According to Her
by Deborah Wagner
At six, stuffed animals and jump ropes didn’t interest this talented guitar prodigy. Instead this little girl from Adelaide, Australia was inspired to become one of the best guitar players ever… and she is succeeding.
By her teens, Orianthi Panagaris had already played alongside her idols – some of the biggest names in guitar history, like Steve Vai and Carols Santana.
Now at only twenty-five, Orianthi has also shared the stage with some of music’s greats – including Michael Jackson, who shortly before his death personally picked her to play lead guitar on his comeback tour This Is It. Additional big names in the music biz seeking out her talents range from Mary J. Blige to Prince and Adam Lambert to Carrie Underwood.
However, it’s not just the killer guitar solos that are making a name for Orianthi. Did we mention she can sing? Signed by Geffen Records in 2007, Orianthi is a driven singer-songwriter who has now topped the charts with “According to You,” her first hit single from her debut album Believe. The second single “Shut Up and Kiss Me” is following it up the charts.
Even with all the exciting things going on in her career, Orianthi continues to be driven to touch more people with her songs and to continue to learn how to get even better at her everyday passion – her music. Recently, we spoke with Orianthi about her career, her passions and jammin’ into musical history.
When most six year old girls are still playing with dolls, what was it about an acoustic guitar that was so attractive to you?
My dad was a guitar player, so he was always strumming the guitar around the home. It just looked so cool and it made me want to pick it up. I picked one up one day when I was six and I just haven’t put it down. I just love it. It’s a challenge – always so much to learn about it. It’s just really cool.
By eleven, you had moved on to electric guitar after seeing Carlos Santana live. With such a passion for the guitar, what was like to see a musical great like him?
It was crazy, just the way he played really affected me. He put everything into his playing and his choice of notes. You can tell that he loved it and that’s what really inspired me. He had this real child-like enthusiasm when he played. I never want to lose that. Every time I pick up a guitar or play a show I’m really excited about it. I think that is what inspires people. When you see a show, if the artist is really into it, then the audience knows they love what they are doing.
At only twenty-five, you have already played with so many icons in music. You had played guitar with Steve Vai at fifteen and Santana at eighteen. How did those come about and what was it like jamming with two of the greatest guitarist ever when you’re only a teenager?
It was pretty crazy. When I was fifteen, my first support ever was for Steve Vai at a club called Heaven in Adelaide, Australia. I was so nervous because it was my first support. I wasn’t with a band. I was with a backing tape. I got up and there were all these guys staring at me with their arms folded, like “What is she going to do?” It was pretty daunting for me but I played about four or five songs and then Steve was watching me from behind stage. He invited me to meet him afterwards. Since I was only fifteen, I had to leave around midnight, so I only got to catch about ten minutes of his show, which was incredible. If I would’ve seen that before I had gotten up [on stage], I probably wouldn’t have gotten up. (laughs) He’s just incredible. We did meet up some time after the show and we kept in touch by emails and all. I have known Steve since I was fifteen and he has always been such a key support, like an uncle. I have learned so much from him. He’s a great person and artist.
How did you end up playing with Santana?
Well, I actually bombarded Carlos with a bunch of my CDs and press kits when he arrived in Adelaide. He probably thought, “Wow, just to put her out of her misery, I’ll meet her.” (laughs) I met up with him at sound check. I had brought my guitar to get it signed. He invited me up on stage and we started jamming. Then after that he invited me up on stage that night to jam at the show. There were like 15,000 people in the crowd and it was really surreal and amazing.
Obviously, playing with the late, great, King of Pop – Michael Jackson – had to have been a highlight in your career so far. How did that come about and how did you learn about the passing on this musical icon?
I actually got an email through MySpace from [his] musical director. He wanted me to come in and audition for Michael’s lead guitar player. He saw me at the Grammy Awards when I got up and played with Carrie Underwood. He was in the audience. Then he showed my YouTube videos and that Grammy performance to Michael Jackson. It was just really crazy. I was getting emails saying, “Can you come in and play for Michael Jackson? He wants to see you play.” I was like, oh my God! Of course! It was funny, my record was done but I was going to put all that stuff aside to play with someone like Michael. I went and auditioned and played “Beat It” for Michael. He came up to me and grabbed my arm and started walking up and down the stage. At the moment while he’s walking around with me, I’m thinking this is crazy! It was just a dream come true and an amazing time in my life. For those three months it was really intense. Seeing everyone everyday, getting to work with them. It was like a family. It was really hard when he passed. Everyone was really devastated. Like I said, it was like a family and we all really looked up to him immensely. This tour, this whole show was his baby and he was putting everything into it. Yeah, it was just a really, really difficult time for everybody after that. So sad. He was brilliant.
The CD Believe is doing really well. Being your second album, but debut on major label, how involved were you in writing and selecting the songs that would make it on?
Very involved. I mean all the songs were co-written with other people or written by myself. Apart from a couple of covers we did everything new. All the songs were a good blend of pop soloed with commercial tracks – pop rock, all my influences kind of combined. It was the kind of record I wanted to make.
How do you feel your songwriting has progressed in the last years?
The first song I ever wrote was when I was seven… six or seven. I have been writing ever since then. For awhile I put singing aside and was writing a lot of instrumental stuff – guitar instrumental. Then I picked up singing again was I was like fifteen and playing with cover bands until I was about twenty-one in Australia. Coming over from Australia and working with people in LA, you definitely learn a lot. Sometimes it’s a great situation when you come to the table with your ideas and they bring theirs and the song works. Other times it doesn’t work straight off the bat and you really have to work at it. It’s always very interesting and the process is very different all the time.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I get my inspiration from life. Also with the songs I write, it can depend on the mood I’m in. I’m usually in an upbeat mood – but if I am ever down, I might write a slower song or in a great mood, it might be a more up beat song.
