Shall We Begin?: Wendy & Lisa Speak on Their Own Musical Revolution
by Miles Marshall Lewis
In the late ’80s era of women in pop-rock (think the Bangles, Tina Turner, Heart, Joan Jett), guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman signed with Columbia Records to release their first solo music outside of Prince & the Revolution. A trio of major label releases—Wendy & Lisa (1987), Fruit at the Bottom (1989) and Eroica (1990)—went commercially unnoticed, despite the splendor of gems like “The Life,” “I Think It Was December,” “Don’t Try to Tell Me” and more. Tiffany and Debbie Gibson ruled supreme while albums from Prince’s most famous musical muses (who shared the cover of Rolling Stone with him in 1986) went woefully unknown outside the gates of purple famdom.
Queer, feminist icons of pop music from an era when neither of those things was highly celebrated, Wendy & Lisa’s story hardly ended there. Since their bandleader passed away in 2016, they’ve appeared on tour with the Revolution, in magazine interviews and on podcasts speaking about posthumous releases like this month’s Prince & the Revolution: Live box set. But they’re also Emmy-winning composers who’ve scored for television (i.e., Heroes, Nurse Jackie, Crossing Jordan), dropping another fam-favorite album, Girl Bros. (1998), and its follow-up, 2008’s White Flags of Winter Chimneys. The ladies of the Revolution speak with soulhead about their solo career, record label shenanigans, Joni Mitchell and, of course, the late, great Prince Rogers Nelson.
Miles Marshall Lewis: Recording Wendy & Lisa and Fruit at the Bottom, did you miss Prince’s presence?
Lisa Coleman: Definitely. He still to this day lives in our heads when we play music. We imagine what he would like or how he would respond to what we were playing. Even with our composing for film and TV, he came to the studio a couple of times, saw some cues we were doing and thought they were really great. He was like, “Wow, you make that guy look so cool.” He was really supportive. He definitely was like the elephant in the room. We didn’t want to make [our albums] like another Prince 2.0. That wasn’t our intention at all. And in fact, that probably hurt us a little bit. But it was Prince 2.0 emotionally, because it was how we were growing and what we felt like the next step for us was, how we thought he might respond to it and all that kind of stuff.
Miles Marshall Lewis: When did you two start coming around Paisley Park again after Prince disbanded the Revolution?
Wendy Melvoin: The summer of ’87. We went back to be with him. He extended the olive branch and we took it and we kind of mended. A silent mend with each other. It’s a sad thing.
Miles Marshall Lewis: “Waterfall,” peaked at #56. But it sounds stronger than Squeeze’s “Hourglass,” Wa Wa Nee’s “Sugar Free” and a lot more that charted higher that month. What forces failed “Waterfall”?
Wendy Melvoin: Jesus. Y’know, it’s a really fair question and I think Lisa and I spent a long time ruminating and handwringing about it. They didn’t know ultimately where to place us. Back in those days, the promotion [departments] of these record labels would have to figure out where to place you on radio, where to put you in the record bins. And they didn’t know whether Lisa and I were R&B, pop or alternative. I think we were all of those things. So, I think they got really frustrated.
And Lisa and I really don’t chase the pop star thing very well. We’re not good at that. That’s not where we’re strong. We’re kind of geeky musicians. And so that kind of fell by the wayside. Prince took care of all that stuff for us. By the time Lisa and I were on our own, we were back to being music eggheads. Well, we were then too. But I think they lost the plot with us. The labels just lost the plot.
Lisa Coleman: Yeah. “Waterfall” didn’t really sound like a Prince song, so people were confused by it.
Miles Marshall Lewis: “Waterfall” was beloved. You were robbed.
Wendy Melvoin: We agree! I thought it was a smash. If I had been in any of those scenes where you pay a promotion guy a certain amount of money to get your record spun, I don’t know, maybe I woulda done it. But it wasn’t even an option offered to us. That was the story of our life throughout our entire [solo] career.
Miles Marshall Lewis: Tell us about the unreleased Wendy & Lisa album produced by the legendary Trevor Horn.
Lisa Coleman: It started actually because we met Seal at a basketball game here in Los Angeles. We went to a Clippers game. And Seal was there and—
Wendy Melvoin: He came up to us and gave us a cassette of his single [“Crazy”]. We went back to the house and listened to it and said, “Holy shit! That’s a smash.” That’s how we met Trevor. They were still making the record and they asked Lisa and I to come in and play on some tracks. A relationship started with Trevor, and we had been fans since his record that he did with Stephen Lipson for Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm. It’s like one of our all-time favorite records ever made. We thought that hooking up with Trevor, we would get another beautiful project out of the combination of the three of us working together. Especially since we had such a great relationship on the Seal project. We thought that that would transfer over to our projects.
For me, it was a little bit more difficult to listen to Prince (post-Revolution).Lisa Coleman
We struck up a relationship and Trevor said, “I would love to do your record. But I’d prefer you guys to be on my label, ZTT.” And we said, “Well, we’re signed with Virgin.” He goes, “Well, if you can get out of your deal with Virgin, then I’d be happy to do the Wendy & Lisa record when it was on my label,” which was a subsidiary of Sire.
