WENDY FLOWER: FROM “GENESIS” TO SOMETHING “NEW”
By Paul Freeman [March 2013 Interview]
1967. Teen singer/songwriter Wendy Flower, with rising San Francisco psychedelic folk-rock band Crystal Fountain, is poised for a major label deal. She dreams of performing at The Fillmore, where she has seen many fiery artists burn up the stage.
Cut to 2003. A mere 36 years later, that dream comes true, as the U.K. band Super Furry Animals invites Wendy to sing with them.
It’s been a long and winding road for her. The album she created with her sister in the ‘60s, Wendy & Bonnie’s “Genesis,” has recently been heralded as a lost masterpiece. Now, at last, she has returned with her first pop album since that classic. It’s titled, simply and appropriately, “New.”
Of this 2013 release, Wendy tells Pop Culture Classics, “The new project was extremely challenging for me. I’d had an accident, fallen down a flight of stairs and was dealing with severe headaches and memory lapses for quite a while. That aggravated my existing issues. I suffer from illnesses, including fibromyalgia, which cause chronic pain. I also had health issues with my voice that I had to overcome. All of that made singing a challenge. But everyone has their own set of challenges and trials to go through. You just have to cope and move forward.
“So the album, which I had hoped to complete a number of years ago, was greatly delayed. Life kept getting in the way. My father passed. But in some ways, that also opened me up creatively. I wanted to justify the faith he had in my music.”
The wonders of “New” will exceed everyone’s expectations. One of the album’s more epic numbers is the opener, “Cinders.”
“It originated as a reaction to some tragedies,” Wendy explains. “I hesitated to put it out there. I feel like the energy you put out could come back to you. If you write about darkness and bleakness, it can bring that into your life. I was in that frame of mind at that time. My father was very ill. We had just lost my mother-in-law, who I was very close to. She believed in me. And there were my health problems. So I was starting to write some very depressing songs, ‘Cinders’ being one of them. But, whenever I write a depressing song, ultimately, for me, I have to have an uplifting ending. Because that’s how I feel we have to approach life. As you go through the challenges, you look for the light at the end of the tunnel. And ‘Cinders’ does offer hope.”
Hope shines throughout the stirring “Skyways.” “I used my father’s metronome at the beginning of it. We all have our path in life. There are so many different avenues you can take. Ultimately what’s right for one person may not be right for another. So we need tolerance to help us navigate through life.
“Unless maybe you’ve had a near death experience, we don’t really know where we’re going after this. But in the end, take a deep breath and it will all become clear. That’s what ‘Skyways’ says. Until then, why waste time fighting and condemning one another? We should just try to live a good life and be kind to one another while we’re here on this Earth together.
“Years ago, one of my little music students told me, ‘We’re all a part of the wind and the sky. I love birds. And when I die, I want to be an eagle.’ He said this out of the blue. That same night, he told his grandmother he would be leaving her soon and not to cry, because where he was going, it was a very, very special place. And that precious child, the very next day, died in an accident. Now, how did he know he was leaving us? We should listen to our children for wisdom. I really believe there is something beyond this life. And that feeling is echoed in ‘Skyways.’”
Another track that’s special to Wendy is “In The Attic,” which was recorded with Broadcast’s Trish Keenan and James Cargill, in the couple’s Birmingham, England home.
“It was one of those things where magic just happened. We just started playing the song, which my husband Paul had written, and it came to life. It was so wonderful working with Trish and with James.
“Later, after we’d gotten back to the U.S., Trish emailed me and said that she hoped, at the very least, we would make that track available as a download. We were thrilled. Trish was a consummate artist.
“My father passed on Christmas Eve, 2010. Not quite a month later, Trish died of complications from pneumonia. She left us way too early. I was in a state of shock. Being able to honor her was another reason I wanted to get this album out there. She was such a sweet, dear person to us. And such a talent.
“The mood of the ‘In The Attic’ song seemed to fit perfectly on the album, just before an old snippet of Wendy and Bonnie, which I’d found on an ancient reel-to-reel tape.
