By Richie Unterberger

By the time Essra Mohawk was in her early twenties in 1970, she'd issued two LPs, both of which (Sandy's Album Is Here At Last! and Primordial Lovers) have also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. It would be a gap of about four years, however, before her third album, Essra Mohawk, came out in 1974. Although the core of her distinctive mix of rock, soul, and jazz remained intact, her sound had evolved with the introduction of a new producer.

    While Primordial Lovers had been produced by her husband of the time, Frazier Mohawk, her self-titled follow-up was produced by her friend Tom Sellers. "Tom was a great musician," enthuses Essra. "We met working together on jingles in Philly. I sure wish he was alive. What a great friend and wonderful music co-worker." In addition to producing, Sellers also co-wrote three of the songs with her, as well as playing piano, bass, and guitar on several of the tracks. "For instance, [on] 'Song to An Unborn Soul,' he loved the way I played it and chose to play it," she elaborates. "He put his fingers in the exact same places, just to feel it. He played my piano part, and did a great job. Made me feel like Mozart or someone, you know, [when] somebody wants to put their fingers where mine once were on an instrument."

    As Essra remembers, she and Tom initially recorded three songs: "Open Up My Love Doors," "Full Fledged Woman," and "You're Finally Here." Manager Johanan Vigoda then had her go into the studio to cut more material to add to the foundation of songs from which to draw a possible album. Although some overdubbing and mixing was done at Philadelphia's renowned Sigma Sound, most of the recording  for the tracks on Essra Mohawk was done in Los Angeles.

    Asked how Essra Mohawk differs most from her previous LP, she responds, "I think Primordial Lovers has a lot more of me and the piano." Essra Mohawk, she points out, has just two tracks featuring only piano and vocal, "You're Finally Here" and "I Cannot Forget." Even "I Cannot Forget" was not intended to take that form, with a more fully produced version (added to this CD as a bonus track) cut at the sessions. The version of "I Cannot Forget" that did find a place on the album was actually a demo, included on the LP at Vigoda's insistence.

    Admits Mohawk, "One bone of contention we had on the album is that [Sellers] did not allow me to freely do the thing I love the most to do when I'm recording—it's the icing on the cake— and that's my background vocals. All these neat little effects that you hear on Primordial Lovers is my own approach to backgrounds. I didn't really have that freedom. He didn't understand how to mix six different vocals, whereas I could. And because he couldn't do it, he wouldn't do it. I do what I call vocal collage, and if there's a couple threads missing, then it's not gonna make sense. So there's discordant vocals on stuff that don't make sense, because the whole collage is not there. The background vocals are not what they would have been had I been given the sort of freedom that I should be given, since that's my forte, and the freedom that Frazier gave me."

    Adds Essra, "Years later, a couple weeks before he got killed, we hooked up again and we were going to start working together again. I got to actually tell him about the thing about the vocal that he didn't let me do that I really wanted to do. He said he was sorry. We've all matured and understood more over the years about giving other people their freedom. A lot of producers think they have to be in control."

    As for her favorite song on Essra Mohawk, "I love 'Magic Pen.' Because it really was a magic song. At the time, I kind of built up my albums, and I like to have a climax of an album come towards the end. So usually—not always—but usually my favorite stuff is at the end of the album. Most people, they put their best foot forward first. But in terms of their listening, I want the experience of the whole album to build for [listeners]. Tommy had a track and asked, 'Did I have some lyrics for it?' I always had my book with me, and I opened it up to these lyrics I had written. They fit perfectly, the first note, with the beginning of the music. I just sang it down and the first time, the last note, the last word, of the lyrics coincided with the last note of the music. So it really is a magic song."

    Essra Mohawk also contains a real oddity in a cover version of the standard "Summertime." "I remember I said I wanted to do 'Summertime' differently. [Pianist] Dave Kempton said, 'Well, I know twenty-one different ways to play 'Summertime.' Which one do you want?' I said, 'The twenty-second way.' And that's what we ended up with."

    In a roundabout way, Elektra/Asylum was the company with which Essra Mohawk eventually found release. Asylum was home to a number of prominent singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s, among them Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Tom Waits. Yet in Essra's view, that didn't work out to her advantage. "It started out on Paramount. When ABC bought Paramount, Vigoda used that as an excuse to, I guess, use some kind of option in the contract to pull out and then re-sell the project. It ended up on Elektra/Asylum. That was a mistake, because Paramount was into it. They had done all the work. And by Elektra/Asylum getting it, it was just [to] finish it and they didn't have any real involvement with it. So once again, there was no promotion."

    As with Primordial Lovers, Essra had some reservations about the artwork. For "the cover, they did the precise copying of the position of the subject in [a] Maxfield Parrish painting. I had really wanted to do a more modern pose, but with the same kind of background. I wanted to change it up a little. I wasn't thrilled when I saw the first renderings for the Maxfield Parrish-type cover for Elektra/Asylum, but they tried to fix it a little bit. And I was an actual portrait artist, so I could do that stuff. When I was sixteen, I did boardwalk portraits on the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City; I was the youngest one. It's just a shame that that was never taken advantage of."

    For this CD reissue, two bonus tracks have been added to the ones that appeared on the original Essra Mohawk LP. Besides the fully produced version of "I Cannot Forget," this disc also includes the outtake "I Stand Here Naked," featuring backup by the Philadelphia band Edison Electric, with Jeremy Steig joining on flute. Though recorded in Philadelphia, it was written while Essra was living in San Francisco for a brief time.

    In the several decades since Essra Mohawk's first appearance, she's continued to write, record, and release music. To what does she attribute the enduring appeal of her work as a singer-songwriter? "It's because I come purely from within, and uninfluenced as possible," she says. "What comes out is not any kind of intentional influence. And my voice is my own. I don't sound like anybody else. There's other people that don't sound like anybody else either. We have signature voices.

    "Always the one thing I do have in mind when I write is the influence it will have on others. So I really do try to lift with my new music and my lyrics. I try to maybe teach and help people to understand themselves and all life. So I think there's a strong spiritual aspect to my music. And I get a lot of responses from people that it's helped their lives, so I keep doing it. If I didn't continue to get that good response and thought I was just banging my head against the wall and no one was listening, I would have stopped long ago. Not to say that you really can stop. When you're inspired with music, it's kind of compulsive. The music just kind of comes out of me. I really couldn't stop if I wanted to, to be honest." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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