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    Interview with Blues Blast Magazine

    The title of her latest recording, Desire, simply hints at the passions that drive Lauren Mitchell, a commanding singer from Florida’s Gulf coast. Nominated for two Blues Blast Music Awards this year – Soul Blues Album and the Sean Costello Rising Star Award – Mitchell is proud of her work on a disc that finally captures the full extent of her talents. She explains, “You are asking me to talk about the curse of an artist, whether you are a writer, visual artist, or musician. Do I feel it is a wonderful album – do I feel that it is the best representation of me to date? Yes! I am very, very proud of it. But I still listen to it and think, man. I wish we could have done this better. Just being overly critical of myself as an artist, that curse, propels me to work harder to achieve my goal to grow and evolve. Looking back over the last six years, this record shows that I have evolved, so I am doing my job”.

    Getting to this point has been proven to be a path with many twists and turns. Born In Columbus, Ohio, Mitchell was placed with adoptive parents when she was seven days old. It was fortunate that her parents had a love for music and the arts. Her maternal grandparents met when her grandmother auditioned as a singer for her grandfather’s country & western band. Both sang in the church choir, as did Mitchell’s adoptive mother and father, who also played some guitar. “I listened to a lot of great music while I was growing up. Dad had an impressive record collection, half of which is now in my possession. I got the sixties soul and cool rock & roll. My brother got the rest of it, the weird stuff like Frank Zappa”.

    “There was always music in our home. I remember hearing Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, a lot of Motown. My Dad was really in to Motown, like the Four Tops and the Temptations, and especially Gladys Knight. He took me to my very first blues festival, the Tampa Bay Blues fest, when I was in high school. It was fortunate that I grew up in a school district that I lived in had a performing arts school that I auditioned for and was accepted into in fourth grade. It was part of the public school system, so there wasn’t any extra tuition”.

    “I started professional voice lessons at age nine. Mom found me an incredible teacher in Canton, OH, Michael Canastraro, who I studied with through most of high school. He taught me pretty much everything I know about the voice and the mechanics of singing. He was very strict. I wasn’t allowed to sing in his studio in English until I mastered singing in Italian. We worked on a lot of opera and art songs. But I was still hearing soul music at home plus blues from Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. So I was doing Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi in Micheal’s studio, then going home to listen to gut-bucket blues”.

    “The lessons taught me a good portion of singing is your breath, being able to use all of the available muscles to raise and expand the rib cage. The cage opens, giving the lungs more room to expand. Then you have to fully breath into the diaphragm, using the muscles in the lower abdomen to control the airflow that comes up through the esophagus to the vocal folds. They are very thin and extremely fragile, like tissue paper. That is why singers have problems from abusing their voice. Controlling the flow of air through the vocal folds is what creates vibration and sound. I also learned ways to shape the mouth, move the tongue, and adjust the soft palate to create different sounds.

    “An important point to learn is that you can not sing a pitch on a consonant. You have to learn to form your vowels correctly. Your sinus cavities are like the bell of a horn. That is where the sound comes out, so if you can change the shape of the bell, then you can change the way a word sounds. I can do some things on stage that allow me to abuse my voice a bit because I have technique to back it up – and I have good vocal health habits that allow me to do that five nights in row without losing my voice.”

    lauren mitchel photo 2 Mitchell continued to study and perform while in college, doing musical theater, sang in choirs, and did solo work singing arias and art songs. Another voice instructor, Steven Monroe, re-introduced her to some of the hip music she heard during her childhood, and had Mitchell listen to Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald.

    ‘When I was younger, I was singing in the lyric soprano range, way up in the rafters. That is not the case any more. The female voice does not typically mature and become what it is supposed to be until around the age of forty. So it is no shock that my voice now is in the basement. I sing lower than most women, and even a few men! Steven was into the fact that I had that lower register. He thought it was unique and encouraged me to develop it. I also identified a bit with Janis Joplin. I discovered that I had really big lungs and had lots of power behind my voice”. Out with some girlfriends one night for some under-age drinking, Mitchell was convinced to participate in a karaoke contest, singing one of the Joplin tunes she knew. The broke college student ended up winning the contest and the $100 prize.

