|Nov 13th, 1991
Abdul Gets A Kick From Headlining Tour
Filed under: Spellbound
By ROGER CATLIN; Courant Rock Critic
The only other time she was out on a concert tour, she put up her own cardboard-box stage set, shared the bill with Milli Vanilli and could only sing a handful of songs.
Paula Abdul's ambitious "Under My Spell" tour, her first headlining show, now into its second week with a show at the Hartford Civic Center tonight, is way beyond that.
"It's everything I ever wanted to do," Abdul says from her bus, sounding appropriately enthusiastic for a former cheerleader -- a former cheerleader who has sold 10 million records. "It seemed like it took quite a while to put together, but now that I'm out there doing it, it's the best experience I've ever had," she says en route to a show in Cleveland.
She allows that on the last tour, as part of the 1989 "Club MTV" tour, she did a lot ". . . with nothing!" she says, finishing the sentence with a giggle. "It's funny. I remember when I was given that opportunity, to share the stage with five other acts, I wanted to do something to make it feel like it was my own stage, so we had little boxes, a cardboard set. I just wanted something to create my own ambience. It was a fun experience. But this is the first time I had my own stage on a headlining tour. It's kind of like a dream come true."
Backed by eight dancers (culled from 800 applicants) and nine musicians, some may wonder if the choreographer is presenting a show, seven months in the works, that may elude the traditional definition of concert.
"It's definitely a concert," Abdul says. "But it's a visual extravaganza as well. I think it's quite different than anything I've seen."
Abdul admits she used tapes of backing vocals "to enhance the sound" on the MTV tour, but she was never so tied to tapes that she had to run off stage when they broke, as Milli Vanilli did during a show at Lake Compounce Festival Park in Bristol. She laughs about that incident now. "I looked backstage and I heard what was going on and I couldn't believe it."
Never happy with the sound of her first album, she says she has concentrated "way more" on her voice. "I work every single day
vocally. From the end of my `Forever Your Girl' album, going into the `Spellbound' project, I started working with a vocal coach.
"He just breaks down your vocal chords like a muscle and rebuilds it," she says. "And I'm working cardiovascularly, too, while I'm singing the set, so it's been a whole process of training for doing this."
A lot of attention is given to Abdul's voice, in part because of a suit filed this year by a backup singer who says she sang lead on many of the "Forever Your Girl" songs (Abdul angrily denied it).
So Abdul has spent a lot of time designing the show so she can sing and also dance. "It's something you have to totally take into consideration. I've worked way too hard on this one, to make sure I've paced it right. There are times when I'm not dancing at all so I can concentrate on vocally getting the song across to every person in that audience. And there are times in musical segues when I can do some kick-butt dancing. The set of the songs changed continuously during rehearsals just for that reason alone. Because I was finding out what I could physically do dance-wise and sing. The way the show is paced and choreographed now works perfectly.
"And," she adds with emphasis, "I am singing live.
"You will see that at the show. Depending on if it's a good day or a bad day, you may hear perfect pitch or you may hear some flat notes too," she says with a laugh.
She's used to pressure. Following up her "Forever Your Girl" album was tough, she says. "But once I started working with my producers and was getting a chance to work and collaborate as a writer, I started feeling such a part of the project and loving what I was doing."
Indeed, "Spellbound" went to No. 1 and has already racked up sales of 3 million. But the album took several different directions. The original production by Don Was was mostly scrapped in the final analysis (although a song written by John Hiatt survives). There's one song written and produced by Prince. She even had the luxury of turning down a Bob Dylan song written for her.
"Believe me, I was totally flattered and I thought it was wonderful," Abdul says of Dylan's "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which will now surface on the next Was (Not Was) album. "If it made more sense for it to be on the album, I would have had it on the album. It's a great song. But it just wasn't the direction I was going in."
She wasn't aware which direction she was going exactly until she met up with the Family Stand, the three-person recording group credited with eight of the 11 tracks. "They understood what I wanted to achieve on the second album." Which was: "A little bit different, but not to deviate far from what was successful on the first album. I didn't want fans to say `Huh?' I wanted to grow a little bit as an artist. I wanted to stretch a little bit."
That was obvious when the dance-music queen chose as her first single the ballad "Rush Rush." "I knew I wanted to do that a year and a half ago when they wrote that song for me. That was the very first song that I took for the new album project," she says of the song by the Family Stand. "It was a risk and it was different but I believed in it. I felt that there are different sides to Paula and why not expose a different side?"
Most of Paula's sides are known through her dancing. "It's wonderful when I hear the younger generation -- and the older generation -- saying `Gosh, I'm taking lessons now, and thanks to you, I just love dancing.' It's a great feeling."
But Abdul is just extending the influences that have come to her, with obvious tributes in her videos to Bob Fosse ("Cold Hearted") and Gene Kelly ("Opposites Attract").
"Those were my idols growing up, so I wanted to do a homage to them. It was interesting too when the `Rush Rush' video came out; a lot of people didn't know about `Rebel Without a Cause,' so they went out and rented the video so they could understand what I was doing."
She doesn't conceive her videos and albums simultaneously. "I think that a lot of my ideas [for videos] come from actually being in the recording studio. When I'm recording songs, I write down ideas I want to do for videos. A lot of my ideas I've had already. For `Blowing Kisses in the Wind' I wanted to go back to basics and do a simple video that was dramatic, effective and not too much going on. It was nice to it bring it back to its simplest form and dance. I find that works best with me."
Making her last pair of videos in the midst of intense rehearsals made for long days. "I've been working from 8 in the morning to 9 o'clock at night every day. It was a tough last three months for me."
Even as she embarks on a yearlong tour, "believe it or not, now is when I feel like I have time off," she says with a laugh. "Because the days aren't filled with rehearsals, the show is down and now all I'm doing is keeping healthy, getting enough rest and having fun."
Paula Abdul performs tonight at the Hartford Civic Center, where tickets are $22.50. Color Me Badd opens the show at 7:30 p.m. For more information call 727-8080.