For more than 20 years, saxophonist and vocalist Mindi Abair has been a musical force to be reckoned with, producing hit records, garnering awards, and thrilling live audiences the world over with her unique blend of pop, jazz, rock, and blues. Whether playing her own music, working with artists like Aerosmith, the Backstreet Boys, and Duran Duran, or performing as the featured saxophonist on “American Idol,” Abair’s career has always been one of exploring new terrain and musical ideas, while remaining true to herself.
The latest wrinkle in that career came when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the recording of her new album, forcing her to regroup at home to finish the project. We sat down with Abair recently (remotely, of course) to talk about her career, the technical and artistic challenges (and rewards) of working from home, and what might be in store for the future.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your style of music?
I play saxophone and sing and I’m a songwriter. I’ve led my own band basically my whole life. My musical style early on in my career was more pop with a contemporary jazz sound. From the last few records we moved into blues and rock. I was moonlighting with Aerosmith and playing on “American Idol,” and I came away from that whole experience – my summer vacation with Aerosmith – and just thought, now it’s time to go back to the rock ’n’ roll and blues that I grew up with. So my last four or five records have been pretty rootsy and organic – just a lot of mojo, a lot of energy.
My musical style ranges anywhere from blues to rock ’n’ roll to soul to a little bit of pop and jazz. Each record has its own statement, its own personality. It’s kind of a snapshot of where I’m at at the time. The one I’m working on right now is definitely a snapshot of where I’m at now.
Live, we’re a super high-energy band. It’s a blast. We’re definitely not your father’s jazz musicians that stand in the corner and play. I learned how to be onstage watching Tina Turner and Aerosmith and Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen. So we definitely come from the more rock ’n’ roll camp of how to put on a live show. Now, we haven’t gotten to do that in a while and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, but once we go back, it’ll be that. We’ll rock your world!
Who initially inspired you to start playing the saxophone?
My father, Lance Abair, played saxophone and B3 organ, and I grew up on the road with his band the Entertainers. From the time I was born, they put me in the band truck and we travelled with the band until they broke up, when I was almost five. It was a cool way to grow up and be around music 24/7. When we did get off the road my grandmother, who was an opera signer, would come over and sing arias – she was just that big, stereotypical opera singer – and my father started putting together rock bands … I just had every style of music around me all the time. I was lucky enough to have school band, and my band instructor said, Hey, we’re gonna put down a bunch of instruments on the floor and you can choose what you want and we’ll learn how to play it. Well, my dad looked like he was having a blast up on stage every night playing saxophone. He was that rock ’n’ roller, shaking and shimmying, knocking your knees together, walking the bar kind of sax player. And I just thought, Wow, that looks so fun – and I was right! And I never looked back.
When did you start to sing as well?
I was always a singer and took every music class they would allow me to take in school. Once I got to Berklee College of Music there were a bunch of singing classes and singing possibilities for ensembles. But I stayed away from it because there was this kind of stigma with the vocalists that maybe they weren’t as musically cool, weren’t as schooled in the musical side. There was this disrespect to the “girl singer,” and I didn’t like that. I said, Oh no no, you’re going to respect me: I play saxophone, I write music, I arrange music. So I didn’t really do too much in college as a vocalist. I really wanted to establish myself as a saxophonist, as an instrumentalist.
It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and started to get established there. I think it was hard for me to put together how to be a woman and be in this industry. I was wearing men’s suits for a while just trying to be one of the guys. But then there was some flash-pot moment where I was like, What am I doing? I’m going to wear clothes I like, I’m going to wear makeup, and I’m going to sing – and it’s going to be awesome! That’s really the time I started having success, because I figured out I could just be myself – imagine that – and it was all right.
Let’s talk about the new record you’re working on. You started recording it in the studio, but then, like many of us, had to pivot to working at home. What has that process been like?
Yeah, what a crazy thing to have happen. We had our studio session for the new record booked at the beginning of March. We knew the COVID-19 virus was out there – we were all elbow bumping good-naturedly – but we didn’t know what it would turn into. So we were in the studio recording a record – it’s the most joyous event on the planet to make new music with your friends. I had Abe Laborial Jr. in there playing drums, and Sean Hurley playing bass, and Jim Pierce playing guitar, and my keyboardist Rodney Lee playing keys. It was awesome to make music with these guys. We recorded 90 percent of a record. I had just had a cold the week before, so I was singing scratch vocals. I figured we’d come back in a few days and I’d record the rest of my vocals when my voice came back. Cut to a couple days later and the whole world’s shut down. California went into shelter-in-place. So I just went home and said, OK, it’s time to figure this out at home.
