Lisa McDonald’s One-On-One with Lou Pomanti – Part 2
By Lisa McDonald – January 14, 2010
You can read Part One of this interview here.
Having discovered the piano in his parents basement at the age of 12, a young Lou Pomanti not only became the first musician of his family, but knew by the time he reached his teens he’d be playing the keyboards for the rest of his life. Paying his dues throughout the 70s in every dive from Scarborough to Charlottetown, Mr Pomanti was more than ready when he got the call from David Clayton Thomas to join Blood, Sweat and Tears for a tour; a two-year tour and experience of a lifetime for a young twenty-something Canadian keyboard player. Following the tour, Pomanti continued honing his craft by playing six-nights-a-week at Toronto’s infamous Club Bluenote where he was quickly recognized by all the industry types that hung out there. Pomanti soon had a telephone that never stopped ringing with calls coming in from Metalworks and Phase One studios wanting him for full-time session work. Lou Pomanti soon settled in as a studio musician playing with artists ranging from Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray to Triumph and David Wilcox. From 1994 to 2004, Pomanti spent every Saturday night at Toronto’s Orbit Room as the resident Hammond B3 organist with R&B house band The Dexters, while at the same time composing extensively for television and film, as well as conducting numerous broadcasts of the Juno, Genie and Gemini Awards.
More recently, Pomanti provided the arrangement of the new Hockey Night in Canada theme song following a nationwide con/ on CBC Radio. Every year since 2003, Mr Pomanti has served as musical director for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and considers the 2007 inductee show of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen as one of the highlights of his career. Currently Mr Pomanti’s music can be heard on the Ron James Show airing Friday nights on CBC Television and with achievements such as these and many more listed at his website, it’s no wonder Lou Pomanti has become a highly respected Canadian artist and three-time Gemini award winner. Lou joins me now to talk about his achievements, his la/ work on the new Michael Bublé release, Crazy Love and why the City of Toronto recently came knocking on his door.
And what about the Prime Minister, being a woman, was she really taken with Leonard?
Yes. Everyone was rapt. There was another night after a gig where Leonard said, “Let’s go back to my house.” Cohen had bought three row houses in the early 70s when they were giving Montreal real estate away. He rents one out, lives in one and donated the other to a group of Buddhist monks. When we got to his place, ya know, it’s nothing special; just a townhouse in an ethnic area somewhere around St Laurent or Portugal Square, I think. Me, Leonard and our bass player Scott end up sitting around Leonard’s kitchen table, which is a 60s Formica-like table directly beside a forty year old stove. We’re sitting there drinking red wine when Leonard starts telling a story from his childhood. Growing up in Montreal, his father worked in the ship yards and Leonard would go down to the yard and watch his father. Suddenly Leonard says, (laughs), “Let’s get some smoked meat sandwiches”. Now you have to understand, Leonard’s a Buddhist monk. He’s drinking red wine and now he wants a smoked meat sandwich! I said, “You tell me where to go Leonard, and I’ll get them.” He tells me, “go to this place, ask for Peter and tell him Leonard Cohen sent you”. On the way over I’m thinking, I’m gonna get myself a whole brisket!
I think I know the deli you’re speaking of, but the name escapes me.
It’s not Moisha’s, it’s the other one. So I go in the deli and say, “Hi Peter, my name’s Lou. I need a brisket and 10 sandwiches. And uh, Leonard Cohen sent me.”
You must’ve felt silly saying that!
Peter says, “Leonard Cohen? Leonard Cohen? (long pause) Is that the tailor that’s just down there?” I’m like, “no no no, Leonard Cohen the songwriter!” And Peter said, “oh, I’m sorry but there are many Leonard Cohen’s in this neighbourhood.” Peter didn’t even know him! (much laughter)
Oh my god, that’s funny!
I got the sandwiches and a whole brisket for myself, right. And when I get back to the house, I say to Leonard, “Put this brisket in your fridge and when I leave in an hour, don’t let me forget it.” But when I left, I forgot it.
Realizing this, I call Leonard from the back of a cab. Leonard answers and says, “You forgot your brisket.” I said, “I have to leave at 8 in the morning to catch a train”. He tells me, “Come by before you leave. I get up early, so it’ll be fine.” At eight the next morning, I leave my hotel telling the cab driver we have to make a stop on the way to the station. The cab pulls up Leonard’s street, and there… at eight in the morning is Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen standing in the street, outside his house… dressed in a suit with a fedora on his head! He was standing there waiting, dressed like that at 8 in the morning… holding my brisket!! (much laughter!)
What a great story!
You’ll never see Leonard Cohen in anything but a suit.
Tell me about working with James Taylor?
I got to know James when he flew me out to Los Angeles in ’86 to audition for him. The audition didn’t work out but through the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, James came up to honour Joni Mitchell (who’s his old girlfriend). We got James to sing Woodstock on the show and I did the arrangement. James Taylor, like Leonard Cohen, is also a soft spoken guy with a great sense of humour.
Did you hear James Taylor is about to embark on a tour with Carole King?
