By MICHAEL HIXON
Special to Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Australian guitarist/singer/songwriter Orianthi made her big U.S. breakthrough in 2009, when she played lead guitar for Carrie Underwood at the 51st Grammy Awards. Michael Jackson’s musical director Michael Bearden then contacted her to audition for the “This is It” concerts after that performance caught their attention.
Orianthi was asked to play the guitar solo in “Beat It” when she auditioned. Not only was it daunting to play for Jackson, but it was also a riff made famous by guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. But by that evening, she was hired. Of course, Orianthi never got to play on tour with Jackson, who died in 2009 of a heart attack following an overdose of the prescription drugs Propofol and Benzodiazepine but she remembers fondly rehearsing with the King of Pop.
“It was a dream come true to work with such a legend for three months, everyday going in there and getting to speak to him and watch him dance, it was just crazy,” she said.
Since Jackson’s death, Orianthi has released a hit single, “According to You,” from her second solo album, “Believe,” toured extensively with Alice Cooper and released her third album, “Heaven In This Hell,” earlier this month. The record’s first single, “Frozen,” was released digitally in February.
The album’s 11 tracks were recorded in Nashville with some of the city’s top session musicians, as well as Glen Sobel (Alice Cooper’s band), who came in and played drums on “Frozen.” The album was produced by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame.
“It was a free environment to make this record, amazing musicians … we all just jammed away and had a blast,” Orianthi said. “It has more of a live feel we wanted to capture … just going back to blues rock roots.”
She said working Stewart was inspiring because he’s “not boxed in.”
“He’s open to all different ideas,” she said. “He’s worked with so many different artists, he just tells you to go with your gut … he sort of inspires you to just be in that moment and he gets this creative thing out of you. He’s got an energy about him.”
Born Orianthi Panagaris in Adelaide, South Australia, she was inspired early on by her Greek father who played in a band and bought her first guitar, which she first picked up at 6 years old. Before she made the trip to the U.S. when she was 21 years old, she joined a cover band and played with Carlos Santana in her hometown.
The musician also has shared the stage with Prince, John Mayer and OneRepublic. She performed her first show for guitar legend Steve Vai when she was 15 and later opened for him. She said she will “always be in awe” of Santana and Vai.
“I don’t want to play guitar around him,” she said of Vai. “I just want to watch him play. He’s just one of those people, the same as Dave (Stewart) or Santana. They inspire you to want to be better.”
She also was in awe of Jackson, whom she remembers as very collaborative while rehearsing for his comeback tour.
“He came in and he was like, ‘I want you to come up with something for the end of ‘Black and White’ … he left it for us to come up with a riff, “ she said. “The next day I was pretty nervous (and I) didn’t know if he was going to hate it … It was a moment in the show where he was like, ‘Would you just come out and solo?’ He was a very cool person. He loved it.”
But dreams of the tour came to a tragic end when Jackson died on June 25, 2009.
“We were with him the night before and he was ready to go with the show and super excited. Everyone was tired, he seemed tired. He was working on so many different things … I mean we were just tired working on the music, it was long days,” she said.
That same year, Orianthi released “Believe,” on Geffen Records. “According to You” hit the charts in six countries including the United States, where it hit No. 17 on the Billboard charts.
“He (Ron Fair, A&R executive and producer) said, ‘This lyric is good if you want to inspire more girls to play guitar. I think this is going to really get on the radio they’re going to identify with these lyrics’ … it really did connect with a lot of people and I’m proud of it that it did so well,” she said.
Orianthi recently spent a year on the road with rock legend Cooper as his lead guitarist and will join him again later this year. She will play with his band until he “gets sick of me.”
“He is one of my favorite people, he’s so cool,” she said. “It’s like a big musical family … I love the band. I love working with him. He’s a great performer … He’s so different on stage then what he is off the stage.”
But Cooper’s concerts are like a live version of “The Walking Dead.”
“You’ve got to be careful of the swords and Frankenstein,” she said. “I’m dodging all these things. I always get covered in blood whether I put it on myself and its fake or if it’s actually real blood because I got injured.”
Orianthi has called her path a “crazy roller coaster” and a “long and colorful journey.”
“It’s been awesome being able to work with people I’ve worked with,” she said. “It’s pretty surreal sometimes.”