Monthly Archives: December 2011

SHE AND THEM Britta Phillips/Jem & the Holograms

The voice of Jem talks
about that ‘toon object of desire,  Dean
& Britta’s Warhol screen test songs, and glittery, monstrous infidelity.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

For two years, Dean & Britta have been touring behind 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s
Screen Tests
, a set of songs the couple wrote to score the pop-artist’s
storied, intimate short films depicting folks like Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed and
Nico. Last year they released the music in a swanky limited-edition two-disc
box set and a Plexifilm DVD box
set (www.DeanAndBritta.11spot.com),
subsequently dropping a single-disc edition just months before one of Britta Phillips’
landmark works – providing the titular character’s singing voice in 1980s
cartoon Jem and the Holograms – hit
shelves in October as the 11-DVD deluxe edition Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series. (Shout! Factory).

 

 

 

Children of the 1980s will recall the show, that decade’s
version of The Bugaloos and The Banana Splits. They may even be fans
of her work in Dean & Britta, Luna or Ultrababyfat, and it’s kinda perfect,
‘cause foxy femme fatale Phillips could be a dead ringer for Jem in real life –
if she donned a platinum wig.

 

We caught up with Phillips to discuss both projects, and how
being Jem has its perks.

 

***

 

BLURT: Warhol made
hundreds of screen tests – how did you narrow it down to 13
?

BRITTA  PHILLIPS: We
chose people that were really involved in the day-to-day life of The Factory at
the time. Some of them were just people waltzing through. Dennis Hopper is the
biggest celebrity on that… but he wasn’t just a celebrity; he was an early
Warhol supporter.

 

Tell me about the Lou
Reed track – the Velvet Underground cover?

There were several Lou Reed screen tests. We used the one
where he’s drinking a Coke and looking really badass, but in another, he looks
14 and really innocent and vulnerable. It was really tough to choose.

        We wanted to write a song for Lou Reed
about Lou Reed, but it was a really daunting task. Then Dean found this very
obscure bootleg of a Velvet Underground song called “I’m Not A Young Man Anymore.”
It was kinda perfect because he had written it the year that the screen test
was taken, when he actually was a
young man.

 

Now let’s talk Jem – live-action
film?

Oooooh. I don’t know. I’m pretty picky; it really all
depends. Some band movies are good and some aren’t.

 

You mentioned last
time we spoke that you’re a big hit with the gay crowd because of her. How many
free drinks does it get you?

[laughs] I’m not a
heavyweight drinker. Just a couple. Maybe three. But I went to the JemCon in New Hampshire last year.
There was karaoke and I did some Jem songs. A couple of the Jem boys took me to
a gay bar after, but I’d forgotten my I.D. They weren’t gonna let me in [until]
one of the guys said, “This is the singing voice of Jem.” And they let me in!

 

At the time, you were
still doing Moral Orel

Orel is
actually re-running right now. If it does well in these re-runs, there may be a
special. So I’m hoping.

 

And you went on to do
Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Your
character, Elizabeth Frankenstein, was having an affair with Dracula to make
Victor Frankenstein jealous. What movie monster would you have to sleep with in
order to make Dean jealous
?

Wow, that’s such a complicated question! Probably any one of
them. I’m trying to think of the most suave movie monster. It would have to
be…what’s his name? Robert Pattinson, I presume. I can’t really think of a
movie monster.

 

No, it’s okay,
actually. If my wife ever slept with the guy from Twilight, my head would explode. Dean’s probably would, too.

Exactly. [laughs]

 

 

THE SOUND OF IDEALISM Rachael Yamagata

In
which the gifted singer-songwriter tweaks her muse. And teases a
few “horrendous, ugly fish” in the process…

 

BY NICOLE ROBERGE

 

Rachael Yamagata delights listeners
once again with her new album Chesapeake,
produced by John Alagia, with whom she previously partnered for her first
album, Happenstance.  Yamagata has
found a new sense of optimism here, heard on the record, and she has a lot to
be happy about.  This album marks the
first on her own label, Frankenfish Records. 
To produce the album, she teamed up with PledgeMusic and with a strong
fan following, she exceeded her goal and the album came to fruition
successfully. By the time you read this, she will also be in the middle of
what’s guaranteed to be a wildly successful North American tour. [View tour dates, which run through December,
at her official website.
]

 

Yamagata
is more than happy – she’s elated.  “I’m
so glad it’s out,” she says. “I feel like it’s been coming out for months.  I’m glad it finally is.  It’s so exciting and it’s the fastest record
I’ve ever done.  We tracked it in seven
days.” And listeners will notice that this album is a little brighter than past
albums, which wasn’t intentional in the writing and recording, it just came out
that way.  She also went through many
changes. 

 

“The previous record was so much
darker and heavily influenced by my first onset that happens when a first
record comes out.  Experiences like the
loneliness of the road and the music business and there was also someone close
to me who passed away. There were some heavy things that happened when I wrote
‘Elephants.’  This time it was more about
relationships.  This time I wrote more
lighthearted songs.  It was more of a
rollercoaster.  I learned to ride it and
have fun.  Entering into this record, I
had no place to go but up.  I split from
my last record label, so it was sort of like, ‘what do I have to lose?’  I decided to go on instinct and with songs
that I believed in.  There was no
watchful eye over my shoulder with things that I do anymore which was
liberating, so I grabbed some of my favorite people and holed up in a house for
a week.  Lyrically it has some of the
similar things I write but there’s a new energy from everything that’s
happened.”

