published: 6 /
Lisa Torem speaks to Paul McCartney regular photographer Jorie Gracen and local actor Mario Novelli about their Chicago-based group the PondHawks and their much acclaimed debut album, 'The PondHawks Have Landed'
I’ve just spent the evening enthralled, here at a suburban library, which has been sponsoring a month-long Beatles tribute. Tonight, Chicago-area native, Jorie Gracen, is showing a slide show of Sir Paul McCartney concert photographs.
This photographer/journalist/musician has captured so many intimate onstage Macca moments that I’m close to tears. Shots dramatically zero in on the rock star’s boyishness, excitable nature, performing virtuosity, nervousness and clear affection for his true-love and first-wife Linda. Motivated by McCartney’s trajectory, Gracen created the impressive internet news page, 'The Macca Report' http://www.maccareport.com, which has reached nearly 10 million visitors.
Gracen’s photos have garnered the pages of 'Trouser Press', London's 'TV Times', 'The Chicago Tribune' and 'Rolling Stone' as well as countless other publications. But, besides being loaded with talent behind the lens, the vivacious blonde is also a skilled keyboard player, vocalist and songwriter.
Mario Novelli has deep roots in the Chicagoland theatre scene; performing in comedies, dramas and musicals, as a teenager. And, like most Chicago-based actors, he found intrigue with the unpredictable challenges of the burgeoning “improv” scene.
Armed with his own explosive reservoir of talent, Novelli went on to perform stand-up in local venues, eventually writing material for other performers. Along the way, he landed a role in a movie and was featured in a commercial, yet somehow managed to keep his life-long passion for music and songwriting central.
The two joined creative forces after meeting at a local Beatles convention. In 2006 Gracen joined Novelli’s band the Coyotees, and soon they formed the PondHawks, allowing them to blend harmonies and forge a serious songwriting merger. Their debut album, 'The PondHawks Have Landed', has placed in the top 40 on U.S. local radio charts.
This new release has already garnered responses by high-profile, industry pros: Tom Jasper, of KPOV-LP FM 106.7 exclaimed, “To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Holy buckets! Thank you so much for creating this music.” Brian Ray, guitarist for Paul McCartney, referred to track,‘Sweet Dreams In The Rain,’ as: ‘Epic! I couldn’t help but think ELO!” David Bash, promoter of the International Pop Overthrow Festival commented that “they rock the British inflected, ‘60s influenced pop music.”
A video, of the ‘Midnight Howl’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clZHNT1PbJU - shot by Randy Riesen – brilliantly shows the excitement the PondHawks has generated.
After Gracen’s presentation, I caught up with both artists as the library lights began to flicker. Making the best of it, we got acquainted in the dimly lit parking lot. But, pedestrian surroundings didn’t really matter. Broaching a hit list of hot topics, we promised to delve more deeply later that week, but, during that first encounter, I was struck by their candour, undeniable creative chemistry and razor-sharp, quick-witted observations of pop culture.
PB: Jorie, in regards to your book, ‘I Saw Him Standing There’(Billboard Books)' in which you photographed Paul McCartney over 23 years, how did you approach those shots? How did you finally meet Paul and, after having met him, did this alter the way you approached the concert footage? In other words, does having a personal relationship with a subject influence the choices one makes as a rock photographer?
JG: I met Paul back in 1976 by accident, after his last Los Angeles show. This was before I was a professional photographer. Paul was performing with Wings at the Great Western Forum. I was hanging out with a school friend and walked down the ramp to where his limo was waiting. It was 3:30 a.m., and nobody was around. As I approached the limo, I was stopped by none other than Paul McCartney. Yes, busted by Macca himself. I couldn’t be happier. He was very nice and offered an autograph.
Years later, I handed him a portfolio of photographs I took during his 1989-90 U.S. tour. He liked one so much he put it on his album, 'Tripping the Live Fantastic'.
