Magnolia Memoir

Location: Los Angeles, CA, USA
Description: The adventurous, genre bending five-peice ensemble Magnolia Memoir is labeled, “…an instant classic” by fans like Grant-Lee Phillips, Margaret Cho, and Mark Flanagan, owner of the legendary Largo-Los Angeles. 
Biography: File under— no, wait a minute; don’t file them at all.

You could take Magnolia Memoir and run them through the standard rock critic meat grinder and find bits and pieces of Lady Day, Macy Gray, the White Stripes, Tom Waits, Morphine, Spain, Andrew Bird, Gary Burton, the Velvets, the Pretenders, Jeff Buckley, Madeline Peyroux . . . and still have no clue.
Here’s the bottom line: It’s all about the vibe.

On their Peak/eOne debut, The Perfect Crime, Magnolia Memoir lays into a groove that would be equally at home in the Beat era club scene of ’50 San Francisco, the dark-night-of-the-soul Berlin cabaret of the ‘20s, and the post-millennial tribal gathering of Burning Man. It’s the soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino movie scripted by Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, a noir fusion of grace and danger . . . maybe even redemption.

Magnolia Memoir didn’t start out as a band; originally, it was the title of a journal vocalist Mela Lee compiled while in post-Katrina New Orleans, on the trail to fill in some blanks concerning her late father’s life. “He died when I was a little girl,” says Lee, “and all I knew about him was what I was told when I was young. They tell you different stories once you’ve grown up.” Memories and fragments and emotions coalesced into songs, and Mela realized that she’d need to strike a spark with musicians capable of bringing the same level of passion and expression to their instruments that she brought to her melodies and lyrics.

Enter multi-instrumentalist Alexander Burke, whose résumé includes a degree in Jazz Composition from Columbia College, studies at USC’s Film Scoring program, a stint as musical director for Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, and an appearance on Margaret Cho’s Grammy-nominated Cho Dependent alongside the likes of Fiona Apple and Grant Lee Phillips. The chemistry was immediate and powerful. Not only was Burke blown away by Lee’s vocal prowess — it’s not every day one runs into a singer with an accessible five-octave range — but he was astonished by the sophistication of the then-neophyte songwriter’s compositional skills.

With the addition of bassist Gordon Bash, guitarist Aron Forbes, and drummer Matt Lucich, the ensemble required to commit The Perfect Crime was complete. Burke’s prior experience with Second City translated to the band in a rather unexpected way, as Magnolia Memoir’s members incorporated the sketch improv concept into the musical realm, composing in the moment, and quite literally, on the spot. In fact, several of the songs on The Perfect Crime, including “Let It Go” and “Anymore,” arose from what Alex calls “this little game we play called ‘A Moment’s Notice.’”

The final piece was Grammy-winning producer Charles Goodan, widely recognized for his work with the Dust Brothers, Santana, Beck, Linkin Park, and others. His job wasn’t so much to shape Magnolia Memoir as to assist them in translating their vision into reality. Case in point: at one juncture in the sessions, when Goodan realized they weren’t quite in the pocket, he called a halt to the recording, dragged the band onto a basketball court, and had them shoot free throws in order to regain entry into the studio. “It was like 90 degrees, and we were all sweating like crazy,” recalls Mela, “but it worked.” She’s quick to point out that she wasn’t the last one of the band to drop one through the hoop, but she’s coy about who actually was. “Just that I wasn’t last, that’s enough,” she says. Right after that, they cut the song “Chelsea,” in which the protagonist is described as “one hot mess.” Who said art doesn’t imitate life?

Needless to say, they got their groove back. And you can hear it throughout the album, which was cut in a way records rarely are these days, more or less live in the studio, where the players could see and hear and interact with one another in a seamlessly organic way. The Perfect Crime isn’t some sterile, Pro-Tooled, Auto-Tuned Frankendisc cobbled together from bits and bytes laid down weeks and miles apart from one another. It’s the expression of a band whose whole far exceeds the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.
A band that knows how to create, cultivate, and, most of all, communicate the vib


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