by Chris Willow
— Guest Columnist —
Gretchen Menn, a Californian gal, and guitarist is an inspiration with her drop dead gorgeous looks and electric guitar skills. She shows her unbelievable range of ability to play within the confines of different scales, creating beautiful themes and offering fans a wide scope of musical magic with devotion to the notes and the spaces between them.
Fans will be listening to Tigres Of The Guitar for the next decades to come. So where does her power of expression and feel and technique come from? Is she haunted by the everlasting spirit of music? Maybe she has a pact with the devil? You, never know. This red-haired ‘tigres’ plays with the emotional feel of Hendrix and the with technique of Jeff Back.
Menn expresses herself with such precision, which can be heard with the almost magical depth of her vibrato and legato phrasing. Pure magic, not many guitarists combine emotion with balanced technique, but she does.
Chris Willow: Hi Gretchen! How are you today? I can’t wait to ask such an incredible guitarist a few questions. Could we start?
Gretchen Menn: Hi Chris. All the best to you. Yes, we can
Chris: Where do you call home? When did your road to becoming a musician begin?
Gretchen: Ha! I’ve been here. We live in a time of so much information and options available, and that can mean someone or something can hit or elude our radar depending on where our focus has been. I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I live now. I got serious about music when I started studying Classical guitar with Phillip de Fremery while in college at Smith (in Massachusetts). As a small child, I took requisite piano lessons, but with no real seriousness. I was a kid much more inclined to run around outside than sit practicing for any length of time. But music and art were always sorts of around my home as a child—both my parents value the arts greatly, and so my sister and I heard everything from Bob Dylan to Beethoven in our childhood.
Chris: Why electric guitar, and how did you chose the style that you play? What inspired you to play like you do, now?
Gretchen: I don’t know that I’ve chosen any style! Sometimes I actually lament having as many musical interests as I do, as it makes it impossible to give anyone area much focus for any length of time. It’s more of a juggling act. I started on classical guitar, which I still play and love (though am by no means at a professional level). I always loved electric guitar, too. And steel string. In any given day I might try to learn a Django Reinhardt solo, a Steve Morse line, classical guitar repertoire, go over my own tunes, write new ones, work on my steel string playing, study orchestration, counterpoint, composition. If what I do has any particular style, I’d imagine it is characterized by the diversity of my interests.
Chris: You mentioned Django Reinhard as someone who makes you tick. Did you know that he inspired Ritchie Blackmore too? Blackmore has been quoted as saying; “My whole thing comes from Django. He’s my hero, not just because of his playing, but because he was such an awkward bastard. It was brilliant how he would be scheduled to be onstage, and he’d still be in bed at a local hotel.” While Django Reinhardt would be saying,’Fuck everybody. I’ll show up when I feel like showing up.'” What does excite you about Django Reinhard playing and personality?
Gretchen: Yes, and Tony Iommi as well! He has a great story about how Django inspired him to rethink and reinvent his way of playing after the accident that cost him two left-hand fingertips. I could go on far too long about the things I love about Django, but I’ll try to keep it concise. His playing is exciting, musical, with so much personality. He was wild and took risks, and yet was precise, commanding, and virtuosic. His sense of timing and phrasing is gorgeous. Bach was one of his favorite composers, and you can hear glimmerings of that in some of his melodic approaches.
Chris: You played some Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar compositions like “Highway Star,” “Smoke On The Water” and “Burn.” Were they difficult to interpret? What do you think of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar playing and his input into heavy rock?
Gretchen: I love Ritchie Blackmore. I actually discovered Deep Purple in reverse, as it’s more the music of my parents’ generation. I had been a fan of Steve Morse’s solo stuff since before I even started playing guitar, and through following him and his career, I learned about Deep Purple. The first Deep Purple album I bought was Purpendicular, and I got into earlier Deep Purple, later on, so was spared the angst a lot of Deep Purple fans endured following the split with Ritchie. I was just able to enjoy different eras of the band without that baggage.
A lot of what I love about Django applies to Ritchie as well—he takes chances and plays with a command and fearlessness that make for very compelling and exciting moments. Ritchie was an elite player, especially given where electric guitar virtuosity was at the time, yet it never felt sterile or overly safe. And the way he brought in elements of Classical/Baroque aesthetics was hugely influential. I so enjoyed trying to learn some of his playing—his solos are carefully crafted but don’t feel overly fussy. There are moments of wonderful melody combined with moments of spontaneity. I’d love to study more of his stuff and get what I learned already in better shape, but it’s always a question of where priorities are, and how many hours are in the day!
Chris: Your last album Abandon All Hope. There are two of you on the cover. In white and in black. No middle ground? What are your favorite tracks on the album and why?
