EXCLUSIVE: Donna Lewis on 1990s Pop Hit 'I Love You Always Forever,' Forthcoming Jazz Album 'Brand New Day'...and How She's Learned to Reconcile the Two
Yeah, it’s not easy transitioning from pop princess to jazz singer. Just ask Welsh singer-songwriter Donna Lewis.
Famous for her pop hits “I Love You Always Forever” and “At The Beginning,” Lewis will be releasing Brand New Day, her new jazz-inflected album, on March 10--featuring the talents of jazzers like David King, Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverso.
Of course, Lewis’ move into a more stripped-down version of herself isn’t all that surprising for longtime fans. Even in her vocal salad days, those soulful turns and impressive range made her stand out among the starlets.
After going on something of a pop hiatus, Lewis set up shop with David Torn, a guitarist and studio wizard known for his film scores (Friday Night Lights, The Order, Lars and the Real Girl), as well as his work with rock legends such as David Bowie and Jeff Beck.
The collaboration proved fruitful. By 2001, five electro-infused tunes Lewis and Torn wrote and recorded together were among the most requested on Los Angeles’ KCRW, three weeks running.
Brand New Day will hear Lewis reimagining her own material, in addition to songs by Bowie, Neil Young, Damien Rice, Gnarls Barkley, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chocolate Genius, Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson.
In this Classicalite exclusive, Lewis talks about living in the spotlight of her former hits, working with wizened jazzsmiths and why she heeded the call to reinvent some of the world's most famous tunes.
Classicalite: You were classically trained, but you hit it pretty big with the pop stuff back in the '90s. What made you decide to shift genres later on?
Donna Lewis: Good question! I had been doing a lot of pop. And I mean--oh my gosh--I have been doing pop probably since, well, it’s probably 17 or 18 years ago now. Since then, I have always been involved with this electronic kind of pop, doing a whole bunch of bench projects. I took some time out to have my son, and when I went back to making kind of another pop contemporary record--it was working with David Torn on a bunch of collaborations that we did together a few years back. David, along with the investor on this project, were talking about me one day saying, you know, ”Donna should be doing this.” David always had this idea of me with an intimate sound: an upright bass player, piano and drum. And I think it all fell into place at a particular time. It was a breathe of fresh air. Even though I still feel this record is formed by pop, it has a jazz perspective.
CL: Definitely. You had worked on a few jazz projects before, right? Not a full record, no, but you had delved a bit into that other world.
DL: Not really. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz. My father played a lot of jazz piano and had a huge collection. So, I grew up listening to a huge amount of jazz. But really, my career as a contemporary pop artist, I didn’t really do any jazz. This is the first time, honestly, that I went into a studio and cut this record live with Ethan, Reid and Dave--working with these incredible jazz musicians. It was a first for me.
CL: Can you talk about some of the nervousness going into the recording studio, doing songs that people have performed before?
DL: I've said it before that I was probably a bit wary going in. Because here I was, first of all, I had met Dave King before. But I hadn’t met the other two. So, I’m going in with these guys that are incredible jazz musicians. I am out of my comfort zone. Also, apart from three of my originals, we are doing covers. David and I, before we went into the studio, we took a long time to carefully choose the right songs. I didn't really want to be seen as a pop artist, like, “Oh, here we go, another one going to do jazz standards.” I really didn’t want to be seen in that light. The songs were so important, I had to choose well. For David, there were three particular songs he wanted me to do. Something from the Chocolate Genius catalogue. He wanted me to do “Disco King,” the Bowie track, and “Crazy.” Those are his three big ones. And, yeah, I remember looking at "Helpless," listening to K.D. Lang’s version. She did a live one, and I thought “Oh, my god, how am I gonna better that?” [Laughing] I think as soon as we started to play together--and there is this incredible interaction between the four of us--I just loved every minute of it. For me, it was a complete change because I had the freedom to sing what was in my head. Naturally. Not even think too much about it. Once we got going, I was fine.
CL: Yeah, I was wondering how you decided on what songs to finally use on Brand New Day. Were they mostly David's suggestions? If not, maybe explain your own input.
DL: Sure, David and I each came up with a list of songs that we wanted to do. And then we got together on a bunch of occasions and went through the various ones, narrowing it down. When we went into the studio to rehearse, we had a few others picked, too, but we just decided that these ones went together brilliantly. David is such an incredible, talented guy, with his film background and his arrangements of these songs, he sort of came up with a basic template for the guys to work with. Once we got in, everybody was open and came up with ideas together. Some, though, took a little longer figuring out how to make them work. It was all cut pretty much live, and the guys, as soon as they heard the tunes, they loved them.
CL: OK, now let's talk about your original work here on Brand New Day.
DL: Three original songs. I wrote two for the record, two of mine, and then we re-cut “I Love You Always Forever,” which is an interesting one because I remember someone came up with the idea of doing that. We went to the studio for the second time. And, first of all, I said “absolutely not, we’re not doing that song.” I mean it’s a special song for me, but I don’t really want to add it on to this record. Then, David came up with the new arrangement. I thought, “yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I’m doing a cover record, and no one has done a cover of ‘I Love You Always Forever’ in this way.” It’s interesting to hear it done in a very stripped down way, just one voice and the guys instead of the original.
CL: As opposed to, say, recording the Bowie or Damien Rice, how does the recording process differ with music that's all your own?
DL: Of course. When you write it, it’s different. It’s more meaningful. But I have to say, I just got so into these songs. I’m thinking about the lyrics and it almost feels, like, they’re not my songs. But I’m so into that song, itself. That’s what so great about doing them; they're just incredibly written, lyrically and musically. And they are especially great to sing live.
CL: Ultimately, what do you most want your listeners to take away from Brand New Day? You have an early March street date, right?
DL: Yes, March 10. We have been doing a few shows, performing and stuff. It’s interesting seeing people that know me from what I’ve done before coming in and saying "wow, this is very different.” I think that's what I have loved doing most: playing these songs live. In the old days, everything was well-rehearsed. We knew exactly what we were doing. With this, it’s a new experience for me. Working with these jazzers, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, I just have to go with it. It’s a great new way of playing. I’m probably most excited about doing more gigs with the record out there, so people can hear another side of me. With “I Love You Always Forever,” people think of me attached to that one song. And I am a diverse singer/songwriter. It would be nice to have that acknowledged when people hear [Brand New Day].
CL: Therein's the struggle. At these pre-release shows, have noticed people surprised by this other side of you?
DL: That’s going to be the interesting one. It’s always nice when you have fans that come to the shows, and they’re not sure what to expect. When we were doing a few shows, a few months ago, the record was finished. But it wasn’t released yet. [Audiences] didn’t know what to think. It’s been going down well. You know, I did a couple of shows with Ethan and Dave. And when they’re on tour--I’ve got a great bunch of guys from Brooklyn that I have been using--it’s sounding really great.
Check out Donna Lewis singing "Bring Me to the Disco" by David Bowie, one of our favorite cuts from Brand New Day, due March 10 (Megaforce Records).© 2016 The Classical Art, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.