August 28, 2012

Rachel Assil's Magnum Opus

By Etan Rosenbloom, Associate Director & Deputy Editor, Communications & Media

Rachel Assil

Rachel Assil

I still remember the day Rachel Assil entered my life. It was the first night of the 2009 ASCAP Lester Sill Songwriters Workshop, and in walks Rachel, clad in one of her trademark overcoats, hair tied back and swept up in a marvelous 'do, bright pink lipstick gleaming. And Rachel had a striking personality to match: She revealed everything about what she did - singing, writing, playing piano, producing, directing, graphic design and much, much more - all within the first minute of shaking her hand, but spoke in such a candid way that it felt like she was opening up to you completely rather than bragging.

What you get from talking to Rachel in person is the same thing you get from any Rachel Assil performance, including the 14 tracks on her debut album, The Opus Unplugged. Rachel confronts emotions head-on. She sings of love and heartbreak and death as blood-red, visceral things, not just ideas. She is effusive. She sings passionately because she knows no other way. You get the impression that there is very little separation between Rachel and her art. And you love her for her honesty, just as she loves you for listening to her pour out her soul with every note.

Rachel's had a career full of highlights, many of which you'll hear about below. She'll have another one on August 30th, 2012 at the Roxy, her official LA release show for The Opus Unplugged. While you're hyping yourself up for that, read on for some of Rachel's amazing anecdotes and candid thoughts on everything under the musical sun.

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The Opus Unplugged is a true solo affair, just you and a piano. What's meaningful to you about performing that way?

Everything. It is how I started and it is who I am and will always be as an artist. Singing at the age of two in New York and playing piano by ear at the age of four, mom would play classical and I'd sit next to her repeating difficult melodies while having my feet linger off the piano bench cause I couldn't reach the floor.

It takes me back to when I was in elementary school and instead of raising my hand asking to go to the little ladies room I was raising it sneak into the auditorium and perform to a high ceiling and hundreds of empty seats.

But I feel it mainly has to do with the reaction from the fan, the feeling I receive from the "stranger" in the audience who tells me what they felt after the show…or whispers a secret of theirs as they are hugging me, thanking and crying to me how I just healed them from a life of damaging and hurtful experience and closed a piece of their wound that was open for a long time during a moment they had with themselves and my music a few minutes prior.

I want to allow them the freedom to close their eyes and feel something, anything. I want the universe to listen to me as if they are sitting right next to me and having an affair with the story inside the song. And when it's just me, a piano and a microphone then they may feel more comfortable to do it than if it were a fully orchestrated album…I am only asking for the permission to get personal I guess. That is what makes it the most meaningful. That it means something to them.

It's remarkable how much of yourself you give to every performance, live and on record. Are you ever afraid of giving too much? Is there even such a thing?

What an incredible compliment, thank you. I think the question is, "How can I ever allow myself the right to call myself an artist or even a musician for that matter without taking risks?" I am never afraid of giving too much because if I was afraid of anything in my career I'm in the wrong one.

This is an intense industry, cutthroat & sneaky. It's like no other industry I've ever seen in my life and I've experienced many along the way, so it's all or nothing, always. I give everything in that moment of performance, on stage or in the studio. It is a must...my longest vocal session was 16 hours and I don't think I even felt one second of the time pass by. With that said, I do not mean every note sung should be a powerhouse note and I think that may be what makes me the vocalist that I am.

There is a true art to understanding the power of your tone. If you know how to use it, you can be so magical and captivating. Brad Chapman, my vocal coach who I was introduced to by The Grammy LA Chapter, is an industry heavyweight when it comes to his client list...although we've just recently started working together we have moments where we get deep in conversation, and just the other day he reminded me that it is my imperfections that may make me "perfect."

There is also an art to being a live artist. And that art is practice. I do believe there is such a thing as giving too much though. Recently I went to a live concert and saw an artist perform who I've known for years but had not watched her live in quite some time. She was the headliner and I felt had half the audience in her hand and the other half of the audience ready to walk out of the venue. The show went on for what felt like over two hours. I blame the singer in that moment. You could feel the audience getting restless and that was the mistake. She gave too much. We heard every line and every note containing a riff, not allowing us to take in the beauty of her tone. Ghost notes can be more captivating at times, allow the music to move them as well but it's important to let them absorb what they felt otherwise it goes missing. Once you've mastered that you will learn how to give yourself to every performance without losing the beauty of what you went on the stage for in the first place.