Ringo Starr has also used my photos in one of his books and Donny Osmond used a photo I took of him and his wife Debbie for his autobiography.
In my profession it’s always helpful to sit down and talk to people before a photo session. People are nervous about having their photo taken, even celebrities. They have to trust that you will capture the most flattering photo of them. Through conversation, I "break the ice" so to speak and they relax in front of the camera.
As for my style of photography, it’s very instinctive. I see the shot in my viewfinder and ‘click.’ Sometimes I envision a photo and when it happens I’m ready for it. I don’t need to personally know the rock star to shoot concert photos. Concert photography is not something you can control like a one-on-one studio session. The artist is doing his or her thing for thousands of people. You have to be prepared for the unexpected and that requires split second timing. If I repeatedly take photos of the same performer, I learn by trial and error what is needed to get the most dynamic photos of the star.
Opportunity and experience sets the stage for creativity. The more challenging the assignment, the harder I work to achieve the result I imagined.
PB: Did your life change after you met Paul?
JG: No, his life changed. (Pretending to call the police) “SECURITY!” I think Paul has changed in the way he responds to me. I believe he changed because he respects me as a photographer and I treat him like a friend. We had that one-on-one thing through many press encounters over the years. He invited me to a private London party to celebrate the release of 'Tripping the Live Fantastic' because my concert photo of him was included on the album. He and Linda treated me like an old friend.
Back in 1997 things began to change when he actually said my name. I photographed him at a record signing in London where I was on assignment for 'London Features'. I had taken photos of him two nights before, when he was at the Royal Albert Hall for the premiere of his second classical piece, ‘Standing Stone’. I took photos during the concert and when Paul walked onstage to take his bows, he looked out into the audience and pointed to Linda (who died five months later from breast cancer) and said, “I love you.” It was a touching moment and I was able to capture that in a photo.
I had an 8 x 10 print made of the photo and handed it to him at an HMV record signing In London shortly afterwards. It was a huge record store and there were thousands of people lining Oxford Street to see Paul. After the signing, which was for the 'Flaming Pie' album he grabbed a microphone and thanked HMV for hosting the event and thanked all the thousands of fans who showed up. But then he blew me away when he looked right at me and said, “and thanks Jorie, for the photos.”
PB: Once you knew him, was the process of photographing him different?
JG: If you look at my photos of Paul, there’s a way that I capture him and there’s a way that he responds to me. In several of my photos, he turns his head a certain way when he looks at me and I don’t know if that’s because I give him photos from time to time.
I know the best angle to photograph him from experience. He’ll look at me and I’ll manoeuvre my position. By doing so, he turns a certain way, that way. You could say, familiarity of taking his photo, and the uncanny telepathy we seem to have, sets the style of my McCartney photographs.
PB: When did you first discover your visual gift and how did you get established in the field?
JG: I got into photography indirectly. As a child I always had a camera and loved to take photos. I was born an artist with a rare gift for drawing and painting at an early age.
My paintings were very realistic and because of that I used photography as a tool to obtain accuracy when rendering the photo into a painting. Soon I discovered that many of the photos worked better as photographs, exhibiting unique qualities that could not be bettered in a painting. That’s when I decided to pursue photography.
I learned my trade working for local newspapers and taking publicity photos for TV, film and commercials. When on assignment, I took photos of everything and everybody. I was the first choice when assignments for concerts or celebrities came up. Eventually I built up my portfolio, which included studio shots and candids of famous people. My work wound up in 'People', 'Newsweek', 'Rolling Stone' and numerous magazines, books, newspapers and publications worldwide.
In 2000 my book came out, spanning 23 years of photographing Paul McCartney. It covered in detail his post-Beatles concert tours with text and photographs, as well as, intriguing fan close encounter stories.
PB: McCartney fans provided a lot of the narrative. Were you surprised at their reactions to meeting their idol? Was there any fan whose reaction stood out?
