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Introducing: Orianthi
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Introducing: Orianthi 

October 30, 2009

Orianthi plays through the pain
The Australian guitarist was supposed to have strutted onstage with Michael Jackson this fall. Now she’s releasing a solo album and trying to move forward.


ECHOES: Orianthi’s “Believe” CD was to be released during a break in the tour, but now coincides with the opening of the Jackson film “This Is It.” (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / October 20, 2009)

The woman with the electric guitar has played this song before. It’s a Michael Jackson ballad, and the young guitarist is named Orianthi, who leans back now to unfurl a solo of smoldering melody before stepping up to the microphone to sing some torrid lyrics: “Love is a feeling / give it when I want it / ’cause I’m on fire / quench my desire. . . .”

Orianthi’s eyes are closed beneath her blond bangs as she wails “Give In to Me” in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, her four-piece rock band swaying behind her. The 1991 song (co-authored by Bill Bottrell) appeared on Jackson’s 1991 album “Dangerous” and was one of at least 20 that the guitarist spent two months rehearsing with Jackson as a member of his band for a series of planned “This Is It” concerts in London.

She had been drafted to re-create signature guitar parts originated by the likes of Slash and Eddie Van Halen, to stand beside Jackson onstage at the O2 Arena and deliver real playing ability through 50 sold-out nights. Then, on June 25, just weeks before opening night, Jackson was dead of heart failure.

Soon, footage of the striking 24-year-old guitarist and Jackson dramatically playing off each other in a windblown rehearsal at Staples Center was seen across the hungry media-sphere.

“It was a huge shock for all of us. Our hearts just sank,” Orianthi said of getting the news at Staples, where the band already had gathered for another full day of rehearsals. “It felt like he hadn’t actually gone. It was too much of a shock. He was with us the night before and he seemed so full of energy.”

The guitarist (full name: Orianthi Panagaris) expected to be well into the “This Is It” concerts by now, while preparing to release her debut solo album, “Believe,” which hit retailers this week.

She began writing and recording the album for Geffen Records after arriving in Los Angeles from Adelaide, Australia, three years ago. Its release was supposed to happen during a break in the O2 schedule, but now coincides with the theatrical opening of the posthumous “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” documentary, drawn from 120 hours of rehearsal footage.

“He was a big kid who wanted to have fun, but he was so serious about his music,” Orianthi said. “He was a perfectionist and wanted to make sure it came across really well for his fans. He wanted to put on the ultimate show for them.”

She auditioned for Jackson in late April on a Burbank soundstage. “I was so nervous and he was staring right at me,” she said, still excited by the memory. “Afterwards, he was really happy and he grabbed my arm. We started walking up and down the stage area, and he asked me if I could play the solo while walking with a real fast pace with him.”

Orianthi got the job — as guitarist and sometime vocalist — and joined a band of veteran R&B and pop players, picking up funky instrumental bits she hadn’t known before. Jackson and director Kenny Ortega also had her stretch beyond the recorded songs, she says.

“They actually wanted me to add my own flavor to it,” Orianthi said. “So I added some extra stuff . . . I use my tremolo bar a lot, so I incorporated that. It’s hard to solo when you’re walking around, especially when you’re in Michael Jackson’s presence. There are easier things in life to do.”

Some of what she brought to the mix also can be heard on “Believe,” an album of bright pop tunes with flashes of virtuoso rock guitar. It opens with the tough commercial pop of “According to You,” the album’s first single and a song of youthful self-worth brought to her by producer Howard Benson.

She wrote or co-wrote most of the tracks, mingling fiery riffs with breathless pop hooks to land somewhere near Avril Lavigne and Paramore (minus any shades of punk).

“I aim to inspire a bunch of female guitar players, to get out there and take it seriously and never give up,” Orianthi said. “I’ve seen some female players, and they get up there and play an A chord and leave . . . and it’s not a good representation. You can take it seriously and love it as much as a guy loves it, not just to get up there and pose.”

Growing up in South Australia, she first picked up her father’s acoustic guitar when she was 6. She studied classical guitar initially, then became obsessed with the electric at 11 after seeing Carlos Santana perform, and memorized as many of his solos as she could from VHS tapes. Her first professional gig came when she was a 15-year-old rock prodigy, playing to a backing tape as the opening act for guitarist Steve Vai.

In 2003, Santana brought her onstage for 40 minutes in front of her hometown crowd. Both veteran guitarists have remained supporters, and the new album includes the instrumental “Highly Strung,” as Orianthi trades riffs and leads with Vai in a quick, archetypal duel to satisfy the most obsessive guitar-head.

In recent years, she’s jammed with Prince at his house and soloed on “Last Name” with Carrie Underwood on the Grammy Awards in February, when Orianthi was first spotted by Jackson’s team. She was found through her MySpace page.

The final song recorded for “Believe” was a last-minute addition, inspired by the deaths of Jackson and her friend and collaborator, drummer Dianne Grainger, 24. On “God Only Knows,” she sings over layers of guitar: “I can’t seem to find my way out of this low / It just don’t seem right / didn’t have a chance to say goodbye.”

“My outlook on life is to keep looking up,” Orianthi said. “If you’re looking down, you don’t see the light. For me, it’s all about embracing that and thinking positively.”

[email protected]
Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

She’s Gonna Be a Famous Artist!

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