Wendy & Lisa on gear, gender equality and working with Prince

As the engine of Prince’s band The Revolution, solo artists, songwriters and acclaimed TV and film soundtrack composers, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman have pushed modern music in ever-evolving directions.

“There are plenty of dames out there excited and interested in music production. But are they getting the good gigs? Are there any more opportunities for them?” asks Wendy Melvoin down the phone from sunny Los Angeles.

“It’s just still really male-dominated,” states Lisa Coleman, Wendy’s creative partner in crime from their stint at the heart of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, to a now award-winning career as acclaimed TV and film composers.

After almost 40 years working and writing side by side in an ever-changing music industry, it’s unsurprising the pair finish each other’s sentences. They’ve enjoyed astronomical success, witnessed fashions explode, fade and bloom again as well as the digital explosion, forever reshaping how music is created and consumed. Amidst these tectonic shifts, the fight for the volume of female voices to be turned up and heard continues.

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“When I was younger, I’d visit a Guitar Centre and ask for flat wound strings for a long neck instrument,” recalls Wendy. “The guys in the shop would look at me like I was nuts. And ultimately, I don’t think that kind of attitude has really changed.”

Lisa Coleman
Lisa Coleman at the Tabernacle, Atlanta. Image: Chris McKay / MediaPunch

Women in Music

Wendy and Lisa will be among the key speakers at the ADAM Audio’s Women In Music virtual event series exploring the challenges and opportunities faced by women in the music industry on 17th September.

They see their talk as an opportunity to encourage young women to follow in their footsteps and take the plunge in embracing production and engineering. The pair can provide unique insights due to the point in the evolution of the industry at which their careers took off.

“We’ve always straddled both worlds of analogue and digital, and I wouldn’t give up either of them,” Wendy says. “This event is a great opportunity for us dinosaur dames to give some fresh perspectives on both old and new ways of recording.”

Gear love

Raised by musical parents, both Wendy and Lisa were turned onto the power of the studio and recording technology from a young age. These formative explorations and experiences sparked life-long love affairs with not only music-making but the machines and instruments behind it.

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“Both our fathers had home studios,” says Lisa. “My father had a little home set up with an ARP 2600, a four-track tape machine and numerous other little gizmos.”

“You’d work with tape and learn how to manipulate it, flipping sounds backwards, panning left and right. I remember when my dad got his ARP 2600 synth, my brain just exploded.”

Wendy is equally effervescent when it comes to discussing her cravings for musical equipment.

“All I can do to appease the desire to be a collector ad nauseam is to go to the studios of my friends which are chock full of magic,” she says.

“When I was younger, I’d visit a guitar centre and ask for flat wound strings for a long neck instrument. The guys in the shop would look at me like I was nuts. And ultimately, I don’t think that kind of attitude has really changed.”

“So I’ll visit Sound City Studios here in LA, run by my friend Tony Berg, to get my fix. Through osmosis, I own all the old Neve boards, every boutique amp and microphone. I’m constantly lusting for gear, even if it’s some broken piece of kit. Some women like shoes, I love them but I also really love guitar pedals.”

“I still have all my original pedals from the Purple Rain tour. The Boss Chorus, Boss Analog Delay and all my TC pedals from the mid-eighties. I couldn’t tell you my whole collection as it’s so big. But I can tell you I put an ambient chain together that I love.”

The series of pedals includes a Strymon Decco tape saturation/double tracker, an original Klon distortion, an Eventide H9, a Crowther Audio Hotcake for boost, a Chase Bliss MOOD micro-looper/delay and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb.

“It’s an odd chain,” says Wendy, “but it sounds amazing.”

Compositional works

As composers, Wendy and Lisa’s works have adorned numerous hit films and TV series. They created the score for the Hollywood blockbuster Dangerous Minds as well as popular series such as Nurse Jackie and Heroes.

This latest chapter of their musical career has been advanced at pace by the advent of computer technology. While they’d learned how to edit with tape, the arrival of digital dramatically enhanced their studio process, enabling them to ramp up their creative pace to hit the often tight deadlines required by programming schedules.

Native Instruments’ Abbey Road Drums, Omnisphere from Spectrasonics and Spitfire’s orchestral libraries have been huge for us in terms of helping us respond effectively to briefs,” says Wendy.

Their work in media composition has also meant both have had to adopt a new creative mindset, where the music is driven not by them but by the demands of the director, producer and programme’s story.

“Prince taught us so much, about working with a band, a singer, learning the differences between each. He would always question what everything would do in the studio, too. He was really hands-on.”

“When you’re doing your own project, the narrative is your own personal expression. Your relationship with your music is different, you’re more vulnerable, private, it’s much more of a sensitive experience,” she continues. “With soundtrack work, I have less emotionally at stake.”

The pair have a room at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood to work on their material, a favourite place to record not only for the exquisite facilities but the sense of history and community that reverberates in the building.

