Our friend, Ali Spagnola, has saved the day once again. Our lives were becoming boring and, in the nick of time, Ali took a few moments from her insane schedule to make certain that none of us ever take a step without having access to a party. The singer and multi-instrumentalist is bringing her Power Hour to your phone.
Talking to Ali about her resume can be dizzying: she sings, dances, plays three instruments, paints, was once a competitive figure skater, and is a member of the Pittsburgh Pens Ice Team. I’ll explain that one a bit later on. I first spoke to Ali about her Power Hour show last April and she told me then that her hope was to make it an app in addition to a shot-glass USB; despite being rejected multiple times from Apple, her app was finally accepted and will be available for iPhone beginning September 30th. This means that each and every one of you will be carrying a portable party along with you at all times no matter where you go so it just might be time to reconsider your no-friends-for-me policy.
When Ali shared her news about the app with me, I nearly asked who helped her design it but then I remembered that she once worked at a video company as a composer and designer. Speaking with Ali is always entertaining and highly informative; despite her cheerful and outgoing stage persona, she is generally quite reserved during our interviews and exceedingly humble about her multitude of ventures – she rarely volunteers information about her bevy of talents which always makes for an interesting interview because I have to do my homework. I caught up with Ali to find out about her app, talk about her projects, DragonCon, Channing Tatum, and to find out what she can’t do. The answers may surprise you.
Tuff Gnarl: I don’t even know where to start – you’ve been doing a lot! Vegas, Comic Con, you made the Pittsburgh Pens Ice Team, you’re still doing stand-up…did I miss anything?
Ali Spagnola: (laughs) I’m putting out an app at the end of this month! It comes out September 30th. It was finally accepted last week, it’ll be a paid app.
Let’s talk about your covers. The Taylor Swift “Shake it Off” cover was great but my favorite is definitely Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy.” Well, it’s a toss-up between that and the “Sweet Brown” cover. How often do you do a new cover?
I guess it depends on what moves me. I try to put out a video every week but I’ve been kind of failing at that because I’ve been traveling so much.
How do you lay them out? Do you arrange it all by ear or do you look at sheet music?
Just by ear. “Sweet Brown” doesn’t exactly have sheet music.
I want people to realize that while you are very funny and you do a lot of things for laughs, you’re a very good, legitimate multi-instrumentalist and a great singer. Between guitar, drums, and keys, what are you strongest at?
Thank you, by the way! Piano definitely, I started doing that when I was five. Guitar is just because it’s way easier to tour with that on my back. (laughs)
So you started piano when you were five. Did you just realize one day that one instrument wasn’t enough, that you had to play at least three and play them all simultaneously?
(laughs) I guess that all-at-the-same time is a recent thing. I don’t know, I taught myself guitar in middle school and I was a percussionist all through high school so…yeah. I just put them all together.
Do you have a favorite cover?
I don’t know if you could call this a cover but my favorite Broadway star, my favorite singer, took a role in Aida and I have a version of her singing the opening song for that show even though she didn’t originate the role – it’s Idina Menzel – singing “Every Story is a Love Story” and it’s pretty fantastic.
Do you have a favorite soundtrack, since we’re sort of brushing that topic?
Oh yeah! I would say [Andrew Lippa’s] The Wild Party is my favorite soundtrack.
I take it you’ve done some musical theater.
Yeah, I was going to go to college for that then I ended up switching majors but I’m totally a Broadway musical dork.
You went to Carnegie-Mellon; what did you end up studying?
I was an art major. I actually studied musical theater at Carnegie-Mellon when I was in high school and I loved it but I realized it wasn’t gonna be my thing so I switched to fine art.
You are a painter. Do you still do one painting a day, filling requests?
How do you have time to keep up with something like that?
It’s kind of like brushing my teeth at this point, I just do it. If I don’t do it I feel friggin’ horrible like if you don’t brush your teeth you’re like “aww that sucks!” but if you do brush your teeth you’re not like “heck yeah! I brushed my teeth – high-five!”
The first time we talked, you told me you grew up listening to a lot of Top 40 radio. Do you think pop music has gotten better or worse since you were a kid?
I think it’s still equally as awesome. (laughs) I don’t think that things are going sucky; in terms of production quality it’s getting better but that’s just a technology thing. Everything is still just as catchy and awesome, it’s just different, but I wouldn’t say better or worse.
Technology is a big part of what you do but you have put in the work beforehand – you started playing piano when you were five, you taught yourself guitar in middle school – because there’s so much technology, do you think that gives people the easy way out? Someone doesn’t even have to learn to sing in tune anymore. Can technology hurt music more than it can help?
Not at all. It’s about making compelling work and whatever tools you can use to get the job done. You’re an artist and that’s totally cool.
On that note, with all the technology you use, are people at your shows surprised at how much sound is coming from one person? There’s a lot going on there.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s kind of a mess on stage. My manager was saying to me “you’re doing so much I half-expected you to be making popcorn for the audience.” Which then I was like “I need to start doing that because it’d be sweet.” (laughs) I don’t know. At my live shows I’m generally doing Power Hour and people are playing along so it’s more of an interactive party than just a concert so people aren’t just passively sitting and watching, they’re a part of it.