I’ve said it forever that I should have a setup at home. People ask me to play on their records, people ask me to record a track for them, and I’d go into a studio and do it. I’d always go into the Village in Los Angeles, take a room for a couple hours, and record someone’s record. But if I could have something at home, that would be amazing. I have an Audio-Technica AT4060 microphone that I have used for more than half of my records – for everything, vocals and saxophone. It’s been my mic my entire career. And it was sitting there not being used. So I was like, That’s it – it’s going up! I put that up, I got an interface for my computer, I ordered Pro Tools, and I just started immersing, and calling my friends and saying, What am I doing wrong? And I did it, you know? I think being in the studio with your friends and an engineer you trust, you got all this surrounding comfort of love and people who know what they’re doing. That is awesome. But the idea that you can do it at home, that is amazing to me. It wasn’t as much fun to sit there in my closet and record because you just don’t have all that love around you and people helping you out. But, wow, what an amazing thing that I’m making this record, the world shuts down, and I can still finish it. I’ve been sending my finished vocals to my engineer, Niko Bolas, and Niko was like, This mic sounds great, the tracks sound great. This is your first engineering credit, it’s gonna sound great! What a nice thing to hear, you know? Audio-Technica, once again, makes me look great!
This new record is titled Mindi Abair – Forever. What is the concept behind the album, and when can fans expect to hear it?
My last four records have been as Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers. I joined forces with the Boneshakers for the last couple of years and went on the road and it was just this super high-energy, in-your-face blues/rock band. It was a blast! I loved every second. The idea for this record is to go back to me – just me – not a band. What would I have to say? There’s a bunch of songs I couldn’t do when I was with Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers. I would write these songs, but I knew they weren’t right for those records. They were too touchy-feely or too personal.
So I’ve had this backlog of songs, and this record is really all about taking my strengths from before, which are melody and something that’s accessible, a hooky melody, and just having fun with that and bringing it into a more organic space. The record is rootsy. It brings together that mojo of rock ’n’ roll and blues, and it’s been fun bringing those pieces of me together for a solo record. That’s why I called it Mindi Abair – Forever. It’s all the pieces of me coming forward to hopefully be a career record.
I don’t have a release date yet. I initially planned to release it this summer, but then our tour dates started to get canceled, so I thought maybe in the fall? We’re kind of watching the news to see what happens. It could be fall, it could be early 2021. But it will be done in no time. The vocals are done, so we’ll be mixing it soon.
What is your go-to audio equipment when recording vocals?
I’ve got my MacBook Pro, I’m running Pro Tools on it, and using the Apogee Duet as an interface. And I’m using your cool M50x headphones – the red ones. I’m a girl, the style makes all the difference! And of course, the AT4060 microphone. But that’s the extent of my gear. I’m looking at this as I have the possibility to record myself at home now. I can still rely on great engineers to go in and compress it and edit it, put a nice reverb on it. I’m not there yet. But I can get it down and it can be clean and it can be a great sound. Hopefully I’ll build slowly but surely into some outboard gear, into some more plugins that are cool. But for now it’s pretty stripped-down. This is the starter kit for recording. Start with the best, right? A great microphone: that will do a lot.
You say you’re recording in a closet. What kind of space are we talking about?
I’m recording in a walk-in closet. It’s literally the only closet in our bedroom, so I’ve taken up most of it. I’ve got little KRK speakers set up in there along with the rest of my scenario, with my laptop and the microphone, and I just kind of move it around at will. And I hung up a big blanket over the doors of the closet so everything is kind of soft in there and soaks up the sound. It sounds pretty good. Definitely there’s no room to it, there’s no kickback of any kind. It’s just super dry in there. There’s no natural reverb, whereas, if I were in our living room – it has a lot of ambience. It’s got high ceilings and everything. But I didn’t want that. I really wanted to have it in a controlled space. It was going to be the sound that it was, and I would send it to my engineer and he could put it in the song and make it sound like it should.
My next foray is to record saxophone in there for my friend Slim’s album. He’s the guitarist in Lady Antebellum, and he’s doing his solo record. So now that I’ve gotten all cocky doing vocals for my record, this is how I’m staying engaged and sane during the pandemic – I’m about to go in and record sax.
You’ve performed for audiences around the world. Do you have a favorite concert or venue that sticks out?
