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ROCKWIRED INTERVIEWS OPPERA

STAND BY YOUR MAN
MARTIKA AND MICHAEL MOZART OF OPPERA
TALK WITH ROCKWIRED
ABOUT LOVE, THEIR NEW CD, AND HIJINX IN THE STUDIO
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WRITTEN BY BRIAN LUSH

Back in 1989, MARTIKA was the pop sensation of the moment. But what a moment it was. She was a Madonna-styled songstress with serviceable songwriting chops. The proof of this was in her number one single TOY SOLDIERS. (A song that is catching a second wind thanks to Ol’ MARSHALL MATHERS) The song also proved that she was no mere MADGE wannabe. MARTIKA had just as many hooks as the MATERIAL GIRL. She followed up her 1989 debut MARTIKA with MARTIKA’S KITCHEN in 1991. If there is such a thing as a sophomore slump, this was it. Despite songwriting contributions and production credits by PRINCE, the album disappeared but not before scoring a minor hit with LOVE (THY WILL BE DONE). Afterwards, MARTIKA faded from the music scene only to make sporadic appearances in television shows such as WISEGUY and NEW YORK UNDERCOVER.

Now, MARTIKA is one half of the rock duo OPPERA with her husband guitarist/producer MICHAEL MOZART. OPPERA is one of those great rock n roll love stories in the tradition of DEBBIE HARRY and CHRIS STEIN or PAT BENATAR and NEIL GIRALDO. It is a relationship filled with sparks both creative and romantic as well as conflicting work ethics and diva tantrums (all in fun of course) and yes; you get a sense of that in their music.

One can’t accuse OPPERA of being subtle. They burst onto the scene in 2004 with their debut CD, VIOLINCE. On the cover, MARTIKA is sporting a black leather bodice and fishnets and is strapped to a dart wheel as “The love of my entire existence” MICHAEL MOZART brandishes a knife.

In a pop climate where an artist makes a CD every 2 to 3 years, OPPERA have broken with tradition and released their self titled sophomore release just one year after VIOLINCE. The CD is a catalogue of anger, disappointment, loss and hope, set to complex time signatures and slick power chords. MARTIKA’s vocals soar through the material with a delivery that combines GWEN STEFANI with PAT BENATAR’s signature purr. The material itself (The menacing rockers, I’M IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE ELSE & SO, The flamenco-tinged RELEASE ME and nonsensically optimistic NO ESCAPE) brings to mind the brash, 80’s styled hard line sexual politics of that other great duo EURYTHMICS.

I spoke with the duo over the phone and had a nice little chat. This is how it went down.

What’s changed since you released VIOLINCE back in 2004?
MICHAEL:
We’re a little less violent

MARTIKA: And we’re wearing more clothes these days

MICHAEL: More guitar-driven

MARTIKA: Right. This one shows more of our rock side

Why so quickly? It’s rare that any artist releases a new recording after a year. Too many ideas?
MICHAEL:
First, way too many ideas. Second, VIOLINCE was supposed to be an internet release that would let everyone know that MARTIKA was back after a long hiatus. We always planned on having a very eclectic first CD come out where we could explore a bunch of different styles and directions and not get locked into one specific format. Then, during the course of recording VIOLINCE, we found ourselves working on songs for the current CD. A boxed set for a new artist is crazy so we dropped VIOLINCE first. Our label (DUNDA CHIEF RECORDS) is approaching this whole OPPERA thing as a grass roots project rather than spending loads and loads of money, just to throw MARTIKA back out there with this whole other style. That doesn’t seem to work when artists do that especially after they’ve had a huge career. It comes across better and it’s a lot more real when it comes from the heart, when you’re out in the trenches and working the clubs and paving the road with a new act. The audience can see the emotion and know that it’s not this ‘prefabricated’ thing. People don’t want promotions people shoving things down their throat. They want something that comes from the heart.

MARTIKA, this question goes to you specifically. What’s it like being in a duo after having established yourself as a solo performer back in 1989. Is it easier or harder?
MARTIKA:
It’s easier. I don’t have to go it alone. The problem with fame is that it makes you feel isolated and lonely. It kind of puts you in a bubble and now I’m happy to be in that bubble with MICHAEL.

Are you saying that 1989 was a lonely year?
MARTIKA:
It was. I remember traveling around the world in these incredibly lovely suites and sitting there with one of my girlfriends and going “Man! What now?” Now I’ve got the love of my entire existence with me all the time and it’s easier.
When I was young and extremely driven and thought I was “all that”, I thought I could handle it alone but after a while, I got uncomfortable with all of the attention. It was attention that I felt wasn’t deserved so I kind of went through my insecure era for an entire decade. Now it’s easier for me to fight for MICHAEL and his musicality and talent. He’s a special and gifted artist that I think everyone in the world needs to hear and experience. It gives me more force and fire to be out there working hard and fighting for his music to be heard and I feel so honored that he would include me or- (MICHAEL INTERRUPTS)

MICHAEL: Stop it! Stop it!

