image © Redbook Records 2004
Brand New Dress
music review and artist reflections
review, interview and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2004
images © Redbook Records 2004
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Last updated: 21 November 2004
Megan Manoram is a rapidly emerging and exciting singer songwriter from Los Angeles, California. The superbly varied vocal performance and rich instrumental arrangements within her highly-polished and eclectic debut album Brand New Dress is certain to capture the imagination and play time of a broad audience. We caught up with Megan just as the album was released in this indepth interview and provide a thorough review of the nine-track project below.
Hi Megan. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Megan Manoram: I've lived in California my whole life. I was born in Los Angeles--in fact, I lived right behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--and moved down to Orange County with my family when I was about three years old. I grew up in San Clemente in a house two blocks down from my mom's childhood vacation home.
I was a little beach bum and I walked down to the ocean nearly every day after school. I still adore the beach but oddly enough though, I never learned to surf! That seems to surprise people when they hear I grew up in a surfing town. Anyway, my mom exposed me to music at a very early age and she will admit that she can't carry a tune to save her life, but she still always sang to me.
What kind of material do you remember explicitly?
She introduced me to musicals and I remember My Fair Lady was a favorite. I must have been the only five-year-old on the block that recited "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." I also remember singing along to my dad's Oak Ridge Boys records. I started signing in church and was doing solos by age six and performing leads in church and school musicals. I debuted as The Little Camel Boy in our Christmas pageant.
And what about your training?
My second grade teacher Miss Jacuay was the first person to give me any real instruction or direction. She was awesome. She would play her guitar and lead sing-alongs. She was like my very own Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. As silly as that may sound, she truly brought music alive for me. I took the requisite childhood piano lessons and then branched out to guitar--neither of which I claim to be proficient at but they are both indispensable tools for songwriting--and then I began private vocal instruction at about age sixteen. [Ed note: Megan reveals her age to be somewhere between 21 and 30 at this writing.]
What other training have you had?
I've worked with a few different instructors over the years but I must mention that my most profound learning experiences and breakthroughs have come while under the instruction of Karen Gallinger, who is not only a truly gifted teacher but also an amazing jazz vocalist. I was also a choir nerd from junior high into junior dollege, and I loved every second of it. I hung out a lot at the local mom-and-pop music store where my instructor gave lessons and got to know some of the regular musicians that worked and taught there.
That's when I really started getting involved in writing music and was also able to collaborate with people who needed a vocalist for typical gigs like weddings or recording projects. Somewhere in the midst of all of this I dabbled in some music courses in college and spent some time in San Diego attending UCSD. That's where Shiny Rhino was first formed as a battle of the bands act.
Is there anything else that has influenced your musical formation?
I also read a lot: books my instructor recommended and of course music magazines. Music has always clicked for me. I love how it can suspend your belief while at the same time sending a very real message. I guess that's why I enjoy musicals so much and I can't watch movies without soundtracks. I see music cinematically. Let's see, other facts: I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from UC Irvine and I used to work in the mortgage industry--go figure.
How did you hook up with your producers and band mates?
Well, like I said, I hung out around a music store. You do that long enough and you start to talk and mesh with people and make connections. I've known these guys for years now. I met Brian Lau first--co-producer of and one of the drummers on the album--and he introduced me to Ken and Mike. Mike Kurrle (bass and vocals) is the funkiest white guy you'll ever meet! He has so much soul and groove and he just melds with his bass. He is amazingly fluid and adaptable and he actually toned down his style for this album in order to achieve the sound we wanted. Ken Abellon played a lot of guitars on the album--did some vocals and keyboard work too--as well as producing, so he definitely influenced the sound. He has such an amazing repertoire in his head to draw from and he really knows how to layer sounds.