One of my favorite places to perform, which is walking distance from my house in Hollywood, is the Hollywood Bowl. We’ve performed there a number of times, and we were scheduled for August 30, but I just got the email that their entire season has been canceled. And, you know, you just hang your head. It’s just magic to play there. It’s this magical place where, you know, fairies fly around as you play and people drink wine … It’s just the perfect scenario. And we’ve had a few places like that on our schedule this year. I love playing at home. I’m from St. Petersburg, Florida, and we were supposed to play the park that I grew up going to, Vinoy Park, for the Tampa Bay Blues Festival. It was going to be 10,000 to 15,000 people out there just going nuts, having fun, in my hometown. And that had to go away. It’s been a drag to have some of these concerts in places where we love to play go away.
One of our last shows was in Seattle. We always do a residency there for Valentine’s week. We did four nights there and it was just packed. The people there were great – what a great audience. And a few weeks after I left, on this extreme high, they started shutting down and had a bunch of problems. And I thought, We were just there, oh no! You really do build relationships with not only the people who come to see you, but the people who run the clubs and the theaters and the venues that you play. It’s all such a family, so we’ll all kind of be dealing with it together, mourning the loss of what we do for a living and this connection that we have.
So now my favorite venue is my living room, and I put on a concert here every Tuesday night. We Facebook Live at 5 p.m. Pacific time every Tuesday. And it’s great for me because I remember that this is what I do for a living. Well, maybe not for a living right now, but … This is what I do: play for people and sing for people. And that’s filled in the gap of connecting with my friends and family and fans. That’s been a nice thing to do every week for me. Sanity!
If you could work with any artist in the world, who would it be?
I’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing people. I had the chance to play with Bruce Springsteen for a night right after Clarence Clemons passed away. It was just – wow. I couldn’t even have been cocky enough to put that on my bucket list, but it happened! And touring with Aerosmith was an amazing thing that happened. But there are people that I would love to collaborate with. Bonnie Raitt is one of my favorite artists. In our little concert this week I played “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine song that she did. I would love to do anything with Bonnie Raitt. And the Stones. I don’t think the Stones are going to stop playing, you know? And they’re obviously saxophone friendly. They always had Bobby Keys in their band, and now they have other people, but that would be a blast of a band to play with. So those are a few that come to the top of my mind.
We’ll be sure to share links to your website and social media channels so fans can learn more about the upcoming album, tours, and other news, but is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
We have a wine company. It’s a wine and music company. That’s at reservetastings.com. My husband finds cool wine and I create the artwork that’s music-centric, then I put together a playlist of music that pairs perfectly with a particular wine. We have a membership and ship out wine four times a year. So that’s been kind of fun and has continued. We got enough wine to drink during the pandemic, which is great!
You’re also an author.
Yeah, I wrote a book called “How To Play Madison Square Garden.” It’s a guide to stage performance. It’s not “how to make it in the music business,” it’s not “how to play your instrument,” it’s none of that. But I realized: I have a degree from Berklee College of Music, which I consider to the best contemporary music school in the world, but the one thing they didn’t mention, really, was how to build your audience or how to build a connection with any audience, and how to think about your live performance. Most of the people that I know that make a living doing music, make a living playing live. It has turned into that for artists. You’re not making a living selling CDs, you’re making a living with your live dates. So why not learn how to connect with an audience? If you want them to pick up a ticket next time, learn how to be a better performer, learn how to be true to yourself and create a show that’s really you, instead of thinking, Well, I saw this person do that so I’m supposed to do that. You know, learn how to deal with your stage fright.
So I wrote the book because that’s what I’ve done my whole life. I started playing on the street, and I started playing with different artists, from Teena Marie to the Backstreet Boys to Adam Sandler to Aerosmith, Duran Duran, and with all these people I learned something different. And I made every mistake, that’s for sure. I’ve seen every mistake made. But I’ve also seen so many right things happen. I’ve seen when things work, and you’re just – whoa! So I started writing it down and figured, you know what, maybe I can save someone a couple of years of making the same mistakes I’ve seen made or I’ve made, and just put it down in writing, because it can be learned. It’s not some magical innate thing like, well, they’ve got that “it” factor, I could never have that. You can have that. You can totally learn that. So I’ve loved getting the book out there, and I go out every once in a while to do master classes or clinics for colleges and different bands, and it’s really fun.
To stay engaged with Mindi Abair and her music, including her weekly Facebook Live home concerts, check out the links below.