Magnolia Memoir a return to eclectic sounds of jazz

Published on April 2nd, 2021

By Jim Dail

Critics have said they sound like Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, Gwen Stefani, Etta James, Billie Holiday and a whole host of combinations.

The band is Magnolia Memoir, and they will play Friday at South Coast Winery and Spa.

“I like the fact that people are trying to label us,” said lead singer Mela Lee. “Alex (Burke) and I were laughing because when we were in the college scene, there was an indie sound, acts like Jack White, and we never would have imagined a world where we were in the top ten.”

The credit in part goes to technology.

“The internet has exploded the ability of people to be exposed to music,” she said. “You can be eclectic because people can listen to it and when they can get it online.”

Musical director Alexander Burke agrees.

“The fact that people are trying to find a genre to explain us means people are listening and talking about us, which definitely makes me happy,” he said.    

Early on, like many styles of music that is not easily defined, the band’s sound was lumped somewhere in the world of jazz.

“When it first came out, jazz was our label,” she said. “We were not worried but wondered about it. They still think of it as edgy jazz, but that’s not really a genre.”

While Lee is certainly the center of the band, with her lyrics and stage presence, she credits Burke with being a key to the band’s sound, something he downplays.

“Honestly, there’s nothing that special in what I do,” he said. “The big secret as a musical director is it’s kind of like being a casting director, finding the right people and letting them do their thing.”

Burke believes in the individual doing his or her thing, which will make the album special.

“Every person should feel irreplaceable,” he said. “There should be a feeling that the album would be different if that person was not on the record. The big thing was finding the right people.”

There’s also the obvious importance of Lee in front of the band, and she has been compared to a lot of legends.

“I never thought I was a singe of note, and all I wanted was a band of ridiculously talented musicians to do jazz the way we remembered it,” she said. “I wanted to incorporate it all because when you can do that on stage you feel these immaculate, crazy feelings.”

And the comparisons to legendary artists like Billie Holiday and Etta James is a tremendous compliment to her.

“I really am so flattered and honored because they are just incredible singers,” she said. “I love Billie as a vocalist. Etta just tore it up. I mean she was killing it. Her voice was so raw and present and sexy. “

That’s had an effect on Lee’s stage performances.

“I love girly things,” she said. “I’m a girl who climbed trees in dresses and I explore that look on stage. There’s a willingness to get creative.”

Their latest album, “The Perfect Crime,” stems from Lee’s experiences.

“I went to visit my dad’s family and got to work on a crew filming a documentary on the aftermath of Katrina,” she said. “My dad died when I was a little girl, so I met his side of the family and his friends and saw where he listened to music. I started writing down the stories. They tell you stories and I got to meet him as a man.”

More than just hearing the stories, she embraced then and wrote them down.

“I wrote them in a journal and called it Magnolia Memoir,” she said. “It had magnolias on the cover. Those stories and the melodies I heard started to haunt me.”

Burke put it all together at one rehearsal, the band recorded it live with a few overdubs and after it became popular in the music underground and they were given a recording contract.

“It got a great response in Los Angeles and we got to go out and perform in places like London and Australia,” she said.

The band was put together by Burke on a very tight budget.

“I had ten songs for our release and spoke with Alex and he put together a dream team,” she said. “I didn’t have much money to do it.”

Burke agrees.

“She told me $1,500 and I thought it was $15,000, “ he said. “In Los Angeles, it’s hard to put together a band because either it’s sessions guys, who are expensive, or the lower end of the spectrum because there’s no one in the middle.  I went to here place and saw a dresser and nothing else and she told me she sold everything to pay for the record. I was $6,000 over budget!”

As it turned out, he was able to piece together a band.

“There is such amazing chemistry between everyone that it turned into a band,” he said.

That chemistry is captured on the album, in part because it was recorded live.

“When you record it live you are in a moment,” she said. “We did it because of the independent release we did and that feeling like it’s snowing indoors and you are stuck there and feel like you are in a room. I wanted that vibe.”

And the band is just as comfortable in the studio and on stage.

“When you are on stage, there is a step of exploration,” she said. “It’s a moment in time and sometimes you feel out of breath.”

For Burke, the differences are more of a balance.

“It’s like having two favorite restaurants and you don’t prefer one over the other,” Burke said. “If I am playing more live shows I start to crave the studio. If I’m in the studio awhile, I start to crave the live show.”

Ultimately, the band is in a good place, a place that Lee absolutely loves.

“I believe in our experience and the band,” she said. “I love hearing from fans. The fans have been lovely to us.”


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