Orianthi exploded on the music scene in 2009. After her jaw-dropping performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards with Carrie Underwood, Michael Jackson's music director approached her via MySpace to audition for his world tour. Unfortunately, the tour never developed, but if you saw the film This Is It, you will recognize Orianthi as the killer guitarist in his band.
I met up with Orianthi when she was in town in December for a few shows and promoting her debut album, Believe. Having shared the stage with guitar legends including Carlos Santana and Steve Vai and the goal to inspire more girls to pick up the electric guitar, Orianthi is a stand out role model. Read below to learn more about Orianthi's songwriting process, the ideas behind her songs and her experience working with Michael Jackson.
Every time I turn on the radio your single, “According To You” is being played! Did you ever expect for it to do so well?
I’m really happy and thrilled people are connecting to it and really dig the track. We have a lot of fun playing it live.
How did it feel to hear it on the radio for the first time?
The first time I heard “According To You” I was actually in Vegas. We were driving to a radio station and it was so awesome. It felt great. When you’re in a radio station you know they’re going to put it on but when you’re driving in the car and it just comes on when you’re switching stations and you hear it, it’s an awesome moment. Everyone in the car was so excited.
How was the process of recording your debut album, Believe?
The process was great. I moved to the States about three-and-a-half years ago. So the first year moving out I was writing the record and for two years off and on I was recording with Howard Benson and had an awesome time working with him. We actually recorded 18 tracks and narrowed it down to 11. It’s got a real 80s feel to it. It’s pop rock. I’m proud of it. I think it’s an empowering record. I want to inspire more girls to pick up the electric guitar and keep at it. And guys too. Just follow their dreams and believe in themselves. That’s why the record’s called Believe. I think it’s so important to believe in yourself and follow your dreams, because they do come true. If you’re persistent, it’s a lot of hard work and you have to have passion for what you do, but just stick in there.
You really exploded in 2009 performing with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy awards and later Michael Jackson.
Getting invited to the Grammy Awards to jam out with Carrie Underwood was awesome. I’m a big fan of hers and her band is great. Being out there was pretty surreal looking at rock royalty in the audience. It was a great night. I had a lot of fun. Mark Vaden, who is music director of MJ’s band, saw me at the Grammy Awards. He contacted me through MySpace and asked if I’d audition to be part of the band. That was crazy, life changing working with Michael. I was so nervous going in and auditioning for him. It’s been a crazy year. But, I’m just really, really grateful I got to play with Michael and the band and learned so much.
Is there one lesson he taught you about navigating the music industry?
He basically didn’t want us to be nervous. He wanted us to project our energy out and put on a show. He made me believe in myself more for choosing me to be part of it. Just have fun and do your best. He did his best all the time and he was such a perfectionist. I think everyone that was chosen to be part of the tour is going to carry on with his spirit and just follow down our paths, whether it be music or dancing. I think everyone that was involved in the tour; we all have that bond for being a part of it. It felt like a family.
The last song on your album, “God Only Knows,” was that dedicated to him?
Yes. Dedicated to Michael and my good friend Diane who passed, who was only 25. Losing them within two months of each other was really hard. Going through that, writing a song that just means a lot to me. Every time I sing it, it’s pretty emotional. It’s an emotional track.
Have you performed it?
Actually, I did. I was hosting a viewing of This Is It and I played it before the movie acoustically.
What is your songwriting process? Do you work from guitar riffs first or do lyrics come to you?
Both. The writing process is always very different, whether it starts with lyrics or a melody or guitar riff or chords. That’s the exciting thing about it; it never starts the same way. It keeps it interesting. And, working with different people while collaborating, it’s a lot of fun. Sitting in a room and by the end of the day coming up with a song you didn’t think you would have. I actually wrote a new song two days ago.
You’re such a stand-out performer and well respected among guitarists. I saw an interview with Carlos Santana where he said he wants to pass his baton onto you.
It’s so awesome to have the support of your idols. Santana and Steve Vai. Writing a song with Steve Vai for the new record was so much fun. My first ever support was opening for Steve when I was 15 in Adelaide, Australia. Getting Santana’s support, he was the reason why I picked up electric guitar when I was 11, so having that is just so awesome. I look up to them both immensely. I don’t think you can ever stop learning off of players like that.
How do you feel being a woman in such a male dominated industry?
