because he was the biggest deal there at the time. I think that’s when she realized that she’s not gonna win this.

TREVOR: Were there any well-known comedians who crossed the line?

WK: The only one who’s really well known now who made it in a big way was Gary Shandling.  He crossed and they bear a grudge to him this day.  A lot of them won’t talk to him because of it, thirty years later.

TREVOR: Did you talk to Shandling about it?

WK: He wouldn’t talk, but I know his story.

TREVOR: Why didn’t he?

WK: He had been trying to get on the stage for a long time.  He didn’t share in their struggling experience.  He wasn’t part of that because he had been a very successful writer, was making a lot of money, but he wanted to be a performer, so he was trying to break in, and he wasn’t part of their thing.  He was living in a different Hollywood.  He wasn’t a struggling comic living in a shitty place like the rest of them, and he grew up in a family that owned manufacturing stuff and it was definitely not a union family.  His whole upbringing was that unions were the problem so he wasn’t about to join a union. Everybody who didn’t join had, came to it with their own stuff, their own education.  Yakov Smirnoff didn’t join either.  He’d just come from the Soviet Union, and Mitzi was his patron.  He was living free rent, he had a job and he had just come to this country from Russia, so he was very grateful for her support and he wasn’t about to go do that. August Hamilton was having an affair with her.  He was in love with her.  He wasn’t about to go against her. When you’re 27 years old and you’ve never been involved in that, you don’t really realize that if you go against your brothers in a strike, that’s always going to be bad for you.  They’re never gonna get over that, that’s one thing you don’t ever do.  Unless you just don’t give a shit.

TREVOR: Did you feel that you missed anything in writing the book because you couldn’t get to somebody or you’re pretty happy with the way it turned out?

WK: I would have like to have gotten more from Gary Shandling and maybe Robin, but I did get the perspective of the strike breaker from Mike Binder, who was another guy who went on to pretty good success. He’s now quite a good film director, and he crossed, he was like a kid.  He was 18 years old at the time, and Mitzi was his surrogate mom, and he felt he owed her, so he crossed the picket line.  He functioned as Jay Leno’s little brother, and Leno was very active in the strike, so the night Mike crossed the picket line — and they hung out together all the time — Leno said, “I’m not talking to you anymore.  Don’t come by my house.  We’re done.”  It broke his heart, it broke both their hearts actually.  When I talked to Binder thirty years later, he still felt bad. He’s in recovery, so he had gone to Tom Dreesen and met him someplace and made his amends to the leader of the strike, saying, “I was wrong.  I was just a kid.  I was going out and get fucked up every night.  I was loaded all the time, I shoulda been with you guys.  I shouldn’t have done that.”  And Dreesen forgave him.  And if Dreesen forgave him then everybody forgave him.  But not so with Shandling.

TREVOR: Did he reconcile with Leno?

WK: When I talked to him, he hadn’t.  So many years had passed.  What are you gonna do?  Pick it up after thirty years?

TREVOR: What’s the reaction been to the book by the people who were involved in it?

WK: I haven’t had a bad reaction at all.  Some people thought I was unfair to a character in there.  I can’t remember his name now.  He was one of the Mitzi’s guys, but when I talked to him, the guy was a complete asshole so that was the only one. No one really took dispute, even the people who were on the other side of the strike.  The Comedy Store has been really supportive. I think because it draws attention to the Comedy Store.  The people who run the Comedy Store now say, “That’s really what it was.”  They don’t really necessarily think that Mitzi did the right thing, and they do recognize that that those were the glory days of the Comedy Store and I got it right.  It’s accurate.  There’s just no doubt about it.  I know that I really captured the feel of it.  If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it all.

TREVOR: It was well-reviewed?

WK:  Yes, except for, except for the Los Angeles Times, (laughs), who have never given a book of mine a good review.  I don’t know what that is.  They assigned some freelancer to it and basically, he complained, after telling the whole story of the book as if he was telling the story, which means he used everything in the book for his own review. Then he took issue with the book and he did what reviewers do – “If I’d written the book, here’s how it would have been much better.”  He criticized the book because it didn’t have more about Saturday Night Live, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Steve Martin.

Saturday Night is not standup comedy.  It was in New York.  Woody Allen never worked the club scene in L.A., nor did Steve Martin, except for a little bit, and Bill Cosby wasn’t part of the story.  He missed the whole story. The story is about Los Angeles club scene in the 1970’s, and he was criticizing the book because it didn’t have stuff from the 60’s.

TREVOR: What’s happening with the book now?

WK: Sold the film rights to Jim Carrey.  I’m told that he wants to produce it as a film.  Independent, outside the studio system film using his own money.

TREVOR: Is it out in paperback yet?

WK: It’s just coming out at the end of July (2010).  And Carrey, I don’t think he’s planning on being in it because I don’t think there’s a role in there for him since he went through the Comedy Store some years later and he was he was waiting in the wings when this all took place.  He knows the scene so I’m sure he felt an affinity for the material.

