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Gina Villalobos: Girls rock

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Gina Villalobos is working hard to be more than just another gal with a guitar. Since her childhood in the wee Santa Monica Mountain community of Lake Sherwood, California, not far from Malibu, Villalobos has been exposed to the likes of Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Carl King, Kris Kristofferson and Linda Ronstadt. She was teaching herself guitar by the age seven.

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After a Rickie Lee Jones concert she attended at age 20 she quit college and was soon out on the road spending the next decade fronting “a pair of Santa Barbara-area bands, with whom (she) released a total of five CDs.” Her earlier projects also included four solo CDs starting in 2002 with Beg From Me. Two years later (2004) she was being written up by such U.S. publications as Paste, No Depression, Acoustic Guitar and Harp thanks to her second solo CD Rock ’N’ Roll Pony, which reportedly “really took off overseas” and it hit number 3 on the Euro-Americana charts.

By 2005 Villalobos was playing gigs across the globe. Her 2007 release, Miles Away, repeated her previous successes in the U.K. She toured with World Party and her tunes were used in films and on television. 2009 witnessed the release of Days on Their Side after which she needed a break.

“I was super worn out, burnt out, just not feeling the energy to be creative. I started to make an album, actually, but I just couldn't force it.” She got a job working for “a developing a sound effects company called Feverpitch and . . . began studying music and Spanish” near her current home in L.A.

In 2011 she wrote the tunes for what would eventually become her upcoming album Sola. “My excitement was back,” she remembers. “I was ready but had no idea what laid ahead.”

The new, upcoming album is but seven songs long. Titled Sola (Spanish for “alone”), the disc finds Villalobos leading the way on acoustic guitar and vocals. She is backed by an assortment of other artists including: electric guitarist Kevin Haaland (Andy Grammer), electric and acoustic guitarist Josh Grange (Sheryl Crow, K.D. Lang, Beck, Dixie Chicks), pedal steel player Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Ray LaMontagne, Pretenders, Alejandro Escovedo), upright bassist Ian Walker (K.D. Lang, Cher, Paula Cole, The Ditty Bops) and drummer Quinn (Tracy Chapman, Daft Punk, Paula Cole).

The lead-in is “Everything I Want”. This one is somehow vaguely reminiscent of lesser-known Bonnie Raitt material although it’s unclear exactly how. It’s a good enough start but there is yet more to come.

The second selection is “Taillights”. This would work as a traveling tune for one of those late night trips where you’ve made a hard, life-changing decision and you’re driving off into the blackness hoping to find a new life. But the drama on this disc is real as Villalobos cathartically croons cuts that put it all out there.

The next number is “Come Undone (Interstate Ache)”. This is a “grief-stricken love song”. It is also the first of a block of tunes co-composed with Grange.

“Wandering By” follows. It is another example of what the pair is capable of when they put their musical heads together. The final tuneful team-up is the fervent rocker “Hold On To Rockets”. It is said—and rightly so--to be a cross between Sheryl Crow and Guided by Voices. It’s a contemplative cut with a message both personal and yet universal.

Also included here is “Tears Gone By”. This is yet another example of what Villalobos can do as a solo songwriter. It is perhaps all too soon overshadowed by the album end-note ‘Walk Away”. “Walk Away” serves as an apt ending to a collection of compositions containing a consistent signature sound which is not quite coffeehouse and not quite arena.

It is within this particular piece that she sheds a little light on her struggle with making this CD. “If I walk away, will you hear me sing?” Villalobos states it is “about wanting to leave more behind than one thing.” She recently reflected upon the effort to put together this sometimes sophisticated and striking project.

“I had to fight get this record done, there seemed to be a lot more opposing forces than the previous. It feels like each record I make gets harder and harder, and requires more stamina than the previous ones. After I made Sola I felt like the only sound my body could make was the sound a car makes when it has nothing left to give—that dead clicking sound.”

She continues “I can hear it all come to life in my lyrics . . . and it makes it hard for me to listen to this record, the same way it would be hard to see a mangled picture of yourself. I can't listen.”

Set for release on May 26, Villalobos’ birthday, Sola is a California country rock collection is a personal recollection of persistence, redemption and survival. So stop and check out Gina VillalobosSola when you’re “Wandering By” your local independent record store.

My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.

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