Have you ever hit a writer’s block? If so, what do you do to get past it?
Everyone gets to the point when they are writing so many songs that they just need a break. I need a moment away so I’m not writing the same song over and over again. A good way to break out of that is to listen to a lot of different music. Listen to some country, jazz, punk music and just step away from the writing for a day or two. It’s hard to do but when you come back to it, you might have a different approach.
I love “According to You,” which made its way up the charts and is still getting a lot airplay. What was it like when you first heard your first single playing on the radio?
That was incredible! It was in Las Vegas. We were on a radio run and I turned it on and was like WOW! It was a real moment. I was with Brian, my guitar player, and some guys from the record company. It was just a crazy moment. When I was six, I picked up an Elvis record and thought, “I want to make a record in American one day.” Hearing it just took me back to that moment.
The second single “Shut Up and Kiss Me” was just released a few months ago, and is starting to get airplay also. The story seems to be about a pretty tough relationship. Have you ever had an experience like that and do you find that difficult relationships are more interesting to sing about than easy ones?
Yeah, there are some songs on the record about good relationships and good moments in a relationship, but I think that sometimes it’s good to whine about the bad stuff (laughs) and kind of rock out to it. Everyone has gone through those moments, so to put it in a song – when someone is listening to it and their relationship isn’t rosy at that moment – they might be able to relate. That’s a really cool thing about music, I like when people can relate to it.
One of the songs you did on the CD was a cover of John Waite’s “Missing You.” Why did you choose that song? Was it a favorite of yours?
Yeah. I love that song. It’s great and I thought it would be cool to cover it. I’m a big 80’s fan.
Do you have a favorite song on the CD, one that really touched you or you are very passionate about?
Yeah. I would have to say it is “Courage.” I think the lyrics in that are really strong and uplifting. Every time we play it live, people really seem to get into it. It’s a song that sort of lifts your spirits up. Life is full of ups and downs and if you have courage through it and… like in the song, just kind of let go of your self doubt and fears… [you can] break through and go for whatever you want.
You are a really amazing guitar player. Are there any other instruments you currently play or are there any you would like to take up?
I play drums. I’m a frustrated drummer. I’m not great at playing the drums, but I do enjoy playing them. I also play keyboards. I was playing piano when I was three. I’m not great at piano since I put it to the side when I picked up the guitar but I do play it as much as I can. I also like bongos.
Earlier this year, you participated in “We Are the World 25” for Haiti, the remake of the legendary 1985 USA for Africa song written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. How did you get involved in this remake for charity and what was it like working with so many talented artists?
It was really great. I was invited to be part of it. Going in to that situation with all of those amazing artists in that room and getting to say hi to everybody [was incredible]. I met Heart, which was really cool, walking into the door and Heart was right there – it was crazy! And Lionel Richie was there, the Beach Boys and just so many incredible artists I can’t think of them all.
Were you actually starstruck by any of them?
Yeah, totally. It was a crazy day. It was like a dream. India.Arie, I am a big fan of hers. And so many other incredible people I met that day. Quincy Jones, of course. It was great to say hello to him. He was so sweet. It was great getting to play guitar on the track too.
You played with several American Idol finalists and winners like Carrie Underwood. What was she like working with?
Awesome. I’m a huge fan of hers and country music. When she invited me to get up and jam with her and her band at the Grammy Awards it was just really cool. I had a blast up there and getting to play the Grammys was just crazy. She has an incredible voice!
Now you’ll be spending your summer on the road opening for Adam Lambert. How did you get involved in his tour and do you like being out on the road?
Yeah. I love it. It’s really great. We’re actually two weeks into it right now and getting to play music every night is so much fun. His show is incredible. He’s an amazing entertainer and singer. So is Allison Iraheta [another former Idol finalist who is also on the tour], who I get up and jam out on “Don’t Waste the Pretty,” her new single. I actually play on [the single] too. That’s always a lot of fun. It’s just fun getting out there and trying to better yourself every night. That’s our goal. Just have fun and do your best. I love getting up in a different city every day, that’s always fun. Playing to a different audience every night and people seeing to your songs is really cool.
Are there any misconceptions about you that you would like to clear up?
(laughs) I don’t think so.
I know you’ve been living in the US for a few years now. Do you consider the US home now and do you still get homesick for Australia?
I miss Australia. That’s my first home but this is my second home. I feel very much at home here in the US. Both places are great.
Is all of your family still back in Australia?
They are. All of my family is still back in Adelaide. I miss them but I get to Skype them every morning, which is always good. But, my second family really is my band and crew here on the bus. We are all living in this big tour bus and it’s great. It’s like a big family and we all get along really well.
Did you pick everybody in your band?
I did. Yeah. They are all super talented and really cool people. I would hang out with them if they were not in my band. That’s what I was looking for – people who not only play their butts off, but were friends too. It’s really great to have them all with me.
What’s next for your career?
We’re actually doing this tour for a while and then we are heading to Japan to play a couple of shows. Then one in Malaysia and one in Singapore then we are heading to Germany for a bit. Then coming back to do some more touring in the US and also working on a new album so working with other artists and playing more shows.
Did you ever think your music would take you around the world?
I had hoped it would, but you never know. What is happening right now is amazing and I am so grateful to be doing it.
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 7, 2010.