Mindi Abair continues to push the envelope and raise the bar for music with some soul. Starting with her debut in 2000, Mindi’s unique blend of rock and roll, blues, soul and jazz allows her to continually take that music into new areas, while still carrying the torch for its roots and founders. Her amazing vocals and saxophone playing give the listener and the audience an immediate sense of craving more! On her own and with her band, The Boneshakers Mindi has leapt out front and center as a force to be reckoned with. The Boneshakers are Mindi Abair (Saxophone, Vocals), Randy Jacobs (Guitar, Vocals), Rodney Lee (Keys), Derek Frank (Bass, Vocals), and Third Richardson (Drums, Vocals). Influenced early on by her seeing her father and his band perform, Mindi has devoted her life to the music. She is a two-time Grammy Nominee, spent two seasons on the hit series American Idol, and toured with Aerosmith as their saxophone player. The list of artists Abair has toured with and/or recorded with proves where she stands: Aerosmith, Gregg Allman, Smokey Robinson, Keb’ Mo’, Joe Perry, Teena Marie, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa, Booker T. Jones, Jimmy Webb, The Ides of March and countless others have recorded with or shared the stage with Mindi. Check out her fantastic releases, which include her amazing solo album Wild Heart, with The Boneshakers: Live in Seattle and the EastWest Sessions. On June 28, 2019, Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers will release their phenomenal new album No Good Deed. The album is a classic mix of rock and roll, blues, jazz and soul that can only be described as Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers! Pick it up today! I had the pleasure of speaking with Mindi recently. We talked about her career, her early years, and the upcoming album. Mindi is as great as they come and we had a great time talking!
Todd Beebe: Hey Mindi! How’s it going? Mindi Abair: Hey Todd! Thanks for making time! It’s going great!
TB: I know you have a new album hitting on June 28th. I’d love to talk about that and just go through your amazing career too. So where were you born? MA: I was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, a little beach town on the gulf of Mexico. Big music mecca. NOT! (laughs) I was born and raised in Florida, but the first five years of my life we just traveled. I traveled with my dad’s band. So I totally grew up a band kid you know, packing the band truck and watching my father play. It was like a really high energy blue-eyed soul band. It was a fun way to grow up!
TB: That’s great, and was actually one of my questions: You come from a musical family right? MA: My Mom is not. She’s the greatest audience on the planet, which is awesome! Works out so great! But my dad plays saxophone and B3, and he’s that guy that’s shaking and shimmying and knocking his knees together and walking the bar! He’s that sax player! And my grandmother was an opera singer. She had just a beautiful voice, color to her soprano. A stereotypically huge woman, and the personality to match! (laughs) So, I was going in between rock and roll, soul, saxophone, B3, and my grandmother coming over to sing Italian Arias. So it was an odd household! But super fun! (laughs)
TB: It sounds like it! So what was your first actual memory of music? Not necessarily rock and roll or blues, but just any kind of music? MA: That’s a great question! I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that! That’s a cool question! Well definitely my first recollection of hearing music was on the road as a kid and my mom would bring me to a lot of my dad’s shows. We didn’t have a house. We just traveled as a band, and some of the other band members had kids too. So we’d go to the shows and we’d just travel and we’d be in these cities and just get to explore, and what a cool way to grow up! It was just music, 24/7, and I was raised by the village of the band, you know? So when the band wasn’t playing we’d be sitting around the pool at the Days Inn hotel and we’d be strumming guitars or sitting there singing or whatever. So it was a very cool, really organic way to just have music a part of your life 24/7. It kind of makes sense, some people grow up with firefighters as a father, and they want to be a firefighter. Music was such a part of my everyday, it just seemed like the right thing to do, to have that as a natural part of me growing up and coming into my own as a musician.