“It’s been there for 100 years and used to be the old A&M Studios where Charlie Chaplin worked,” explains Lisa.

“We have access to all their rooms downstairs, their microphone collection, whatever outboard gear we can pilfer for a time. As one of the last standing original studios here in Hollywood, there’s a really creative vibe there.”

“It means you’re compelled to be your best by all the great artists who work in the building,” continues Wendy. “It’s like being in a great dormitory – you hang out with great artists, then go and do your thing.”

The Revolution

One of the defining musical partnerships in their career was perhaps unsurprisingly with the iconic Prince. Hired by the musical polymath in the early eighties, they were part of the Revolution band who helped Prince record and bring Purple Rain to life. As pop history, the ambitions of the album and accompanying film turned him and the band into superstars.

“We often talk about those times as our college years,” laughs Lisa. “We joined the band right out of high school and went straight to Prince University.”

“He taught us so much, about working with a band, a singer, learning the differences between each. Prince would always question what everything would do in the studio, too. He was really hands-on.”

“There were two worlds with him. He’d do so much on his own, then call you in to work with him in the middle of the night. Then the next day you’d be playing with the whole band learning a new song.”

“You’d work with tape and learn how to manipulate it, flipping sounds backwards, panning left and right. I remember when my dad got his ARP 2600, my brain just exploded.”

An essential aspect of their education was learning how not to be intimidated by gear or equipment, and to embrace anything new.

“I watched him use gear, engineer, choose sounds, edit – he was more led by feel than rhyme or reason, and I took all that with me,” says Wendy.

Prince was also keen that the sounds created in the studio wouldn’t remain there.

“Everything Prince recorded, he always had the mind to think of how it would be translated live,” states Wendy. Revolution drummer Bobby Z has often talked of the challenges of making these songs work in the live arena. For Wendy and Lisa, it’s been a priority ever since their time with the Revolution and something they’ve continued to focus on in their solo endeavours.

“He wasn’t one to double-track too much or overdub. He kept instrumentation to a minimum, you’d play exactly what you needed to get the part across, and I respected that. It was something we took on for our first handful of Wendy and Lisa records. Whatever we recorded, we had to be able to play live,” says Wendy.

As a keyboard player in love with the OB-X and more recently, the Dave Smith OB-6 polysynth, Lisa had to do what she could, physically, with her instrument to make the music sound bigger.

“What sounds big on a record doesn’t necessarily sound big on stage,” she says. “You might want to add some strings or a higher synth line, so you’d have to use every part of your body – whether it be a two-handed approach, or using your feet – to make these aspects of the songs take off. I used to use a wah-wah pedal, and a Boss Delay pedal marked with china markers for ‘settings’.”

New normal

The pair are brimming with enthusiasm for new artists and music. They cite the likes of Thundercat, The Internet, Phoebe Bridgers and Anderson .Paak as current musical loves, as well as scores by Atticus Finch and Trent Reznor for the HBO TV show Watchmen and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Oscar-winning music for Joker.

Despite both believing the business side of the rapidly changing industry is a challenge for newcomers, there are now no set rules of engagement, meaning there are greater opportunities for emerging talent to take off.

“You don’t really have to follow anyone these days,” says Lisa. “There aren’t any rules. In fact, it’s more about making your own and connecting with as many people as possible.”

The democratisation of studio gear and tech has also contributed to some of the music industry’s most significant developments in accessibility, something both Wendy and Lisa appreciate.

“The more people, the better. There’s room for everyone,” says Wendy. “Everyone is learning; everyone is chasing a vibe. The tricky side to it comes with finding your audience.”

Wendy Melvoin
Wendy Melvoin playing with The Revolution in Oslo in 2019. Image: Gonzales / Photo Alamy Live News

As with many musicians, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on their live careers, meaning all tours, either via their solo outings or through the recently reformed Revolution have been put on hold. But the political turmoil of 2020, amid the chaos of the Trump presidency and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, has cast a considerable shadow.

“This time is so scary and undetermined. I’m kind of incapacitated creatively with my own musical output,” Wendy states.

“It’s really hard at the moment,” Lisa agrees. “The pandemic is one thing, but politics is another. I wrote one song, and the lyrics were so reflective of the current times, I didn’t feel like it was something I would want to put out. But I’m lucky to have music help me with my own expression and try and deal with the hatred and division in our country right now.”

With the future of the US in the balance, the pair are eying up various projects, mainly TV and film gigs when production starts up again although their optimism is tempered by what the forthcoming election might mean.

“It would be cool to co-produce someone perhaps, maybe make a couple of records, even start writing as Wendy and Lisa,” explains Wendy. “But I don’t know; it seems a bit of a scary time to put pen to paper.” We’re all with them in hoping for brighter times ahead.

Wendy and Lisa will be taking part in the ADAM Audio Women in Music series on 17th September, get more info and attend here.

To stay up to date with Wendy and Lisa, visit wendyandlisa.com.

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