Gigi MacKenzie’s vocals soar like a choir of archangels on her debut album Skylark, captivating the listener with a siren’s enchantment and nurturing warm sensations. She sings, as well as plays the guitar and drums on her solo album, produced by herself and her keyboardist Bobby Zee. Her selections of smooth jazz melodies and upbeat propulsions nourish her emotional need to reveal aspects of her moods that beckon for self-expression. Her choice to sing the blues satisfies her hunger to touch human emotions and to embrace their ardor with thoughtfulness and affection. She bridges two generations of jazz performers, the classic voicing of Rosemary Clooney and Judy Garland with the contemporary styling of Amel Larrieux and Chris Botti.
Many music aficionados may remember Gigi MacKenzie as the daughter of television and recording artist Gisele MacKenzie, or as the backup singer for such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins, but Gigi MacKenzie has begun to take greater chances with her music. Her debut album Skylark on Morpheus Music label puts all the risk-taking in her hands, dependent on her sense of judgment and knowledge of her skills. From the songs she chose to record to the musicians who played on her album, Gigi MacKenzie is facing what she calls is the greatest challenge of her life, believing in her artistic talents and capabilities to support herself as a solo artist.
She was given a chance to back out when her initial recordings were completely burned to the ground after her co-producer, Bobby Zee’s home and recording studio housing the recordings caight on fire in a capricious accident. Rather than giving up, she and her producer began over again, re-recording tracks and accepting the ebbs that come with life. Gigi MacKenzie spoke to me about her experiences and the challenges that have infiltrated her life, and everyone who has given her faith in the places she needed it the most.
Jazzreview: What is it about jazz music that attracts you?
Gigi MacKenzie: I love the beauty and complexity of the chords, melody and lyrics. Jazz evokes so much emotion. It taps into the romance and loneliness that haunts us all.
Jazzreview: What does jazz music allow you to express about yourself?
Gigi MacKenzie: I can tap into my romantic side, my loneliness, longing pain, and the joys in my life. I feel it all comes out in my voice, my singing style and the songs that I choose for myself. It must be the same for actors who have to play an emotional scene. I feel fantastic after I sing a particularly sad song that breaks my heart or a love song that is romantic and tantalizing. I feel the music and lyrics so deeply. It is fulfilling to drive your emotions that hard and really tell the truth within your art. For me, it’s exhilarating.
Jazzreview: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Gigi MacKenzie: The music I was exposed to as a child from my Mother and her colleagues was traditional Jazz - Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Rosemary Clooney, and the songs of the great Broadway musicals. When I was able to choose my own music, I adored Gladys Knight - one of my major singing influences, Stevie Wonder, Karen Carpenter, The Four Tops, The Spinners, Joni Mitchell, Earth Wind And Fire, Sarah Vaughn, Elton John, etc.
Jazzreview: What do you think you have learned from them?
Gigi MacKenzie: I think what they brought to me as a an artist was how their music really touched me, made me feel alive and I could relate to what they were singing about - that we, as people, all have a common thread that runs through us. My Mom also was a great teacher of this.
Jazzreview: Who exposed you to the recording studio and started you on the path to becoming a session’s singer recording commercials and theme songs for TV shows?
Gigi MacKenzie: I have to say that my friend Dave Koz is the one who started it all for me. After we did a gig together, Dave suggested that I send a tape of myself to his brother Jeff, who was a jingle producer. That was it!! Jeff called me and I came in and put a vocal on a Marshalls commercial and a Toyota commercial. Boy, was I nervous! Jeff was a great producer and really knew how to get the best out of me and took all the scariness away. After that, it was much easier and things just kept rolling for me. I will always be grateful to them for that.
Jazzreview: Did you ever go on tour with any of the recording artists whom you sang backup for in the studio?
Gigi MacKenzie: Yes, Christopher Cross.
Jazzreview: Were you ever called to sing for a special concert?
Gigi MacKenzie: Yes, it was a dream come true to sing backup for Miss Gladys Knight. It was a benefit concert, I think. I was shaking when I introduced myself to her. I just couldn’t convey what her voice, her talent and presence meant to me. I was gushing and misty eyed. It was the first time ever that I was really star struck, being I was raised around lots of big stars.
Jazzreview: What are some of your memories working with other recording artists?