TB: Right! Now when do you actually remember hearing blues? Was that something you first heard your dad’s band playing? MA: Yeah my dad’s band, definitely! They kind of ran the gamut of soul and blues and some popular music. James Brown came to sit in with them one night! They were the perfect band for that because they were rooted in the blues, but they were really soul driven. So most of the stuff that I heard growing up, it was soul and rock and roll. And what I learned later is that wouldn’t exist if weren’t for the blues! You know? So that was kind of my coming of age with that, to start hearing more blues artists that were the real thing, that they were drawing from that. And I didn’t hear that until kind of much later. But it felt like it just all made sense, you know? Growing up listening to all these soul bands from Stax, James Brown and all these bands that I grew up listening to, and then rock and roll. I wanted to sing like Tina Turner and I wanted to rock like Clarence Clemons on a saxophone! All that stuff is rooted in the blues, you know? The Rolling Stones, I didn’t know listening to them for so many years that shoot, they just wanted to be Muddy Waters! They just weren’t gonna sound like Muddy Waters when they did their thing. And that’s alright! There was already a Muddy Waters! And I just thought, wow, it makes sense to me now that these guys are drawing from this, and that this was the start of American music, and the start of all these music styles that I loved. And I really didn’t find that out until college, when I started listening to jazz and blues and finding out the roots of all this stuff. It was an eye opening experience!
TB: You’re an amazing saxophone player! Let’s talk about that a little bit. How old were you when you first started playing? Did you go through school band? Were you formerly trained with lessons or did you just kind of pick it up on your own?
MA: You know, I think I was banging around on my dad’s piano so much, that they finally got me lessons! And it was right when the band came off the road and we actually settled in Florida. So I started piano lessons when I was 5, and then when I was 8 years old they started school band. So the band instructor put a bunch of instruments out on the ground, and she said “pick whichever instrument you like and we’ll learn how to play them.” And I walked around and I looked at the sax and just went “you know, Dad looks like he’s having a blast! You know? I want to party like that!” (laughs) So I chose the saxophone, and yeah I became a total band geek! Anything they’d let me do, I was in! Any choir, any band. I became the drum major of the band. I mean I was a complete band geek! And then at home I was playing along to records and playing along to the radio, and playing along to MTV. I was the total product of the radio and MTV, and there was a lot of rock and there was a lot of pop, and so that’s where my head was at. I maybe had a handful of lessons until I was in college. I was absolutely not formally trained. It was just what I listened to. I would sit and listen to my dad’s bands in practice rooms and just kind of get inspired. Music was everywhere for me! So that was a cool thing. But once I got into college, people would assume that I was a jazz player, playing saxophone. And I didn’t know anything! (laughs) I just liked to play! I didn’t know who Charlie Parker was. I didn’t know who John Coltrane was. I didn’t know who Junior Walker was. I didn’t know who Miles Davis was. And all of a sudden people started playing me records, and I took a class on the history of jazz, which had to start with the blues! And then I delved into the blues and I just started buying every blues and jazz record I could get my hands on, and my world just opened up, it exploded! It’s like I know where Tina’s Turner stole her stuff from! I get the Rolling Stones in a way bigger way now, you know!? It opened up my world just to see where American music came from, and where the world got their music! It made me proud to be an American! But as a sax player, it gave me this whole other language to play in and emote in. You know, the blues are just something that’s deep down in your soul. It’s awesome to sink into that place and make music from it. So it really changed my approach when I started listening to these bands and just thought “I want to be a player that emotes! I want people to feel something when I play! I want to feel something when I play! It has to be real and it has to be meaningful to me!” And that doesn’t mean playing the fastest and the highest and all of that, which is what I was being taught in college, that it was all about your technical skill and your facility on an instrument. No! For me it became all about the sound quality and how I spoke through the instrument, and that it became an extension of me. So learning the blues really brought me into a different place in my artistry.
TB: So this would be a perfect time to speak with you about your signature mouthpiece. That’s pretty cool! MA: Thank you!