For example. The Opus Unplugged would have never happened without Diana Assil, Jason Patterson, Rafa Sardina & Bob Lanzner. A fan of mine I met during the ASCAP EXPO a year back had the chance of watching me perform live at the conference. This fan is Jason Patterson. He was curious why I did not have any albums released. I'd mentioned to him because most of my close and very successful friends who are platinum-selling & Grammy Award-winning producers, although they wanted to be apart of it, were unable to commit to the time I required. He asked "Well, what do you need?" I'd said "a piano and a mic." So while performing in Las Vegas one weekend he came to me with a surprise and said "The session I had scheduled has been canceled, we have two days." And right then and there I lost it.

What I was feeling that moment 'til this day is indescribable. He gave me the chance to record the album at the Palms, Studio X. I was performing at night for six hours and then recording for an emotional 12 to 14 hours for two days back to back to get the album completed. I wanted my fans to experience it with me so my USTREAM channel was on most of the time during the sessions. If you watch my self-made documentary ROADWAY Episode X (by the way, it's a complete coincidence that Studio X fell on episode X) it will take you into those moments. If I hadn't been singing live all these years against a hand made instrument such as a my Steinway, if I hadn't taken risks, or given just the right amount of "too much," I would have never been able to last those 24 hours. I guess my question in return is 'If recording an album in two days isn't being fearless, then what is?'

What advice would you give to a budding singer-songwriter trying to find his or her own voice?

First things first: If you haven't found it you probably don't have it. Development can last years and years and I am not one to discourage. In fact I used to be a musical director to underprivileged teens who were heavily curious towards the life of an artist and often wondered if it was a path they wanted to take...but I expressed to them the real dedication it takes, and if you're not ready for that commitment at a young age, who knows when you'll be. My next thought is I don't think you can teach anyone to sing or to be a songwriter. Of course you can take vocal lessons and writing classes to ensure you are not being harmful to your chords or to be patted on the back for just great poetry, but actually teaching someone how to be a professional singer or a hit songwriter is not a class you can just take somewhere. It's instilled since birth I believe, sometimes a hidden talent that hits you later in life, but nonetheless it is still a gift you cannot purchase.

I am not one to stand in the way of anyone's dreams, but a huge part of it is this question: are you doing this to make money? Be mindful of the fact that you should not ever enter the music industry in hopes to see a penny. Do not do music for money period. Do it because it is the air you breathe. Do it because it chose you, not because you chose it.

Yes, you hope to be very successful one day and be wealthy, but as long as you are clear on the fact that you will get cheated, made fun of, spit on, lied to and mentally challenged amongst so many other things then your voice might become the last concern you may have. Most "up and coming" artists do not understand a "voice" is not all it takes to be a recording, touring, sellable, successful, timeless artist. You have to know how to be everything. This you cannot read from a book, you have to experience it.

It's like being a hustler in the streets. Until you have lived it, you will never know how to conquer your surroundings. This is a f**king intense industry. There are few you can trust and build a true bond with, but for me personally, I have my very own love/hate relationship with it. You need to be a chameleon on every level...so do not let anyone fool you into bed or ever believe that with a record deal they can make you a "star," because the only person who cares about you is you.

You've written or performed with so many music greats. What's your most prized achievement or collaboration over the years?

I think there may be way too many moments to name...I'll need to rewind like my most prized possession, my VHS player. Having the chance to be in the studio writing and recording on the mic with Grammy Award-winning Anthony Hamilton just about 24 hours before I found out I was going to have the chance to open for him the day after on two dates of his tour was like nothing else in the world. We got our tickets that same morning, packed in 20 minutes, got off the plane, walked to the train, got off the train, walked 10 blocks, looked up and saw the sign, found the artist entrance and walked downstairs into my dressing room where it had my name on a piece of paper and it said "RACHEL ASSIL" and above it The Warfield logo. It was a dream I did not want to wake from.

