Ultimate Interviews

Ultimate Interviews

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gretchen Menn

From the friendly skies, to the rocking stages and everywhere in between.

When you hear the name Gretchen Menn, what comes to mind? Guitar virtuoso, Led Zeppelin, beautiful?  Well, if you answered any of those, you would be correct.  She has assumed the role of Jimmy Page in the all-female band Zepparella for the last nine years. But there is more that makes up this extremely talented young woman.

When your father is Don Menn, (who was an editor-in-chief of 'Guitar Player' magazine) it only makes sense that music would play a part in your upbringing. Gretchen's parents were great supporters to both her and her equally talented, beautiful sister Kirsten. She would be exposed to many genres of music at an early age and would eventually make a name for herself in the music world by being one of the very few outstanding female guitarists out there.

Graduating from Smith College with a degree in music, she would then take to the skies as a pilot, flying regional jets for an airline company. The decision to go back to flight instruction would be a great benefit both to her music and for her fans.

Her incredibly talented guitar playing has taken her down the 'Highway to Hell' with AC/DShe to a 'Stairway to Heaven' with the all female Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella. (Interview with Zepparella to follow)

Keeping busy with other projects, 'Sticks and Stones' and 'Lapdance Armageddon', Gretchen released her first solo album 'Hale Souls' in the summer of 2011.  Gretchen was very generous to provide a copy of her album to us. While listening to it, I was instantly captivated by what was coming out of the speakers. It is my honour to provide a review of 'Hale Souls' following this interview.

I had the incredible opportunity to have Gretchen take some time from her very busy schedule to do an interview with me. She shared her musical influences, love and respect for fellow musicians, friends and family to the news that she's working on her second solo album. I am pleased to present to you our exciting interview with the lovely Miss Gretchen Menn.

Photo by: Max Crace

LZUFP~ Your father, Don, was an editor-in-chief of 'Guitar Player' magazine. Did that have any influence on the guitar being your choice of instrument? Do you recall what the first instrument you picked up was?

Don Menn with Gretchen & Kirsten. Photo provided by Gretchen Menn.
Mary Ellen Culver with Gretchen & Kirsten.
Photo provided by Gretchen Menn.
Gretchen: Music was always available and celebrated in my childhood home. We had a piano, and my sister and I were encouraged to explore it. I did have requisite piano lessons for a few months when I was five. I remember liking the lessons, but I was too active of a child to sit still for long enough to really practice, and my parents were not the types to force it.

I didn't know exactly what my father did until I became interested in guitar on my own.  As a child, I had reduced my parent's jobs to the shortest, simplest explanation so my dad was a "writer" in my mind. It wasn't until I had started really getting into music that I found out more about my dad's work and that he knew a lot about music and guitarists. 

LZUFP~ I read that while you were in school obtaining a degree in music, you did a project on Frank Zappa. What was it about Zappa that you found so intriguing and fascinating? Is there something specific from him that you take away and use in both your solo career and with Zepparella?

Gretchen: Yes, I went to the more classically-focused Smith College Music department, and beseeched one of the more forward-thinking professors, Raphael Atlas, to oversee my work in a special studies on the music of Frank Zappa. I made my case, and Raphael and the music department agreed. My work for the semester involved papers on a more general overview of Zappa's work and career, as well as in-depth harmonic and structural analyses of 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango' and 'The Girl in the Magnesium Dress.'
Zappa was a fearless creative force. His drive and work ethics were amazing, and I love the expanse of his artistic aesthetic--from his interweaving of humor in music with almost pop sensibility, to his more compositional abstract, and orchestral works. He didn't let genre define or restrict him. Zappa is one of my greatest heroes for unbridled creativity and being an artist who forged and followed his own musical path. 

LZUFP~ Did you have a big support system in place, to encourage you to do what you loved, playing guitar? Were there any moments that you were worried about "not making" it? Did you have a 'back up' plan at any time, incase this wasn't meant to be?

Gretchen & Don Menn-Photo by: Andy Alt
Gretchen & Don Menn
Photo by: Mark Manion
Gretchen: My family has always been supportive. I realized from day one that it was nonsensical to get into music for financial motivations. Many people complain about how hard it is to make money in the music industry, and I wonder why they would have thought otherwise. the industry was suffering long before I even started playing guitar, so I never expected fame or fortune, and I always realized I would probably need a secondary source of income-especially if I wanted the artistic liberty to pursue music that might not be mainstream. My worries have never been about 'making it', but about trying to learn and grow as a musician to have the type of fluency that allows for free creative expression.