Playing guitar growing up and going to school wasn’t easy for me because guitar is a guy’s thing. I’d get picked on a lot and school wasn’t exactly the easiest time. When you’re lined up at auditions with other guys and you’re going for the same part, they’re like, “You shouldn’t be playing guitar.” Actually, my teacher told me I should play the harp, it’s more feminine. It’s kind of like being a male ballerina in a way.
I think there should be more female guitar players. But, it was really hard going through school so I can see why maybe some would pick it up and then give it up. If they’re going to the same auditions or playing in a band and they’ve got a lot of problems from the guys. Some guys are really supportive, but quite a few weren’t. It was an interesting time for me, but I loved playing guitar so much that I stuck at it. For me, I just want to inspire more girls to pick it up and stick at it and believe in themselves with whatever they do and guys too. You know, you just have to follow down your path. Whatever you get in life, just keep on going down that path.
That goes along with your song, “Feels Like Home.” The lyrics are so inspiring: “Failure never crossed my mind/I will take a chance every time/And spread my wings/I’ve never been afraid to try/Put everything on the line.” It seems like you had this motivation to keep going no matter what anyone else said.
Yeah. “Feels Like Home” is one of the first tracks I wrote coming over from Australia to LA. It feels like home in America now because I have great people around me, awesome friends, people I work with. It just feels like a second home for me. It’s a great place. Ever since I was six and I picked up the guitar for the first time playing along with Elvis songs and looking on the back [and reading ] Made In America, I wanted to come over to America to make a record one day. It was a dream come true to have made the record and to hold the hard copy not too long ago. It’s been crazy. It’s been a real journey.
I love “Think Like A Man.” What was the inspiration behind that song?
Well, it’s pretty lighthearted track with the lyrics, “I’m gonna shorten my attention span/Think like a man.” Actually, Doug [Robb] from Hoobastank, the lead singer, is singing backup in the chorus. I got him to sing the harmonies. He’s like, “Wait a second; I’m bagging men in this song.” He realized after he sang the song. I’m like, “Yup. Sort of, not really.” It’s all in good fun. It’s got a real AC/DC vibe to it as well. The lyrics are really lighthearted. We love playing that song live.
What’s going on through your head when you’re performing?
Lyrics. Chords. Leads. There are quite a few things to remember, but to have fun is the main thing for all of us. We love playing our instruments. I just want to inspire more kids. Mike, my drummer, wants to inspire more kids to play drums. He still has that childlike enthusiasm for playing. I think everyone does in the band. We just try to do our best, but at the same time have fun with it. It’s been a pretty crazy few months. Getting to play full sets has been awesome, when we get to actually play for 45 minutes. I just have a lot of fun playing with my band.
What’s next for you? Do you have any more dream collaborations?
I would love to do a song with B.B. King. That would be awesome. Keith Urban would be amazing. I want to do a song with a rapper, I think that would be pretty awesome to play some leads while someone raps. Timbaland or Jay-Z, that would be really cool. To win a Grammy award would be amazing. And to go on a world tour, just to play around the world and put on an awesome show. I’m already thinking lots of sparkles and pyro extravagance.
Do you remember the first time you picked up your guitar and the moment you decided, “This is what I want to do the rest of my life?”
Yeah. It just felt right picking it up when I was six. I don’t know, it probably sounds weird, but when I first picked it up I remember that feeling of it being almost familiar. It was a challenge, yet it felt familiar. I just have such a passion for it. I want to continue to learn as much as I can from musicians that I jam with. It’s an instrument that’s not an easy thing to play, but every day picking it up and wanting to move forward so when I’m 80 and look back I’ll think that I’ve progressed and evolved as a musician.
What’s your advice to aspiring guitarists?
Practice as much as you can. Play out as much as you can. Form a band. Write as many songs as you can and put it on a CD. Record yourself and send it out to people that you respect. Just get yourself out there. I get a lot of emails like, “What do you suggest I do to make it?” And all I just said is what I did. I put myself out there all the time. If someone came into town that I wanted to support, you just send your CDs to them. Bombard them.
I bombarded Carlos. He probably thought, “Put this girl out of her misery and meet her.” When he came to town I was 18 and I got to meet him and I thought he was going to sign my guitar but I got to meet him and I got to jam with him. His support, that’s how I came over to the States. He was showing the DVD of us jamming. It’s been a crazy dream. It’s a lot of work, but if you have a passion for something just go with it. You can’t just sit in your bedroom hoping it will be handed to you on a platter. If you want music to be your life, acting, whatever you do, do your best, put yourself out there and play as much as you can.