TB: Is that something that you worked on for a long time? Did they approach you about it or was it something you kind of always wanted to do? MA: You know, I’m a complete dork! (laughs) And I don’t get to talk saxophone, dorky talk with a lot of people! But I think a lot of us are mad scientists with our instruments, and maybe the world doesn’t see that all the time. But I’m always searching for a better sound, or a better set up for the sound, you know? A mouthpiece, for a saxophone player, is the biggest piece of the puzzle for creating what your sound is and changing it in any way. So I met this guy, that I just love, his name is Theo Wanne. He’s a total mad scientist guru for saxophone mouthpieces, and just the physics of how air goes through a saxophone. So we would just geek out and get together and have this conversation: “what if we could create the perfect mouthpiece?” You know? If it was the people’s mouthpiece! That it made it easier to play, and it made the high notes just pop out and it was even across the whole range of notes. I had things that I definitely wanted in a mouthpiece. I play differently than a lot of the sax players on the world stage right now. I come at it from a more blues/rock perspective. So I wanted that grit and I wanted that beef, but I needed to cut through! I play next to electric guitar players every night that are loud! And I love that! But I have to cut through! So we created this rock and roll, rocket ship mouthpiece! (laughs) It makes it easy to stand up to an electric guitarist, and makes it easy to play, and makes the high notes just pop out. And it was so fun! We worked on this mouthpiece for over 2 years, and unfortunately my horn and mouthpiece were stolen after a gig one night. Never to reappear, unfortunately. And my heart sank! And I called Theo and said “hey that rocket ship mouthpiece for the people that we’ve been making, the universe says we have to complete it!” And so we completed it and I started playing it about a week later, and I played it for a year before we put it out on the market. And it was fun to put it out on the market because I started to see people play it and I’d see them try it, and like two notes in their eyes got really big and they’d stop playing and be like “whoa, this thing’s awesome!” You know?! (laughs) So it’s fun to create something that becomes something that other people use to achieve their perfect sound. We all have something a little different that we want to hear, but if it makes it easier for someone to get where they want to go, that’s awesome! And it’s been one of his best selling mouthpieces, and that’s super fun to have people walk up and say “hey, I play your mouthpiece!” (Author’s note: Find out more about Mindi’s amazing mouthpiece here: https://www.mindiabair.com/the-mouthpiece)
TB: Yeah, that’s awesome! Now what was the scene like when you first started playing out? When you originally set out to get into music you moved to California correct? MA: Yeah. I went to college in Boston- Berklee College of Music. I started my own band there. My teacher there, every time I walked in the door he was just like “start your own band! You’ve got your own thing. Develop it here, so that when you get out you’ll know who you are.” And what great advice! So I started my own band in college, and when I graduated, you know, I was from Florida I needed to be warm! I was like “get me the hell out of Boston, New York, New England!” I love it up there! But good God, that’s unnatural! (laughs)
TB: (laughs) Yeah! I was born in Vermont. The cold does get pretty rough! MA: Well yeah, it gets rough, you know?! I didn’t even own a jacket when I moved up there! So it was a slap in the face! So I moved to LA just thinking you know, a lot of music happens out there, and I started playing on the street. I didn’t want to get a real job..I didn’t want to do what I didn’t want to do! I came there to play music! And I realized how hard it was to get hired. I was asking around and trying to call people that had bands, and trying to call people to play in my band. But that’s a slow process. So I started forming my own band out there, and playing on the street. And what’s cool is, while playing on the street, a guy walked by one day, he was a jazz piano player, Bobby Lyle. He stopped and listened, and he said “You know I should hire you. I should take you on the road. I’m recording a record right now. You want to record a track on my record? I really like the way you play?” And I was just like “yeah of course! I’m playing on the street, of course I want to play on your record!” So that guy took me on the road and just showed me the way. His band really took me under their wings, and they were just incredible guys, and things really snowballed from there. I’d start touring with different artists: Bobby Lyle and Teena Marie and Adam Sandler, which I still work with him. And Duran Duran and then Backstreet Boys, and it really snowballed for me. So on my off time in LA, I was playing with my band in every club we could and we were playing everywhere, and then I would go out on the road and make a living. And in the meantime, you know, trying to become a solo artist and get my band out there. But it was hard, because I sang and played saxophone, and I was a woman. A lot of the record labels were just looking at me like I had three heads and a tail. I was told by many people, “you have to choose whether you sing or play the sax. You can’t do both. We don’t know how to market that.” And they had way too many sax players, so they’re like, “we need another sax player on our roster like we need a hole in the head!” And then the fact that I was a woman, they had no idea what to do with that! That was just completely foreign. I’m not supposed to play this instrument. I’m supposed to be a large black man, and that wasn’t the case. (laughs) You know?! So those were my crosses to bear! But luckily one of the A&R guys at Verve Records felt differently. He thought it was all together too cool that I was a woman that played the sax and sang! So it worked out for me eventually!