TREVOR: You published in 1993, Stiffed, A True Story Of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia. What is that book about?

WK: How the music business operated, or was operating at its absolute peak at the period of time that I was writing about, and it was a case history of mob infiltration of the music business, how it happens classically, and the way the record industry at the time treated its artists in terms of their royalties and things like that.  I just happened just completely stumble into this bizarre story that I tried to figure out, “What the heck is goin’ on here?”  And it turned out to be just an accidental thing that turned into the biggest scandal that had been in the music business up until that point.

TREVOR: You were working at the L.A. Times then?

WK: I was working at the L.A. Times and I was doing a story on what they call cutouts, which is the underbelly of the business.  It’s what happens with the actual vinyl albums back in the time after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for a long time and they were back in the warehouses and they hadn’t sold em.  What do they do with them?  I would go to the bins, because I was a record collector, find all these records on sale for 99 cents, when there was one over there for, $4.99 or $10.99, or whatever it was, and I wanted to know how that happened.  In doing so, I ended up talking to a guy who was the most notorious, convicted counterfeiter.  He’d been to prison for counterfeiting.  One of the few people that that had ever happened to, and I had gone to talk to him in his warehouse in Philadelphia to get tales of the underbelly of the record business, and he told me, “You ought a look into this deal I just got in.”  Then he says “There’s a guy named Sal Pisello, who’s a Mafia guy for sure, who’s in the middle of this deal at MCA and he shouldn’t be there.  You should check into that.”  He said which I took to be “Pacello.” He mispronounced the name.  It was “Pisello.” So I went back to Los Angeles and I started trying to find out through all my law enforcement sources, who’s Salvatore Pisello?  Nobody knew him.  Nobody knew anything at all.  A couple months passed.  Maybe a month I guess, and then unbeknownst to me, the organized crime strike force was about to prosecute the guy that he was actually talking about who’s name was Piscello, and there was some sort of report that was put in, in terms of the filings that laid out all his dealings, and there it was, that he was involved in some sort of deal at MCA and it was like a public record. We had people at the court at the L.A. Times, they would pull all these things when they were filed, so I looked at it and I went “Oh, my God. Here’s the guy that John was talking about and he was in the middle of this deal.  One thing led to another and this was a guy who shouldn’t be involved with MCA Records.  No good explanation for why this guy who was a Gambino family soldier from the East Coast who’s got all kinds of suspicions of being a heroin trafficker and all this stuff, would be having meetings in the executive suite at MCA Records.  So I set out to try and figure out what that was all about, and it produced probably forty or fifty stories over the next couple years, and it ended up four or five grand jury investigations and eventually twenty Mafia guys got indicted and convicted, but nobody at MCA was ever touched — the people who let him in the door and, and did business with him, the record company guys.  It was only the Italians that went down and that was bizarre, too, but that’s because they had friends in high places, MCA did.  And they got the investigation into MCA shut down and got the prosecutor fired.

TREVOR: Were you ever threatened in writing that book?

WK:  No.  Not by the Mafia. I only got nervous the day that I answered my front door and I was served a subpoena to testify by Morris Levy who was the Jewish godfather, the mob’s man in the record business, and he wanted me to, after the story broke, he wanted me to identify a confidential FBI source, so they subpoenaed me to testify in court.  I never did testify.  I wouldn’t have, it’s one of those things where it would have been my opportunity to go to jail in Newark, which I wasn’t looking forward to, but it never happened.  But, that story never dies.  I still hear about this and that.

“It’s really FBI, or there was the CIA involvement,” endless speculation about what that was all about, and I don’t know if the mystery will ever be solved. I don’t know what’s true but I know that a day or two after all the mobsters go indicted, I received a letter in the mail at the L.A. Times.  It was postmarked the day that everybody got indicted, and it was like six sentences, six clear statements explaining how it all worked. We had never been able to figure out why this all happened.  All these things that didn’t seem connected.  It just seemed all so crazy.  It didn’t seem like it made any sense.  But if this was an acetate overlay and you put it over all those questions, it connected every dot, and made everything absolutely understandable. The L.A. Times put that letter in a safe and I never saw it again.

TREVOR: Did MCA try and stop your…

WK: Stop the book from coming out?  No.  They tried to get me fired at the L.A. Times.  By the time the book came out, I was long gone from the L.A. Times.

TREVOR: How did they try and get you fired?

WK:  Just constantly complaining that I was being unfair, “You’re just repeating the same stuff over and over again,” constant pressure on my bosses, constantly meeting with them, so that it got harder and harder for me to get news stories in the paper.  Not that I was never told “No.” They just made it more difficult for…

TREVOR: What was the reaction to your book from the public and, generally?

WK:  The book was really well reviewed.  The sales were not huge.  It’s a very complicated story.   You really got to wan to know about the record business, because I was obsessed with (wanting) to explain to people how the record business really operates.  It’s a lot to ask of them. Hitmen was a much simpler story, much more anecdotal.  He sold, I don’t know, ten times what I sold.  He also had a better title…

TREVOR: Frederick Dannen (author of Hitmen).

