In the weeks prior to the debut of Kiki Ebsen’s peace.harmony concert series, Kiki Ebsen and Gigi Worth had met several times to pare down Joni Mitchell’s extensive catalog into specific song choices for their tribute. As they’d sung together so often many years ago, there was already a synergy between the two vocalists that found them making short work of their set list as were dividing songs and choosing lead and harmony.
For over two decades Ebsen and Worth earned their separate bona fides touring internationally with Grammy-winning artists, where they sang and played on songs by many of rock’s most greatly admired artists. For Kiki, it meant singing with and playing keyboards for Grammy-winners Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Dave Koz, Tracy Chapman, Belinda Carlisle, Wilson Phillips, Bill Champlin, and Peter Cetera.
For Gigi, it meant singing and playing guitars/percussion touring with Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, which she did in addition to her popular, yet unseen, recording work as an in-demand jingle singer for national commercial spots (the voice you know and love but the face you don’t see) and movie soundtracks (e.g., the Val Kilmer movie, “At First Sight”).
Although a vast number of singers have covered Joni Mitchell songs in recordings and on stage, still Kiki and Gigi seemed perfect to pay tribute because, as they’ve been described, they are “singer’s singers,” the kind of musical interpreters you’d choose to sing the songs you write, if you’re not singing them yourself. Mitchell’s compositions demand and deserve every accolade afforded them.
Confidently, Kiki and Gigi took on the task to doing justice to Joni’s works. Their secret weapon in approaching such a daunting challenge is the extensive practice and work they’ve both done throughout their careers. Few people ever see the hours, days, weeks, months and years where vocalists practice singing.
It’s so easy for an audience or listeners to just think that all these young women have to do is show up and sing. Nothing could be further from reality. Those who get the nod to be onstage with all these premiere touring artists are ones who can be counted on to delivery solidly every time. But it’s hours of hard work behind the scenes, which audiences never get to see, that makes a great vocalist a solid professional.
Kiki and Gigi have many common, but parallel, life experiences that converged in their performing the music of the iconic Joni Mitchell as her works mean so much to each singer. Specifically in common, both women are daughters of iconic parents. Kiki’s father, Buddy Ebsen, in addition to his work in television and film, was also a talented musician and a songwriter, a fact that was not as well known until Kiki created her CD “Scarecrow Sessions” in 2014, including “Missing You,” co-written by Buddy and Zeke Manners. Gigi’s mother, Gisele Mackenzie, in addition to being an accomplished violinist, was a most popular, gifted singer and television star.
It’s poignant that, early in their touring careers, one evening when Kiki and Gigi were on stage together on a Christopher Cross tour, thousands of miles away, Buddy and Gisele were performing together in California—one of the universe’s charming coincidences. And Kiki’s mother, Nancy, likely simultaneously had a community theatre production or workshop going in California, as both parents passed forward their musical gifts and stage talents to their daughter.
However, it’s really not about who has so-called famous parents that is relevant. It’s not all that rare any more, particularly in California and New York; today, you find many contemporary talented musicians are the progeny of well-known talents.
Although you might think it was all smooth sailing and easy street for both young women, indeed it was not—far from it, in fact. The only actual advantage to having parents “in the business” is the immediate awareness of the need for total preparation and professionalism when arriving at and for an engagement. That’s the first lesson both ladies observed from watching successful parents.
Buddy used to share that one of the secrets to his success was (paraphrasing), “know your lines and show up on time.” The phrase is simple enough, yet it’s indicative of a workplace mind-set that demands discipline and those who work at their craft, daily often to the sacrifice of “down time” enjoyed by others that is the unseen price that first-call vocalists pay to set themselves apart from an expansive talent pool.
One disadvantage not generally considered, when envisioning what it might be like to have one (or two) famous parents, is that people can entirely misjudge you before they’ve ever met you. Next, they can begin an unspoken, even subconscious, comparison between you and your parent(s). Thus, it’s possible for people to miss that you are an entirely different person, a talented entity in your own right and on your own merit, despite a familiar last name.
