My mother always said that the Catskills were the closest she’d found to a place as beautiful as Wales. Given the chance to interview platinum selling Welsh-born-turned-Hudson-Valley-native songstress Donna Lewis, I figured this might be a good icebreaker.
“She’s right, I have to say, I think that’s why I felt very at home here,” Lewis said. “It’s very similar to the Welsh countryside, though I don’t see so many sheep here. In the early days before I got my deal with Atlantic I was in a house in a not very nice part of Birmingham. I was very prolific in those days. Coming out here it makes it more for an atmospheric, ethereal writing for me. I feel good here. and it’s a little bit difficult sometimes to stay indoors.”
Lewis’ speaking voice is light, gentle and graced with a hint of the melodic comfort that made her famous. She is quick to laugh, but there is a sense of wisdom in her words.
Interning at WDST, I remember often hearing her megapop hit “I Love You Always Forever” (which was at one point the most spun song of all time, believe it or not). These days Donna is rooted to where she’s come from but still playfully reinventing herself (or at least stretching the boundaries of what she’s done before). Anyone who heard her buzzed about jazzy reinvention of her biggest hit at Bearsville Theater’s Women of the Valley show a few months ago got a hint of what new album Brand New Day has to offer. Alongside local R&B pride Lindsey Webster and pianist Keith Slattery, Donna wowed the crowd with a slippery, jazzy retooling of her VH1-adored biggest hit.
These jazzier styles inform her new record Brand New Day, a delightful collection of originals and covers from the likes of David Bowie, Neil Young, Gnarls Barkley and more. Produced by acclaimed avant-garde multi-instrumentalist David Torn (Friday Night Lights, The Sin Eater soundtrack), Brand New Day is a fun revelation of songs tracked live with Brooklyn’s progressive jazz trio of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King.
On Friday, March 13 fans can catch a not-to-be-missed full set of songs from the record at the Bearsville Theater, 8 p.m. at the door for the 9 p.m. show. With tickets at a reasonable $20. it’s a great chance to see such a megatalent up close, to hear Donna perform a longer set, and to get bewitched by her singular voice.
She really doesn’t sound like anyone else, with her kind of fluid but yet somehow still grounded type of otherworldly vocal chops I’ve always admired in fairylike people such as Corinne Bailey Rae or even Perry Farrell. Among other things, she is collaborating with singer Pamela Sue Mann on a ballet Granya based on a female Irish character from the Middle Ages. She even did a duet once with freakin’ Richard Marx for the Anastasia soundtrack! Those two things alone are pretty wild to have on your resume!
“I’ve worked with David Torn before Brand New Day, and we really work well together,” Lewis says. “He always had this idea in mind of me in an intimate setting with drums, piano, etc. That’s how the record started. From my point of view I didn’t really want to do a record of standards so we really spent a long time going through songs to find incredible songs with a couple of mine thrown in. David was quite brilliant at producing this record and it was mainly cut live, another thing I haven’t done before. Most of it was a one-take job, so it felt incredible doing that.”
Torn and Lewis both made lists of songs they wanted Donna to do. “He really wanted me to do something from The Chocolate Genius catalog, ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley and the Bowie song ‘Bring Me The Disco King.’ To be honest, I hadn’t heard that song,” Donna admitted.
‘Bring Me The Disco King’ is a cut from Bowie’s 2003 album Reality, a haunting piano ballad. David Torn played on Bowie’s original Reality album (along with local and international guitar hero Gerry Leonard) and it was an astute choice for Donna. Lewis absolutely nails her rendition, a highlight for sure of Brand New Day.
“It was an incredible song to start with and I thought, My God, I have to come up with a version of that?!” Lewis laughed. “It helped having the trio of incredible musicians who’ve always played together. It made me go a different way. I’m so used to the pop world where everything is perfect, and here we were doing things on the fly. David Torn also thinks from his film-composer perspective, which really made the record sound amazing.”
As February’s bitter cold freezes any lingering warmth from Valentine’s Day into complaints, it’s great we have good entertainment from Lewis or the upcoming sure-to-be-amazing Perfume Genius/Jenny Hval show at BSP in Kingston to look forward to on March 25.
Before we part this week, I was watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO the other night and saw my freshly departed father Tom Vink-Lainas in the background of a photo with his former boss and ex-Sports Illustrated chief Andre Laguerre! I completely levitated in shock. It was a comedy skit about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issue (which my dad always thought was goofy, for the record).
What a cool message from the universe. Like Donna Lewis, my dad came here humbly from another country (Estonia), worked hard and led an amazing life. Please never believe the hype that this can’t still be a land of plenty if you have the right attitude.