 

One might wonder if Yamagata was
trying to make this more of an upbeat record, or if she is trying to send a
message with this album, but she says, “No, honestly some of it I guess is in
hindsight I didn’t try to say anything but I guess I am trying to say something
in a new way.  Challenges of what we were
going through. There are sections of this record that are more focused on the
positivity and the hopefulness that I haven’t been able to do before.  New territory that wasn’t forced before I
tried and couldn’t do it.  When I didn’t
try, it came out.  Like ‘Sunday
Morning’–stick around joy of life and joy of love.  Maybe there’s a complication here but isn’t
life so short and shouldn’t we enjoy it?”

 

She laughs, then adds, “I’m a
Pollyanna at heart which I don’t think people would get from me. The idealism
is that next time’s gonna be better.  I
think that comes out on this record and I’m happy about it.”

 

Yamagata says that she got to work
with her “dream team” on this album, including John Alagia, and Victor Indrizzo
on drums, guitarists Mike Viola, Michael Chaves (John Mayer) and Kevin Salem,
cellist Oli Kraus and Tom Freund on the upright bass.  Working with them, she explains, truly was a
dream, in and out of the studio – they became great friends besides great
musicians working together.  “It started
with calling up John Alagaia.  We’ve been
friends through the years because we did Happenstance together.’ We talked about doing more stuff together, played gigs together and
it really felt like the way that I’ve grown and where he’s come from and the
records he’s made that we’ve just come to this point together again to do
something.  So he was up for it and we
decided to go straight into it before going over songs. 

 

“When we did listen to the songs
and talking about musicians, there were people we both knew that seemed like a
perfect combo of people for the record. 
Viola and Salem have been producers,
and Chavez has been guitarist on road.  It
was a leap of faith that these people with different backgrounds would work
together.  What they each do is so unique
and I was excited about mixing people’s talents.  It worked out better than I could have
imagined.  Out drummer, Victor, was
amazing.  Out bass player Freund is an
artist himself and plays killer upright which added a new flavor to whole
project.  They are strategic in what they
brought to the table.  We had no idea it
would be a love fest.”

 

Yamagata
pauses then laughs again, this time with a half-amazed note in her voice. “The
best thing is that they all sincerely love what they do.  These guys cut their rates and rearranged
their schedules for me.  All the guys
said, ‘we want to pay for the record.’ 
First, I said absolutely not, but second. I couldn’t believe they wanted
to give me back the money I’d already given them! They’re all hilarious too. It
was nonstop laughter and pranks and silliness like camp.  I wouldn’t trade it.  Everyone was great.  Olli Craft is a cellist I’ve worked with for
years.  He works with his violin between
his legs and makes insane arrangements then piles tracks over on over
himself.  Eric Robinson I hadn’t worked
with before and was the engineer friend for a while and he’s really great.  The whole experience and the freedom to work
that way with such wonderful musicians was just incredible.”

 

The guys did not end up paying for
her album, though sincerely wanted to; instead she used the grassroots
fan-funding program called PledgeMusic.  Yamagata had just broken up with her record label and
started her own, Frankenfish (which she says is named after “a really ugly
fish” in Chesapeake) and wanted a new way to
help bring the album Chesapeake to life.  She had heard of PledgeMusic, which taps fans’
patronage to pay for an album upfront via incentives such as T-shirts,
handwritten lyrics, backstage videos, etc., and with such a strong fan base,
exceeded her goal by a considerable amount. A portion of the money raised also
goes to charity. 

 

Her job was then to deliver them
the album, which she did.  “After the
business side I’ve been through, I wanted to make it about the fans and the
music and do it together.  I want to make
the music and you want to hear it,” she says, noting that her music and lyrics
becomes her bond with those fans. “It’s reaffirming to me as a music person on
my own what I have to offer in this world. 
A reminder to me that people are being touched and a reminder to what I
have to say.  In general, we’re so much
more connected than we think we are.  The
things I write about are universal experiences. 
I get analytical with my own life and experiences and it resonates with
other people because it makes me less lonely… it shows we’re going through same
experiences.  Hearing that I helped
someone get over a relationship or sickness means a lot.  I wrote these things in the middles of the
night while I was alone, so knowing they are reaching and helping others is
very touching.

 

“Songwriting is my own treatment. I
just had so much fun making [the record]. If people could feel connected to it
and invigorated by it in some way, that’s always what I hope for.”

 

As for people who have not heard
her music, she describes it best this way: 
“I used to do a visual of my music with me slitting my wrists and
shooting with a gun but it’s starting to change. All of this stuff is a
complete story.  I think I’m a storyteller
at heart.  I can get by musically and
play along with myself and get by.  I do
feel like I dig pretty deep into the psyche of relationships.  It’s the intellectual thing I describe at
first.  Some songs I think are gritty and
liberating for people who want to be empowered. 
Some are the late night, let it all out soundtracks for people
vulnerable with themselves.  It’s all a
little different but I think everyone can relate in some way.”

 

For now, Yamagata is working on
promoting the release of Chesapeake, touring,
building her own label, and working as an independent artist.  She has a long-term goal in mind: to give
back to the music community. “Maybe in the future I’d like to help others
release their music,” she muses. “I hear them and they’re magical and they
should be heard.  I hit the lottery years
ago when my stuff was picked up and put out there and feel grateful for
that.  If I could do that for them, I
would.”

 

As for herself, she’s living like a
Frankenfish.  Yes, they are horrendous
and ugly with horrible teeth according to her. 
But they can swim and walk on land and are very resilient, just as she
feels.  Which is why she uses the
name.  “I feel resilient, driven and
enthusiastic,” she states, firmly.

 

 One suspects that is all she needs to move her
in the right direction.