At this point in their careers people already know them by their first names, and at the end of the day, it’s just Kiki and Gigi. They sing beautifully, and play their keyboards (and guitars, respectively) as professional musicians are expected to, note-perfectly. But, there’s a more famous name in the room: the legendary talent, Joni Mitchell. Kiki, Gigi, and Joni; sort of just flows, doesn’t it?
Daunting and imposing on one side, simple and straightforward on another–that’s the discography of Joni Mitchell. Within every album are carefully crafted songs, echoing anthems of every romantic high and low a person can ever hope (or fear) to experience. It’s up to the artist to interpret for themselves and then share their interpretation with others.
As Kiki said, “Joni lit a fire of creativity within her songs, every time a man in Mitchell’s world lit up her soul.” Truly, her musical body of work can resonate identifiably at some point in every woman’s life. Every time Joni fell in or out of love, the result of her introspective analysis either received critical acclaim, or platinum status in record sales.
Somehow the artist in Mitchell glossed over the acclaim, glanced quickly at the adulation that was welling up in and around those she called peers, until one day, she was propelled to the top of a mountain that found her able to disengage from public opinion almost entirely. She went about creating art, whether songs or paintings. Upon that mountaintop the dove she is, as pure talent, was set free, if only to remain as an icon by which other artists continue to measure their accomplishments.
Christopher Cross in the past has summed it up this way about his penultimate songwriting influence: “Some of my songs like “Sailing” I feel have reached a certain…they’re up there with some of Joni’s songs, but not by any means her best work, but I’ve reached for the hem of her gown and I’ve touched it a couple of times.” When the five-time Grammy winner says that about his “Joan,” clearly that’s substantial. Of course, Mitchell only has 22 albums spanning 1968–2007, which are daunting to choose from, much less perform.
Up to any challenge, Kiki said she was delighted to be performing in concert with Gigi. “One of the pleasures about doing this catalog, not only does it test your mettle as a musician, as a singer, but you get to sing with amazing singers, and Gigi is one of the best singers I’ve ever sung with, and one of the best I’ve ever heard.”
The plan was to add Kiki’s west-coast drummer, Matt Starr, and Gigi invited her go-to duo, guitarist, Guy Thomas, and choice bassist, Steven Lawrence, and the duet became a band. With these accomplished musicians’ interpretations, the combined harmony was destined to become smooth, “like buttah.”
Two weeks prior to concert, Kiki and Gigi met to rehearse 20 of Mitchell’s best tunes, spanning nine albums released between 1968–1982. The week of the concert, an all-access pass was granted this journalist to an informal rehearsal for Kiki, Gigi, and Guy as they worked out their respective parts.
What is standard fare to any professional musician still remains a world of wonder to an average audience member. Each song entrance, every tuning, all the voicings that receive consideration are so important in the extensive preparation to make another’s composition truly authentic. The intricacies are overwhelming, but that’s what professional singer do—they expect and exact their best from every performance as a tribute to another’s work.
Most impressive to this outsider was the sheer beauty of their voices, individually and together. These ladies are “singers’ singers,” who were completely unaware that they were under scrutiny because they were 100% invested in their work. Particularly after the aural sideshow of the Grammy Awards, what a singular joy it was to hear Kiki and Gigi sing soaring solos and exquisite harmonies straight on, no filters, no auto-tune or background distractions or on-stage pyrotechnics. Their voices were “the entire show.” Most importantly Ms. Mitchell would be honored by what was ahead, and even Christopher Cross would agree that Ebsen and Worth are automatic choices to pay tribute to Joni’s work.
Concert day was set for Sunday, Jan. 31, and after a final run-through on Saturday, four of the expected five musicians were content that all was ready. Drummer Matt Starr was due in from a tour date early the next morning. Kiki said, “Matt knows every note I sing and play; the minute he gets here, he’ll count us in and we’re off.” That was the plan, as the sun went down on the eve of Kiki Ebsen’s peace.harmony concert series. The magic was about to happen.
This story is Part 3 in a five-part series. Part 4 describes the behind-the-scenes battle between peace and harmony against nature’s intimidating powerful forces all colliding, and the events leading up to the debut of Kiki Ebsen’s peace.harmony concert series in tribute to Joni Mitchell.