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When you're from the Midwest, any place with a warm climate feels like paradise. But to Nina Gordon, the Hollywood hillside community of Laurel Canyon, with its eucalyptus-scented air, glittering city views, and silent star-swept skies, seemed like the perfect respite for the Chicago-bred singer-songwriter who was looking for somewhere to decompress after finishing a year-long tour supporting her debut solo album Tonight and the Rest of My Life.
"I always felt really inspired whenever I visited Los Angeles, Gordon says. To me, it's the romance of the 70s, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt, and all the records I loved. I see the physical beauty of the place. Theres something about the spirit and feeling it just feels kind of sleepy. I left Chicago because there was too much baggage and history in that city for me. Of course it will always be my home-- all my family is there-- but I really needed to pioneer some new territory for myself.
So in July 2001, Gordon packed up her guitars and headed to L.A. She signed a three-month lease on a small furnished house in the hills, rented a piano, and began to write. And write. And write. She had no family around. No boyfriend to speak of ("It was the first time I was single since I was 16"), and the songs came pouring out.
"There were many nights where I would just hang out in my little house with my piano and just write", she says. The record that arose out of those writing jags, Bleeding Heart Graffiti, is a concept album about the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship. "It's about being alone, finding yourself, and becoming strong again," Gordon says.
Listen carefully and the songs break down into categories: those about the hope and newness in a relationship (Christmas Lights, Dont Let Me Down); those about being helpless to fight off love (Kiss Me Til It Bleeds, Superstar) and those about the inevitable break-up (Turn On Your Radio, Bones And A Name).
But even the sad songs, like Watercolors and When You Dont Want Me Anymore, bloom with optimism, as Gordon realizes that not being in anyone's heart is not necessarily a bad thing. "It was a positive time for me sitting, knowing that there wasn't this person who was thinking about me," she says. It was very freeing. Hence, Pure, which is about waking up on your own with no one around to define how you feel about yourself that day; and the gutsy rocker Suffragette, which Gordon wrote with former Prince guitarist Wendy Melvoin and her sister Susannah. "Those two are definitely the empowerment songs," she says.
Gordon first recorded most of the tracks on Bleeding Heart Graffiti in 2004 with producer Ethan Johns, but ended up scrapping them. "Maybe at the time I was recording, I wasnt feeling very optimistic, so it ended up being very maudlin and sad," she says. "Sonically, I wanted my next album to be brighter and more up-tempo, not dour and funerary."
Gordon knew the songs had potential, so she decided to re-record them, this time with her friend and mentor Bob Rock, who produced Tonight And The Rest Of My Life as well as Eight Arms To Hold You, the second album from Gordon's previous band, the blistering power-grunge quartet Veruca Salt. Though Rock is mainly known for his work with Metallica and other hard-rock bands, he really is a pop guy, says Gordon. "I think he enjoys working with me because its totally different from a lot of the stuff he does. And I enjoy working with him because he's totally honest with me. Some producers can be very controlling or a little too hands-off, but Bob is the perfect mix of someone who is not a Svengali, but is very involved. I trust his taste and his opinions about things."
Where Tonight And The Rest Of My Life was recorded over a leisurely seven months in Rock's studio in Hawaii, the basic tracks for Bleeding Heart Graffiti were recorded over two days in April 2005 in Los Angeles with some of the best musicians in the business, including Josh Freese, Joey Waronker, and session whiz Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums; Joel Shearer and Gordon's boyfriend and musical collaborator Jeff Russo on guitar; Paul Bushnell on bass; and Jamie Edwards and Peter Adams on piano. Audioslave's Tom Morello contributes the noisy guitar solo on Dont Let Me Down ("He's a friend so I just thought it would be cool to have him come and play," Gordon says).
"It was so great to get a group of people in a room, teach them the song, and immediately bang it out," Gordon says. "I knew everyone, but had never played with any of them, so it was like, 'Here's how it goes; here are the chords.' I was in the vocal booth with my headphones on freaking out because it sounded so amazing."
Once basic tracks were completed, Gordon flew to Rock's studio in Maui to do vocals, harmonies, and guitar overdubs. "We did the whole thing in about a month," she says. The result is a more organic-sounding album than its predecessor. "We didn't want it to be that polished," she says. "Doing the record in a limited amount of time forced me to abandon some of the bells and whistles and leave things more open and raw. Because it's a bit less polished, I think there ends up being more of me in there; it feels more personal."
As on her debut, Gordon's clear, sunlit vocals are front and center, infusing each tale of love lost and found with a lovely, reflective intimacy. Her expressive voice is the perfect vehicle to illuminate her theme of building a life out of memories and dreams. "I let my guard down and said what I wanted to say. No holding back."
Why not treat yourself?