My responsible plan B after graduation with a degree in music was to go to flight school and get my pilot's licenses. I flight instructed for about a year before getting hired to fly a regional jet for an airline. I left the airline after a year, as I realized there was no way to pursue music the way I wanted while living the life of an airline pilot...and airline flying isn't exactly the type of thrill that drove me to want to learn to fly in the first place. So I left the airline, went back to flight instructing, and made music my top priority.

LZUFP~ How do you go from playing classical guitar to hard hitting rock in your first band, the AC/DC tribute band AC/DShe? Having been to a few AC/DC concerts myself, the energy is raw and contagious. What was it like playing those classic AC/DC songs in full Angus attire as well?

Gretchen: I have always loved rock music--it was what got me interested in guitar in the first place. The reason I started on classical guitar was because Phillip de Fremery, the classical guitar instructor for Smith College, was reputed to be fantastic. I always loved classical music, and I was thrilled to start with that level of focus and discipline, and to get to learn from a truly wonderful teacher. I studied electric guitar concurrently, mostly on my own, and applying much of the left hand technique from classical guitar as well as the theory I was learning in my classes at Smith. I would also take a lesson or two once in awhile from various teachers.

Photo by: Mark Manion
It was a big shift to step into Angus Young's shoes, and a fun challenge! It mandated a level of athleticism and projected confidence that helped me get used to being on stage quickly and get over any initial shyness. But I have always loved AC/DC, so the desire to learn and love of the music was already there. I developed an even deeper appreciation for the music and Angus' playing, though, and it was delightful and at times startling to see the energy and audience reactions to the music. 

LZUFP~ Aside from Zepparella, you've had some solo projects. Example: 'Sticks and Stones', 'Lapdance Armageddon', and your self-titled work. Sounds like you keep fairly busy. Do you find time to do "you" things? What are some of your favourite pastimes when not on stage playing guitar?

Gretchen: 'Sticks and Stones' and 'Lapdance Armageddon' were both collaborative projects with some very talented other musicians who taught me a lot--

Sticks and Stones Photos by: www.thepathtoall.com 
Mickael Tremel (guitar) and
Sam Adato (drums) in Sticks and Stones, and

Jude Gold (guitar), in Lapdance Armageddon.

Lapdance Armageddon Photo by: Max Crace
I hate saying anything is over, as both bands meant a lot to me, and there are still friendships and appreciation for my bandmates, but both bands have been inactive for a number of years. For the moment, my solo project and Zepparella keep me very busy. 
I honestly can't think of a better "me" time than playing guitar or working on compositions. I tend to be so busy that the concept of a pastime feels foreign--I am always trying to extract more hours out of any given day! But in terms of other activities...I do try to keep a full and balanced life, and  my relationships with friends and family are very important to me. I love literature, and usually have a few books going at any given time. Right now, I am reading Dubliners by James Joyce, Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux, and am rereading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I usually do some sort of physical activity pretty consistently--yoga, gym workouts, walks or hikes or running. I love continuing to study music, and will often do exercises for counterpoint, 4-part harmony, modulations, etc. 

LZUFP~ What is in your guitar collection? Do you have a favourite guitar, and what is it about it, that makes it your fave?

Photo by: Max Crace
Gretchen: I have a Music Man Silhouette and two Silhouette Specials--the Silhouette was my first guitar (the blue burst featured in the video for "Valentino's Victory Lap"), and Music Man guitars always feel like home to me. 

Oleo Strut video shoot. Photo by: Bryan Perido
The white Silhouette Special that was in my other videos ("Oleo Strut", "Scrap Metal" and "Fading") is my primary guitar now, and the one I have hanging on my wall at home for practicing. 

Performing with Zepparella.
Photo by: Will Bucquoy
I also have two Les Pauls, which are mandatory for Zeppelin, as well as a Danelectro (for "In My Time of Dying"). 