It' kinda funny how fate works, because before this album, we had actually lost touch with Ken for a while. A little over a year ago Brian ran into a mutual friend in a Target store and ask to be put in touch with Ken. We had been working with some other musicians on some songs I had written and it wasn't quite going in the direction we had hoped for. So, we called upon Kenny for some help. I presented the scratch tracks I had been working on and within two weeks he responded with his own scratch ideas that just blew me away. After that I knew we had to work with him. So, we just asked. He was the missing ingredient and he has helped shaped my sound tremendously.
I can come up with the initial idea, say, the kernel of the song. But Kenny, he has such an amazing ear that he can make that leap to the final structure and knows how to help me shape my songs. We were always making revisions because Kenny had so many ideas. We approached every song from different angles and every time I thought an idea was solidified and couldn't get any better, it did! It was fun experimenting with different sounds and moods.
How else have your band mates influenced your sound?
I have learned a lot about myself as a musician from working with Kenny and Brian and, because singing is a craft you have to keep nurturing, I still have so much more to learn from them. They both helped me break away from just singing 'pretty' and helped me find my own sound within a range of possibilities. I think you can hear that on the album in the sense that each song has a slightly different voice or character, if you will. They also taught me to take criticism and step outside my comfort zone, which wasn't so unnerving since I greatly respect them both.
My younger sister, Loren, also plays some drums on the album. She's really skilled technically and just a natural. This was her first collaboration on a recording project, so I was glad she got to work with us. She's totally my best friend and that, of course, made for a fun time.
What artists do you think have influenced your work?
Oh boy. I listen to sooo much music! And it's so easy with the greatest invention of all time: the iPod! It is always attached to my hip. Scroll through and you'll find Elvis, Alicia Keys, Outkast, the Beatles, Bjork, Tori Amos, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Dave Matthews, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, No Doubt, Sarah McLachlan--whew! The litany could go on forever! I try to keep an open mind and I don't like or dislike any artist's music based on his or her reputation or trends.
That said, I think I've been influenced, or rather, inspired most by Madonna and Aimee Mann. Not that I sound like them, but they both have qualities that I admire. I have to admit that I have been a die-hard Madonna fan since I first heard "Borderline" play on the radio in the bus at summer camp as a kid. I don't agree with everything she does, but she admits she's no saint and that's fine with me. Just look at all she's accomplished! I admire her tenacity, creativity and constant presence in the music world. Whether in a positive or negative light, people always talk about how she's constantly re-making herself and changing her image. The truly amazing thing to me, and the thing that I think escapes most people, is that her sound is constantly evolving too. She wraps up the whole package with a new look that promotes the new sound.
Aimee Mann is an awesome lyricist. There isn't an Aimee Mann song in existence that I don't like or can't draw something from. She is a superb storyteller. I love her imagery and cadence and phrasing. I also listen to a lot of what I consider folk-pop stuff along the lines of Jonatha Brooke and Shawn Colvin. They both write such great melodies that really grab you. I especially like Jonatha Brooke's stuff from when she was with The Story. I also dig Ani DiFranco. Lately, particularly in the car, I've been listening to a lot of indie rock like Kent, Death Cab for Cutie, and Phantom Planet.
Please tell us about the making of your album.
This album was pretty much hands-on and self-contained in the sense that Brian, Ken and I did it all. We went back and forth between Brian's home studio in Orange County and Ken's in San Diego. We all did a lot of driving. It took all of our spare time since we all had day jobs. There were many late nights and a lot of weekends where we just shut ourselves in the studio all day. But we were committed and completed the album in about ten months.
I don't think we ever worked on more than about three songs at a time and they'd all be at different stages. We'd be mixing down one to take a listen while finishing up the harmonies on another and deciding which mics to use on a third one. It sounds a bit chaotic, but it really wasn't. We all knew what we could take on and just rolled with it. Kenny and Brian were excellent at multitasking! Ken was the producer, as you know, and we did most of the tracking down in his studio. We wanted a warmer analog sound on some of the drums and electric guitars so we recorded on an eight track reel-to-reel for that. Everything else was done in Digidesign.
