A Quick and Dirty History of my Fabulous Music Career, Pt.1

2009 was, for me, the ass-end of an entertainment industry rabbit-hole I had been running – nay – soaring both and up and down for 20 years. Since I was 9 years old I have been either negotiating or signing record deals, and have been through 3 different record labels. Glamorous? Maybe on paper, but the glamorous is always tempered with the tedious – and vast plains of the unknown.

Here, step into my Delorian and I will take you back to the 1980s………

(wavy colors, bright streaming lines all around in a circular fashion indicating speed, crashing sounds and the whurrrr of unthinkably advanced machinery, BOOM!)

*and Poof!*

…smoke clears, door opens upward…. Behold! T-shirts and leggings in pastel colors with geometric shapes! Little flouncy skirts with thick waistbands! Ill-advised usage of synthesizer sounds! Is it 1987 or Forever 21? Ah - no cell phones, we’re in the 80s.

My father was a stay-at-home dad, while my mom continued to duke it out as a screenwriter on the staffs of various TV shows, and also teaching at the USC Cinema School. However, by age 7, my parents had split, my dad went back to being a full-time musician, and I joined him weekend nights at a club called Thai Ice Cuisine, near the corner of Hollywood Blvd and La Brea. We would play that place every Saturday, and sometimes Fridays as well. Many nights I wanted to go see a movie, but we went to work – and dad was no fool: singing kid = tips.

Sorry, I have to pause for a second. Just now, as I was typing the name Thai Ice Cuisine, I was hit with a gust of sense-memory. Like an olfactory time-bomb, my memory exploded into the recall of a scent combination: chopstick wood, glass noodles, Sprite with grenadine (a.k.a. a Shirley Temple), and that cigarette/liquor smell all clubs have. That collision of sensual hits was there every night, only receding with the faint electrical smell from my dad’s gear, and the sweeter scent of his acoustic guitar. (if you want to know that aroma, go to McCabe’s on Pico, it’s like a guitar buffet). The experience of those Thai Ice Cuisine nights would vacillate between the poisonous and the sacred, and back again. There was beauty on both sides of the stage - in the harmony around me, and in the heavy jewel tones of liquors and glassware. A crystal cathedral in the dark light of diamonds.

As we walked back to dad’s apartment after the gig, the club bouquet would trail behind us, the ashy L.A. dry-cold night rolling, briskly, into our faces. Finally, in half a block, the after hours club-stereo music would cross fade behind the drone of AC units in the passing apartment windows.

Ok, I’m back now.

So on those first gigs I learned a lot of things, two highlights:

1). How to eat with chopsticks 2). How NOT to open a packet of soy sauce (with a fork).

I also learned my first jazz tunes: “Stormy Weather”(RIP Lena Horne!), “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good”, “Moody’s Mood for Love”,  & “Why Don't You Do Right” (a la Jessica Rabbit, an early idol of mine). I also learned that the way to capture an audience is not with a scream, but with a pin drop. I found that I could pierce the veil of noise in any drunken haze of humanity, with a clear, single note. Even more, I could hold them all through the course of a song, if I was there in that moment with them, with all my being.  And this is how the cosmic joker revealed to me my spark - illumination in a cathedral of glass-block walls, neon, fake ferns and black-laquer finish. Very funny.

...Hmm, think I'll write a song about that...

Record deal # 1

So around then I found out about this thing that everyone wanted called a “record deal.” I didn’t know the ins and outs of it, but I knew that every famous singer had one, so I needed one. In order to get a record deal, one needed a “demo tape.”

(note for people under 20: a “tape” is a colonial device made of plastic, that is used to play back music. It is kind of a rounded square, and it has two holes in it. These two holes are actually little gears around which recordable tape is wrapped. Music can be recorded on, or played back from this magical tape until it runs out, then you flip it to the “B-side”and play the songs the record label didn’t think were as marketable the songs on the “A-side”. The holes are specially constructed to the circumference of a number 2 pencil, so that when your car stereo “eats” your favorite “cassette tape” you can use that pencil to dig it out like fetuccini, and then use the same pencil to insert into one of the holes and twist the gear in order to reel the fucking tape back up, and try to avoid the kinks that your Goddamn piece-of-shit car stereo ironed into your favorite freakin’ “cassette tape.” And then you try to play it again, and everything sounds fine until suddenly everything drops an octave and starts making a crak’ling sound and you have to fucking do it again, and this time there are more kinks in the tape, and you just have to find another tape, or wait a few years until they invent digital CDs which will be great for awhile until digital music brings down the entire music industry as we know it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For a concise explanation please refer to diagram A)

DIAGRAM A: Cassette Tape: (feel free to click for greater educational benefit)

blog-tape-diagram

blog-tape-diagram

So I made a demo tape of the few tunes I knew, and got the attention of a man who owned a small record label. By small, I mean one office on 3rd Street near LA Cienega Blvd. (near Hollywood, for non-LA people. Trendy now, kinda shitty then). We’ll call him "Ted." Ted wanted to send me to Japan to sing the poppy-pop music that his kid wrote. They wanted to make me into some kind of pop-candy confection, but I could tell, even then, that their music was not where it was at for me. Though I loved Tiffany and Madonna, I also loved Scott Joplin and torch songs of the 30s, plus I had already had my Prince Revelation (to be detailed in a later post), and I knew there was good pop-music in the world – and anyway I wanted to write my own songs. So after much negotiation, with a lawyer and everything, I passed on Ted.

There was the end of record deal #1.

Tune in next week for the thrilling tale of Record Deal #2 !!!(with a small digression mid-week, to a story about Spain with the Battlestar Galactica orchestra)Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel…

Raya Yarbrough

Singer, Composer, writer of absurd stories about LA, chanteuse on Outlander, BSG, DaVinci's Demons, & I used to date Dick Grayson.