Portland’s long-lived and much-loved Nu Shooz has turned its band into an orchestra and its musical talents to its newly released CD, “Pandora’s Box,” a mix of tunes described as “James Bond meets James Brown.” Expect a lot more than that — including a honeyed version of the 1955 jazz standard, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”
Indeed the recording is packed with surprises, musical leaps and 14 tunes, many originals by Nu Shooz’ songwriter John Smith, who happens to be lead singer Valerie Day’s husband. Day is the face and the voice of the two-decades-plus-old group, who burst on the scene with its breakthrough mid-‘80s hit, “I Can’t Wait.” An anniversary edition of that song is the final cut on the new CD.
I talked with Day to find out what’s up with the new and the old Shooz.
Is this the first recording project that Nu Shooz has done since 1992?
This is the first full-length recording project we’ve done since 1992. We released an acoustic version of “I Can’t Wait” in 2006 as an EP. Originally we thought we’d just put some new clothes on the song for fun and use the release as a way of thanking our fans for giving “I Can’t Wait” such a long shelf life. It turned out to be more fun and musically satisfying than we anticipated, so we thought … let’s make more!
How have the band and orchestration changed over time?
Nu Shooz started out as a four piece, but a year later became a horn band in the tradition of Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, etc. The lineup changed a lot over the years, but we always had larger groups – between nine and 13 people – the horns were a constant. We had electric guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion, and up to three backup singers (depending on what era you’re talking about). The Nu Shooz Orchestra is a chamber jazz group with three horns, two cellos, upright bass, drums, vibes, percussion and guitar for a total of 10 people. Next time we put together a band it’s going to be a power trio. Easier to call rehearsals and fit everyone in a fuel-efficient vehicle!
Why did you choose such an eclectic mix of tunes for “Pandora’s Box”?
Eclectic taste equals “trouble making decisions.” We were experimenting, too: What would it sound like if we took this chamber jazz orchestra and played with the boundaries between pop/jazz/classical/soul and all the other styles we love? And then came a songwriting epiphany: John stumbled on a Bob Dylan documentary (“No Direction Home” by Martin Scorsese) that took his lyric-writing in a totally new direction. Nine new songs just tumbled out.
How is “Pandora’s Box” doing/selling since it has been out in August?
So far seems to be well received. It’s a new era in the music biz as far as releases go. In the old days you released a record and if it didn’t get radio play in the first two weeks it was OVER. Nowadays, a record can take as long as 15 months to two years to get discovered by the people who will enjoy it. And, I have to say, it’s also incredibly freeing to be able to release a record and not have the marketing and publicity departments of a label mangle your story to the point where you wonder who those people are that they’re writing about. Note: Day is the executive producer.
How long did the project take to put together?
The songs were written in about three weeks in winter 2006. We went in the studio spring/summer 2007, and it was mixed and mastered early 2008. Life and other projects put it on the back burner for a couple of years where it cooked down into a nice dark roux.
You list a ton of musicians on the CD including China Forbes, Curtis Salgado, Gary Hobbs, Dave Captein, not to mention the main orchestra members (Smith, Drew Shoals, Dennis Caiazza, Mike Horsfall, Tim Jensen, Paul Mazzio, Lars Campbell, Justin Kagan, Skip Von Kuske). Most are from Portland. Were you doing a tribute album of sorts?
No. We’re just lucky to have a ton of talented friends here who we love working with and who graciously agreed to help us out. I can’t say enough good things about the music community in Portland. We keep trying to find somewhere to move where it doesn’t rain so much, but stay because of the people and the creative climate.
How do you think your voice has changed over the years?
I always wanted to sound older when I was in my 20s. I was attracted to the bigger, richer, deeper sounding voices. Mine always sounded like Alvin in Alvin and the Chipmunks to me. But time has a way of changing things – occasionally for the better. I think I’ve finally grown into the voice I always wanted. Only took 30 years.
Which singers do you like to compare yourself to?
Besides Alvin? Hmmm….seriously, it’s hard for me to compare myself to other singers. Voices are like fingerprints – each one is unique. Note: She has been compared to Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Nancy Wilson, among others.
Do you have one tune on the album that you love the most, and/or love the most to sing?
I love the new original songs. John’s writing and arranging is so cinematic. I go to a different world for each one. I like the lyrics in “Color of Everything,” the rhythmic ebb and flow of “Miles Beneath the Sea,” the up-tempo of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” but if I had to pick – I think it would be “Welcome To My Daydream.” If music is medicine – then that’s the prescription for me.
How long have you and John been playing music together?
Get out your abacus! John and I have been playing music together off and on since he tried to teach me how to play guitar when we were dirt-bagging it on Makena Beach in Hawaii two years before Reagan was elected (1979). We met three years before that and got married after seven years of living in sin. We had our first and only child 20 years and three months after we met. He is a Gemini.
Can you talk about the evolution of John’s songwriting?
John started writing songs when he was in the Walter Bridges Big Band in the late ‘70s. Then he went to New York City and rediscovered soul music – which he had been heavily into growing up — and realized that the horn charts for a soul band would be a lot easier to copy out than for a jazz big band! He learned a lot from “lifting” all those songs we used to play off the records every week for rehearsal, but didn’t really turn on his own song writing engine until about 1983-84. At that point in time we were playing almost 300 days a year and needed a LOT of new material to keep it fresh. “I Can’t Wait” was written then, as was “Point of No Return.”
By the time we made our first record for Atlantic, he had a lot of material ready. “Poolside” was recorded in four weeks. With the follow up record, “Told U So,” he decided to branch out and sprinkle in some of the jazz and Latin influences from our earlier years. The third record “Eat N’ Run” that Atlantic never released was super funky. Elements of Grandmaster Flash, The System, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – all can be heard on that record. But we never stopped listening to all kinds of jazz, and master songwriters like Willy Nelson and Woody Guthrie were on serious rotation on the tour bus. Since early Nu Shooz days John has been writing and producing all kinds of music for film and commercials in a wide variety of styles – from country to classical. Impressionistic composers like Debussy and film composers like Max Steiner and Danny Elfman have been a big influence. The songs he wrote for “Pandora’s Box” are the culmination of decades of eclectic listening and playing.
You appear to have a big heart. What charities are you most interested in?
Arts education is an important one for me. Without it I doubt I would have graduated from high school. In 2002 I helped start a non-profit to raise money for arts education in schools called Artists For the Arts (AFTA). AFTA is currently in the process of merging with Keeping The Beat – another non profit that also raises money for arts education – but gives it to schools in rural Oregon. Keeping The Arts (KTA) will work to keep the arts a part of a child’s education in all of Oregon. So stay tuned — we’ll keep you posted on how people can help!