Is he? Is he really? Cool.
So how often do you honour someone for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame?
We try to do it once a year. And for the next one, we’ll be honouring Rush.
Really? I love Rush! They were the first concert I ever saw.
I bet you saw them at your high school.
It was Maple Leaf Gardens actually, Dec 30, 1977.
Did Max Webster play too?
No, but I wish they had. I love Max Webster! Where is the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame show held and is it open to the general public?
It will be held on March 28, 2010 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts and yes, anyone can go. Tickets are available at www.cansong.ca
Speaking of Rush, Alex Lifeson has recently been a cast in a new television series starring the actors who play the Trailer Park Boys.
Alex Lifeson is also co-owner of the Orbit Room.
Yes. The Orbit Room; one of the best live music venues in the city, and you played there in one of the house bands right?
The Dexters played the Orbit Room every Saturday night for ten years. We’re an R&B band who modeled ourselves after Booker T and the MGs. The Dexters played the Orbit on their opening night and ended their run on the tenth anniversary. But we’ll be returning to the Orbit to play for their 15th anniversary.
Are there recordings of the Dexters?
We did one live recording at the Orbit Room. It’s available on iTunes. One of my big regrets was not doing a recording of original material. The Dexters tried many times but it never got off the ground. But I guess we could still do it. But you know, my big challenge is making a cd of my own material. Both my wife and business manager keep prompting me, “When are you going to make your own record?” I do need to do it. But it’s a big challenge when you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had. For twenty five years all I’ve heard is… “Lou we need this and we need it by Tuesday”. I got used to working with a deadline. It’s like a journalist who works with a deadline for years and then says, “I’m moving to Cape Cod now to write the next great American novel!“ Well, you’re likely to get there and discover you can’t write a single word. It’s like this for me. When someone hands me a job with the parameters clearly drawn, I get excited. But I can’t seem to excite myself enough to work on my own stuff.
Well, you can always hire someone to get you to do it.
That’s why I got married! (laughter) Once I make up my mind of what the cd is going to be, I will write it. It used to be I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on the keyboard, but now I don’t want to go near it until I conceptualize in my head first. I spend more time conceptualizing a project, and a lot less time actualizing it. Like a book, you can’t write it until you know what it’s about.
Will you have special guests on your cd?
Yes, most definitely! My friends are some of the most talented people in the country. I know a lot of famous people but I’m talking about guys nobody’s ever heard of, guys who’ll blow your mind. I’m sure you know the type where you have to ask yourself, “why isn’t this guy famous?!” There’s never been a correlation between talent and money. Never.
Do you write jingles too? I heard there’s a good living in that.
I have. And there used to be a great living in jingle work back when people like Doug Reilly or Eric Robertson were doing it. Back then it didn’t take a lot of time, and it did pay a lot of money. Now it’s changed. It doesn’t pay as much, and it takes way more time.
And why is that?
Computers killed it. It used to be you’d write a jingle and play it on the piano for the client, saying “and the French horn will come in here and the singer there….” The client would say okay and you’d go off to hire the musicians and record the track. Now with computers, you have to make an mp3 and email it to the client. The client will listen to it and they’ll hate it or love it, but they usually hate it. And endless revisions will follow. It’s been years since I’ve been in that business, but I’m told by friends it’s harder and harder and pays less and less.
Another example of how computers and technology have not made our lives easier.
It’s not easier at all. With computers, much more is expected of us.
No kidding! And as human beings, we’ve become anti-social with all this technology.
That’s why I don’t have a blackberry. When I see people at dinner answering emails under the table, that’s brutal!
If you had to pick a few highlights from your career so far, what would they be?
I’ve been lucky over the last 30 years, so it’s hard to select even a few. But one highlight would definitely be the 2007 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Another would be when I played with Kim Mitchell at the Kingswood Amphitheatre in 1992. That was awesome!
What set you off on your career? When did you just know?
My parents forced my two older sisters to take piano lessons and they hated every minute of it. They couldn’t play piano worth a bean. But when I discovered the piano in our basement, I started to teach myself. At one point, my dad came down to the basement and said, “Oh, you’re playing the piano! You want to take lessons?” I said no. After failing to force the piano on my sisters, my parents decided to leave me alone about it. But a month later my dad said, “Listen, I’ll make you a deal, take six lessons and if you don’t want to take lessons after that, I’ll never mention it again.” So I took the lessons and of course, that was the beginning of the whole thing. From the very minute I started playing piano, I knew. By the time I reached 13, I knew for sure I’d be playing piano for the rest of my life. I’m sure it’s not just musicians, but painters and writers too, where you’re playing your instrument and that thing is happening; the thing where you don’t think of anything else and you’re in a world unto itself. I’d play five or six times a day because I liked where it took me. I guess for people who hate practicing, they don’t ever get to that place. It’s the same place that gets guys picking up guitars to play along to Jimi Hendrix records and….
Guys who pick up guitars to play along with Hendrix do it to get the women!