Or when I performed my debut night at my residency at Cafe Was, and Ivan, the owner, said "Rachel, I've invited Diane Warren to come tonight for dinner, just letting you know she's upstairs and can see you." She had her assistant give me 40 bucks and a post-it that said "From Diane Warren." I still have a picture of the money and the yellow post-it. A year later I ran into Diane again and she completely knew who I was and talked about how much she loved my voice. What a moment that was for me.

Or when I was in the studio either producing, writing or featuring on songs with REO, A.R. Rahman, Sandy Vee, Toby Gad, Eritza Laues, Nate Walka, PJ Bianco, Moxie, Eric Hudson, Rolan Bolan, Blac Elvis, Harold Lilly, S1, Stacy Barthe, Canei Finch, Wrightrax, DQ, Firstborn, Phatboiz, Malik Yusef, Eric Wortham and Freddy Wexler.

Or when I was invited to perform at the first ever ASCAP Women Behind the Music event, and when I was the wild card winner at the 2nd annual ASCAP "I Create Music" EXPO, chosen out of hundreds of applicants through Pump Audio. Or a couple years later when Linda Perry decided to choose 15 random people and have them perform and I was one of them. Not only did I envision that happening but it happened and then some. When ASCAP posted footage of her panel, the performance posted alongside her speaking was my performance, and the standing ovation I received that day for performing my original composition "Disappear" (which is now featured on The Opus Unplugged). It's a day that people still talk about years later.

Or when my girls who I write with and for (THE TWINZ), who backup sing and dance for Prince, invited me to his home one evening while he had just a few friends over after we all left the club. They told him that I was this remarkable pianist and singer...he had an upright piano at the bottom of the stairs in between the pool table room and his movie theater (he invited us in to watch his Live in London performance with the girls). We were standing in the hallway and he looked at me and goes "play." I thought he meant just anything so I started an original but his DJ was playing salsa music and I quickly caught on that he wanted me to play along. And so I found the key, and there I was performing for Prince in his home, on his piano. I thanked him for having me, and his response was "You're welcome. Anytime."

Or a real special moment when I was in New York in a session and got a call from Brendan Okrent: "Hello Rachel, this is Brendan from ASCAP. I would just like to let you know you have been accepted into our Lester Sill Workshop." Oh boy that was a day for me I will never forget.

An interview such as this with ASCAP is an accomplishment in itself. I am so honored and truly proud to be an ASCAP writer. I can't wait for that day to arrive when, after attending the EXPO for six years, I will finally be in the grand ballroom talking about the multiple hit records I produced and talking about all the countless years of sleepless nights for a career that's such a gamble. Thank you all for always believing in me.

I have had many incredible, rare and memorable moments in my life but because I was ready for them, because I worked hard for them and still do...maybe there's a little luck. But preparation is key, and as a live artist, I am always prepared to write to a track or sing for a producer or tour with an artist with nothing but two minutes or 24 hours notice.

You often introduce yourself with a series of descriptions - "singer, songwriter, pianist, documentarian, artist, etc." You do so much! Why is it important to you to have so many creative roles? And what's the role of collaborators in that context?

It is important because I am not only a singer or songwriter or producer for that matter. I am the director of my life. Like one of my idols Freddie Mercury, I'm a Virgo, a perfectionist. You can't depend on anyone but yourself most of the time so I call the shots and I need to know all of the roles, because for now I'm the only one who will play them. Yes, at some point I won't be the one filming and editing my self-made documentary, but how would I be able to give direction to anyone if I never directed it myself?

And if I have someone taking an important role such as management, I will know if they're doing it the professional and noble way was since I lived it myself. I will appreciate them and respect them more because I've done it on my own for so long and I know how intense a position it is.

Also, I know someone will relate to the many things I'm involved in so I feel it's also important for them to know in advance instead of hearing them say "Wow, you never told me you did that. I could have worked with you on this photo shoot I just booked recently, or had you produce vocals for my artist on this record she needed help on."

In that case I can only blame myself for not expressing what I'm fully capable of. In my field you have to be multi-talented in other areas that pertain to your craft. There is always someone ten steps ahead of you. I am not saying to compete with anyone but yourself, but to be prepared for greatness you must have in all areas of being an artist, covered in way more than one way.