Both Brian and Ken have a great array of mics. Musical gear is not my forte, but I wanted to play an active role in picking out my sound. They were really open and generous about the whole thing. I tried different microphones and gave my input on which ones to use for certain songs. Personally, I did a lot of good old-fashioned practicing to prepare for recording. I worked on most of the songs with my vocal coach Karen. Not only did we work the technical side, we also broke every song down and worked on the message and what I wanted to emote.
Although the drums on this album are mostly loops, Ken created and recorded a lot of them himself, with my sister contributing. We all worked hard but there were a lot of laughs in between. None of us have huge egos and I need and welcome guidance. We all had the same goal so it was easy to give and take when needed. Everyone was generous with his or her time and really accommodating. I feel very lucky to know these musicians.
How have you been affected by the publicity of your debut album?
Well, we just finished the album at the end of September and had the CDs pressed in October, so we're really still ramping up and trying to get exposure and drum up publicity. I quit my day job specifically to devote time to promoting myself and concentrating on building a career out of this.
It's only with the support of family and friends that I am able to dedicate myself to this completely. I am very hands on and have been sending discs to various publications so I can get feedback, positive or negative. I am seeking outlets for publicity and exposure. Of course I'm eager to play live again and get my name out there, so I am in the process of putting together a gigging band, since not all the musicians on the album are necessarily available to play live.
How do you describe the style of your music?
In one word: pensive. This album is definitely not one you blast on your stereo while you're cruisin' with your windows down on a sunny day. No, this album you take into your room, close your door and listen to through headphones. It's brooding music. Though there is this common thread that runs through the album lyrically, the sound is purposely pretty eclectic.
For example, look at "Skin" or "Silver Trains" or "Dangerous Curve" or even "Where is She?" None of them are happy songs, per say, but one is more rock, one bubbly and poppy, one more of a synthesized sound and the other a piano driven ballad! All of the musicians shaped the sound. It was like we created one big drawing board when you put all of us together and we each took bits of ideas from all sides. I hope I'm branching out with my new stuff! That is the goal.
This album was really an exercise in dabbling in different sounds. We didn't use the same mics or preamps or mic placements from one song to the next. I'm aiming for a decidedly narrower focus and more consistent sound with my new material by paying particular attention to the recording process. I want to test every piece of gear in our arsenal to find THE best sound for each particular song. The lyrics will probably still be pensive or melancholy. I'm a happy person, really! It's just that when you write as a catharsis the dreary side comes out.
How do the audiences react to your live performances and on-stage persona?
Well, again I haven't been able to perform the material from this album yet. Along with trying to assemble a band, we are working on setting up some showcases at local venues in the next month. I'm totally excited about that and I'd love to give Musical Discoveries an update when all the details are in place. Of course my website will have updates as well.
How would you describe the influences to your songwriting and vocal style?
I work with what I've been given. I know what my voice is capable of and I don't necessarily try to sound like anyone. I try to 'speak' when I sing. Singing is, after all, very similar to speaking. Ken and Brian have influenced my style because they're always asking me to try new things and step just outside my comfort zone.
From what do you draw inspiration for the music and the lyrics?
My life, current events, lives of people I know and lives that I make up! It's like writing a drama.
How do you think your album has impacted the public's interest in your music?
So far, the people who have previewed it have offered both criticism and praise and as it's my debut, I welcome it all. I've just begun to create a buzz with my website. My public awaits, so to speak!
What are your interests outside of music? Is there anything you particularly fancy?
I adore cats and dogs. I wish I could rescue them all. They're so good for the soul. All they do is love. It's nice to come home to a little critter that isn't vindictive or spiteful and doesn't hold grudges or have a hidden agenda. I'm also an avid reader, always have been. But no sappy dime store novels! 'Real' books! Books that make me cry and think and question. A few favorites are The Poisonwood Bible; Cry, the beloved Country; and The Solace of Leaving Early.
