The making of Wonder Jackson

by David Holub

It’s becoming a tradition in Durango, Hello, Dollface’s themed New Year’s Eve show at the Henry Strater Theatre.

The first year it was soul, the next a Cirque du Soleil-esque flavor with magicians and acrobats on stage. Last year, it was a ’90s tribute. This year, Wonder Jackson, a mythological beast one part Stevie Wonder, one part Michael Jackson (with a little Janet mixed in for good measure).

The ’70s and ’80s heydays of Wonder and Jackson create the perfect opportunity for the band and the audience to rock the funky disco or ’80s pop fashions (costumes definitely encouraged) at the sold-out show.

“It’s going to be all tinsel-y and disco-y and chintzy and awesome,” said Hello, Dollface singer Ashley Edwards.

Joining principal band members Edwards, Jesse Ogle (bass) and Easton Stewart (keys and flute), will be Michael Pratt (drums), Sean Farley (guitar/vocals), James Mirbal (also of Eldergrown, backup vocals), Bradley Hoessle (also of The Afrobeatniks, percussion) and Tom T-Bone (harmonica). And fitting with its ever-broadening penchant for theatrics and hijinks, the band promises some mystery stage performers.

DGO sat down with Edwards and Ogle to see how such an ambitious tribute show came to be and the joys and challenges of learning such iconic music.

DGO: Why did you choose Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson? Why does that excite you?

Edwards: It doesn’t get more performance-based than Michael Jackson. I think that gets people in the spirit of New Year’s Eve. And then the music itself is extremely challenging to perform and to learn so it makes us really step up as musicians.

DGO: Why is it challenging?

Ogle: Stevie Wonder is a very accomplished keyboardist …

Edwards: And vocalist.

Ogle: … and vocalist. If you’re a vocalist and you can sing Stevie Wonder, you’re doing something right. Not just anyone can sing Stevie Wonder. Some of the music he did is really, the lines are really articulate, intricate. The chord voicings are complex.

Edwards: If you go to the Michael Jackson side of it, there are so many layers in the recording process and we have to go back and strip every single layer. So, if he’s singing doubled with some kind of crazy effect on the vocals, how do you make that sound? So I’m using my vocal effects processor, programming everything for it. And then we’re doing all the synth parts, trying to nail all the horn parts without horns, just like the recording sounds, as close as possible. And then also trying to put the vibe in the performance so we’re not just music nerds staring at our music.

Ogle: What’s cool about the Stevie Wonder stuff is it really does make us better. I think it’s going to help our music later on down the road.

Edwards: When you write songs after you’ve played all this music, those ideas kind of keep percolating, which is kind of cool.

Both musicians’ messages – besides the fun, eccentric side of Michael – is all about love and connection. It was a really sweet, positive message no matter what was going on in each artist’s life. (Michael Jackson’s) whole life was taken up by music and performing and he didn’t really have a childhood. Those things are in the back of my mind as a performer, embodying that energy and inspiration and trying to give that to people. It’s fun for me to have the challenges in my life and then parallel them with what it must have been like for him and still have that endless energy through music.

DGO: What is your favorite Michael Jackson song to play?

Edwards: “Pretty Young Thing” for Michael Jackson.

DGO: Will you do the chipmunk voice?

Edwards: Yes, we have the chipmunks going in the background. We do.

Ogle: What’s funny is we both picked that song as our favorite Michael Jackson song. She’s coming from the singer aspect; I’m coming from the musician aspect. This tune … complex harmonies, really great arrangement, awesome bridge, some unique form.

Edwards: I have 58 pages of lyrics to memorize. But the reason why they’re so hard is because that melody and that groove takes you and you’re not paying attention to it. So you have to go back, like, “No, Groove, don’t pull me over there.”

Ogle: There are some songs that are ridiculously easy for me. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” I play the same exact bass line through the whole beginning to the end. I never change anything … but Ashley’s vocal lines are constantly moving, constantly changing over the top of that. They’re never the same, they’re different phrasing. That song’s way harder for (her) than it is for me.

DGO: What is your favorite Stevie song?

Edwards: For Stevie Wonder I love “Too High,” which is appropriate for Durango. I don’t have to say anything else, but it’s really fun.

DGO: Because of the elevation here, or … ?

Edwards: The elevation and, just the whole, you know. And “Do I Do,” by Stevie Wonder. Those are my two favorites.

Ogle: “Do I Do,” is my favorite Stevie Wonder tune but “Another Star” is also good.

Edwards: I would never really write a disco song, so it’s fun to feel what that’s like … A lot of my content is not as light as disco feels, so I just don’t write to it. But it’s fun to play disco. Michael (Pratt), our drummer, is like, “This is cheesy ‘Love Boat’ or something.” It has that total vibe, and it’s fun to get into that. It’s so not my nature.

DGO: Final thought on Wonder Jackson

Ogle: You know what the hardest thing was was trying to limit the songs. We have 22 songs we’re going to play. There’s a shit-ton of good songs out there.

Edwards: We keep going, “Aww, what about that song?! Dammit! What about that one?! Can we switch this for this?”

— David Holub

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