I still have the SG I played in AC/DShe. I have a gorgeous Sadowsky nylon string electric that is my newest baby, and a cool hybrid between an electric and a classical guitar--very up my alley! My classical guitar is a Kenny Hill Ruck model, and I have a wonderful custom steel string OM model from Santa Cruz Guitar Company. A wonderful fan from Italy had a custom guitar built for me--it is small, like a Steinberger, and quite a work of art. 

LZUFP~  You released 'Hale Souls' a couple years ago. Is there a new release in the future? Your sister Kirsten's beautiful soprano can be heard on 'Fading'. Could we see future Menn sisters collaborations in the future?

Photos of Gretchen and Kirsten Menn by: Peter Jensen

Gretchen: Yes, I am working on my next album right now, and very excited for it! My gorgeous sister, Kirsten, will be making some appearances on this one as well. My hope is to have it out in the next few months.

Photo by: (L) Don Menn. (R) Gretchen Menn

LZUFP~ When it comes to composing, in an age of technology and everything computer, how do you compose new material? Do you use software or sit with paper and a guitar?

Photo by: Bryan Perido
Gretchen: I do all you mentioned--I write with the guitar in hand, as well as on staff paper and with a music notation program called Sibelius. I like all approaches for different reasons. My rule for myself is that all yields to the creative impulses  and I am always writing. The nice thing about writing on my guitar is I don't have to go back later and learn what I wrote...but on the other hand, there is something very cool about writing with no technical considerations or restrictions. No matter how much I might try to lead with my ears when writing on the guitar, it is impossible to take the preferences of my hands entirely out of the equation. Furthermore, learning something I composed away from the guitar often helps me grow as a guitar player and be most free as a composer. 

LZUFP~ Who are some of your greatest influences? Have you met and/or worked with any of them, and if so, do you have any special encounter stories you could share with us?

Steve Morse & Gretchen. Photo by: Mark Manion
Gretchen: The guitar player who first inspired me to pick up the instrument was Eric Johnson, soon followed by Steve Morse. Frank Zappa became an inspiration for his creativity and compositional approach. I have always loved Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, as well as Django Reinhardt. I got almost maniacally into Jeff Beck a few years ago, and that hasn't stopped. Jason Becker is amazing and incomparable--not just for his staggering virtuosity, but also as a composer and brilliant melodist. I have recently been amazed by the work of Daniele Gottardo, who very effectively incorporates virtuosic electric guitar into an orchestral and compositional context. All of my heroes continue to inspire and amaze me, and I have been fortunate to meet most of them. I have not met Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen (or Django Reinhardt, obviously!). 

One of my most treasured childhood memories was of getting to sit next to Frank Zappa in his studio as he composed. My dad was writing a special issue for Guitar Player Magazine on Zappa, and he brought Kirsten and me with him to LA for the interviews. I was wandering around the labyrinthine Zappa house, looking for Kirsten and Diva (Frank's youngest daughter), and poked my head into Frank's studio. He was alone, working at his desk. I apologized for interrupting  but rather than being irritated or waving me off to find the other girls, he invited me in, pulled out the chair next to him, and let me watch as he worked, explaining a bit about what he was doing. It was years before I started playing guitar, and much of it was over my head, but I tried hard to understand what he was telling me. I realized that it was a very special moment, and also knew that I wouldn't fully comprehend the significance of it until later. 

LZUFP~  Do you have a bucketlist? If so, what would be a couple things on that list?

Gretchen: My sister and I once calculated we would need about six lifetimes to do all the things we feel are absolutely imperative! A few examples, though...? I'd love to learn and become proficient in aerobatics (that was what made me want to learn to fly in the first place)...travel to Venice, Prague, Vienna, Japan...learn to tango and swing dance...compose and have music performed by a full orchestra...disappear someplace beautiful and off the grid for a year to immerse myself in deeper study of music...


During this interview, I learned a lot about Gretchen. Both professionally and personally. Her family and friends are dear to her heart. No ego in sight, this down to earth, kind-hearted woman is doing something that she loves...and in an outstanding way. 

Very special thanks to Gretchen for such a wonderful interview. She was very generous with her answers and providing the photos.  It was also our honour, to have precious family photos provided by Gretchen and the permission to use them in this interview. Thank you Gretchen. 

The Menn Sisters
Photo provided by: Gretchen Menn

Shortly after publishing, Gretchen sent me another precious childhood photo that her mother had found. A young Gretchen, with her mom's violin and bow in hand. "A harbinger of things to come?" said Gretchen. I just had to include it, alongside a recent photo. 