I also have one guilty pleasure as far as books are concerned. I'm really fond of suspense thrillers by Dean Koontz. He's a really intelligent and poetic writer and that makes his books all the more thrilling. You can still get scared and grossed-out, but you actually connect with his characters and there's usually a dose of good vs. evil or some type of moral woven in. I really enjoyed English and literature courses throughout school and I always kept a journal. I think that's why I enjoy songwriting. It's like storytelling and journaling lends itself to that. Languages fascinate me. I would love to go back to school and study a smattering of languages and then travel.
How do you think the internet has influenced your musical career?
Gosh, the Internet. I'd be lost without it! I know as I continue building my musical career it will prove invaluable. As I said, I am hands on concerning my own promotion and the Internet offers so many avenues for exposure. And of course, my album can be purchased on my website and I've applied for distribution through iTunes. Oh, let me sing the praises of iTunes! The iTunes music store has allowed me to preview and purchase all kinds of music that I otherwise would not have known existed. There are so many genres right at your fingertips.
I want to keep learning from other artists and having access to so much music makes that easier. Even banal email was vital in making this album. Ken and I were constantly emailing mp3s back and forth to each other. We also bought some used gear to produce the album and all the research for that was done online. So, the Internet is influential on many levels.
What are your musical hopes, plans and dreams?
That's simple. I'm not a diva and I don't need to become a legend or anything like that. I would like nothing more than to touch people with my music while making a living. Of course I want to keep learning and growing with my craft. I'll be happy if I can just keep saying what I want through music. That's it.
Megan Manoram's debut album Brand New Dress (Redbook Records (USA) RB001, 2004) is a nine-track collection of alternative singer songwriter offerings certain to appeal to female vocals enthusiasts. Listeners will not only be impressed with the stellar production and tremendous vocal work but also with the superb production qualities captured in the recording.
Megan has surrounded herself with the studio work of Ken Abellon (producer, guitars, piano, bass, vocals), Mike Kurrle (bass, vocals), Brian Lau (drums) and Loren Manoram (drums). Megan and Brian also co-produced the album. The album is released on Megan's own Redbook Records with lovely artwork and the CD's silkscreen is also superb.
The individual tracks are all radio-friendly in length and have been produced with vocals atop rich arrangements, but without instruments being pushed back to let the vocals shine through. Megan's natural power and range come through without any special production effects.
The album opens with the rocking rhythms and guitar-laced arrangements of "Crazy Dreams," with Megan's powerful lead backed by her own lush harmonies. Keyboards add tremendous texture and underscore the hook of the chorus. Vocals somewhat more spoken with layer upon layer of lovely vocals, the shimmering guitar-based standout "Dangerous Curve" follows. The groove continues to develop but slows down in the bluesy sound of "Neither."
Rich keyboard- and piano-laced arrangements are featured on the brief pop-oriented track "Beautiful Creatures," another album standout. Megan's crystalline lead vocal is everso evocatively delivered; her self-backing harmonies add tremendous texture. Megan's vocals soar above the warm guitar backing in the tender ballad "Skin" and against the piano in the heartfelt "Where is She?". "Silver Trains" is a rhythmic and richly arranged upbeat track. Lush vocal harmonies work well with warm keyboard washes and notable slide guitar passages in the mid-section between the dramatic sung parts.
Megan explores the upper end of her vocal range in both lyrical parts and vocalise in the hearfelt ballad "Violet Sky" sung atop acoustic guitar and distant keyboard and electric guitar arrangements. Crisp percussion punctuates the Julie Cruise-sounding number. The album concludes with the stunning mid-tempo rock standout "In Between." Megan builds tension with her vocal performance in the verses and releases it the powerful choruses which build to a dramatic conclusion. Guitar solos add further drama to the track.
Brand New Dress is a completely stunning--albeit somewhat short--debut album by an exciting new artist. Vocal work and instrumental arrangements perfectly suit the range of material on the recording and production quality is equally superb. We can certainly expect a lot from Megan Manoram in the future. The album is available from the artist's website now.
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