JG: No, not surprised at their reaction, because I have been there myself. I totally understand. There are so many great stories in the book. It’s hard to pick out the best one. McCartney fans can be very creative when it comes to planning a close encounter with their idol.
One fan wanted desperately to go to a concert. He had never seen Paul. The one snag was his boss who would not let him have the day off. So what did the fan do? He quit his job! That’s how much Paul means to people. And the best part of the story is the fan got to meet Paul and Linda!
PB: Your website, 'The Macca Report', has become the Holy Grail to lots of fans. How would you describe the typical viewer and what motivates you to keep it up?
JG: The typical viewer is your hardcore Paul McCartney fan; someone who admires and loves to follow the multi-faceted life of one of the most famous rock stars in the world. I provide news and information. Other readers are the ‘weekend fans’ and editors from newspapers and magazines from all over the world. Often, I get emails often from editors looking for stories or to verify rumours. Many e-mails come from fans wanting something from Paul. If there is a legitimate request I forward those to the appropriate people.
'The Macca Report' has thousands of archived pages dating back to 2002 and dozens of pages documenting McCartney’s tours. Many of the pages have reports from fans including photos. Anything that you ever wanted to know about Paul McCartney is posted on 'The Macca Report'.
PB: Is the PondHawks your first band? How did you meet Mario and what made you feel your musical directions would fuse?
JG: No, the PondHawks wasn’t my first band. In junior high and high school I was in bands where I played rhythm guitar and sometimes bass. I was quite good on guitar, with some classical training. I played in rock bands and dabbled in songwriting. Back in those days it was fun and not serious. It was just a dream.
I always wanted to play piano as a kid and wound up playing guitar instead. In the late 1980s I bought an inexpensive keyboard and taught myself piano. No lessons. I learned to play by ear. I didn’t know the names of chords I was playing and later that became a joke with The PondHawks. I’d play stuff on the piano and they’d ask, "What are the chords?" and I’d say, "I don’t have a clue."
I met Mario at a local Beatles convention where I was promoting my McCartney book and didn’t know he was in a band. He invited me to the band’s rehearsal studio on a Sunday to meet videographer Randy Riesen, who had worked for McCartney.
Later that evening, Mario’s band showed up for rehearsal and he asked me if I wanted to "sit-in". I hadn’t sung in public for years and felt a little self-conscious about it. As it turned out, I knew the vocal harmonies to most of the songs and by the end of the rehearsal Mario asked me to do the next show with them.
PB: (To Mario) What was your first impression of Jorie?
MN: I was very impressed with her photography and found her to be a very down-to-earth person.
JG: I didn’t realize Mario was in a band until I went to his rehearsal studio to meet Randy who shot videos of Paul for his 'Space Within Us' 2005 concert DVD.
MN: I just thought it would be cool to get Jorie and Randy together to compare notes on working with Paul. I never knew Jorie sang or played keyboards.
My band wasn’t going to rehearse that day, so we all had a good time hanging out. Randy said, "I've got to split." She stuck around.
JG: Mario gave me a tambourine and said, "Come up here to my microphone and sing."
MN: Right after that, I said, "What a voice." It blended in. Her voice blended with my voice right off the bat.
JG: That was on a Sunday.
MN: I asked her if she could come and do the next gig with us on Friday.
JG: I said, “Are you crazy?”
MN: I gave her the set list.
The first thing we worked on together was a jingle. Jorie had a friend from a radio station that needed a jingle. They still use it.
PB: There’s lots of diversity on 'The PondHawks Have Landed'. ‘Midnight Howl’, in my opinion, really glorifies ’60s go -go girls in fishnets doing the pony. It’s sheer fun. Was that the plan?
MN: Actually, it’s about love lost. But it’s cool that everyone projects their own different image after listening to it. I think a song is also the listener’s venue for creative thinking.
PB: In ‘Dragonfly’ what kind of instrument is playing at the beginning and end of the song? I couldn’t help but hear Everly Brothers and even some Donovan influence on that song.