Gigi MacKenzie: Off the top of my head, I remember doing a show with Christopher Cross and having to escape the concert venue. We had went to a city in South America and for some reason when we returned after sound check to perform, none of the instruments worked. Some power spike had blown our gear up, literally, and with the audience in front of us, we could not go on. The sound man managed to get some mikes working but they were giving off a lethal shock if touched. YIKES!! Anyway, Mr. Cross had to make the difficult decision to cancel the show and let me tell you it developed into a very angry mob scene. We had to run out the back door to escape the angry people - in the middle of the jungle almost. I felt bad for the folks that had waited so long and so patiently for us to go on, but a bad situation just kept getting worse. We ran into the streets and flagged down a young man in a passing car. Bless him, he was able to get the whole band out of there. It was scary and I won’t forget it. I hope that’s a good story for you. I figured you might want an exciting one. Mostly though, the gigs were really fun and elegant.
Jazzreview: When did you know you wanted to be a solo artist?
Gigi MacKenzie: I always wanted to be a solo artist.
Jazzreview: What was the songwriting process like for Skylark? Was it a collaborative effort with other songwriters or did you solely compose all of the songs on the album?
Gigi MacKenzie: As far as songwriting, only one song is penned by me - ‘Let’s Make a Go of It.’ My co-writers were bass player Steven Lawrence and songwriter Catherine Beck.
Jazzreview: What are some of the themes in your songs?
Gigi MacKenzie: Love, loneliness, incredible joys and heartbreak. Songs of longing really appeal to me the most. I guess artists can’t help having a feeling of emotional hunger. I hope that makes sense.
Jazzreview: How did the song "Come Rain or Come Sunshine" come together?
Gigi MacKenzie: I always associated this song with Judy Garland’s version and I just decided to turn it on it’s ear and play and have fun with it. Her recording of it is very dramatic and satisfying.
Jazzreview: Even though the original recordings for Skylark had been destroyed in a fire, do you think that the songs sound better after you were forced to re-record them?
Gigi MacKenzie: Yes. Mr. Bobby Zee and I made a promise to each other that we would pick ourselves up and dust off, and push even harder to get it down. Remember, Bobby lost everything including his home, warehouse, studio and all his possessions. I really have to thank him for not letting me get depressed and making sure to get me back into the studio for the sessions. I think the whole project became more emotional for me and all of us involved and I don’t know how Bobby Zee held up through it all. He definitely put me first. Bless his heart!
Jazzreview: Some of the tracks are instrumentals? What made you decide to let the music play instead of putting vocals on the melodies?
Gigi MacKenzie: I just wanted to have the joy of playing my guitar and expressing that way, as well.
Jazzreview: What instruments do you play?
Gigi MacKenzie: Guitar and drums, a little mandolin and very little piano - just for arranging tunes.
Jazzreview: What are your plans for Skylark? Will you be touring?
Gigi MacKenzie: Yes, I am looking forward to many concerts and festivals and, of course, raising money playing for charity.
Jazzreview: What has been your biggest challenge as a solo artist?
Gigi MacKenzie: I think trusting my instincts as an artist and as a producer. When I decided to produce my own CD, I started to realize that I had no one to blame but myself, and all I could do was make the record I really wanted to be true to my vision. I hope others give it a chance as well.
Jazzreview: Whose music do you enjoy listening to today?
Gigi MacKenzie: John Legend, John Mayer, Michael McDonald, Billie Holiday, Christina Aguilera, Dave Koz, Andrea Bocelli, and Dr. John. Jazzreview: Are you discovering new musical styles and techniques of singing? Gigi MacKenzie: Yes, I am interested in all music and always find something in it that I can learn and refresh myself with. Right now, I am into dance music from India. It’s entrancing.
Jazzreview: Do you have any words of wisdom or tips that you can give to aspiring jazz players about how they can get started in the music business?
Gigi MacKenzie: I don’t really, just get out there and play.
Jazzreview: When you aren’t working on your music, what do you enjoy doing?
Gigi MacKenzie: Spending time with my sweet gentle horse, Miss Easy Street. I am constantly trying to improve myself as an equestrian and I study as much as I can. It’s a scary and dangerous sport and I am constantly striving to conquer my fear. I also love boating and camping and I am a huge old movie buff. I love the films of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Bette Davis films are my favorite. I also volunteer my time at dog rescue shelters, Daphneyland Basset Hound Rescue Ranch in particular.
Jazzreview: What is the most important lesson you feel your Mom has taught you?
Gigi MacKenzie: Be interested in everything, take part in life and get out there. There are happy accidents just waiting to find you. The two things Mom would always, always say: A) Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death, (and) B) Your thoughts and words have tremendous power, so change your thoughts and you’ll change your life.
*Very Special Thanks to Cheryl Hughey for helping me with this interview and to Gigi MacKenzie for being so gracious throughout this interview.