The Revolution Will Be Harmonized
By Barry Walters
Keyboardist Lisa Coleman was 19 when she started working with Prince on his 1980 album Dirty Mind. Her childhood friend, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, was also 19 when she joined Prince in 1983 for Purple Rain. Known from that point on as Wendy & Lisa, Melvoin and Coleman became key members of the Revolution, Prince's band at the peak of his musical powers and multi-platinum popularity. After they left the group in '86, the pair continued as a recording duo and as composers for such hit TV shows as Heroes. Shimmering with bright surfaces that compliment its complex depths, their latest album, White Flags of Winter Chimneys, showcases sophisticated strains of rock and jazz that definitively assert their serious chops. To celebrate that achievement, Melvoin and Coleman cast aside their usual privacy and gave Out their most candid interview ever.
Out: People who know about you as players in Prince's band may not know about the music you've composed for film and TV, or all the records you've appeared on, like k.d. lang's Invincible Summer, or last year's incredible Grace Jones comeback album, Hurricane.
Wendy: We had an amazing month with [Jones] in our home writing 'Williams' Blood,' becoming friends, and being bizarre divas. We had to pick her up when she woke up in the morning, and the morning to her was like 6 PM.
Lisa: She gets in the back seat of the car and of course we have to stop to buy bottles of champagne. She wanted to play the bass. She kind of couldn't, but she could groove like nobody's business on one note. She started to sing and I wish I could've seen my own face. I was like --
Wendy and Lisa in near unison: Oh my God, it's Nightclubbing! [Jones's classic 1981 disco-punk album with the hit 'Pull Up to the Bumper']
Like Hurricane, your new album has a cinematic quality, and you compose background music for film and TV as well. How do you go about creating music that's inherently cinematic?
Wendy: It's trying to compose the song so that you can see it better in your head. Choosing specific notes to enhance a certain line that you're singing, or using a particular instrument that would evoke a visceral response from a listener. My girlfriend is a film director and writer and asks me a lot of these kinds of questions.
Lisa: When Wendy and I score, we aren't accompanying the lead singer. Instead, there are the actors and the narrative. You have to be invisible and only enhance what's there. So it's kind of like drawing outlines and shadows on things that make it more three-dimensional. In a pop song, especially when you write it yourself, you become the actor. Then you add the landscape, the environment in which the situation is taking place.
I imagine that your history with Prince has been both a blessing and a hindrance to getting TV and film work. How has that played out?
Lisa: A lot of people take meetings with us and the whole meeting will be, 'What was Prince like? What is he doing now?' So it opens a lot of doors, but it doesn't fill the room with anything substantial to do with us.
Wendy: We've had to get on a soapbox every time a door gets opened and convince the world that we're viable. That's sort of been a pathology for us. We've been composing for film and TV for almost 20 years now, and we just in the past maybe 10 years have gotten away from only being called to do black movies. Now we're working on a show that's run by all lesbians and we're thrilled to be doing it. It's on Showtime, Nurse Jackie, with Edie Falco. It's fantastic.
Why did the two of you decide to keep working together after you left the Revolution?
Wendy: We were married and I was her biggest fan. Everything that she played broke my heart and still does and I wanna own it and covet it and make it mine.
Lisa: [Laughs at that] Yeah, we're chained together. We're shackled. No, I love Wendy. We've known each other our entire lives practically. Once she was finally hired into Prince's band, it was like a dream for me. I had fallen in love with Wendy, my childhood friend, and suddenly we were looking at each other differently, but I had to leave on the road all the time. It was always just torture. Finally Prince met Wendy and there was some trouble with the other guitar player [Dez Dickerson], and providence moved in such a way that Wendy ended up on the road with us.
Was the image you projected in Purple Rain a function of who the two of you were together? Or did it come from Prince, or the director?
Wendy: I don't think the director had anything to do with it. I think Prince saw us as the couple that we were and used that relationship to add more mystery to him. And I think Lisa and I were willing to go there because at that time we felt mysterious. We were young and it was the thing, so we went with it, not knowing what the result of that would mean or imply later in life. We didn't think about it in those terms. We just thought, Wow, this is cool!
Before we continue, I have to ask: Have you come out before? Is this it?
Wendy: We've never done a 'Let's come out' interview. We've never been in the closet, but we never said, 'Let's get an interview with The Advocate. Let's get an interview with Out.' I didn't want to be a lesbian musician. I felt really uncomfortable with that role. I was already fighting, being a guitar player in a man's world and to have that on top of it -- Lisa and I were so very married at the time, it just didn't seem like something I could handle.
Lisa: With Prince and the Revolution, I think that it was just taken for granted that we were supposed to be the gay reps in the band. [Laughs] The blacks, the whites, the gays. And people would say, 'Gee, do you think this lesbian thing is going to work for them?' [Everyone laughs] So, after the band kind of split up, the record labels would be like, 'You need to be wearing fur coats and sitting on motorcycles and long fingernails . . .'
Wendy: It was just horseshit.
Lisa: 'And why don't you wear that lingerie like you used to?'
Wendy: Which I never did.
Lisa: I did.
Wendy: But you wore it in a very different way.
Lisa: Yeah, it was more punk, like a fuck-you thing, not, 'I'm a sexy girl.'
How did the process of asserting your own identity as a duo conflict with the record company's perception of your marketability based on the Revolution?
Wendy: To be honest with you, it kind of manifested itself in every aspect of our career at the time. From the songs we were writing to the pictures we were taking to the videos that we wanted to do to the places we wanted to perform to the print that we wanted to give interviews to, it was all in constant contrast to what the business wanted from us. It was extremely frustrating because we were in such a minority as musicians and as young women. We weren't even considering coming out because we were already dealing with so much adversity coming away from Prince. That on top of it just seemed insurmountable. I don't think either one of us were prepared at that age to have that be the ultimate battle.