TB: We’re both laughing about that, but in all seriousness, it’s not a laughing thing. You touched on something there about the business. It’s always strange to me how so many great women don’t get taken seriously, because it does seem to be a male dominated business. There have been so many great female artists, not only in Rock and Roll, but Blues, Country, EVERYTHING! It’s strange and sad to me that you seem to still have to go the extra mile in 2019 if you’re female. MA: You know, I think it is a male dominated business. So, it is natural that people are going to look at someone like me coming up, and there haven’t been a lot of women instrumentalist, apart from maybe piano players or guitar players. So it is an oddity. Why? Who knows? Luckily, no one told me it was odd for a girl to play a saxophone until it was way too late, and I thank them for that! But I think it’s all in how you look at it. For me, I realized that they expect something different from me than someone else that’s male with the saxophone walking on stage. This one night my parents were in the audience. I was working for an artist named Jonathan Butler. He’s a South African R&B, soul singer. So halfway through a song, I walk out on the stage with a saxophone, and I’m going to finish the song with him and solo and do the whole thing. And as my mother tells it, the woman next to her stood up as I walked out on stage, and she stood up and she went “what is that skinny little white bitch doing on stage?!” And my mother’s like, sinking down in her chair! (laughs) So my mom goes, you know you played, you did your thing, you soloed, you ended the song. She said that woman stood back up at the end of the song and she goes “you go you skinny little white bitch, you can play!” (laughs) And so I look at that as like, the perfect example of changing people’s conceptions about what a woman is capable of, and what were supposed to be. And there are a lot of women playing instruments now: saxophone, guitar, everything! And it’s super cool to see people’s perceptions changing. There are so many, like you said, strong, capable, incredible women as artists out there. So it’s fun to see people change their minds, and that’s always been something I’ve enjoyed doing! So that’s fun! (laughs)
TB: Well, you’re doing a heck of a job doing it, so that’s great! MA: Thank you!
TB: You wrote a book about performing too. Tell us about that.
MA: The book is called How To Play Madison Square Garden, and it’s a guide to stage performance. I’ve spent my life on stage. I thought I would just be a solo artist making records and touring with my own band. But my early career was playing for a bunch of people. I’ve spent years of my life on stage, whether it’s with Aerosmith or the Backstreet Boys, or playing on the street, or Duran Duran or American Idol. And I’ve made every mistake, I’ve seen every mistake made by other people, and I’ve seen things that work. And just being, like I said, kind of a dorky, you know, intellectual type, I want to figure it out! Why does that work? Why does it not work? Why did that person get booed when they’re the most amazing musician. Why can’t they sell tickets? They should be selling way more tickets than this other person who’s selling millions of tickets and they can’t sing! I don’t get it! So I wanted to write a book about what I saw and how to kind of connect with an audience and how to create something that’s yours. You can have people buy a ticket to your show, you can make something real and true that’s yours and represent yourself. Because at this point, that’s how a lot of us are making a living. We tour. And I just saw the schools teaching us how to play, teaching us scales and teaching us arpeggios and all of that, but I don’t see them teaching us how to be performers! And that’s such a big part of what we do that’s overlooked! So I wanted to make that happen! (Author’s note: Learn more and pick up this amazing book here: https://www.mindiabair.com/the-book)
TB: That’s great! Yeah it’s always interesting to see how certain artists just hit with the public, and some have tons of talent, but just won’t seem to hit. MA: Yeah! Well I think a lot of it is how we present ourselves and how we connect with our audience. And it should be a real personal connection, in your own way. I think that kind of stuff can be learned. It’s something we should all think about, you know? We shouldn’t be someone other than who we are. But we should think about how we respond to our audience and how we connect with them. So that’s what the book is about.