    “Up until then I had only been paid for a few theater gigs, as a chorus girl because I used to dance. I had never been paid for just singing. So I started singing with a couple bands around Columbus. Then in 2003, a really, really bad break-up made me decide to move to Florida. My parents had split up and my Dad had fulfilled his dream by moving to Florida. I had a girlfriend who was moving to Orlando, so we got a bigger truck. The night we moved, there was a foot & a half of snow. Moving a box of books, we both fell down in the snow. All we could do was laugh as we realized we would never have deal with that again”.

    The singer worked as a bartender in a series of clubs, some of which featured live music. She began to meet local musicians and slowly put herself out there as a singer. But restaurant business was good money that paid the bills. In 2010, she was bar-tending at Tommy Bahama’s when she got an offer for a management position at a restaurant on Siesta Key. The singing and music had been there but it was a struggle to get a project of her own started. She decided to take the offer. After nine months, the owner of the company unexpectedly let her go.

    “I didn’t realize at the time how miserable I was. It took getting out of that situation to make that clear. After nursing my bruised ego for a few days, I called my long-time friend, Michael “The Professor” Hensley, a great Hammond organ player. He encouraged me to take charge. We had enjoyed working together in several cover bands and had a mutual admiration for each others’ talent. We began rehearsing in April of 2011 – our first gig was in August of that year. It has been six years since I stepped out on the stage under my own name and I haven’t another job since then. Michael insisted that my name was out there, saying that I would be the reason people came to hear the band. I am very grateful to him for that encouragement”.

    There is one singer that has always been a major influence on Mitchell’s singing. “At the top of the list is Etta James. She had that low register which I identify with. She had a way of presenting a song that really got down to business, digging in and touching the emotions and the meaning of the song. She was able to interpret brilliantly. On her Live From San Francisco album, she did a cover of the Eagles “Take It To The Limit” that gives that song a whole new meaning. That is the way the song is supposed to be sung, as far as I’m concerned. For Desire, a bunch of the guys I recorded with had worked with her. They told me some stories, how she didn’t take any prisoners. I don’t do that either. Other favorites are Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and lately a newer artist doing modern neo-soul, Anthony Hamilton. He has a killer voice”.

    Mitchell released her first album, Please Come Home, at the start of 2013, getting lots of praise from her growing fan base but many felt that the disc did not capture the energy of her live show. In May, 2014, she recorded a live show at the legendary Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, FL that documented the energy of her show to the delight of her fans.

    Since then, life has been a series of ups and downs. Her partnership with Hensley came to an end, leading to a decision to change her approach to the band. “I had never been on stage over the years with out a keyboard. When you work as a classical soloist, the piano is always there to accompany you. That was a really scary thing. It changed to whole vibe of the band’s sound with guitar, bass, and drums. I was hearing things I had never heard musically before. It worked out but I really enjoy it when I can add a keyboard player. You miss having those big, fat chords from the Hammond organ. It was a scary leap. But I learned that maybe I was holding on to some things, that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was”.

    lauren mitchel photo 3Fair or not, there are some who take Mitchell to task because the line-up of her band went through plenty of changes in the last few years. She readily admits that she can be a tough band leader. “Part of that is the nature of the business. Some musicians don’t want to dedicate themselves to a long-term situation. They are fine working with me on a Friday night, then they get a call for another gig for more money, so they bail. I am looking for the right people because I ask a lot of my band members. They need to be dedicated, show up on time, be sober for the gig, and have a good work ethic. Sometimes that gets in the way of the music”’

    All of pieces came together for her latest album, recorded in Los Angeles with Tony Braunagal producing. She had been working on songs with Hensley while searching for a producer who could help her articulate her vision. Discussions with numerous people went nowhere due to various reasons, including scheduling. That all changed after a performance at the 2015 Suncoast Blues Festival in Sarasota.