“Another song that’s very important to me is ‘One Last Dream,’ which my husband wrote. It’s such a sweet and amazing song. It’s about continuing to dream, no matter what, never stopping. Sometimes that’s hard to do. But it’s what keeps us alive inside. That song and ‘Wind Chimes,’ they just feel so good to me, when I sing them.”
Adam Rossi, of the Bay Area band Luce, engineered and, with Wendy, co-produced the “New” album. “He was very easy to work with,” Wendy says, “inspiring and extremely patient. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. But, at some point, you’ve got to let go and let other people hear your songs. The songs I had created alone in my room, at the piano, it was a bit frightening to put them out there. But Adam and my husband were very supportive. I wasn’t sure how we could make all these songs come together, but Adam had a sense of how to do that.”
The album’s musicians included Gawain Mathews, guitar (Mickey Hart Band, Ben Lee); Ezra Lipp, drums and percussion (Sean Hayes, Huckle); Paul Olguin, electric and acoustic bass (Mary Wells, Bob Weir, Mazzy Star). Wendy and Rossi handled the keyboards. But Wendy also envisioned violin as part of the sonic tapestry.
“I started on violin many years ago. My Dad was my first violin teacher. And then I studied at the Conservatory of Music. So the violin passages on a few of the songs were very important to me. I wanted to play them myself, but I’m very rusty. I haven’t really played in years. I dabble in many instruments, but I haven’t really mastered any. I do enjoy working at it, though.
“We had the pleasure of going out and seeing Ruth Gerson, a fine singer-songwriter in the Bay Area. And she was accompanied by an incredibly talented violinist, Savannah Jo Lack, who also performed a brief set of her own beautiful songs. I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I could play like her!’ I asked her if she might want to play on this project. To my surprise and delight, she said yes. She went above and beyond. She really liked the songs and put her heart into them. When I listened to her playing the violin storm at the opening of ‘Cinders,’ it brought tears to my eyes. I was referencing ‘Cloudburst’ in ‘The Grand Canyon Suite.’ And she really brought it to life.
“And the other fantastic musicians on the project, it was wonderful working with them. I felt like I did when way back in the days when my sister Bonnie and I got to record with the great session musicians in L.A. There was such professionalism. It was so exciting to hear, in the studio, the sounds that I had only heard in my head before. The whole nature of the song, with this energy from the musicians, can take twists and turns. It can have a new way of presenting itself. There’s no right or wrong. There are just different ways of presenting a song and different ways of listening to it.
“Usually, when I write, I hear the whole arrangement, all the parts, harmonies, instruments, come into me at once. I hear them in my head. I don’t have a real process, when I write a song. It just comes to me.
“And it comes to me in many different ways. It may be from a catch phrase or a melodic line. It may hit me in the middle of the night, where I hear something over and over and over in my head. My favorite time to write is just before sleep, sitting at the keyboard, when I’m most open and can allow the sounds to come through.
“My father taught music. My mother taught voice. But, for me, theory went in one ear and out the other. I’m such an ear person. I can read music, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to go right to the emotional element of the music.
“There have been times when I’ve written a poem and then set it to music. But these days, generally speaking, it’s the music that hits me first.
“Ninety-nine percent of the songs, I throw away. They never see the light of day. But there are quite a few I have now that I do really like and hope I get a chance to record.”
On “New,” she enjoyed singing all the multi-layered harmonies in the studio. “My Grandma Fran, my Aunt Helen and my Mom Jeane and my sister Bonnie, we used to all sing together in harmony, during the holidays and whatnot, even when Bonnie and I were really young. So singing has really been a way of life for us.
“Even though Bonnie wasn’t singing with me on this project, I heard her parts in my head. That Wendy & Bonnie sound, those harmonies that we created together, that’s what we’re associated with. And I think my strengths are melody, harmony and counterpart.
“We had this amazing thing, years ago, with the sibling harmonies. We’ve talked a number of times about doing something together again. And that’s still a possibility. But the geographical distance between us makes it difficult. And Bonnie has her own music she’s working on. But we’re supportive of one another.
