The way Mindi Abair talks about music shows just how passionate she is about her craft. Being a woman in the industry isn’t always easy, and being a woman that plays an instrument might make it even tougher. Abair picked up the saxophone after watching her father play in a blue-eyed blues band while she was growing up. No one ever told her it was unusual for a girl to play the saxophone, and she took to it like a fish to water. You could probably say the saxophone is in her blood. Her childhood was spent honing her craft. Where most saxophone players are idolizing the jazz greats, Abair grew up in the era of MTV. She dreamed of playing sax in a great rock and roll band.
After graduating from Berklee, where she was part of the 3% of women in the music program, she backed up and followed her rock and roll dreams to Los Angeles. Instead of taking a waitressing job to make ends meet, Abair decided to be a busker on Santa Monica’s 3rd St. Promenade. Busking was her job, and she was able to make her rent doing it. It was out on the Promenade where she got her big break. She was hired to play sax in a band, and toured the world. This lead to Abair becoming one of the go-to saxophone players in the industry. She’s played with Aerosmith, Backstreet Boys, Duran Duran, and was the featured sax player on American Idol for two seasons. All her dreams were coming true, but being a solo artist is what she truly wanted. Between dates on the road with other bands, Abair would work on recording her own music. After seven albums, she was ready for something new.
Her newest musical adventure is Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, a collaboration many years in the making. Abair and longtime friend, guitar genius Randy Jacobs, joined forces and have now released their first studio album, The EastWest Sessions. We spoke to Abair about being a female saxophone player, finding balance in creating her own music and touring with other bands, and her drive to celebrate and empower other women. We also have the exclusive release of Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers’ new song, “Pretty Good for a Girl.” An homage to being a strong woman.
Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers
How did you discover music was your passion? Did you grow up in a musical family?
I grew up in a crazy musical family, music was all around me. My grandmother was an opera singer, and I grew up on the road with my dad’s band. I remember we didn’t have a house until I was 5 years old because we were on the road. They were called The Entertainers, and they were a blue-eyed soul band. He played the saxophone and B3 organ. I remember watching him, and he was a rockin’ roller. He’d be out there knocking his knees together, shimmying, and just rocking the saxophone out there. He just looked like he was having so much fun. I was lucky enough to have had school band when we came off the road. They laid a bunch of instruments on the ground, and our band instructor said: “ok, pick one.” And I just walked right to the saxophone. I just wanted to have as much fun as it looked like my dad was having. Sure enough, it was loud and fun, and it was a great extension of me. I just found a real connection with it.
So you just had a natural connection with the saxophone.
Yeah. I have to say a huge thank you to my teachers and my parents. No one told me it was odd for a girl to play the saxophone. It became something I identified with. It made me feel special, and I felt like it was an extension of my voice. I think the saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice. And I grew up in the MTV era watching Clarence Clemons on stage with Bruce Springsteen, that guy was bigger than life. All these sax players were bigger than life. James Browne had an incredible sax player, and Tina Turner’s would come out to the front of the stage and rock out. Duran Duran had amazing sax solos. Most sax players I know grew up with jazz, wanting to be like John Coldtrain. I grew up wanting to be Tina Turner or to sing like Ann Wilson. I didn’t have the voice, but with the saxophone, I could. That’s how I got into that world.
How did you end up at Berklee studying music?
When I finished high school I knew I loved music, and I knew I wanted to pursue something I loved. I didn’t know much, I can’t say that I was a child prodigy. But I knew I wanted to do more with music. A friend had told me about Berklee College of Music. My first year I received a full scholarship to a school in Florida, my parents didn’t have a lot of money. I took the scholarship, but it was traditional jazz, the curriculum was traditional swing and jazz. That’s not what moved me. I was a fish out of water, even though I learned a lot. I knew I wanted to transfer to a school that would open the door to many other types of music. And Berklee was the place. At the time, Berklee was 3% women and 97% men, and most of the women were singers. Everything opened up for me there. I was playing in rock bands, and R&B bands. I was getting to play every type of music, I loved it. It was freeing for me because I didn’t grow up listening to one style of music. It was the perfect place for me to grow. My saxophone teacher knew that I sang and played, and knew that I came from a different background. He was always telling me to start my own band. It was the greatest advice ever because people are always trying to fit in places they aren’t comfortable He really wanted me to find me. So I formed a band and performed a concert for my senior recital.