Well yea, that’s true. But I never did. If I was going for chicks, I wouldn’t have taken up piano. (laughter)
But really, a 13 year old who discovers exactly what he’ll be doing for the rest of his life is amazing.
Playing piano is all I wanted to do. I had no other life. I kept my grades up so no one would balk but, when I started Humber College and discovered I could play music all day with players who were as good as me, it was great. My son, who’s 14, wants to be a musician. He plays piano now too and I keep telling him, “wait till you finish high school and instead of trombone-playing football jocks, you’ll get to play with musicians who are as serious about playing as you. And then everything will take off.
You don’t miss those days?
In 1976, I was eighteen years old playing some Greek restaurant in Scarborough. I played all the holes in the ground. I was in a show band playing crappy bars where no one cared. There’s a reason why you go through all that when you’re young. I actually had the energy to deal with it then. I’m spoiled now and thank god.
What about Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock? Having worked with them on the 2007 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, do you have stories about these two?
I remember having to call Chaka to talk about the arrangement for Help Me. I was sitting at the piano with the phone crooked between my ear and shoulder telling her, “We need to figure out the key”. And Chaka responded by singing, “help me, I think I’m falling in love too fast… it’s that crazy feeling and I know I’m in trouble again…“ I put the phone down and ran over to my wife, all tingly, saying, “Chaka Khan just sang to me over the phone!” I was completely freaked out. And as for Herbie Hancock, he’s my favourite piano player. Hancock is legendary for crossing over from jazz to funk to pop and everything else. Hancock is very sweet, very personable and looks great at 66. We would talk while we waited in the wings during the show.
What did you talk about?
He’d ask me things like, “so what kind of gear do you use?” and “what kind of sequencer software do you use?” I couldn’t believe he wanted to talk about gear. But I thought sure, if Herbie Hancock wants to talk gear, I’ll talk gear. He’s so cool, maybe the coolest guy ever. Cool with a capitol C!
Who are some of your other influences?
I’ve got a weird set of influences.
I want to hear them.
Growing up in the 70s, when everybody else was into Led Zeppelin and stuff, I was listening to Burt Bacharach. My dad had all his records. I was also listening to Gino Vannelli.
Gino Vannelli! He was just here doing a show.
I keep trying to get Vannelli on the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame but, I keep running into a brick wall. Some people just can’t get past the chest hair, you know?
Some people can’t get past Vannelli’s super-wop image. I can say super-wop because I’m Italian. You know, I was surprised to find out Bublé is Italian. I always thought he was French, with the accent and all. But when we were recording the Crazy Love album, Michael told me, “not only am I Italian, my whole family is bringing lunch to the studio today”. And sure enough at 12:00, Bublé’s mom, his dad, his uncle, and his grandfather descended on the studio with pots and all kinds of food and stuff. I ended up talking to Bublé’s grandfather the most. Mitch is from the same part of Italy as I am and this is what Italians do. They get together, eat, and talk about Italy. Lunch that day was pasta, veal cutlets, meatballs, homemade bread and homemade wine. We ate for over two hours and not much work got done. Chick Corea and Earth, Wind and Fire were also big influences as well as The Beatles, of course. But Stevie Wonder could very well be my biggest influence overall. All of my influences are on the R&B, jazz and funk side.
In the spring of 2010, the City of Toronto will pay tribute to Lou Pomanti with a street named in your honour. How did this come about and what lucky neighbourhood will your name get to live?
The City will name a street after me right at the corner of Weston Rd & Sheppard. There’s going to be a new subdivision finished this summer and they wanted to honour someone who had grown up in that neighbourhood, which I did. I was told the naming would have to pass a number of levels that could take a long time but, two months ago, the final level was passed. Obviously I have a fan!
What an honour. Do you still know many people in that neighbourhood?
Well, my parents moved out about five years ago, and I haven’t been there since. I would think most would be gone. But having a street named after me is wild, eh? I went through many stages. At first I was incredibly honoured and jazzed by the whole thing, and then I started feeling unworthy. But it’s not like I’m famous or anything, so who’s gonna know? And then I thought of Mike Meyers Blvd, which is the crappiest little street in Toronto. (laughs) I think it leads into to a Woolco or something! I would accept this from the City just for my parents’ sake, but I’m very honoured, thank you very much.
Are you parents still with us, and are they musical?
They’re still with us, but they’re not musical. I’m the first musician of the family.
Really? I wonder where you got it.
I don’t know.
Is there anything else going on in your life you’d like to share with us?
It’s been such a busy time. For almost a year, I’ve been writing Christmas music. Since last March actually, and I’m Christmas’d out. The music is for a movie called Christmas Dreams starring Ed Asner. The movie will air on CBC television in mid-December. I also did the music for a one-hour special called Magic Man which will also air on the CBC in December. And tomorrow I’m doing all the music for the Santa Claus Parade on Global.
Are there any artists you haven’t played with that you would like to?
Diana Krall. I would love that. And there are others, but they will never happen.
But it could happen with Diana Krall?
Well, with the Bublé record going number one and all…
All kinds of doors are flying open as we speak.
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