Mindi Abair, a two–time Grammy nominated saxophonist, came to the World Cafe Live Thursday March 22nd. She and her band The Boneshakers performed their 2017 album The EastWest Sessions, a diverse collection of songs with standout track Pretty Good for a Girl featuring Joe Bonamassa. Before forming Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, Abair toured with artists such as Aerosmith, The Backstreet Boys, and the Ides of March. Besides being known for her skill on the sax, Abair is also known for her book “How to Play Madison Square Garden - A Guide to Stage Performance” and for her contributions to feminism. I got the chance to talk with Mindi before the show about her experiences and advice for both powerful women and aspiring artists.
Street: I’m sure there must have been a buildup of the judgement you touched on in "Pretty Good for a Girl", but what was the initial inspiration for writing it?
Mindi Abair: I just wanted to tell my story, and I’ve found it to be a lot of other women’s stories too. We’re out there breaking glass ceilings every day. I see amazing women doing incredible things, and it really inspires me: I just love being around kick ass women. Chloe Kim is snowboarding to a gold medal. Woman scientists are changing the world. Female singers are out there whopping the world too. But every once in a while, someone or I do something pretty cool, and someone else will come up and say “hey, that’s pretty good for a girl.” It kind of takes the wind out of you. But as we wrote the song it became less of that tongue and check, and more of a call to action, like “Yeah! Damn right I’m pretty good for a girl.”
Street: Was there any specific moment in your career that triggered the creation of the song?
MA: When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a degree in music from the top contemporary music school in the world Berklee College of Music in Boston. I remember walking into clubs and trying to sit in. They wouldn’t even let me. I didn’t look the part; granted, I probably did look like a cheerleader, but I could play the saxophone. When they finally would let me sit in, they would look at me differently. They would say, “oh wow. We didn’t expect that. You can come sit in again.”
My parents came to one of my shows that I was doing with a different artist, a black South African man playing R&B. I came out mid first song, and as I walked out on stage to play, the woman sitting next to my mother stood up and goes, “What is that skinny, little white bitch doing on stage?” My mom just slumped in her seat, but by the end of the song that lady stood up again and was like, “You go you skinny little white bitch. You can play.”
Street: A lot of women in Penn’s engineering school have been feeling, and speaking out against, their unequal treatment in the classroom. My friend told me she once was asked by a professor why she was even in that class because she didn’t look like an engineer. Do you have any advice to share with women who have not quite proven themselves in their respective fields?
MA: It’s becoming a time that if you’re good at what you do, and I say becoming because we’re not quite there yet, that you will be accepted and have a chance to flourish. It’s our job as women to break down these barriers. Yes, it means you have to work harder, and yes we have to do a little more to break these misconceptions, but I think it’s a cool quest to change these people’s conceptions. Tell your girl to go be an engineer and kick ass at it.
Street: I’m partial to my Philly bands. I’ve got to know how it was playing with The Roots.
MA: I remember hearing when they signed on to do Jimmy Fallon’s tonight show. I thought that was the hippest band you could have on a TV show. I thought, “Wow, this is crazy. Okay, I have to choose songs of mine that I want The Roots to play on.” It was kind of a geeky way to go in. We had probably 15 minutes to rehearse the 10 songs I had chosen, and these guys learned them stone–cold and did them with flair. It was a blast.
Street: I know you are big onstage presence, what performer do you think has the most flair or watch-ability?
MA: I remember watching MTV and seeing Bruce Springsteen. I was like “Oh my God, this guy is up here killing it. He had the style, and a sax that was five feet taller than him, and was just killing it.” I was like, “I can do that as a sax player?”
I also love performers that make you feel like you can see inside their soul. Like they’re giving you a piece of themselves. I saw that in Prince.
Street: You did a tribute song after Prince’s death. How was that for you?
MA: I got the news mid–show. We were between songs, and my drummer got a text that Prince died, and whispered that to me. He had this look on his face. I was like, “No, that’s not possible. What are you talking about. Should we tell the audience?” I couldn’t believe it was true.
We just went with our emotions. I just said we have to play a song of his. That’s how you deal with stuff. We played "Purple Rain." We had never played it before. I just kind of looked at the guys, and we just kind of played it. I was really emotional. Prince is one of those artists that no matter kind of artist you are, you were influenced by that guy.
Street: For the bands of University City who are just starting out, what would your biggest piece of advice be?
MA: You don’t get anywhere trying to be someone else, but you get everywhere using your influences that are probably different than everyone else. We all grew up a little differently. An important part of being an artist is getting out that emotion that’s only yours.
After my conversation with Mindi, I was blown away by her passion for what she does both on and off stage. She is clearly an expert in her field, but the way she talked about her experiences and about other people, was so animated. I could tell she was excited about everything she’s doing and has done. If you didn't get to see her show, you won't want to miss the next one. She is known for her killer performances, and really getting her audience into the show, and she lived up to that reputation on Thursday.