Interview: Mindi Abair on Finding Her Rock 'n' Roll Sound with Aerosmith, Springsteen, and the Boneshakers

Mindi Abair started her career as a saxophonist, singer, and bandleader in the ‘90s pop world. She toured with the Backstreet Boys, led Mandy Moore’s band, and released a string of solo albums that melded her jazz chops and pop songcraft. Her albums like Life Less Ordinary and Stars, along with her tireless touring schedule, found her a wide audience.

Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers - The EastWest Sessions

But with 2010’s In Hi-Fi Stereo, she decided to shake up her sound, bringing funk and blues into the mix. She filled the late Clarence Clemons’ shoes one night with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band after the saxophonist’s death, toured with Aerosmith, and continued to bring in more loud guitars and driving bass to her music.

Now, Abair records and tours with the blues-rock band the Boneshakers. We talked with Abair about her evolution as a saxophonist, the electricity of her live sound, and how she uncovered her rock ‘n’ roll heart.

Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers are on tour starting February 13. To see the schedule or learn more about the band, go to Abair’s site here.

I hear a turning point in In Hi-Fi Stereo—an album you made with producer Rex Rideout—which brought the groove and bass to the forefront of your sound. Was that a part of your musicality that you had been wanting to bring out for a while?

I grew up with so much rock and soul and blues influence. I grew up on the road with my dad’s band, which was a soul rock band and very high energy and just very fun. That music was a part of my life from the very start. I was always surrounded with music.

When I started making records, I’d just come out of touring with the Backstreet Boys and Mandy Moore. My head was in a lot of pop music. I think we all evolve as human beings and our tastes and our wants, as far as what we do with our art. The more I kept making records, the more I wanted to bring back that grit and that reality and that organic thing that was part of the blues and part of soul and part of rock 'n' roll.

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers - "Had To Learn The Hard Way" Live in Las Vegas, 2018

Slowly but surely, that sound has really taken over my artistry and the music that I’ve made in past years. I think it’s cool that you heard that in In Hi-Fi Stereo because I was going for that. I really wanted to take it back to those artists I grew up listening to, you know Junior Walker and King Curtis and sax players in particular.

Wild Heart took it even farther. I’d just come off the road with Aerosmith and gotten a chance to play with Bruce Springsteen for a night and did a couple of seasons with American Idol. It was just fun to immerse myself in the zen that is rock 'n' roll. I love loud guitars. It puts me in this beautiful spot and I know that’s not for everyone, but it is for me.

Was that after you played with Max Weinberg?

Yeah. I was really, at that point in my life, trying to figure out a way to marry my worlds. I was moonlighting with all of my rock 'n' roll friends, touring with Max Weinberg. I had gone out with Aerosmith and was playing in Waddy Wachtel’s band and got the chance to sit in with Springsteen for the night. I just said to myself, I’ve got to ask my friends to be on my record, to collaborate with me and play with me in my setting. I always play with them in their world. So, I did.

Max Weinberg came in to play for Wild Heart. Joe Perry came in to play for Wild Heart and Trombone Shorty came in to play, and Booker T. Jones—we wrote a few songs for that record—and Waddy Wachtel as well and Gregg Allman. That was an amazing thing, to write with him and to record with him.

It really showed me that I could marry those two worlds, that they didn’t have to be separate—me and my career as a saxophonist and singer on my own and then me as the girl who tours with Duran Duran and Aerosmith and goes and sits in with my rock friends. They didn’t have to be two different people. But I think that, sometimes, it takes a minute to figure out what that sounds like and what that feels like, and it takes the right people to put it together.

Speaking of the right people, how did you get together with the Boneshakers? You ended up touring together for something like two-and-a-half years, right?

It was interesting—when we made Wild Heart, I really felt like my band wasn’t the right band to represent this newer sound. I wanted more abandon. I wanted more rock 'n' roll. I wanted more edge. I wanted more blues.

Mindi Abair and Randy Jacobs performing live

I called up my friend, Randy Jacobs, that I had met when I first moved to LA. He played with Bonnie Raitt. He’s had his band, The Boneshakers, for years. I called him and said, "I need you, I need your vibe. I need your energy. I need that sheer abandon that you play with. This new music, that’s what it needs." And so he joined up, and he was playing with me, and then my band members were over playing with his band, The Boneshakers. So it was very incestuous. It just kind of happened over a period of time.

One night, I sat in with The Boneshakers because we were on the same bill at a jazz festival, and half of my band was playing with The Boneshakers, and a bunch of them were playing with me. It was electric. I looked at Randy Jacobs afterwards and said, "This is what music is supposed to be. This is what it is supposed to feel like every night on stage. Let’s join forces and maybe make it Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers." We were all for that.

Our very first show together, we recorded our live record, which was crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I just said to my friend in Seattle, "Hey, we just put together this new band, and it’s crazy. It’s just so great. I just want you to capture this. One day, I’m going to want this recording—just trust me." And we recorded it, and we all looked at each other and went, "OK, we have to put that out. That’s got to be a live record." So we toured for about two and a half years after that record and just didn’t stop. It was so much fun.