“I know that computers make it possible to collaborate with people anywhere. But I like being there, live, with somebody, so we can interact, hear the voices entwine, play off of one another. A lot of creativity happens, when you’re actually visually looking at each other. I’m not a computer person. I never will be.
“Technology is fascinating. It helps people get their art out to the world. But I believe technology may be the undoing of us in the end, because we’re not going out and smelling the roses, not going out to look at the ocean. Maybe that’s why we don’t seem to care enough about the environment.”
Wendy wasn’t sure whether anyone would care about her new music. So she agonized over releasing the “New” album. “It’s been so long since I created music for adults. I’d been doing only children’s music for years. I’m kind of a child myself,” she laughs. “I didn’t know if my new music would be relevant.”
Playing it for musician friends, Wendy received enthusiastic reactions to the material. More support came from the art world.
She approached a painter whose work she had admired on Facebook, Bisbee, Arizona-based Gretchen Baer, to see if she might be willing to do the cover art. Baer, a Wendy & Bonnie fan, loved the new album and created a stunning work that graces “New.” “Her imaginative, colorful art really speaks to me,” Wendy says. “She has even created videos to go with some of the songs.”
Wendy’s doubts about her album reflect her battle with insecurities. “I was a very fragile, sensitive child. But maybe that helped make me more compassionate.
“I was also sensitive in another way. Sometimes I would know things that were going to happen. Once I told my father it was going to snow. He said it didn’t snow in San Francisco. The next day, it snowed. He called me his little Wendy the witch.”
Feeling like an outsider growing up, Wendy found a home in music. Music was where she belonged.
“Music was an outlet for me and my sister Bonnie, as well. She was the only girl in the drum corps. My parents always provided an environment rich in the arts. We took ballet lessons. I would dance for hours and hours. I loved classical music. It was just so beautiful and moving. An involvement in the arts is invaluable for children.
“When my first pet, my dog, died, I played Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’ over and over again and cried. It was my way of letting my feelings out.”
Wendy was writing songs at eight years old. “I wrote a love song. I was too young to really understand those emotions. But I was already drawn to the minor chord changes and you can hear a sadness in my voice.”
Rock burst into her world. “I had my transistor radio and kept it glued to my ear all the time, like kids these days have their iPods. And I loved the music of the day, the girl groups, Motown, Brill Building, British Invasion. Then came the singer-songwriters. So there was all this great music happening.”
When she hit her teens, on the rare occasions when she could wrangle parental approval - or sneak out of the house - she would head to the Fillmore to catch bands like Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“It was a road change for me. When I was a teenager, my Mom and I were clashing a bit. I got along great with my Dad, but he was so busy with his teaching and playing drums in jazz bands.”
Soon Wendy was busy with her first rock band, Crystal Fountain, teaming with Ove Anderson, Jerry Maraini, Skip Walde, Don Coupe and John Anderson. She penned original tunes with the band members, including the first acetate, “Sensations.”
“These were very talented guys. I’m still in touch with some of them. When I sang in front of this band, for me, it was just electric. I would dance all over the stage. I probably overdid it,” Wendy laughs. “But it was really fun.”
Major label interest mushroomed. The Crystal Fountain, with charismatic Wendy as lead vocalist, seemed to have unlimited potential. Her sister Bonnie later joined the band as its fourth drummer. “She was so little, but she just blew everybody away with her chops.”
Family friend Cal Tjader, the great jazz vibraphonist, wanted the teenaged Wendy and Bonnie, with their unique harmonies and sophisticated compositions, to record for the label he co-owned, Skye Records, as a duo. Skye was then home to Lena Horne, Gabor Szabo, Airto Moreira, Grady Tate and Gary McFarland. The Flower parents pushed for this path, rather than Wendy’s rock band. Wendy and Bonnie, still minors, acceded to their parents wishes.
So it was off to Los Angeles for what was an auspicious beginning, “Genesis.” “I had never flown in a plane before, never taken a cab before. I was kind of a fish out of water, but it was quite an adventure. Going into the studio, I was elated.”
Genesis” was produced by the innovative composer/arranger, Gary McFarland. Playing on the sessions were such renowned artists as guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Mike Melvoin, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Randy Cierly.