TB: Now, do you have a regular routine for keeping everything in shape: your sax and voice chops? MA: I really take it seriously. It’s something that I know has to be taken care of. You can’t just hope your voice is going to be there after you haven’t used it or worked it out or anything for a week or a month. I think people take their voices for granted, or take their instruments for granted, and I just never want to be that person, you know? People work out with their bodies and go to the gym and run and do yoga and stuff. Why don’t we do that for our voice and our skill set too? So I really think it’s something you have to work on every day. I wish I was that person who could just not have to warm up everyday, but I’m not! (laughs) I think there are those people out there that are like super humans, they just sing and don’t even think about it, or play and don’t think about it, but I’m not that cool! (laughs)
TB: (laughs) Let’s talk about the new album a bit. Kevin Shirley produced this album. You’ve worked with him before. What did he add to this? You have a great remake of The Rascals, “You Better Run?” on this album too! I interviewed Felix Cavaliere a while ago, and went out to one of his shows too. He was actually playing with Gene Cornish, the original guitar player from The Rascals, and they just sound as great as ever! MA: Oh that’s great! Kevin’s an amazing guy! He’s a real soft-spoken guy. He’s just a real cool energy to have around. But just when you think he’s sitting back and just being cool, he makes a few suggestions and really just brings out the best in you. And it’s pretty amazing! It’ll just be a couple of things, and a song really takes shape or changes. He was the one that came up with the idea for the Rascals song. He emailed me one day and said “you guys should cover this, it has Boneshakers written all over it!” And I hadn’t heard the song in so long. I put it on and I was like “oh my God! This does have the Boneshakers written all over it!” It’s just so fun to play! I mean, you can’t not move during that song! Just totally shake your head which just all of the intent of that lyric! Those guys are just living and dying by that song, playing it! You know, you’re dead inside if you don’t move to that song! So it was really fun to record! The whole band just loved the idea of doing it. And it was right up our alley, it was just great! So yeah, it was great to have Kevin Shirley involved for a second record. The first record we made with him, The EastWest Sessions, was just epic, and we loved having him! So he’s become the sixth Beatle with us! (laughs) But it’s nice to have someone else, creative, in the room with us, that can help us shape our ideas. At this point, this is the type of band that completes each other’s sentences, musically. We joined forces as Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers at the beginning of 2015. But all of us have played together a hell of a long time. I met Randy Jacobs back in the mid ’90’s. We were in a rock band together. I saw the guy do a backflip off the stage, mid guitar solo! He kept playing and landed and just kept running through the audience. And I was just like “wow!” Backflip off the stage, into a sea of people and I was like, “that guy’s rock and roll, and I’m being friends with that guy!” (laughs) He started the Boneshakers soon after. It was his pals from Was Not Was, he was a founding member of that group, and all the guys from Bonnie Raitt’s band too. What a cool band the Boneshakers was, long before I was ever involved! It was blues/rock, it was testosterone! It was just great! Cut to many years later, half of my band is playing in the Boneshakers, and Randy was playing with me, so it was a very organic experience, becoming a band. But now after 4 or 5 years of being a band and touring together, and really making music together as a band, it’s just effortless! It’s so fun to have it be effortless! To go in the studio and make music with these guys, I mean we recorded this record in 5 days! I don’t mean like, recorded the basics in 5 days, I mean every part was done! We just went in recorded it together, and the vocals are the vocals that were recorded during the takes. I didn’t go in and spend a vocal day. All the saxophone solos, all the guitar solos were done as a group, with that energy. There’s something about being able to do that, it’s just magical!
TB: That’s great that you say that, because when you look back at all the classic albums, they were done in about that amount of time, and they were done, like you’re saying: with the band, for the most part, ripping it up, almost live in the studio. Then, I don’t know what happened. Somewhere along the way we got to the point where bands are in the studio for like 3 years! It’s like, “what the hell are you guys doing?!” Well I guess I know what they’re doing: everything but music! I don’t understand taking that long to record an album, so that’s great to hear that you did it old school! MA: Yeah, it’s nice to have a band that’s that good! And these guys, they inspire me every night! I’ve always thought as a band leader, you want to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Because they push you and you play up to everyone’s level, and I love that! Every night on stage with these guys, and in the studio, I just am inspired! And that’s the way it’s supposed to happen! And it doesn’t always happen that way. But it’s fun to make records with these guys because we know each other so well, we just fill in the blanks automatically. It’s a really cool way to make records: to just go in and listen to each other and form it together. I know if we take any more than a couple of takes, we’re gonna start losing the magic. We’re gonna think about it too much, delve into it too much. But just us not thinking about it, just vibing off who we know each other to be and listen to each other, it’s magic! It’s really cool to sit back and listen to the record and go oh “wow we did that! That’s awesome!” (laughs)
TB: Now, you’re obviously going to be touring for this album.
