Why I Wanna Work For You Rings True
Though it was hard balancing it with motherhood and her successful music career, Alexa Weber Morales could have never left her day job on her own. “I was laid off from my magazine when I was five months pregnant with my second child, the week before Christmas. Everyone wonders when to quit their day job. In my case, it quit me. Now I’m applying everything I learned from that creative business to my full-time focus as a musician,” says the Berkeley, CA native.
She still remembers the phone call she got while on the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco one fall morning alerting her to the layoffs. “It was my first good job, and it was a decade-long love affair. When they told me my magazine had folded, it felt like my passion had been rejected. I was crushed,” she says. She has been self-employed since 2006, but felt especially pinched during the recession of 2009.
One day she hung up the phone, frustrated by fickle head hunters. She turned to the piano and wrote I Wanna Work For You. A few nights later, she scrawled music charts for her band at a gig in Sausalito.
“When we finished the set, a man came up and said, ‘Can you play that song about being laid off again for my friend? She’s unemployed.’ That’s when I knew I’d hit a nerve. And hey, that song is all true — I lived it!”
An idea began to form: An album about the search for work, for purpose, for justice, for love, for anything real in an artificial world. The 10 original tunes on I Wanna Work for You ruminate on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and naked grabs for power, misguided love affairs and tired marriages, stratospheric self-actualization and gender-bending blues.
In April 2011, the singer-songwriter decided to try her luck at fan funding for I Wanna Work For You, choosing the popular Kickstarter.com platform. With three prior solo projects under her belt [produced by 5-time Grammy nominee Wayne Wallace], she knew exactly what she was doing — and what would be different this time.
“We gigged all these tunes out before recording. We called them ‘convertible tunes’ because they sound good with just a quartet or with the full horn and vocal sections. Sam Bevan, my associate producer, and I gelled in both creative vision and work ethic. Plus, Sam’s approach is to make the pre-production demos sound so killer, you’re not worried when you get in the studio.”
She still had no idea if she could raise the thousands she’d need to record and manufacture the album. “While fundraising, I had a sign on my wall that said NEVER GIVE UP. It was hard. I made a lot of phone calls and promises, but in the end I was humbled by the support from fans and friends. Whether it was $1 or $3,000, I was equally grateful.” In 50 days, she had drummed up $8,540, or 131% of her goal. She offered a range of rewards for participation; some donors signed up for home-baked cookies, voice lessons or eBooks. Robert Remy of Houston, TX earned the title of Executive Producer thanks to his support.
Funds in hand, her dates for recording “basics” (instrumental tracks) went more smoothly than she could have hoped. Her cast of musicians was collaborative, focused, creative and good-natured. The studio, Whip Records of Berkeley, was home to a beautiful Steinway piano. Her longtime engineer Gary Mankin took the task on without an assistant to save money, working long hours to achieve the sounds. The band shot hoops during breaks and basked in the sun. But most of all, “everyone was enthusiastic about it. We got through 11 tunes in two days. I was thrilled. And my scratch vocals were pretty damn good” — several made the final cut.
Many more weeks of vocal, instrumental and keyboard overdubs remained, however. “This record pushed me. This was my first time acting as my own producer. Yet I felt that sensation — what is it? That 10,000 hours theory? Not that I’ve achieved virtuosity, just that I know what the hell I’m doing. And Sam helped me expand my ears and evolve my sound.”
Arranger and bassist Sam Bevan was key to the overall concept of an acoustic rhythm section melding with synthesized effects, working tirelessly on overdubs, and playing keyboard and guitar on most of the tunes in addition to bass. Working every night of the week with the Bay Area’s top jazz, salsa and timba bands, Bevan makes time for arranging in the pre-dawn, post-gig hours. He thrives on the challenge of live music, however, using it to fuel his melodic and harmonic explorations.
“So many people in the latin music community are tentative, asking ‘Is this the way you do it?’ I never took an Afro-Cuban class, I just came out and did it until I got it,” says Bevan. “My concept doesn’t come from sitting in some sweet-ass studio, it’s from being in the trenches making mistakes.”
His philosophy dovetailed nicely with Alexa’s. She too loves the stage and the nightly gauntlet, refining songs from gig to gig. And both musicians are soulful yet pragmatic.
“With all of Alexa’s songs, I tried to think, how would I write these songs myself? Not be formulaic about it. Would I like this? And that’s how I arranged them,” says Bevan.
Finally, Bevan and Morales — in fact, the entire band — has been forged in the salsa and jazz scenes almost simultaneously. Whether it’s the salsa dancers demanding to be thrown to their feet or the jazzers thirsting for full-headed harmony, there’s no faking this. I Wanna Work For You covers a lot of ground. You’ll feel it every step of the way.