There's a special beauty to being a creative person. You learn how to collaborate. Collaboration has made the world go round in each and every field known to mankind, but when I'm collaborating there's a sense of freedom. Freedom to let someone else take over. They may hear or see something you cannot and then boom! Something magical happens. The collaborator either takes the lead or allows me to take the lead depending on the task at hand. I enjoy bringing two brains together who either share similar or different views on what they feel is perfect art, music, editing. After all, some of the biggest records in the world have been collaborations.

You've got such a distinctive sense of design - in your website and artwork, even the way you dress! How important is that to who you are as a music maker?

Like Lauryn Hill said, "Everything Is Everything." Simple and elegant. I just make it about the music. My longtime sponsor Heather by Bordeaux is perfect for me because of that reason.

To become a recording artist with longevity is what I've always wished for and the reason I've never minded the length of time it's taking me to "make it." It is because in so many ways, I have already made it. I've done more in my lifetime than a signed and shelved artist will ever see. I'm thankful, lucky, appreciative and extremely humbled by it. I feel the more elegant your overall brand is, your look, the simple shoes you wear with your hair done up and a pair of studs, and jackets (my favorite article of clothing ever), the more it's about everything else. The music, the sound, the words.

But I want to be known for more than just my albums. The music is just here so that I can do what I really want. Be the messenger. Be a messenger of life, help someone once, touch someone once, heal someone. Say the feelings they're afraid to share. That's the real reason I am here and was chosen to do this, to be this.

Tell me about your upcoming album release show in LA.

My album release is going to be one of the most major musical evenings of the year. I've designed it to be an ALL BLACK & WHITE ONLY attire affair so the fans can look sleek and simple for my video footage and for ROADWAY, and so they don't have to put so much thought into what they have to wear. They can just pick the easiest shades in their closet and come and listen. I also wanted to do something really special to surprise every single one of our fans. Each artist will go and perform one song on the next artist's set. I feel it will show diversity and make for a more memorable evening. The thing is we are all friends, we all work together in the studio. Why not do it in person and let others have the chance to watch it live?

With a night like this, I decided not to rush it. Truth is, I didn't need to be rushed. It's one of the beauties of being an independent artist. You can do things on your own time and your own terms and if you love something enough you don't mind waiting until you can make it perfect. So although I had the New York release at The Canal Room first, I wanted to wait for the right time for my fans in LA.

It all started with my dear friend Timothy Bloom. He and I used to perform at showcases together when we were younger. Now, he's this sex bomb, two-time Grammy Award winner for his records with Chris Brown and Ne-Yo, and one of the most talented producers, songwriters and vocalists I have ever met. And boy, have I met many. Once I had Timothy on the bill I immediately called my close friend Tony Clark. Tony is a hustler like me and makes quick and efficient moves. He is wonderful at what he does and manages a few bands, solo artists and DJs. I asked him if his amazing duo Tha Boogie would like to join the bill and he was in! He also brought on DJ Warrior, who's a kick ass DJ and will be performing with the very unique, sexy and beautiful Ms. D-Nice on percussion.

But it doesn't end there...we needed an opening act before Timothy, and Warrior had a relationship with an artist named Irene Diaz who I'd performed with at an open mic weeks back, and didn't even know it until her manager mentioned it during our conference call with her. She's lovely. Her style is rare and her voice is to die for. I wanted Irene to share her set with another artist I am a big fan of, Dezi Paige. Dezi happened to be managed by JR Hutson, who I'd met years back at the ASCAP R&S Awards. She also was one of the artists who joined me on the Women Behind the Music bill. When I saw JR that night and heard Dezi, the rest was history. And last but not least my very special guest Miss Melody Thornton. Formerly of The Pussycat Dolls, Melody is a force to be reckoned with. We've known each other for some time now and her voice is so powerful, so timeless, so memorable and rare I felt like I'd hit some sort of jackpot when she said yes.

I cannot wait to see you at the show.

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Visit Rachel Assil online at rachelassil.com

Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rachelassil

Follow her on Twitter: @rachelassil

Watch episodes of ROADWAY at www.youtube.com/rachelassil