We recorded a record that took about a year and a half, two years. And the relationship just sort of fell apart. He was way too busy and overextended. The songs are really great but there are so many ideas in these individual pieces of music. Again, like I said earlier, it kind of lost the plot.
Lisa Coleman: Creatively, it was so different than the way that we are used to working. With Prince, you do things so quickly and you do things one time and that’s the take and you move on to the next thing. With Trevor, he’d like to re-record everything over and over again. Faster tempo, slower tempo, different key, different section, change the verse, make the chorus longer. And so our songs turned into these Frankenstein monsters. The whole relationship fell apart. The timing was bad, the creativity was all over the place. There are bootlegs of the album out there and there are all these different versions of songs.
Miles Marshall Lewis: How did your reunion with Prince on 2007’s Planet Earth come about?
Wendy Melvoin: Prince called and said, “I’ve got some songs. You wanna collaborate?” And we were just, “Yeah, sure!” And so, as we had done in the past, he sent us some stuff and said, “Do some stuff.”
Miles Marshall Lewis: What’s your favorite post-Revolution Prince album?
Lisa Coleman: For me, it was a little bit more difficult to listen to Prince [post-Revolution]. I felt a little almost like it was none of my business in a way. I felt so removed from it, like looking at another family’s photo album. It’s interesting and some of them are really beautiful. But I had nothing to do with it and it was hard for me emotionally. I wanted the connection I once had, and it wasn’t there. Like, “What do I do now? Am I just gonna be a fan and listen to him every once in a while? Put his record on at a party or something?” [laughter] It just felt so weird! So, I kinda clocked out.
Miles Marshall Lewis: Could you take me through your relationship with Columbia Records, and then Virgin?
Wendy Melvoin: Well, Columbia only had us for the American territories. When Columbia kind of dropped the ball on us on our first record, Virgin was still very excited about us. They had all the U.K. and Europe territories, the rest of the world. Virgin said, “We’d like to represent you guys worldwide.” So, Columbia sort of let us go. Well, actually, they dropped us. Me and Lisa and Neil Diamond in the trades, that’s how we found out we got dropped. [laughter] But there’s no hard feelings. It was the times, you know? They just dropped the ball on us and it just happened. But we went to Virgin worldwide. Then right after that, they dropped us.
Miles Marshall Lewis: Did you feel that was a better situation, with Virgin releasing your third album, Eroica?
Wendy Melvoin: Yeah. We had a much better relationship with the U.K. team, and at that time it was Jeff Ayeroff here in the United States with his partner, Jordan Harris. Jeff and Jordan were the heads of Virgin at the time, and we really loved them. So yeah, it was a much better relationship.
Miles Marshall Lewis: Why did you choose the album title Eroica?
Wendy Melvoin: Because it’s a beautiful word, and its translation: heroic. It’s just beautiful and Lisa and I felt as if we had obstacles in front of us that we had to overcome to be who we are and to be as free as we are and to express ourselves musically. And that record really went into a deeper place for us musically and we felt that way. It’s an iconic-looking word. That’s my reasoning.
Miles Marshall Lewis: What was it like working with Joni Mitchell on 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm?
Wendy Melvoin: Me and Lisa have a thing with each other where I insistently say, “I love her more” and then she says, “No, I love her more,” and then I say, “No, you don’t. I love her more.” [laughter] So how was it for us to work with Joni? It was a dream come true. And we’ve continued this relationship with her, even up to this past month. We just did a big tribute to her with the Grammy Foundation and Music Cares. It was a dream come true. And she’s an incredible human being. I’ll never forget the session: singing for her and her being in the control room watching me and Lisa sing our parts. It was just beautiful. I remember we were late for the session. We did get in trouble.
Lisa Coleman: Yeah. She thought we didn’t take her seriously. It was so weird. I kind of blanked it out because it was JONI MITCHELL. She was mad at us for a minute there.
Miles Marshall Lewis: According to Questlove, the Prince Estate verified there was a lot of “Baby I’m a Star” edited out of Prince & the Revolution: Live because of VHS space limitations. Can you tell there’s a section missing?
Lisa Coleman: No. It’s all a blur. [laughter]
Miles Marshall Lewis: Is there a memoir coming from you guys to follow the books from Brown Mark, Morris Day, Sheila E., etc.?
Wendy Melvoin: You know, Lisa and I have talked about that. We just celebrated 40 years as Wendy & Lisa, and our history together is incredible in that we’ve still gone strong. We talked about doing something. We just haven’t gotten to it. I think we should probably pay a little bit more attention to that, because we’re getting up in our beautiful ages and we wanna make sure that we pass on something to our children.
Miles Marshall Lewis: According to research from writer Dan Charnas in Dilla Time, the handclaps recorded for Prince’s beloved Linn Drum were recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Did you know?
Wendy Melvoin: I’ve heard rumblings of that, I just didn’t know if it was actually facts or not. That’s funny! I should actually ask. I know [Heartbreakers keyboardist] Benmont, so I could call him and ask him if he recalls that. That’d be interesting.
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.