’Brand New Day’ for Donna Lewis

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 28, 2014

Anybody who was around in 1996 couldn't escape the infectious fun of "I Love You Always Forever", the massive pop/dance hit by Donna Lewis. It stayed at #2 for nine weeks (kept out of the top spot by "Macarena") and on the chart for over forty weeks. A follow-up, "Without Love," just missed the Top Forty (#41). In 1997, she had an Adult Contemporary hit with her duet with Richard Marx called"At the Beginning" (from the film "Anastasia"). Then in 1998, she hit #1 on the Dance chart with "Love Him." Still, she never quite reached the popularity she did with that first song.

On Monday nights, April 28-May 26, Lewis is back to preview her new recording, "Brand New Day," in a residency at downtown Zinc Bar.

Recently, EDGE caught up with the delightful Welsh singer/songwriter to chat about her pop music, both past and future.

A nice thing

EDGE: Your famous song "I Love You Always Forever" was #2 for nine weeks! I have to ask you, was that both thrilling and frustrating at the same time?

Donna Lewis: [Laughs] Yeah! It was a thrill. At the time, everything went so fast. We hadn't done a video and it was on the charts at about #31 and we said, 'We'd better get a video done.' It moved so quickly, it kind of took us by surprise. But it was so thrilling. One minute, nobody knows you and then all of a sudden you have a long-lasting #2 on the Billboard chart. It was amazing.

EDGE: You also wrote it, which surprised me.

Donna Lewis: [Laughs] Yes! Not a lot of people know that and I still get asked that question. When I say I wrote it, they say, 'Really?' Like they are so surprised! As for being frustrated, do you mean because we were behind 'Macarena' for so long?

EDGE: Yes, to be #2 for so long and not quite #1.

Donna Lewis: I know, but on a lot of the radio charts like Airplay it was #1. It was a nice thing!

The Wales connection

EDGE: You were so young at the time. Did you feel ready for the success?

Donna Lewis: Well, I actually wasn't that young. I was in my late twenties. The good thing was that because I was kind of a mature artist and had been a professional singer for so many years, I was able to take it in my stride. It didn't really phase me. I wasn't a teenager not knowing anything.

EDGE: Last year, I interviewed Debby Boone and she said that when your first hit is that huge, it's hard to follow it up. Do you agree?

Donna Lewis: People would ask me, 'How are you going to follow up "I Love You Always Forever"? I felt very confident that we had a great record and we thought 'Without Love' was a strong second single. In hindsight, maybe we should have waited a little longer because the first song was still so present on the radio. We probably could have waited many more months before coming out with another single. It is really hard. Even when you feel, as a writer, that you have other songs that are probably better . . . I didn't worry about it, I just went with the flow. It was just one of those things.

EDGE: What is it about Wales that produces such storytellers and poets and singers? I mean, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones . . .

Donna Lewis: I know, and Anthony Hopkins. Growing up in school, we were very into the arts big-time. Poetry, music. Wales has always had incredible choirs. We are just this little country and we love the arts. Some amazing people have come out of Wales. [Laughs] I wouldn't put myself alongside some of them! It's the way I grew up. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the gray days that make us want to write.

Singing in piano bars

EDGE: What made you settle in Woodstock?

Donna Lewis: We first came up here when we went over to New York to do a couple of showcases, which didn't go that great. We had some friends there and we'd go up for weekends and really enjoyed it. Then when the record came out, we were living in the city. But there came a point when we just wanted to get out of the city -- just before "I Love You Always Forever" exploded. When things got crazy, it was a great place to recharge my batteries. It's a great place to relax.

EDGE: We have something in common. We spent our formative years working in piano bars.

Donna Lewis: [Squeals] You did too?

EDGE: Yes, I was a singing bartender at a great place called Rose's Turn, which closed a few years ago.

Donna Lewis: Wow!

EDGE: I know what that experience was like, but what did that experience do for you?

Donna Lewis: I was doing a little piano bar job in Warwick, in England, and then I got an agent and he got me piano bar jobs in Scandinavia. First Gothenburg, and then Stockholm. What was good for me is that you have to learn so much material. As you know, it was about five hours a night, six nights a week. The beauty of that was that I could throw in a couple of my own tunes and it really taught me how to develop my own sound.

Before that, I was doing a lot of cover bands, and you end up sounding a lot like the original artists. But in the piano bars, I could really take each song and make it my own, do my own thing with it. I really developed my voice. And I learned how to look after it, because with five hours a night, you really have to pace yourself. It was a big learning experience for me. When I came back to Birmingham to my home studio, after doing that for a couple of years, that's when I started writing many of the songs that ended up on that first record. I had developed my sound. But there were plenty of days in piano bars where I thought, 'Oh, what the hell am I doing here?'