MN: The solo intro/outro is a six-string ukulele accompanied by a sitar. Very unusual. I think it sounds more like the ‘Everly Brother and Sister.’ Phil and Don-na?
PB: ‘Weather Girl’ could be the sister of ‘Lovely Rita.’ There are so few songwriters now that write female character studies like these. Was this based on a real person?
MN: Like many of our songs, it may have started out based on a true story, but then branched off into fiction. Reality provides a great springboard for creativity.
PB: If you could be literary characters, come to life, who would you be?
JG: I’d be ‘Thillery,’of course.
MN: I’m an illiterary person (Laughs).
JG: Not the “crying hyena?”
MN: I don’t know. It depends on the mood I’m in.
PB: I can’t get the chord progression of ‘On the Phone with Thillerie’ out of my head. Imagine stumbling into a remote eastern European village, somewhere near a forest, and seeing some musicians pull out strings in front of a roaring fire. Okay, that’s the music. But, then we hear, "Smooching in the parlour with Thillerie/I don’t mean to be preaching, but that’s not what you’re supposed to be teaching." So, it seems, it’s part satire and part old-world: with a little Queen thrown in the mix… How did you, Mario and Roger Burden come up with this arrangement?
MN: Jorie talked me into buying a mandolin, so I figured I’d better write a riff for a song on it. We were looking for gypsy-like instrumentation with a 1920’s ‘Winchester Cathedral’ vocal sound. That’s Roger playing the blistering lead guitar at the break, which provides the juxtaposition.
PB: Mario, please tell me the chords for ‘Thillery!’
MN: I was sitting on the bench and I had a mandolin. I played the riff before the song and thought "that kind of works." I threw some chords together and made a crude recording to surprise Jorie…
JG: I remember him saying the chords on the guitar are not the same as on the mandolin.
MN: I didn’t even know what chords I was playing; I was just – (imitates strumming) ting a ting a ting… This is kind of nice! My grandfather played the mandolin.
PB: You have both co-written the majority of songs on the album, how would you describe that process?
JG: Sometimes we write songs over the phone, over the internet, or in person. When one of us gets an idea, they will initiate the song. That might begin with one verse and then it’s bounced back to the co-writer to add another verse. Many times we come up with the exact same idea. Or one will write the majority of the lyrics/music or both. Then the other will finish the song. In the studio we might rewrite lyrics and music on the fly as the song progresses. It’s a very intuitive process. We seem to both know when something is right and when something just doesn’t work. It’s a team effort.
MN: I usually have my butler telegram her butler and they write the songs for us...
Seriously though, co-writing a song with Jorie is a magical trip.
PB: Michael Gillespie sang and wrote the jazzy ‘When Autumn Comes To Town ’and‘ Start Over.’ What’s Michael’s musical background and how did you meet?
MN: Michael toured Europe with the Thijs Van Leer band (of Focus fame). He first saw me when I opened for Micky Dolenz of tThe Monkees. Less than a year later he was a PondHawk.
PB: ‘Time Flies’ pays tribute to Buddy Holly. Was he a PondHawks influence?
JG: Mario and I were on the phone surfing the net on February 2, 2009 and came across the 'Surf Ballroom' page. It mentioned that it was the 50th anniversary of the last Buddy Holly concert played there in Clear Lake, Iowa. Every year on that weekend they celebrate Buddy Holly. Many famous acts perform.
We always loved Buddy Holly’s music, but weren’t familiar with the events that transpired prior to his untimely death in 1959. Once we read the details, Mario and I began writing ‘Time Flies’. In the song there are several references to Buddy’s music.
MN: The instrumental break starts with mandolin and ends in electric guitar. Buddy Holly played a mandolin on his early demos and ended up as a guitarist. I wonder if any Buddy Holly fans will say "Yeah... I get it!"