    “To stay relevant, I knew I needed to put out a new record, to give your fans something to listen to. Our set at the Suncoast fest featured a lot of my original material. My friend Jack Sullivan, the publisher of Blues Music Magazine, was there and told me that he was going to contact Tony about producing my new record. I thought, yeah, right, Tony doesn’t know who I am. Several months later I saw Jack again. He handed me Tony’s phone number and e-mail address, telling me to call him. It something like six months for me to get the nerve to do something. I finally decided to send Tony an e-mail because it was safe. I didn’t have to open up, be vulnerable. To my surprise, he answered me about thirty minutes later. I was so excited that someone of Tony’s stature was interested in working with me”.

    That began the process of selecting songs, setting up budgets, and getting finances to make the project possible. Once everything was set, Mitchell flew to Los Angeles for a week of recording in October last year, an emotionally taxing experience made easier by the by the consummate professional musicians she was working with, including numerous members of the Phantom Blues Band and Josh Sklair, guitarist and the leader of the Etta James band for twenty-five years. “Tony brought years & years of experience. The way he orchestrates things, and deals with people, is genuine. He is incredibly gifted, has a cohesive vision, and hears everything. He knew exactly which musicians to use. His best attribute is that he cares and understands you as an artist as well as a person”.

    Learning about her heritage was another desire that finally generated some action. Last year Mitchell took a 23andMe DNA test. “When the results came back, I learned half of the story, because they don’t test all of your DNA. I am French, German , and Scandinavian, plus my genes are pretty healthy. But I recently found another section on my profile that lead me to a man’s name, stating that we shared about 14% of our DNA, and were likely first cousins. I reached out to him, told him my story, and we have had discussions regarding the possibility that one of his siblings may be my biological father. From what I have learned so far about the family, they are more into sports than the arts. If I had stayed with my biological family, who knows if I would have had the same chance to nurture my voice. Guess that it is all part of the plan…..”

    Check out Lauren’s website at: http://laurenmitchellband.com/

    Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!

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    It's *FINALLY* Happening!

    I'm making my next album!!! Yes people, it's *FINALLY* happening ...

    After almost 2 years of work writing, rehearsing, playing, re-writing, and searching for the right team to help me with this important project, the time has come.  And I wanted to share all the juicy details with my Believers first!

    On October 16th, I'm going to hop on a plane and fly across the country to California ... the magical city of Los Angeles, to be exact.  For 10 days, I'll be holed-up at Ultratone Studios with a host of incredible musicians and we'll all be under the direction of producer extraordinaire, and two-time Grammy Winner, Tony Braunagel. 

    For those of you who aren't familiar with Tony's credits, he has worked with too many artists to mention them all here, but Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray might ring a bell or two.

    Needless to say, I am beyond excited about the prospects for this next album.  It seems that I've been working on it forever, but I guess this is a case of "good things coming to those who wait".  The conversations I've been having with Tony so far have got me working harder than ever to push myself in every musical and artistic way.  He's even got me working on some brand new material that no one has ever heard before, and we're hoping to co-write a song that I started work on over a year ago. All in all, this album is shaping up to be a real barn-burner, and I just KNOW y'all are gonna love it!

    As of this moment we're shooting for a release date in early 2017.  So hang on folks, and stay tuned ... The next six months are bound to be full of great news!

    As always, thank you for your support (and patience, in this case!).  I couldn't do it without all of YOU!!!

    Regards,
    ~ Lauren

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    A Few Minutes with Pompano Today

    Hey Believers! 2016 has started out with a BANG for us and we couldn't be happier! The month of March was crazy busy, but we're certainly not complaining! We played all over the state of Florida last month and shared the stage with some amazing artists ... People like Coco Montoya, Eric Gales, & Sonny Landreth, just to name a few.  In the meantime, I found *a few minutes* to chat with Dawne Richards at Pompano Today Magazine before we played The Mess O' Blues Festival in Pompano Beach.  It was a pleasure talking with her and I think this interview shows that.  I hope it's as fun for you to read as it was for me to give! Enjoy!

    A few minutes with the incomparable Lauren Mitchell
    By Dawne Richards, April 2016
    Photograph © Paul McDermott Photography

    Lauren Mitchell is charming even via email. When we asked if 10:00am was too early for an interview, she made the proclamation that she expected to be "sufficiently caffeinated" by then. The following day we were treated to her throaty laugh, and, indeed, she was...

