Orianthi on Michael Jackson, Alice Cooper and her new album
As Orianthi signed autographs for a long line of fans Monday night at Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum, a teenage girl, her hair dyed the same blonde shade as Orianthi’s, shyly approached and asked her to inscribe her signature PRS SE Orianthi guitar, a Christmas gift from her parents.
Orianthi, 28, took her time with the girl, giving her plenty of encouragement. When she started playing more than 15 years ago, her guitar heroes were all male, so she knows how special it is that young girls now have someone like her to light the way.
“You could just tell she had a passion for it, that’s what I was like,” Orianthi told Hitfix the next morning. “I want to inspire more girls to play guitar. It’s not easy to be a female musician. To be a role model in any way is awesome.”
When she was growing up in Australia, her life changed when she saw Carlos Santana on his “Dance of the Rainbow Serpent” tour. She turned to her father and said that was her career path. By the time she was 15, Orianthi had quit school and was playing in cover bands in Adelaide area bars, “putting guitar solos in Kylie Minogue songs.”
In short order, she was opening for Steve Vai and Santana, then playing with Carrie Underwood, and, most notably, rehearsing with Michael Jackson for the ill-fated “This Is It” tour after being hand picked by the King of Pop as lead guitarist.
Orianthi, who is on this month’s cover of Guitar World (only the third woman to accomplish that feat) now splits her time between her solo career and playing in Alice Cooper’s band.
After our interview today, she was headed to Switzerland for a date with Cooper, before returning to the U.S. for her own show March 17 at the Whisky on L.A.’s Sunset Strip.
The guitar wizard’s latest solo album, “Heaven In This Hell,” came out March 12. The set, produced by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, allows her to show off her full embrace of rock and blues much more than her previous efforts. “This album is totally me,” she says. “I’m just hoping that all the fans really dig it. It’s a little different.”
Indeed, the set is much grittier than her last full length album, 2009’s “Believe,” which included the pop hit, “According to You.” “I didn’t want to be boxed in,” she says. “Some of the songs have rock, some have a country vibe some pop, and R&B vibe.”
She admits that leaving Geffen Records after “Believe” was a low point. “It was kind of, ‘I don’t have a record deal, what can I do?’ I just fell into writing an album, you meet people, you find contacts.”
Ultimately, she signed with Robo Records, who gave her the freedom to make the album she wanted. “You compromise a lot when you try to do a song for radio,” she says. “I want to make music that I can play live.”
Though she only played with Jackson for three months before his death, she learned a tremendous amount from the superstar. “Just watching him, the way he was. He really wanted to give the audience a show, make them feel like they were part of it,” she says. “He was very much of a perfectionist. It was about just putting yourself out there. He was just the best at what he did.”
She’s gleaned something from all her mentors. From Santana, “it’s all about transcending and getting to that zone. He has the same kind of childlike enthusiasm that he had when he was younger. A lot of people that you meet get very jaded and turn off their lights and they don’t see everything brightly.”
On stage with Cooper, she’s learned to stay on her toes: “Lots of things are happening, whips and swords, balloons burst above my head,” she says. “There’s also a confetti cannon. I wasn’t aware it was behind me. It was right [behind] my butt. The sound guys were screaming that I had to [move]. I moved just in time. That would have been very painful.”
Orianthi isn’t sure just how many guitars she owns, adding only “I have a very healthy collection. Some are in Nashville, some in Los Angeles, some in Australia. I use them all.” Like B.B. King and his beloved Lucille, she gives them all names as well. Among her favorites are Pepper, a red-toned axe which she used when she auditioned for Jackson, and a green beauty named Frank. “When I want that heavier tone, I go use Frank....There’s a different energy that comes from them all, whether it’s the different wood or whoever put them together,” she says. “They’re all so great and different.”
While she finds if “comforting” to having a guitar within arm’s reach, she says the longest she’s ever gone without picking one up is probably a week: “Sometimes, I play better if I leave it alone for a bit.”