Gretchen: The libretto, by Mike Molenda, elucidates the imagery, by Max Crace, and the two are tied to the music. It’s a concept album, so I always encourage people to check it all out, as the three together make up the whole. As in Dante’s Inferno, it’s about a journey through the underworld—in this case, humanity led by a spirit guide. And there is actually is a third figure in the cover imagery.
I could never pick a favorite track. I don’t put anything on an album that isn’t the best I can do at the time. That doesn’t mean that I’m smug or vain about any of it, or that I don’t learn and grow throughout the process (that’s always a goal). But if the music is honest and has integrity — if it is the best and truest I’m able to offer — then I consider it done and refrain from further dissection, judgment, or vanity.
Chris: You have performed live recently What are your feelings before and after the concerts? Are you going to perform live any tracks from Abandon All Hope?
Gretchen: I perform pretty regularly, and if it’s material that is well-prepared and familiar, I don’t stress about it. I just try to have fun and connect with the music, my bandmates, the audience. Every night has its own surprises and challenges—monitors going out, gear hiccups, drunken fights in the front row—it’s all part of performing live. Even if those moments can be frustrating or distracting, I try to remind myself that I’d rather become more flexible than trying to control everything around me all the time.
Doing something new inherently adds elements of uncertainty and brings up insecurities. Within reason, I try not to shy away from those moments, stressful though they may be, as they provide an opportunity to grow as a player. But I’m not blindly intrepid. I’ve turned down very flattering, last-minute opportunities, as I knew I wasn’t in a position to do anything other than embarrass myself and everyone watching. But even those moments are instructive, as they allow me to reflect on what was the impediment and how to be better prepared for similar situations in the future.
I would love to present Abandon All Hope live. It’s a big project though, and I’m an independent musician, which is a tricky combination. The required ensemble is nine musicians—guitar (electric and classical), bass, drums, piano/organ, string quartet, and vocal. Add to that the fact that the music is entirely composed and quite difficult, and you have a project that means considerable expense and large amounts of rehearsal time. That doesn’t mean that it’s entirely off the table, and I’d love to find a way to make it happen somehow!
Chris: Your touring schedule shows you perform in the USA now. Have you ever performed in Europe? If no, tell me please if you would like to and why?
Gretchen: Not yet! I would love to get to Europe!
Chris: How did you get to know ex-Blackmore’s Rainbow background singer, Shoshana Feinstein? I have heard that you work might work on some music?
Gretchen: I met Shoshana on social media, actually! Someone had forwarded a very kind post she had made about a track from my most recent album, Abandon All Hope, and I was blown away. I sent her a personal message, and we hit it off immediately. She is amazing… what a voice! I am so hoping to work with her on a future project.
Chris: What is so special in Led Zeppelin music that inspired you to cover them with Zepparela?
Gretchen: Led Zeppelin is so diverse, so deep, so multifaceted. Where else can you play gorgeous acoustic tunes in interesting opening tunings, heavy riffs, and then abuse a Les Paul with a violin bow? It’s a guitar player’s amusement park.
Chris: What musician have you performed with so far? Who of them would you like to invite if making next album?
Gretchen: I have been so honored to work with so many amazing musicians—Clementine, drummer, and founder of Zepparella, is like a sister and musical soulmate. I adore her. She has had faith in me from very early on, and it is because of her belief that I’d amount to something on guitar that I’ve had some of the opportunities I’ve had. Daniele Gottardo, composer, and guitar virtuoso worked with me on Abandon All Hope. He is brilliant beyond belief, as a guitarist and a composer and creative force, and I have learned and continue to learn so much from him. In terms of musicians with whom I’d love to work in the future… A dream would be to work with some of my heroes—Jeff Beck or Steve Morse, for example. As crazy as it may sound, it would blow my mind to somehow get to work with Kate Bush. But even crazy dreams aside, I am so fortune to in many ways be living a dream. I do get to work with musicians I adore respect and am massively inspired by.
Chris: What would you like to say to your fans after all those USA concerts?
Gretchen: I am incredibly grateful. I am always amazed by the kindness, openness, and generosity of those who support us. I never take it for granted, and I consider it a duty, not just to myself, but to them, to continue to learn and grow so I can bring my best to the music.
Fading” with my sister, Kirsten, on vocal and Emily Palen on violin.
Chris: Do you think of recording a new album? If so, what type of music it would be and who would you like to record it with?
Gretchen: Yes! I have two new albums in the works! One, which I hope to release in 2018, will be mostly solo guitar instrumentals. The other, which will take some more time, will be more in the direction of Abandon All Hope — a conceptual, compositional album blending elements of modern and classical music.
Chris: Thank you, Gretchen, for your thoughts and impressions. We will see you touring together with Zepparella after New Year! Also, I would like to thank my muse and editor Rita for helping me up with my stories. Cheers!
Gretchen Menn Official Web Site
Gretchen Menn and Zepparell Tour Dates 2018
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