(L) provided by Gretchen Menn. (R) Photo by: Mark Manion

Gretchen continues to work on her upcoming second solo album. She also continues to perform alongside her friends in Zepparella. As we eagerly wait for new music, be sure to check out her album 'Hale Souls'. 

LZUFP's 'Hale Souls' Review:

Photo by: Eric Shamlin. Design by: Max Crace
Track Listing:
1. Scrap Metal
2. Oleo Strut
3. Déjà Vu
4. Valentino's Victory Lap
5. Fast Crowd
6. Is It Not Strange
7. Captured Barricade
8. Walking Shadow
9. Struck Sleepless
10. Fading
all songs by Gretchen Menn
©2011 Mach Zero Music

Gretchen Menn: Guitars
Stuart Hamm: Bass
John Mader: Drums
Emily Palen: Violin (tracks 8-10)
Angeline Saris: Bass (track 1)
Jude Gold: 2nd Guitar (track 5)
Kirsten Menn: Vocal (track 10)

Produced by: Gretchen Menn/Jude Gold

At first listen you may think it's just an incredibly well written, performed and produced instrumental album. But a more careful listen and there really is something that grabs hold of your soul and won't let go. It's not one of those guitar albums that hit you like a ton of bricks, but more like an album telling a story from the first heavy rock chords of the opening track to the haunting strings and vocal in the album's closer.

The album is not just rock and roll heavy guitar licks. But a great collection of diverse instrumentals that take the listener on many different rides.

The album starts off with two strong rock and roll tracks.

'Scrap Metal' and 'Oleo Strut' give the listener a little taste of what Gretchen can do with a guitar. 'Scrap Metal' also features fellow Zepparella bandmate Angeline Saris on bass.

At first, 'Deja Vu' teases the listener, making them believe they will catch their breath with a slowed down track. But then just a little over a minute into the song, it picks up and begins to speed up the ride.

The hypnotic opening riff of 'Valentino's Victory Lap' keeps the listener till the very end.

Mid way through the album, we have the wonderful addition of Jude Gold's guitar in 'Fast Crowd'. Jude who previously played with Gretchen in the band Lapdance Armageddon, meshes with Gretchen's playing and has the listener tapping their feet throughout the whole song. Once again, a track that shows Gretchen's diversity when it comes to composing music and performing.

'Is It Not Strange' is not strange at all. The song allows the listener a bit of a break, almost melancholy-like before introducing the listener to the next part of the ride.

'Captured Barricade', the latest song to be released as a video, definitely captures the listener, makes them hold on and enjoy the ride.

While this is Gretchen's solo album, she allows the talented Emily Palen to shine on her own, in the violin solo track 'Walking Shadow'. Emily's playing keeps the listener mesmerized throughout the next two songs.

The album's closer, 'Fading', pairs Emily's violin with Kirsten Menn's beautiful soprano voice. Resulting in, as I mentioned before, a haunting, yet beautiful track..perfect way to finish off Gretchen's first, but not the last, solo album.

The riffs, the chords, the notes all blend perfectly. There was something magical that emanated from the speakers to this listener. It was apparent, while listening to the album who Gretchen's influences are. The songs flowed perfectly, all while each having their own identity and genre. We also need to mention the outstanding rhythm section of  Stuart Hamm on bass and John Mader on drums. They truly do compliment Gretchen's guitar playing.

'Hale Souls' combines bits and pieces of classical, acoustic, rock and even baroque styles. She's not trying to be the fastest guitar player, not trying to copy what other guitarists do. What she is doing, is playing with heart, soul and passion. She's doing it her way.

I highly recommend this album to anyone who wants to enjoy a great rock and roll ride with additional surprises along the way.


For more information on Gretchen, her releases, tour dates etc, be sure to check out her official website: gretchenmenn.com

Check out Gretchen's Youtube channel:
Gretchen Menn - Youtube

For more information on Zepparella, including tour dates, media, etc, check out their official website: zepparella.com

For information on Gretchen's sister, Kirsten Menn, be sure to check out her official website: 


To check out more work by some of the photographers who have allowed their photos to be included. 

Max Crace: Official Website
Will Bucquoy: Official Facebook Page
Peter Jensen: Official Website
Mark Manion: Official Website

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