    Tell us a little more about growing up in a musical family.
    Wow! It was pretty amazing. I remember hearing my grandparents (on my mom's side), they always had an organ in their home and Grandma could play and Grandpa could play a little bit - church songs, old hymns. Both of them, and my mother sang in the church choir in Ohio, so that seemed the most natural place to play in front of other humans for me. I remember [the first time I sang in public]; I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember being nervous, but you're in church, and you know everybody and they're all smiling at you ...and they all love you.

    Do you remember thinking at the time, "I can do this"?
    I don't remember but everyone would praise me and compliment me. It's always been a very natural thing for me to do. I started voice lessons at the age of 9. My mom put me in voice lessons when it became apparent that I had some ability and I enjoyed doing it. As a child it was definitely - everything was music related in one way or another. All different kinds of dance, lots of ballet and that kind of thing. I found that I had an affinity for tap dance. I still like to watch it, I still love it. I took piano lessons; I played a clarinet, Theater classes. Everything seemed to revolve around performance and one way or another, music was invovled.

    Do you have siblings?
    Yes, I have a younger brother; he's 2 1/2 years younger than me. He's a visual artist; he does graphic design.

    Where do you live know? What's that like?
    Sarasota-Bradenton. It's really wonderful over here - we have such a great music scene all the way up and down this coast. There's a wonderful blues and soul scene and also a wonderful cultural scene with the Sarasota Opera, [which is] amazing, and we've got a great ballet over here.

    If you could meet one musician from the past, who would it be?
    Oh. You can stop right now. It would be Etta James, hands down. Whenever I get asked that question, that is always the answer. She was one of the finest soul singers to ever walk the face of this earth. That personality - she didn't take any baloney from anybody and I would have loved to have met her back in the day.

    If you could listen to only one piece of music for the rest of your life, what would it be?
    Mmmm.  Wow! One piece, not just one artist?  That’s hard! An album – Etta James live from San Francisco.  Just outstanding.  There’s a track where she covers the Eagles’ “Take it to the Limit” that moves me – it stirs my soul. Any ballad by Otis Redding would be a close second.

    You tour quite a bit!  How would you describe the state of live music in 2016?
    Oh wow.  OK.  [Laughs.]  As a working artist, working in the genre of music that I work in, the first word that comes to mind is “difficult”. Especially in the blues world, we are working on a business model that is 60, 70 years old.  You make the CD – the record – the album – you promote it – then everybody jumps in a van and you sell the album.  Meanwhile, the money you’re making selling the album – prices of records have not really increased much. And then when you enter online sales downloading streaming into the equation, that’s just a whole ‘nother ball game.  On average the artist who puts one track off an album on iTunes or whatever – you buy it for 99 cents and we’re getting pennies on that.  It’s difficult to make a living at it.  Does that mean because it’s difficult to make a living at it that we’re not going to keep doing it and that I don’t think live music is alive and well?  It definitely is.  But the market has gotten a little smaller and the world is getting bigger. I am fortunate that when I do go out to tour I would say 9 times out of 10 even in cities where I’ve not performed before, blues fans are very loyal, and they love a live show.  They show up. They do buy tickets, they do buy CDs.  They don’t download.  They buy product.

    I think part of it is the nature of the music.  Blues – or soul – fans – the nature of that kind of music is very intense.  It’s very personal.  When you listen to Otis Redding sing, that man is pouring his heart out.  Blues and soul fans want to show up and see that live show because that’s where the goods are.  That’s the artist giving you their soul. And that’s my job as a live performer – to provide that and pour my heart out and give 110%.

    My dad had this record collection that was just amazing and spanned all kinds of stuff. Beatles, Creedence, a lot of soul, a lot of Motown.  I’ve written a song about some of the stuff that my dad used to play for me, and that, I think, is where I learned to love soul music and blues because my dad would play it – the 4 Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, lots of Odis Redding, that music has always been in my ear.

