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Tonight: Wendy and Lisa in conversation at USC

March 30, 2009 | 11:07 am
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One of the coolest things about L.A.'s pop life is the presence of everyday demigods, everywhere. So many key contributors to contemporary music's canon hang out at the local Coffee Bean or have their kids in your preschool. Count Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman among my favorites -- goddesses with no pretense and unflagging energy.

Best known for their early work with Prince, Wendy and Lisa have forged a career well worth emulating since departing his Revolution more than two decades ago. As composers, they've written for such films as "Dangerous Minds" and such television shows as "Crossing Jordan" and "Heroes." As producers, they've helped realize projects with everyone from Seal to Eric Clapton to k.d. lang. They've also made some great pop music under their own names -- most recently the lush, complex 2009 album "White Flags of Winter Chimneys," self-released and available on the duo's website.

At 7 tonight, Wendy and Lisa will join me in a public conversation at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. The event is free. The duo answered a few questions via email as a preview for our talk.

You two have been making music together for most of your lives, since you met as kids with session musician dads here in Los Angeles. If you each had to sum up the essence of your collaboration in one sentence, what would you say?

WENDY: I am Lisa's biggest fan.

LISA:  Wendy has become a part of my brain function. I am like a jukebox and Wendy pushes my buttons. Always a good choice.

With collaboration as the core of your work, you've forged connections with some of the most notable musicians of the last few decades, from Erykah Badu to Eric Clapton, to k.d. lang, Seal and, of course, Prince. What's the key to finding the sweet spot in the studio with such enormous talents (and, one would presume, egos)?

WENDY: Hum?  Well.  We do come to the table with a particular sound.  It's easy for us to contribute to other people's music without getting in their way precisely because our sound is so distinct.
We think highly of ourselves and our music --  so others' egos don't bother us. We know what we're going to do is going to shine through their tracks.  (She says half in jest, half not.) We're not hired as conventional studio musicians. We're hired as "Wendy and Lisa," with a signature sound each artist knows we're going to bring to the table. Producing other artists is another thing all together.  We leave our sound outside the door so we can focus entirely on what the artist's sound is, or what the artist wants it to be.

LISA: Wendy is right to say we bring a sound with us, but we also know when to leave the space. We are very supportive to the people we work with and are not threatened or squashed by their need to be in the front. We are good at supporting and magnifying an idea.

Your new album, "White Flags of Winter Chimneys," is your first collection of pop songs after many years producing other artists and composing for film and television. What brought you back to doing your own songs, and how has your scoring work influenced the eclectic sound in this collection?

WENDY: We have been very lucky and busy since the release of our last CD, "Girl Bros.," doing a lot of film and TV work, playing with and producing other artists. We had been wanting to write and explore new music for Wendy & Lisa but hadn't been able to take the time away from our day jobs.
About a year ago the writer's strike happened and we were suddenly out of work. We realized we had a potentially large window to make our own music and jumped at the opportunity. We locked the doors and started work on this new album, and finished almost exactly when the strike ended.  We were really productive and, in a sense, lucky, in a very difficult and barren period for people in our industry.
The last years have been transitional for both of us. Deaths and births and divorce and marriage.  We had to find our way though a lot of personal stuff to re-learn who we are to each other, musically, as pop artists.

LISA: We always wanted to be making records. Sometimes we worried about what kind of record we should make, versus what kind of record we wanted to make. During this time we also simply needed to put food on the table and were lucky to have been working as composers in film and television. Eventually the planets aligned and we had the time, the money, and the confidence to make a record we wanted to make.

How did you hook up with Shenkar, the mysterious voice of the "Heroes" soundtrack?

WENDY: We met with Tim Kring, the creator of "Heroes," at dinner long before the pilot was shot. He talked a lot about this story he had, and wanted to do something special with the music. Once we were told the story it was just one of those light bulb situations where you say, "I've got an idea!"
We had met Shenkar in the studio when he was working with the producer Pat Leonard and we freaked! He was the original member of the group Shakti in the 1970s with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain. He played the violin then, and still does. But now? He has become famous for being this ethereal voice on so many projects -- most notably , "Passion," Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for the film "The Last Temptation of Christ."  We asked if he would be a part of this and we were lucky he was a fan. Simple as that.

LISA: We were lucky, and fate brought Shenkar to us! We were working in the same studio and we met and asked him if he would be interested in this project. He agreed and it was the perfect fit.

You've been keeping company with some interesting women of late. On the one hand, you've been making music with indie-pop goddess Jill Sobule -- on the other, you wrote some songs with the legendary Grace Jones!! Is there some kind of secret society of powerhouse females, with you as leaders -- like the Lady Knights of the Round Table? And can I join?

WENDY: Ha! Anyone can join as long as they are funny and smart. Anyone with a great sense of irony will get far with Lisa and me.  You're already a founding member, you foolish woman!

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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