MARTIKA: -think that I would be deserving to be in a duo with him.

 

The two of you just finished touring with PAT BENATAR and NEIL GIRALDO. What was that like?
MICHAEL: That was incredible! They are the sweetest people.

MARTIKA: I remember standing backstage at many shows after our set and looking at MICHAEL  while PAT and NEIL were performing and thinking “how surreal is this?” and I couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to have the chance to open for them.

MICHAEL: PAT and NEIL own the management company (BEL CHIASSO ENTERTAINMENT) with JOHN MALTA who is our manager, so it was a very cool vibe throughout the tour and people would say that we were like a new version of PAT and NEIL because of the husband being a guitar player and the wife being the voice and standing at 5’2”.


Explain if it’s explainable the creative process to me?
MICHAEL:
All the work is done at my own studio. 

MARTIKA: No one has touched the music but MICHAEL, literally. Every instrument and every knob that’s turned from beginning to end is all MICHAEL except for the one vocal track that I’m on. The music is all born in his head. This OPPERA album, “the fist” as we call it, is one where I didn’t write anything. MICHAEL had it completely realized and laid it down quickly. Basically, he’d say “Come and sing” and he’d teach me the songs. Every aspect of the CD is MICHAEL'S except the mastering and that’s only because he doesn’t have the software for it. Of all the things not to have!

How did OPPERA begin? How did your life together begin?
MICHAEL: South of France. MILES COPELAND’s (Founder of I.R.S. RECORDS) Castle. I was working with BARENAKED LADIES and CAROLE KING and working on some recording for this Songwriters Summit that MILES puts on every year. I was there for the first week and MARTIKA was supposed to be there for the second week and I didn’t know who that was. At the end of the first week MILES announced “AND NEXT WEEK MARTIKA!!!” It never registered that it was the girl who did TOY SOLDIERS. I just assumed that it was some Spanish artist. Boo, what was the date?

MARTIKA: May 17, 2001, 10:37pm

MICHAEL: It was raining out and she walked in soaking wet and angry that she had to wait 3 hours for someone to pick her up from the rail station. She came in the door, we looked at each other and fell in love instantly and have been inseparable ever since.

MARTIKA: Four days into the summit we were walking around the castle grounds, planning our wedding.

What are the challenges of being a musical partnership as well as a romantic one?
MARTIKA:
It’s an all-consuming career. The only time we argue is over too much work. MICHAEL is a workaholic and I am a professional slacker. I’m always the one going “Let’s take a break” or “Stop bossing me around”. But when I do have ideas he’s always gracious enough to listen to them. If he doesn’t like something he’ll just say no and then I’m like “What do you mean no?” I’m more of a by-feel kind of artist. I’m either inspired or I’m not. By no means am I a prolific writer. By the time I’ve got one verse written down, Michaels got 3 CD’s written.

What is OPPERA’s goal musically? What do you want the audience member and the listener to walk away with?
MARTIKA & MICHAEL:
Musicality

MICHAEL: It’s hard to find that combination of an unbelievable singer, great musicians and great songs. A great song is a true song. It can be sung in acapella, it can be done with a full band, played on a piano or an acoustic guitar and it would still resonate.

Who is your touring band?
MARTIKA:
We only bring a drummer with us

You’re kidding me.
MARTIKA: No. Michael has really long fingers and a lot of gear.

MICHAEL: And a lot of caffeine

Sounds like early EURYTHMICS.
MARTIKA:
Really?

Yeah. DAVID A. STEWART used to have his guitar suspended from the ceiling, a keyboard at his side and backing tapes.
MARTIKA:
Cool! I love EURYTHMICS.

MICHAEL: MILES COPELAND always used to say that. He always introduced us as the new EURYTHMICS.

MICHAEL, this question goes out to you. You’ve been a session player and/or a music director for the likes of STEVEN TYLER (Aerosmith) and LENNY KRAVITZ.  How does the OPPERA experience compare?
MICHAEL:
It’s always an honor working with artists with such big names, but it always seemed like I had less of a voice and at the end of the day it was their project and not mine. With OPPERA, I finally have a project that I can put my own voice to.

What got you into music MICHAEL? Is it genetic, family encouragement or something you came into all your own.
MICHAEL:
It would be genetic.  

And MARTIKA, I remember you from KIDS INCORPORATED way back in 1984. It looked like you had a little acting in your blood. Was music always your goal or did you want to try to juggle both?
MARTIKA: At first, I wanted to do both but music was always my first love. I liked acting but after a while, a script and words on a page weren’t enough for me. I needed to hear the music. Being a kid coming up in show business, there were a lot of kids who could act but there weren’t a lot of kids who could sing and dance. I guess you could say that I was a triple threat and when I started writing songs I guess I became a quadruple threat. Eventually, I found my way through music and acting has always taken a backseat.