WK:  Yeah.  His book went through the roof…

TREVOR: Nobody wanted to pick up the movie rights for Stiffed?

WK: Well, (laughs) actually somebody did.  Not then, but there’s a script written right now.  They’re trying’ to make a movie of it right now.  Whether they ever will, but they’ve paid me several times now on the option, so I’ve been making money on it the last couple years.  Not enough to retire on but…

TREVOR: What are you working on now?

WK: A book, the working title is Bitter Brew and it’s about the rise and fall of Anheuser Busch and the family that founded it and ran it until two years ago when it passed into the hands of some Brazilian billionaires.

TREVOR: Why are you saying that it’s fallen?

WK: Because it’s now not American owned.  It’s the last of the great family dynasties in American commerce.  As Anheuser Busch went, so did America.  This is a company that came into existence three days after Lincoln was inaugurated and passed into foreign hands the week that Obama was elected.  And in between is the story of America.  Everything that this company went through is American.  This is a company that was founded by immigrants who came here from Germany and made into a colossus.  They turned this country into a beer-drinking country.  It hadn’t been before.  They didn’t drink beer.  The Germans brought it in, and these guys are the most successful.  The company weathered two world wars, a depression, and prohibition, and survived and blossomed and provided amazing lives for a lot of people.  It became, it was the backbone of St. Louis.  During all of prohibition, they didn’t lay off any employees.  They kept people working, and so it’s this great saga.  At the same time the family stories are just outrageous.  They were so rich, and all the stuff that goes with that.  Untimely deaths, scandal, sex, murders, shootings, but then after all that, after operating in three centuries, in the end they’re undone by globalization and the case I’ll make is moral degradation.  So it’s a story of America.  It’s what’s happened to us.  And you can tell it through a beer company that everybody understands.  This is what we are, this is where we were, this is all about opportunity and excellence and, and then blowing it.  And that’s what happened.

TREVOR: You’re getting cooperation from family members?

WK: Some, not all, but enough. I know the story, I know what it is and I grew up in St. Louis so I was steeped in the Anheuser Busch lore.  You can’t not know about Anheuser Busch.  It’s like living in the neighborhood of the Rockefellers.

TREVOR: When do you think the book will come out?

WK: I’ve got to turn it in a year from now in June 2011, so probably Spring of 2012 would be my guess.

TREVOR: Have you written any other books?

WK:  I wrote a book called In Eddie’s Name that came out in 2000 that was about a murder that took place in Philadelphia in 1994, and it was a teenager who was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers with baseball bats on the steps of a church where he’d been an alter boy, so it was like this horrific murder that took place, but it became something other than a murder story.  It was really a story about the family that went through this and and it became this big crazy cause célèbre in Philadelphia because as I found out when I was working on it, he wouldn’t have died had there not been an utter failure of the Philadelphia 911 system that night, because people were calling in about this band of kids that were marauding all over the place.  But the 911 operators were hanging up on them ’cause they didn’t know enough to say, “Man with a gun.”  Because they, if you said, “man with a gun” the cops would have showed up.  Because they didn’t have guns, they didn’t show.  They just had baseball bats and they were beating people to death so the kid died. It became a big national story because I sued the city.  I was running a  television news show, Enquiring News Tonight, which was in partnership with the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I was new to Philadelphia, and we were talking about the crime one night in an editorial meeting and I said, “It said in the paper that some nun called in the 911 thing, let’s get the 911 tapes.”  Everyone in the room looked at me and said, “What do you mean, get the 911 tapes? Those aren’t public record.”  I said, “What do you mean, those aren’t public record?  In Los Angeles they are. Are you kidding me?  They charge every citizen here a dollar a month for the 911 system.  How can they not be…?”   “Oh, the police consider that investigation,”   And I said, “Well, then lets fucking sue them and we will win.”  We did and won and they had to release the tapes, and it showed exactly what happened, and they played them on every newscast, because it was appalling.  Hanging up on people.  Not taking the calls. It was a good, very gut-wrenching book.

For more information about Bill Knoedelseder go to:  http://www.billknoedelseder.com


Thanks for all of the recent feedback on the interviews and the pictures I’ve recently added!

I wrote “Look Around” with Barry Keenan, on a beautiful sunny afternoon as we both contemplated the madness of the world. Living in peace is what we all need, and what most of us seek. But conflict is everywhere and a daily occurrence, and it’s accompaniment, sadness, always results. So let’s change that.

Here’s our contribution to the current that promotes love and respect.

I recently posted it up on Neil Young’s Song Chart and it was rapidly climbing.

I would like your help to get my song on the top 10!  We can do this by numbers of people viewing the site and clicking on the song. Go to this link and go to #194 or so.

The link is: http://www.neilyoung.com/lwwtoday/lwwsongspage.html

Click on “Look Around”

And then pass this onto your friends!

Thanks again for all your support!

McShane at Kulak's enjoying some great music and company

Trevor McShane