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Latin Jazz Singer-Songwriter Prone to Wander
By J. Poet
Vagabundeo (Wanderings), the second album from Alexa Weber Morales, and her first for producer Wayne Wallace’s Patois label, follows the groundbreaking footsteps of her 2004 debut release Jazzmerica. This vibrantly imagined collection melds acoustic jazz with flavors from across the spectrum of Latin, Cuban, Brazilian and African music for a mix that’s rootsy yet cosmopolitan, street-wise and sophisticated.
The singer’s dynamic vocals, bubbly rhythms and emotive phrasing bring sizzling soul to every note she sings. Her command of four languages lends authenticity to songs as diverse as the haunting “Calling You,” from the Bagdad Cafe soundtrack, and the seldom-heard Brazilian gem, “Ave Rara.” Like Ella Fitzgerald, one of her first inspirations, Weber Morales uses her warm mid- range tone as a foundation, effortlessly leaping into a dulcet higher register or swooping down to deliver earthy, purring lows.
Alexa Weber Morales was born to a musical family in Berkeley, California. Her father was a stay-at-home novelist who loved piano rags; her mother, an aspiring vocalist. They placed an emphasis on language from early on. “Partially due to our heritage, and to their taste for wine,” she laughs, “my parents started Ecole Bilingue in Berkeley, where my brothers and I learned French. We also lived in France after they got divorced.”
Growing up, she alternated staying on her father’s sailboat in the Berkeley Marina, her ex-stepmother’s artist commune, and her mother’s place. She began classical piano lessons at five and sang her first solo at eight at Malcolm X Elementary, during a performance with Bobby McFerrin. “[Jazz pianist] Dick Whittington was my teacher. He liked my husky alto, but when I studied classical voice later on, they called me a high soprano.
“I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. As with everything in my life, there’s a broad range: I’m drawn to the street and the intellectual, the refined and the folk.”
During her final fling with academia, Weber Morales studied languages at Bryn Mawr College. Desperate for music, however, she performed in cabaret, a cappella groups and theater. She left college in her sophomore year and took several months to drive cross-country. One evening, sitting alone on top of a green hill in South Texas, she wrote her first song.
BACK IN THE BAY AREA, Morales worked as an apprentice carpenter for a salty storyteller, an auto mechanic for a saucy old Hungarian, a roofer for a randy New Englander, a translator for a crazy government agent, and a freelance writer for a frazzled magazine editor. She also delivered singing telegrams, sang on boats and in malls, performed at Renaissance fairs and cafés, soloed with chamber choirs and at Grace Cathedral, and fronted big bands. While she continued her independent music studies, she worked her way up through the Bay Area music scene:
“I’m lucky to have played with Carlos Federico and studied with Ed Kelly—two of my heroes. It seems like you’re not making any headway, and then you look back and see those first lessons with Faith Winthrop and Macatee Hollie, those kind words from Madeline Eastman or Mark Murphy or Nancy Wilson—there are hundreds of milestones like that on a path that has led to where I am today.”
It did take years, however, to find a way to reconcile making money and making music. “I married young, and my husband told me that music is a nice hobby, but it will never be something big. I told him we’d get married on two conditions: I’d have a lot of animals and eventually, I was going to make it as a singer.” Her husband was a recent immigrant who came equipped with his own Mexican cultural force-field, resulting in plenty of clashes for the newlyweds.
The insider perspective on Latin America had its positives, though, helping Alexa land a job editing a Spanish-language magazine. When the company decided to launch a Brazilian edition, she taught herself Portuguese by memorizing singer Gal Costa’s repertoire. She honed her Portuguese during several trips to Brazil, where she was often mistaken for a Carioca, or Rio native. Subsequently she traveled to Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba.
A MOTHER OF TWO BOYS, Alexa began producing Vagabundeo while pregnant with her second child and maintained demanding recording and gigging schedules just weeks after giving birth. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Wallace produced her first album, Jazzmerica, an eclectic brew of salsa, jazz, and Brazilian influences. Despite having no promotion budget, Jazzmerica built a buzz. Reviews led to airplay and profiles on syndicated radio programs such as “Listen Here” and the BBC’s “Have Your Say”; guest performances with the Reno Jazz Orchestra; working with Wallace as a Monterey Jazz Festival Latin Jazz Clinician; and contributing lead vocals to The Reckless Search for Beauty (Patois Records, 2007).
Weber Morales graced three other Wallace dates, included his latest, nominated for a 2010 Grammy. “It feels funny calling myself Grammy-nominated, since my role on that album was small. Let’s say I’ve been ‘touched by the Grammys,’” she laughs.
No matter what you call it, it’s undeniably another step in the lifelong musical journey of Alexa Weber Morales.
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