“Gary McFarland and all the studio musicians were truly amazing to work with and very sweet to us. Gary, who was extremely gifted, was very open to ideas. I don’t think he ever really got all the credit or attention he deserved. He died at 38, tragically. A very sad story. He tried to be really sensitive to our songs and our vision for them. It was so exciting to hear the other musicians really make our music come to life.
“I learned so much from Gary. Bonnie and I couldn’t wait to see him again after the sessions. We were eager to work with him again. He said, ‘See you next time I’m in San Fran.’ But that was never to be. Such a terrible loss.”
Everyone was thrilled at the way the girls’ songs translated to vinyl. From sunshine pop gems to melancholy moments to jazzy and psychedelic-flavored tunes, all enriched by the girls unique harmonies, “Genesis” mesmerized anyone who gave it a listen.
“The label threw a big dinner for us, but I hardly ate anything, because I was shy about eating in front of people,” Wendy recalls. “Norman Schwartz, one of the other owners of the record company, said to us,’ How does it feel to have made this amazing album? You kids are going to be driving Jaguar XKEs in another year.’ They really built our hopes up. We were so excited.”
Then the company went bankrupt. “We didn’t see it coming. They just went belly up. It was a very difficult time. We had just done two San Francisco television shows and were all excited about doing ‘The Merv Griffin Show,’ which was national. We suddenly heard from our p.r. woman. She called and apologized to us and said she was no longer working for Skye and could no longer take care of us. Then Cal called us to tell us what had happened.”
The Flower sisters did some session work, appearing on several Tjader albums, including “Descarga.” They also performed on a few jingles. “I loved working in the studio. I hoped we could continue doing that forever.
“Cal wanted to take us with him to Fantasy Records. But Bonnie wanted to go in a different direction. And the label only wanted us as a sister duo, with the sibling harmonies, which they thought was more of a novelty. They weren’t interested in us as solo artists. And the situation broke my heart. It was a very depressing time for me, personally. And I just felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. When I had the band, I felt I had everything to look forward to. Now the rug had been ripped from beneath my feet. It seemed like I had nothing.
“I didn’t think it was over. I knew music would be in my life in some form. I kept trying to get bands together with friends. It became frustrating, because the bands I got involved with, by the time the sound was coming together, somebody would leave and we’d be starting all over again. And I just didn’t feel comfortable in the bar scene. I needed to find something else to do with my life.”
Eventually, Wendy found a gratifying new avenue for her creativity - teaching and children’s music.
“I hated office work. I don’t type well. I love helping people. That’s what’s fulfilling to me. It came down to working either in geriatrics or with children.
“I remembered one time my Dad had Bonnie and myself come to his school to sing some folk songs for the children. It was a wonderful experience. And I thought, ‘This is what I’d like to do. I’d like to take my guitar into classrooms and sing.’ I finally found something that I loved doing, where I felt comfortable and could still be creative and do music.
“You can learn a lot from children. Around them, you can be yourself. I felt like I fit in. Maybe the fact that I couldn’t have children of my own added to how rewarding this was for me.”
She earned her Early Childhood Education degree and taught music to pre-schoolers and kindergartners. Wendy created her own fanciful puppet characters. She recorded a children’s music cassette, “My Pet Songs,” about kindness to animals. Later, she released “Flower Power,” a folk-rock CD with ‘60s-style positive messages for kids and families.
She found out from a friend that her old “Genesis” albums were fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay. “I wished I hadn’t used my copies as Frisbees,” Wendy says, laughing.
“Genesis” had become a cult favorite. Interest from such artists as Stereolab and Broadcast, as well as such producers as Irwin Chusid and Mike Alway led to the album’s release on CD via the Sundazed label. It earned rave reviews from North American, UK, European and Japanese critics, as well as continuous global airplay.
“When people started talking about ‘Genesis’ again, I was shocked,” Wendy says. “I had mixed feelings about it being re-released, because we were so young back then and the songs were so personal. I didn’t really want to rehash the past. That was not a happy time for me. And I wasn’t sure how it would be received this time. I still can’t believe that it has done as well as it has. So many people have contacted me, through my website or Facebook, saying how much the songs mean to them. And most of them are so young! When they say all these wonderful things, sometimes I think they must be talking about someone else. It just doesn’t seem real to me.