PB: The PondHawks have been receiving a good deal of US airplay. I remember watching ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ in which Loretta Lynn portrayed by Sissy Spacek would ride around and drop records off at local stations. What’s been your approach?
JG: It's funny you should mention that movie. Mario and I are always talking about that scene where Sissy Spacek is changing her clothes in the back of the car as her husband is driving to the next radio station tower. She gets out of the car all dressed up in her cowgirl outfit and they walk unannounced into the radio station with her vinyl record in hand.
It doesn’t really happen that way these days, however, I showed up at various London radio stations without appointments and handed them demos of ‘Crying Hyena’. The song is about lying, cheating, gold diggers and con artists. I rang doorbells and when they heard my American accent they let me in! They were quite happy to play the CD. And because we had a Paul McCartney connection, people thought the song was about McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills. One London tabloid called Mills a "hyena" after they heard the song.
Here in the US we have a rep, Ray Paul, who contacts the radio stations after the CD’s are mailed and gets feedback from the DJs and program directors. We have gotten some really nice e-mails from station managers about our music and after six months of airplay they are still playing our album!
MN: Our next approach should be to watch the movie again and mark down the names of those radio stations. Maybe Sissy Spacek will even give us a lift?...
PB: On the cover you acknowledge Brian Ray, who plays in Paul McCartney’s band and also produces albums. I see that you and Mario self-produced the CD. Was Brian around to offer suggestions? How did you and Mario make production decisions?
JG: Brian has been very helpful in providing us with his honest opinion about our songs and giving us guidance about remixes. He would tell us what instruments should be louder or less prominent. We took his suggestions for ‘Midnight Howl’ and ‘Dragonfly’. It’s always good to have a ‘fresh ear’ because you can become too close to your own music and not hear things that other people hear.
PB: Something unusual happened at the Ghosts of Riverpool studios, right?
JG: We call our studio Riverpool because there is a river in the area and pools! Just kidding. Though some of that is the truth. Regarding ghosts in the studio, that is a fact.
The ghosts occasionally pound on the walls to let us know they are present. Sometimes once or twice. We call them Casper because we don’t know their names. One night I asked what their names were. The computer in our studio started to type on its own, "I’mmmmmmm!!!"
During sessions recorded vocals mysteriously erased themselves even though they were saved on the recorder. Both Mario and I had to redo vocals several times until the ghosts stopped erasing them. And they were right! Other times we tried to erase parts of tracks we didn’t like and couldn’t!
MN: Paranormal?... I haven't seen a 'pair a normal' occurrences there yet. Just joking... I’m sure there's probably a logical explanation for almost everything.
PB: What’s next for The Pondhawks?
JG: We just started working on our next album. There are several songs ready to go. The first one may actually be out before Halloween. It’s about Edgar Allan Poe.
MN: It’s a melancholy waltz. With a twist of PondHawk.
We have a backlog of songs already written. There are twelve that we know are going to be on the next album. We would like to release a single first. It’s a song about Edgar Allan Poe’s last dwindling days and there’s a lot of mystery behind that. Jorie and I have been working feverishly together on it.
JG: Yes, we are trying to get it somewhat done before Halloween.
MN: Very dark lyrics, very dark melody and it’s a waltz. It’s ¾ time and it’s really macabre.
JG: Fans of Edgar Allan Poe will appreciate it.
PB: I like that PondHawks meet Poe effect.
JG: Did ‘Eerie Street’ make the cut?
MN: ‘Eerie Street’ will be on the album.
JG: Eerie… (Emphasizing the double ee sound at the beginning) because, we have ghosts…
MN: We both wrote and produced 'The PondHawks Have Landed' and will do the same for the next album. It’s always magic working with Jorie.
PB: Thank you, Jorie and Mario.
The top two photographs that accompany this article were taken by Luciano Bilotti. The bottom photograph is courtesy of Jorie Gracen. More information about the PondHawks can be found at http://www.pondhawks.com.