Parental Encouragement? 
MARTIKA: Definitely. My mother always had dreams of becoming a performer but her father just wouldn’t allow it. I kind of have recollections of being in the womb and hearing my mom’s voice saying (in a fortune teller’s voice) “You are going to be in show business.” So yeah, my mom encouraged me. She tried to get my brothers into acting and singing but I guess they weren’t as determined as I was.

MICHAEL: Could’ve been THE OSMONDS.

MARTIKA: I guess being the only girl, looking like my mom and being her sort of ‘mini-me’, I guess there was no way of getting away from being a performer. By the time I was 2 years old, I knew what I was going to do and I was on my way to doing it.

EMINEM recently sampled TOY SOLDIERS. Any thoughts?
MARTIKA: Thank you Eminem.  When you see him can you tell him for me? It’s just the greatest compliment. Of all the songs out there that he could’ve picked, he chose mine. It obviously affected him and he was such a young cat when that song came out. That fact that it stayed with him all these years is just really cool.

In KIDS INCORPORATED, one of your co-stars was STACEY FERGUSON who is now FERGIE with BLACK EYED PEAS. Any shout outs?
MARTIKA: That’s my girl. I love her. I knew when she was just eight years old that she was gonna be something. I remember when we were filming the pilot for KIDS INCORPORATED, they had her sing the song GLORIA (the 1981 LAURA BRANIGAN hit) and she didn’t have her two front teeth so they put this thing in called a flipper to fill in the space. But the producers thought she was so cute without it that they decided to do the take without the flipper.  But as she sang the song, I wondered how this big soulful voice could come out of this tiny little blonde kid and then I thought  She’s Got It!”. I always knew she’d be a big star and I’m glad that she’s found the right vehicle. I’m so proud of her and it’s good to see that she’s achieving all of the fame recognition and success that she deserves.

Are there any stories on the making of your latest CD? Any drama or was it all smooth sailing?
MARTIKA: We oughta have our own reality show the next time we do an album. It’s never smooth sailing. I’m a drama queen and MICHAEL is such a perfectionist. I don’t take direction very well at all. I’m just impossible. One person that I worked with before who shall remain nameless remembers me throwing things around in the studio but I don’t remember that. And I’d never do anything like that to MICHAEL. For me, it’s hard to get into a song.  I remember when we worked on the song RELEASE ME. Of all the songs to start the album with! I’m supposed to be singing this song for someone who has passed on and it took two hours to find the perspective that I needed in order to sing the song and I came at it with the perspective of losing Michael and the whole thing just drove me to tears. On top of that it’s got this real complex time signature and math is my worst subject. I’m still just beginning to understand how to count down that song. It was so frustrating that we almost threw in the towel. It wasn’t fun.

But sometimes it was. When we were recording SO, I had visions while I was singing it and before I knew it, I found myself channeling PAT BENATAR and I could feel her presence in the studio. This was before we knew her. When I was growing up, I loved her so much

And back in the KIDS INCORPORATED days you even dressed like her.
MARTIKA:
Yeah. When I first met PAT, I told her that when I auditioned for KIDS INCORPORATED, I sang one of her songs. She was a huge influence. Doing a song like SO was the first time I had ever done a song that rocked that hard or was so PAT BENATAR-ESQUE. When the song was finished MICHAEL and I jumped up and down and said “We’ve got our hit single. We called everyone up and went “You gotta listen to this.Singing is a lot like being an actor. You’ve got to get inside the songs perspective. It’s a painful process because you’ve got to bring up genuine emotion.

Would you say that recording with OPPERA is a more rewarding experience than recording as a solo artist?
MARTIKA:
[Pause] The stuff I’ve recorded with OPPERA is better that anything I could’ve done on my own. I remember when my albums [MARTIKA 1988 and MARTIKA’s KITCHEN 1991] were finished, I never listened to them much. There were only so many textures I could’ve explored on my own. The OPPERA CD’s are my favorite. I like their musicality and their sophistication. I have to say the experience is beyond rewarding. I’d still listen to OPPERA even if I wasn’t involved in it.

What are you listening to these days?
MARTIKA: We both listen to classical music. It’s still kind of new to me
MICHAEL: On the road we listen to a lot of ETTA JAMES, SAM COOKE and NAT KING COLE.
MARTIKA: And MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE. That album is so cool

 Martika, it sounds like you’ve found your niche.
MARTIKA:
Yeah. Wherever MICHAEL goes, I shall follow.

Any future plans?
MARTIKA:
We’re getting back on the road soon. The shows will get more stunning both musically and visually. And we’ll be doing more CD’s. We’ll probably drop one every year. 

Sounds Ambitious.
MICHAEL: Hey, THE BEATLES did it…. seven years in a row.