How was working with Kevin Shirley [producer of The EastWest Sessions]?

This time, I really wanted to go in a different direction as far as a producer. I wanted someone who could take this band—we’d only been on the road together, we’d only made a live record together—and really help us create a sound in the studio that was us. Not change us, but really define who we are in a studio setting.

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers - "VINYL"

I wrote over 50 songs for it, but I brought about 25 in to rehearsal the first day. We had a couple of days of rehearsal before we did the recording. Kevin Shirley was just unbelievable. I chose him because he’d produced some of my favorite bands and favorite records. He’d produced The Black Crowes and Aerosmith and Journey and all of Joe Bonamassa, Led Zeppelin.This is a guy that takes great bands and just lets them breathe and makes them sound great.

What was the recording of the album like? Were there any specific microphones or techniques Kevin used to capture that live sound?

What Kevin really put together so well and honed was how we recorded it. We recorded it at EastWest Studios. The microphones that they have are unbelievable and the outboard equipment is unbelievable. You’ve got the great mixing boards, and everything is incredible.

They’ve changed out what they need to, but they’ve left what they need to from the old days, too, so you get that sound of the room. I’ve never recorded at EastWest for my own recordings, but I can say it has a sound and it has a vibe.

Mindi Abair

He put great mics in front of us, but his magic of how to put it together and mix it and make it all work together is great. I applaud him that he doesn’t just bring in his "producer techniques that work for everyone" and give them to Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers—that he actually looks at who we are, what we usually sound like, what our strengths are, and amplified those things. I think that’s the mark of a really exceptional producer that they can take who you are and just hopefully make you better.

I imagine, since you mentioned that the live room at EastWest is beautiful, that you and the band all recorded together at the same time?

Yeah, that was a really fun part of making this record. My earlier records, we would have the drummer come in and he would be the only one in the studio. Then we’d have the bass player come in and he’d be the only one in the studio. And we’d knit pick every note and it would all be perfect and we’d make sure everything fit together perfectly and everything was sonically perfect.

This record, we literally went in to go through 25, 26 songs in 3 days. Then we recorded for 5 days. We chose our favorite songs that we thought fit us as a band and said what we wanted to say. We did it all at the same time. We would go in and do a couple of takes of a song and pick which one we loved, and all go in as a band again and do the background vocals together with a shaker or tambourine or whatever we were using.

Again, even the overdubs were gang. There was never a time when there was one guy in the studio doing something. We didn’t sit there and nitpick every note and we didn’t say oh, you know, let’s go back and punch that because it wasn’t perfect. There are plenty of mistakes that I made, and there are plenty of mistakes that some of the other guys made but you know what, it’s a band and it was the vibe and it was the energy and the abandon of playing as a group that just can’t happen if you’re putting parts down one by one. You can’t get that.

As you’ve said, you’ve played with Joe Bonamassa, Joe Perry, and Waddy Wachtel. How did some of those collaborations come about? What is it about overdriven, bluesy, electric guitar that you like so much?

When Kevin Shirley said "Hey, would you want to have Joe Bonamassa come in and play on the CD? I think he’d kill it." I just thought yeah, of course, I love Joe Bonamassa. I’m a total fan. We’ve met a couple of times but never spent much time together. I just think he would be amazing to record with and to play with. He came in, and he didn’t just come in and blow a solo and then take off, he stayed. He played the whole song with us. He tracked the song.

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers "Pretty Good For A Girl" featuring Joe Bonamassa

That doesn’t usually happen. If someone comes in to play on your record, they’re not there with the rhythm section and the whole band playing the whole thing. They just come in and play a solo and go. He was over there geeking out with Randy Jacobs, showing different guitars he had just bought—a new cool vintage guitar. If you’ve talked to Joe Bonamassa before, he’s constantly buying new, cool, guitars that are just so awesome.

So he and Randy were over there geeking out together and just having a great time. He was just a great spirit to have in the room. It’s pretty amazing to have a player like that in the room to up your game. I knew I had to solo back and forth with Joe Bonamassa, it’s time to buck up and play something and make it good. Definitely, Joe just added so much to this record, and I’m so honored to have him on it and have him be a part of this project.

You mentioned Joe Perry. Getting a chance to play every night with Joe Perry is just unbelievable. It’s a huge drug to be on stage with that band. Aerosmith is just constant testosterone, as Billie Perry (Joe’s wife) says. It’s pure testosterone all night. It’s a thousand percent that they’re giving every second on stage. I always thought I gave that with my band until I played with Aerosmith.

Then I rethought and went, Whoa, I want to do this every night. It doesn’t just rely on, oh, these are the guys in the room. I can do this with my band and give this much. It just has to be the right guys and it has to be the right music. They were such great inspiration for me. I asked Joe to come in and play on Wild Heart. I had a song called "Kick Ass." Joe listened to it and he said absolutely, let’s do this. He came in and just slayed it.

I have to say, he upped my game. Standing next to Joe Perry in a studio—that is pressure to come up with something great.

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