Orianthi: "I wanted to really mess with my sounds and try new stuff"

(Image credit: Joseph Llanes)

Not many of us can say we spent our formative years shredding out alongside such virtuosic legends as Steve Vai, Alice Cooper and Carlos Santana. Adelaidian rock queen Orianthi can, though – hell, her very first time on a stage outside the walls of her Anglican high school were with Mr. Vai, wailing out on her six-string as though she’d been doing it for decades (despite being just 15 years old herself). And in the 20 years since that faithful night, Orianthi’s hunger to kick down the barriers of the music industry and riff her way to the top has only intensified. 

On the outset, things may not look so hectic: she released her third solo album, Heaven In This Hell, in the early months of 2013, followed by a casual stint of world touring and a few lowkey side-projects like BeMyBand and a run playing alongside Dave Stewart. In 2017, she teamed up with Richie Sambora to debut the collaborative RSO project, which apexed in the 2018 album Radio Free America. But aside from those occasional blasts of off-kilter creativity, Orianthi has been almost alarmingly quiet.

Behind close doors, however, that’s not at all the case. The LA-based songwriting gun has packed her last few years to the brim and beyond with artistic endeavours, collaborating with dozens of fellow musos ranging from venerable rock legends to up-and-coming pop luminaries, teaming up with Hollywood’s finest to work on various projects for TV and film, and even toying around with some lucrative non-musical business ideas. She also has at least three other albums in the pipeline, not including her monolithic solo comeback, O

Taking in elements from all her wild experiences over the past seven years, O is much more than your stock-standard rock ’n’ roll album: though it’s packed from cover to cover with red-hot riffs and soaring solos, there are slivers of grunge, sprinkles of pop and some truly unexpected (yet entirely welcome) hints of EDM to unearth throughout its dense and dynamic ten tracks. 

Keen to vibe on everything about her new LP – as well as all the other exciting projects she has kicking around, her newfound appreciation for digital production, and her soon-to-launch signature acoustic with Gibson – Orianthi treated Australian Guitar to a grand ol’ yarn.

It’s been seven years since we got our mitts on Heaven In This Hell, so I feel like this album has definitely been pretty hotly anticipated. Why did it take you this long to make another solo album?
Y’know, it’s just a timing thing. I’ve been working so hard on all these different projects – I’ve been working with a lot of Japanese artists and people like Sebastian Bach and Richie Sambora, I’m doing a lot of session work, collaborating with and writing songs for other people, and working on an animated movie. I was also working on a hip-hop album with P. Diddy’s camp, believe it or not – a guitar-and-beat kind of situation, y’know? And that record still exists! 

I actually have a couple of albums in the works: I have a pop record, I have the hip-hop record… I definitely went down some different rabbitholes, and tried a lot of different things. But then I sort of felt like, “Y’know what? I don’t want to travel around with a guy and a computer, I want to travel around with a band!” So I said to Marti [Frederiksen, producer], “Hey, do you want to come and work on my new solo album?” And he was like, “Absolutely! Let’s do it!” And he came back from Vegas – because he was working with Aerosmith there – and we just jumped into the studio straight away. And yeah, it was a lot of fun! So I didn’t take a seven-year break, but it felt like now was the right time to put out my next solo record. And I’m working on another one right now, so there’s lots more music to come.

Was there anything you took on from all those other projects that you were able to bring over to this new solo record?
Yeah! Working on a hip-hop record and a pop record with all these producers that use computers and beats and stuff, I learned a lot of new techniques when it came to working with samples. I had beats that I would come up with on Logic and bring over to Marti, and then Marti would make them sound better and spice them up, and then we’d bring real drums in and flesh it all out with a real band. You can definitely hear a little bit of an experimental sound on this album, and some guitar tones that I’d never tried before. 

I really stepped out of the box. Because you can’t be chasing after something superficial – you can’t be chasing a hit, you’ve gotta chase after a sound and a feeling. And I think that’s what really works these days, more than anything else, because people’s attention spans are like gnats. And we’ve become programmed that way because of how technology has evolved. We want something immediately, and then we’re over it, onto the next thing. So y’know, you just kind of want to make something for yourself – make yourself feel something first, and then hopefully it makes other people feel something too. And then you keep on creating…

How did that apply to your creative approach as a guitarist?
I really wanted to go with what was right for the song, rather than, “Let’s just do a balls-to-the-wall solo with the sound that I usually have.” It was like, “Let’s put it through the Kemper and my Orange, let’s try a fuzz here, and let’s f*** with it a bit more afterwards…” Because sometimes you put down a solo and it’s like, “Okay, that’s cool” – it sounds good and everything, but it doesn’t sound like anything new or exciting. I wanted to really mess with my sounds and try new stuff. And Marti was great with that, we spent a lot of time putting different effects on things together. But I predominantly used my Orange Rockerverb Mk III amp, which I absolutely love, and then we just sort of messed with stuff on the computer afterwards. Because I’m not a big pedal user – I have my guitar, my amp and a wah pedal, and that’s basically my setup.

In other exciting news, you have a signature model Gibson J-200 coming out! What can you tell us about that?
Well, I am beyond honoured that I got approached by the heads of Gibson to collaborate on something they’d never done before, which is a hybrid acoustic. I went down to Montana with a rep from out here [in Los Angeles], Ray – we went down and met up with Robi Johns, who is one of the most incredible acoustic guitar creators; he really brings dreams to life, y’know? 

I sat down with him for lunch and I said, “This is kind of what I’m thinking” – I’m a huge Elvis fan, I grew up listening to players like him and Johnny Cash, and they all had J-200s, right? That was the ‘thing’ – that was the grand prize Gibson for me, y’know? The holy grail. And the guys at Gibson were like, “Isn’t that a little big for you?” And I went, “It is!” It’s a f***ing big guitar, but the sound is unmatchable to any other acoustic. It has such a projection and depth to it that – but the neck is so boat-like; it’s so hard to play leads on it. 

So I asked, “Can we put an ES-345 neck on a J-200 body?” And they were down! It was actually so funny, I grabbed Bradley Cooper’s guitar that he used for A Star Is Born – I was playing that and I was like, “Y’know what? This neck is great – let’s fit this on the body of the J-200!” And they were like, “Well, we’ve never done something like that before, but… Sure!” And I’ve gotta tell you, the new model is hands-down one of the best acoustics I’ve ever played. I’m beyond honoured that I had a part in making it, and I can’t wait for people to have it in their own hands!

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…