MA: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of cool festivals lined up! We’re doing Utah Blues Festival and Tampa Bay Blues Festival and Mammoth Bluesapalooza, some really cool bigger festivals that we get to play with people. I’ve got my own festival too, in Punta Gorda, in November. Punta Gorda is on the gulf coast of Florida just south of where I grew up. That’s Mindi Abair’s Punta Gorda Wine and Music Festival. And that’s us and Larkin Poe and Sean Brown and the Reverend Shawn Amos. That’s going to be a lot of great music and great wine. I don’t like to drink a bunch of shitty beer! (laughs) If you’re gonna come to my festival, you’re gonna drink and eat well!
TB: Well that’s good to hear! I love it! (laughs) MA: So other than that we’re just on the road playing everywhere, and we’re just all over the place, and it’ll be us. So, you know, that’s fun just to get out there and play!
TB: I’d like to talk to you a little bit about American Idol and working with Aerosmith. Obviously, that had to be a career highlight? MA: It was! I had the total gift of being an artist for years and years and years, and making my own records. It’s awesome to be in your own bubble, where you can write your own songs and play them every night with the guys in your band that you chose. But it was really cool to moonlight and be on American Idol and get to be a part of other people’s experiences, and be a part of building other people’s careers. And fitting into their world in a different way, you know? It pushed me into different spaces than I would push myself. That was a blast! And then, cut to the end of American Idol’s first season: Steven Tyler just says “We got to do this, we have to make this happen! It’s time! Times running out!” I’m just looking at him like “what are you talking about? I have no idea what you’re talking about!” But then he played me the new Aerosmith record that wasn’t out yet, and I played back and forth with him, and sang back and forth with him, and he asked me to go on the road with Aerosmith. They hadn’t had a sax player since 1973. So that was a cool thing! So to go on the road and sing and play with Aerosmith, that was epic! That was one of the things, going on on the road with Aerosmith, being able to do American Idol, moonlighting with these different bands and different experiences, it made me realize that every time I moonlight, it’s with blues or it’s with rock. By the way, Aerosmith thinks they’re a blues band! Don’t tell them that they’re not! (laughs) I think they know they’re more rock and roll, but they do think of themselves as a blues band, and I love that! ‘Cause they respect that! They respect the fact that they’re blues, that’s where they come from, you know? And I love that about them! It made me realize that I needed to delve into my roots more. I had been making music that was more contemporary jazz or pop, and I just thought “this is not how I grew up! This is such a huge part of me: blues and soul and rock and roll! I’ve got to find a way to make it me again!”. And so I called a bunch of my friends that I had worked with to make my solo record, Wild Heart. So I made a record that Joe Perry from Aerosmith was on, and Max Weinberg from Springsteen’s band was on, and Gregg Allman came in and wrote with me and played on it. Booker T. Jones, Keb’ Mo’, Trombone Shorty, Waddy Wachtel!
TB: God, what a line up! MA: I know right! They were all people I’ve worked with in their world. But to bring them into my world and have them help me put the pieces of me together, it was awesome! And what great friends to have, that they did that. That was the gateway drug to me joining forces with the Boneshakers. Because I wanted to get more of that abandon live. I wanted to let go more, I wanted to give 1,000% like Aerosmith does every night! So I changed my band. It became Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers. And that’s been just a blast to make music with these guys, and to take it even farther musically. So to answer your question, American Idol and Aerosmith really helped me change my path and kind of find myself again. It was great!
TB: Thanks so much for talking to me today Mindi! I know you have lots of music left in you, and a lot of years to go, and we’re all looking forward to that! But 3,000 years from now, how does Mindi Abair want to be remembered? MA: That’s a great question! I would love to be remembered as someone who made music that made people feel. That I was a person that spoke through my saxophone, and that sang a song that meant something to people. So yeah, I’d like to be remembered as that!
TB: That’s an awesome answer! Well congratulations on a great, new album and thanks so much for talking to me today Mindi! MA: Absolutely! You asked every awesome question! Thank you! I’ll see you soon!