SInce you came from a musical family and your father was a touring musician, did he ever try to talk you out of pursuing music as a career?
My dad was a realist and so was my grandmother. She never made a living singing or playing music, but she would teach lessons. My parents and my grandmother never would give me lessons. They really wanted me to find my love for music, or not find it, on my own. I always thought that was an interesting approach. I respect that, because they knew this industry isn’t glamorous, and it takes a lot of hard work. But they’ve been very supportive, they’ve always been my biggest fans. My dad has given me great advice over the years, and it’s really helped me navigate the craziness of this business.
I read that you were a busker on the 3rd St. Promenade in Santa Monica. How did that experience shape your career?
When I moved to LA, I literally packed up everything into my Honda Civic and drove across the country. I figured it was my time to take on Los Angeles. My sites were set on being a solo artist, putting out my own records and writing my own songs. When I got to LA, it was rough. It was the big city, I came from St. Petersburg Florida. Great musicians in LA are a dime a dozen, and you don’t just come in and take over. I had to figure it out. If no one is going to hire me, I either have to find a way to hire them (which I couldn’t do yet) or I had to do whatever paid the rent. I play saxophone and I make music, that’s what I do, so that’s what I’m going to do. I wasn’t going to take a job where I had to ask “do you want fries with that.” That’s not what I was here to do. So I put my case down on the 3rd St. Promenade, and I paid the rent for a few months like that. I made that my job. It was paid practice, and I was learning, and growing as an artist. It just so happened that a well-known keyboardist, Bobby Lyle, came by and watched me play. He started talking to me and said that I should join him on a tour he had coming up, and a record. I thought, “oh my god, yeah, that would be amazing.” I toured the world with him and some of the greatest musicians on the planet. That moment really helped snowball my career. I then was hired for Tina Marie, and I was hired for Adam Sandler. I was hired for the Backstreet Boys, and Duran Duran. It really helps when someone gives you a chance. But when I look back at busking, and even though it’s not the most prideful thing in the world, it really did give me a lot. I’m glad I did it.
You had mentioned before that you really wanted to be a solo artist. How did you find balance between touring with huge bands like Aerosmith and Duran Duran, and creating your own music?
That’s probably the best thing I’ve ever been asked. It was such a push and pull in my life because I wanted to be a solo artist. But every record label or manager I would give a demo to would say, “we don’t know what to do with you. You sing and play saxophone, we don’t know how to market that.” They would want me to choose, be a singer or be a sax player. I constantly got shut down. But, as you said, I was working for other people. So I was on this journey of learning and being around great artists, playing their music. I was learning more about myself, and I think, made me a deeper artist. It made me know more about myself when the time did come to do a record. I had more to say. I remember coming off the Backstreet Boy’s tours and writing my first record in the living room of my friend’s house. I would fly in late and have to walk up a million stairs, but we would record all night. We didn’t sleep, and we had no air conditioning so we would be tired and dripping with sweat. But it was total immersion. If I had a couple days off tour, I was totally immersed in my music. Then when I would go back out, I would just be wrecked for a few days. Look back, I think that’s what it takes. You need to want it and love it.
What have your experiences been like in the industry as a woman?