Testing her chops

EDGE: [Laughs] Yes, I remember that well!

Donna Lewis: Remember? Sometimes in London I'd be in a place with five people and it would be so depressing. As long as a couple of people were into you it was okay.

EDGE: I was surprised to hear that you had put out a piano/vocal album. That really tests your chops as a singer.

Donna Lewis: Yeah! It's what I wanted to do. I put it out on my website originally. I felt the time was right to make it very stark, just me and a piano. That's how I started. It was called "Be Still."

EDGE: I looked at the documentary that Martin sent me about the making of the new album. I was really taken with the variety of cover songs you're doing: Gnarls Barkley, Bacharach, Jobim, and a rare David Bowie song, just to name a few. How did you choose the songs?

Donna Lewis: When we decided to do this record, David Torn, my producer and great friend, and I spent a lot of time discussing songs. We both made lists of songs we loved. Some we originally chose were "How Can I Be Sure'" by the Rascals or "I'm Not in Love" by 10cc. We kept whittling them down. David was so brilliant. He told me I had to listen to this David Bowie song, "Bring Me the Head of the Disco King." I'm a Bowie fan but I didn't know that song. As soon as I heard it, I thought it was great. Same with 'Crazy.' I'd only heard the single, but not the slowed down version. So David came up with some real gems. They were carefully chosen. They had to be great, great songs. We wanted to do them in a different kind of way. When we started making the record, I didn't want to be seen as, 'Oh she's been out for a while and now she's coming back, and like everybody else she's going to do a covers album or standards.' We really spent time picking the songs.

EDGE: But you do have some originals on there also. And you're doing kind of a jazzy remake of "I Love You Always Forever" also.

Donna Lewis: Yeah. It's important that I have a couple of my own songs on there. It's interesting because we kind of finished the record, so to speak, and we were talking with someone in Japan that heard the record and he suggested doing a cover of "I Love You Always Forever." At first I thought, 'I don't want to do that.' I love it, but why would we want it on this record again. But when we thought about it, we realized we were doing a lot of covers, so why not do a cover of my own song. To try and do it justice -- the song is such a charming little song -- and to figure out what we were going to do with it. But we have a cool, dark, stripped down version, which I think is nice.

At the Zinc Bar

EDGE: When I saw that you were going to be doing a residency at Zinc Bar, I thought to myself, 'Wow, she is a real musician because only real musicians even know about Zinc Bar!'

Donna Lewis: [Laughs] Nice! I had never actually been there but I was talking with Robby Dupree, who is a really good friend of mine. We were talking about how before we release the record we need to perform the songs, try them out. He suggested getting a residency in one of the cool clubs in New York City. We got in touch with Alex, the club owner, and he was into it. I'm really excited. It's a great club. As you said, it's a real musicians' club.

EDGE: It's a special place.

Donna Lewis: It's a great location, in the heart of Greenwich Village. We're building it up, so we thought we'd do an early show and have fun with it.

EDGE: I'm loving that you're going in this direction, which may be kind of surprising to those who know you as a pop singer. Who were your influences?

Donna Lewis: Growing up, there was a lot of jazz playing in my house. My father played jazz piano and guitar. Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra. I grew up listening to those artists, and then when I started writing my own songs, as a teenager, I was into Elton John, David Bowie. Back then, I never wanted to play them for anybody. Then I started to listen to Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush. There's a Scottish band called The Blue Nile that has such atmosphere in their songs. I was into the singer/songwriters.

EDGE: You know, some people today think Ellie Goulding sounds like you.

Donna Lewis: Two years ago, somebody said that to me. I think she's a great artist. Maybe because of the breathy voice? That's a compliment. She's very talented and a huge electronica artist today. It would be nice if I inspired some people like that!

EDGE: I think you still will! I think you are going to surprise a lot of people with this show and record. When does the album officially come out?

Donna Lewis: No firm date yet. We're talking with a label. I'm desperate for it to come out, but we want to do it right. Definitely this year, maybe this summer. I'll let you know. The most exciting thing for me with this record is that we cut it live. It was nice to step away from the studio where we would do a lot of layering of voices and instruments. My vocals are so stripped down and bare and, of course, that's what we'll be doing at the show. It's a new kind of avenue to go down. The more people that come to the show, the better.

EDGE: Well, I will be getting the word out. I can't wait to see the show.

Donna Lewis: Thank you so much. Say hello and we'll have a drink afterwards.

Donna Lewis and her band will be playing at Zinc Bar, 82 West 3rd Street, Mondays at 8:00 pm, April 28-May 26. Go to www.zincbar.com for more details.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).