What was Vegas like – that seems like the perfect place for your show?
It was super fun. I had three nights of shows and didn’t lose my voice which was fantastic. I played to the biggest crowd I’ve had so far which was at the Rio the last night and it was outdoors at the pool so it was this beautiful outdoor stage and a sea of people and then a sea of pools and hot tubs and the Rio behind that and behind that it was full moon that night so it was just super-perfect.
So they essentially built that for Power Hour to happen.
What was DragonCon like?
It was fun. That’s my third year going. I actually played five shows this time which was crazy but it was a blast and I saw a lot of the same people from a lot of the past years and it was so fun.
I feel like you and I are now at the point where we can geek out together. Are you into that stuff or do you go just as a performer?
I’m a dork. I’m totally a nerd, I fit right in.
Film definitely. I just recently signed a thing with Fandango so now I’m writing songs about their upcoming movies so now I’m under contract to be a film geek! (laughs)
Wreck-It Ralph was really cute. It took me a while to get to it but everyone was wearing Wreck-It Ralph stuff at DragonCon. I used to work at a video game company and one of my co-workers was like: “you definitely need to check this one out!” and it was super-cute.
You used to score video games, right?
Yeah, I used to write music for them and I used to actually create them – I was the lead artist at a video game company – although I don’t play now, I don’t have time! (laughs) It hasn’t been a part of my habits lately.
Is there anything you haven’t done involving creativity or is there something you’re bad at?
(laughs) I always say I’m a bad driver but I don’t know if that involves creativity.
Depends on how bad you are. Oh, and I also saw that you might be a panelist at SXSW. What panel might you sit in on?
We developed a couple of them. One was about what to do once you go viral and the other was about making a living by living your dream and doing creative stuff full time.
The sense I’ve gotten the last few times we’ve talked is that a lot of [creative success] is new to you and it sounds like you’ve had salaried jobs in the arts before; do you feel like you’ve made enough headway in terms of personal creative success to be able to give solid advice to someone else?
Yeah definitely, that’s why I put the panel together and actually I plan on being the counter-point to everyone else. Saying: “Quit your job and go for it!” because I, for so long, went to my day job and just moonlighted as a musician and developed that to the point where it was very clear that I could no longer do that. I needed to leave my job but until then, you know, hang on to that salary because in your free time you really can develop something and make it big.
How does someone know he or she is good enough to make that jump? How did you know?
Crap, I never thought about that! (laughs) Oh no, I never evaluated my goodness! I have to go back to my job! (laughs) It was never about evaluating my potential or talent or ability, it was the fact that I was spending every waking moment sprinting at my creative dream, I mean, if I wasn’t at work. It was very clear that there was no way to fit in everything so I got rid of the salary.
You’re making it work. How does being a member of the Pittsburgh Pens Ice Team fit into all this?
It’s the crew that cleans the ice between whistles. I’m a huge Pens fan and always have been because I grew up in Pittsburgh. I used to be a competitive figure skater so I was like “I could give this a shot” and they actually put me on the team!
Figure skating sounds like a huge time commitment.
It was and I had to choose between that and being a competitive dancer and, around middle school, they started butting heads so I went with dancing.
Are you bad at anything?
Just driving. I suck at it. Everything about it, not just driving, everything. Locking my keys in my car, running my battery down…parking.
I saw a picture of you behind a DJ deck. Do you DJ too?
Yeah I’ve DJ’d a bit but I don’t consider myself good at it. There are people that are so ridiculously talented and put a lot of work into it so I wanna respect them and not call myself a DJ. (laughs)
But, you do know how to make a good party. What’s the key to helping people to have a good time if you’re performing at an event?
Just make everyone feel welcome and that everything they do is cool and that they are awesome and that they can’t embarrass themselves. (laughs)
Good advice. Did you ever see yourself being involved in this many things?
I always had trouble picking a thing so probably. I remember as a kid wanting…I actually truly believed I could be a superhero if I just learned everything. And I guess I never stopped doing that.
Someone pointed out to me that you have a So You Think You Can Dance video on YouTube. Were you voted most talented in high school?
I was actually voted most sarcastic! (laughs) Which is bull crap. They don’t know what sarcasm is.
If you had to play one song for your celebrity crush, what would you play?
(laughs) Oh lord. My celebrity crush is Channing Tatum so I’d probably play something from Magic Mike.
Not a ballad huh? He seems like a ballad guy to me.
(laughs) No! He’s a dancer I wanna get him moving!
I see him in an IROC with ballads blasting out of his T-top. When we first talked, you told me you’d tell me if you ever got tired of weird fan requests. I saw on Instagram that you signed your first body part.
That’s not true. I’ve signed boobs before. That was my first buttocks. To be fair, I brought that on myself. At the end of the show I said “I’ll be by the merch table if you want to come have a drink or let me sign your butt.” And then…well…he stepped up.
A butt is pretty good.
Like Ali Spagnola on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @alispagnola
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