Early on, I never thought twice about being a woman. Like I said before, no one told me it was odd for a girl to play saxophone. I never gave it a second thought that someone would judge me whether I was white or black, man or woman. But I got an early lesson in that when I was a senior in high school. I auditioned the University of Miami’s music program, and I drove four hours across Florida to get there. I was seventeen, and was so excited to be there. When I walked into the saxophone professor’s office he said right off the bat, “Listen, girls just don’t make it at this school. I’ll let you into the education department, but I won’t let you into the jazz department” I was stunned. I asked him, “Do you want to hear me play first and then make your decision?” He said, “You can play for me but it won’t change my decision.” So I did play but he was right, it didn’t change his decision, Obviously, I didn’t go to the University of Miami, but I walked out of there kind of shell-shocked. I thought, “Oh, ok. It’s like that.” I took it as kind of a challenge. It proved to me that women can be strong, and be powerful. From that moment, I knew I had to prove everyone wrong. One night, my parents came to a show (I was playing with a black South African artist) and when I walked on stage the woman sitting next to my mother stood up and said: “What is that skinny little white bitch doing on stage?!” My poor mom, but by the end of the song she stood up again and was like “You go little white bitch!” That’s what it’s about, going out there and changing people’s perception.
Did the idea for your song “Pretty Good for a Girl” come from experiences like that?
I wrote the song as kind of tongue and cheek thing. We’ve all seen it, women are doing amazing things. You guys feature it so much, and I love that. Women are doing amazing things every day, in all sectors of life. They’re saving lives as scientists, they’re kicking ass as musicians, they’re surfing the biggest waves. The glass ceiling is definitely shattering before us. And when someone comes up to me and says “Hey, that’s pretty good for a girl,” I’m just like “Really…” I just wanted to write the song, and bring it to light. As we wrote the song, and started playing with the band it became this anthem. It became motivating, like “that’s right, bring it on! You wish you were as good as a girl.” It kind of became our fight song. It really is amazing at the concerts to see people react, and everyone is catcalling and screaming out stuff. Everyone just really gets into it. It’s become a motivating song for me.
Of course, I took it too far, I built the website prettygoodforagirl.net. I feel like women should lift each other up, and I wanted to be a part of that. It inspires me to see powerful women, so why wouldn’t I build that site and feature women that inspire me. Hopefully, it inspires other women, and in return that inspires me more. It’s like this circle of empowerment. I wanted to be part of the solution instead of sitting back. If you are celebrating each other that’s a great start. I’ve had a lot of fun with the website, and right now we are doing a promotion where women are sending in short 30 second clips of them in action. Whether it’s surfing the biggest wave, or climbing a mountain, and we are going to make a music video for “Pretty Good for a Girl” that will feature all these women.
Tell us about your band Mindi and The Boneshakers, and the new album The EastWest Sessions.
Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers is the coming together of forces. I had made a few albums on my own, and after my Wild Heart album I really just needed to expand. My Wild Heart cd came out right after I had been touring with Aerosmith, and I had come off of a couple years being a featured saxophone on American Idol. I was just looking for another way to expand musically. You know, being on stage with Aerosmith, those guys put out 1000 percent every night. I wanted to bring that to my career. So Wild Heart was my way of doing that. I got to work with Gregg Allman on a song, and Joe Perry came in, and Trombone Shorty-that made me change the members of my band. I just thought, “wow, I need musicians with that ability to give everything every night.” That brought me to Randy Jacobs, bandleader of The Boneshakers. We’ve been friends for a million years, and I had never been a part of the Boneshakers. His band was playing a couple stages down at a festival one night and so I sat in. It was electric. That’s what music is supposed to be, it’s supposed to inspire. So, we decided to join forces. Our first record was our live record, and we had such a great energy. We knew we had to do a studio album. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been together for about three years now, and this record is everything I hoped for. It really shows the personalities in the band, and exudes power. It’s a really fun album, I sing on most of it and play sax on a few songs. It’s not the type of record to sit down and have a glass of wine with, it’s definitely one to rock out to.
You’re an incredibly driven woman and musician. What advice can you give to others that might want to venture into the music industry?
It’s definitely not an easy industry to be in. But the one thing I can say is playing music is so amazing that it helps you weather through. It’s not for the faint of heart. But I find if you go for it, you’ve got a shot. I’ve gotten more by just putting myself out there. I don’t get everything, but I really think that’s the best advice. It’s not easy, but you just have to go for it.
Watch the exclusive behind the scenes video for “Pretty Good for a Girl” (feat. Joe Bonamassa) below: