PODCAST: Sounds of Berklee—Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers

This week's Sounds of Berklee episode features a new song from 1991 alumna Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, in advance of the band's debut studio album.

September 7, 2017

Saxophonist and vocalist Mindi Abair B.M. ’91 isn’t interested in producing soft melodies. She plays with abandon, and for the last several years she’s been evolving her sound, infusing it with a good dose of gritty rock and blues.

She’s channeling a time when, she says, “the sax was as integral to mainstream music as the electric guitar... I’d love to hear more sax players out there, just rocking it.” 

Abair has had plenty of practice. After catching the attention of Aerosmith frontman and American Idol judge Steven Tyler while she was the featured saxophonist for the 2011 and 2012 season of the show, she spent a summer touring with Aerosmith. She’s also shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, and a few years ago, joined forces with longtime friend Randy Jacobs's Detroit blues rock band the Boneshakers to really mix things up.

Take a listen to Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers’ “Pretty Good for a Girl,” a track off the band's debut studio album The EastWest Sessions (due out September 15) and namesake of Abair’s Pretty Good for a Girl Campaign.

Producer: Lesley O'Connell
Engineer: Bas Janssen
Recorded at the BIRN studios

In advance of the release The EastWest Sessions, Abair connected from her home in Los Angeles to talk about her new band, her time at Berklee, her female empowerment campaign, and what inspires her.

The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

How did Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers come to be?

On the tails of being the featured sax player on American Idol, I toured with Aerosmith. Steven Tyler was a judge on the show while I was there, and one day—it was pretty wild—I got a call from Steven asking me to tour. Aerosmith hadn’t had a sax player since 1973. Whatever I didn’t play on sax, I was singing on. It was just a blast. You would think that playing with a band that has 40 years’ worth of material would be daunting. It wasn’t. It was really empowering and amazing, night after night.

I call it “my summer vacation with Aerosmith.” I wanted to be able to put that rock and blues back into my music. For [my album] Wild Heart, I had Joe Perry, Gregg Allman, Max Weinberg [and others] on the recording to bring that kind of abandon to my music. And in order to make that happen live, I had to switch my whole band around.

That’s when I hired [longtime friend and the Boneshakers founder] Randy Jacobs. I said, "C’mon, I need you, I need that power, that sheer abandon that you play with." Then he said, "Okay, you need the Boneshakers."

When I sat in with them, it was magic, it was crazy inspiring. It was exactly what standing on stage is supposed to be like. When we got off stage, we looked at each other and said, we have to do this every night. We decided to make it official: Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers.

How does The EastWest Sessions bring this evolution of your sound to life?

This is a record that brings the sax back to when it was as integral to mainstream music as electric guitar. That was a fun time in music, when sax was in your face and powerful, not playing some wilting melody over a high-hat pattern. I’d love that place for the saxophone. I’d love to hear more sax players out there, just rocking it.

"Pretty Good for a Girl" is a track on the album that has already gained momentum as a campaign. How did that come about?

Some people don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, and some do. Sometimes you do something amazing and someone says, “That’s pretty good for a girl.” I hope that conversation changes. I hope that’s not even a conversation that you have. Instead, it’s just: you’re a great musician.  

This song became this thing, this battle cry. We as women need a place to go to be inspired. It lifts us all up when we celebrate each other.

What keeps you inspired?

Inspiration comes from life. I’m really inspired by cool music being made now. I’m loving the band I’m in. It's this really fun project that’s just taken on a life of its own. When you get with the right people, they can bring out the best in you. This is a band that’s sheer energy and power and fun and camaraderie. We’re in a place where we want to make music that makes us feel and, hopefully, makes others feel as well. These are very schooled musicians who come at it from a place of "let’s play, let’s emote." That’s what’s inspiring me right now. In 10 years, I hope I’m just as inspired as I am today.

Tell me a bit about your time at Berklee.

It was a really fun atmosphere. I grew up watching MTV and wanted to be Nancy Wilson from Heart, Tina Turner, or Steven Tyler. Berklee is a place that allows you to be whatever you want to be and try out different things—a place to just play and be yourself.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

I got great advice early on. When I was in high school in Florida, there were tryouts for an all-state band. We had to learn a couple songs but at a certain point I stopped practicing. I thought that there were a million guys who could play me under the table and there's no way that I'd have a chance. My father asked why I wasn't practicing. I said, I'm realizing that a little girl from St. Petersburg won't make all-state. He was like, "Then just quit." I didn’t like that, and I thought, I'm going to go do it. I auditioned and won first chair alto. I couldn't believe it. He said, "Sometimes it's not the most talented person who gets it, but the person who goes for it."

At Berklee, there were so many talented people who should be superstars, in my mind, but they didn’t go for it. They didn’t go after what they wanted every day. It's helpful to have talent, but hard work and being able to put yourself on the line goes a long way.