“There are so many wonderful singer-songwriters out there, paying their dues, deserving their day in the sun. So I’m like,’ Why is this happening to me?’ I can’t believe this kind of acclaim would come to us, for this project that we did when I was 16. Apparently it has struck a resonant chord with people, all these years later. The music has spoken to them. It’s so overwhelming and beautiful and gratifying to think that the album did amount to something, after all this time.”
“We had been told that they were going to use a sample of one of our songs. But when I put on their ‘Phantom Power’ album and suddenly, the first thing you hear is my voice and Bonnie finger-picking guitar, I couldn’t believe it. I got to meet them and they’re the most wonderful guys you’d ever want to meet.
“One of fondest musical memories I’ll ever have is meeting them at Fillmore Auditorium and them asking me sing at the sound check with them. So I finally got my feet planted on the Fillmore stage. I sang the snippet of ‘By The Sea’ and then did a sort of call-and-response duet with Gruff [Rhys] on ‘Hello Sunshine.’ They liked it so much, they asked me to sing it that night at the show. I was blown away. I said, Yes! I’d love to!’ But then I thought, ‘What am I doing? I must be nuts.’ I’d been performing only for children for many years. Suddenly I was going to sing with a rock band at the Fillmore. It was quite an an adventure, I must say. But everything went well that evening. I was traumatized. But nobody threw tomatoes at me,” Wendy laughs. “It was wonderful. And all of the Super Furry Animals’ fans were so welcoming to me. They didn’t say, ‘Who’s that old lady singing with Gruff?’ They were very nice to me.”
In June 2007, at Andy Votel’s invitation, Wendy traveled to England and was warmly received as the closing act at the U.K.’s Llama Festival. Supporting her were Jane Weaver (Misty Dixon), as well as members of Major Dawson, Booger Red, Beep Seals, All Traps Set, and Romper. [Wendy guests on Jane Weaver’s recent album, “Fallen By Watchbird.”]
Wendy then played the Meltdown Festival, which was curated by Jarvis Cocker. Sean O’Hagan and the High Llamas backed her at that show, where she was featured as one of the “Lost Ladies of Folk,” along with Susan Christie and Bonnie Dobson. Again Jane Weaver joined her on harmonies.
“I’d heard Jane’s music and she’s wonderful,” Wendy says. “When Bonnie couldn’t go with me, I was lucky enough to have Jane sing the harmonies with me. I sang some of the Wendy and Bonnie songs, but at a couple of those shows, also some of the songs that wound up on the ‘New’ album. And when the audience was enthusiastic about the new songs, that was really validating for me. And being in the midst of all that talent at Meltdown, it was an unforgettable experience.
“It was so beautiful there in England. To me, it was like Shangri-La. I would like to go back. I would like to live there. Beautiful place, beautiful people. I felt like I was meant to be there. We went to London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Devon. I’d never been overseas before. And here I was, actually riding the ferry cross the Mersey!
Laetitia Sadier, renowned for her work as a member of Stereolab and Monade, featured a cover of “By The Sea” on her brilliant solo album, “The Trip.” Flower says, “It was truly a thrill to hear her version, which is a very fresh take on the song. And very flattering that she wanted to do it.”
There’s a lot of fresh music in Wendy Flower’s future. Now living by the sea in Northern California, she continues to write intricate pop songs. Before her father passed, Flower was working with him on developing a music curriculum for preschoolers and she would like to bring that to fruition. There’s also an environmental music project based on one of his stories. She’s also eager to get back to performing. “I’m open to the possibility that my Dad is still here, in some way, guiding me.”
It was a long time between “Genesis” and “New.” But hopefully, Wendy will share more new music with us soon.
“Music is my life. Music has saved me, in many ways. It’s very therapeutic for me. When I’m singing, I feel no pain. For me, there’s nothing that can touch that feeling, when I’m totally into a song. Music is the best way for me to express myself.”