    What’s your advice to aspiring young musicians?
    Practice! [Laughs.] Some things never change. Practice, learn your instrument, whether it’s a guitar, bass, drum, voice.  If you’re a vocalist, treat your voice as an instrument, learn what its strengths and limitations are.  Practice daily.  And don’t give up.

    What can folks expect at this Saturday’s Mess O’ Blues?
    The lineup looks great – it’s lookin’ like it’s going to be a great outdoor festival in a really nice venue.  What they can expect from me is what I like to call a full throttle performance.  I’m going to give you everything that I’ve got and it’s going to be soulful and hopefully it’s going to be something that people like.  We recently got a new guitarist – he sold everything he owned in Costa Rica (which is where he’s from) and moved to the U.S. (he has family here) about two months ago.  I met him three days after he moved here.  He came to play with us and I knew right away. His name is Jose Ramirez he’s 27 years old and he is definitely a rising star.  He moved here with a few bucks, the clothes he had, and his guitar.  We definitely both feel that it was a cosmic coincidence that lined us up.

    How did you find him?
    It was the craziest thing! I played a show in Sarasota in January on a Saturday night.  My guitar player has been with me for awhile and it’s a lot of traveling and it was just time for him to do something different.  He told me “Take the time that you need to find a replacement but I’d like to be done by March or April.”  The next day I go to perform a show in Tampa and my friend Charlie Boyer introduced me to Jose – they had just met.  I’ve known Charlie for a long time and he’s a real music aficionado, especially blues and jazz and when he introduced me I’m thinking he’s endorsing him and it turns out they had just met.  It was really this very random thing. I invited him to come out and play with us about a week later and as I told him, “you played your face off.” [ed. Note:  Mr. Boyer runs “Jazz & Blues Florida,” Florida’s online guide to live jazz and blues.  Learn more at jazzbluesflorida.com].

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    Show Review from East Coast Blues News

    PHEW! Time flies when you're having fun!  And that's what we're doing so far in 2016! Take a minute to check out this awesome review of a show we played at one of our favorite venues, The Alley in Sanford Florida.  Many thanks to R. Keith Lambert for the nice article and the awesome photos!

    The Lauren Mitchell Band
    Date: February 6, 2016
    Venue: The Alley, Sanford, FL

    For quite a few years I have learned to rely on my instincts. On a uncommonly cold and rainy night in Central Florida, I could have easily stayed inside and not ventured out, but my gut told me I should go and see someone I had not had the pleasure of hearing performing live. So I got in the car with a good friend and headed to one of my favorite venues; The Alley in Sanford (Home of the Blues in Central Florida). Of course I had done my due diligence in checking out her website,videos, articles, etc. But just like the old Marvin Gaye song; Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing. . . Well that real thing is Lauren Mitchell, and if you are aware that Soul and Blues music is a great combination, you will appreciate what Lauren Mitchell is all about, and that is: Soulful Blues. Immediately after a couple songs in her first set, I was hearing Aretha Franklin, Etta James, overtones of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, all making themselves manifest in her voice! On the stage, the Ohio native who calls Sarasota her home is very comfortable. She has an exceptional command of it, as a bandleader. Lauren's sultry voice is the key to her success. She has "The Gift" keyboardist Michael "The Professor"Hensley explained. A veteran musician himself, the expression on his face said it all when he talked eloquently about the broad range of her voice. The Professor humbly acknowledged it has been a privilege to share the stage with her. Sitting in this night on guitar was a force in his own right - Chris K. Royal from the Tampa Bay area. An expert and versatile guitarist, he shredded the frets on solos several times during the set and added rhythms that complemented each song.  The beat was kept smooth and steady with fill -ins and shuffles by drummer Marvel Carraway.

    However, it was Lauren who was the focal point of the night. She leaves every drop of herself on the stage. She makes each song her own whether they are covers or her own compositions. She connects with the audience and sings with emotions that go deep inside. So glad I listened to my gut and went to her show. It won't be the last. Once again I had my trusty Nikon in tow, so was able to capture some of the raw emotion of Lauren's performance.

    - R. Keith Lambert

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