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Oksana Grigorieva - The IndieLondon interview

Oksana Grigorieva

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OKSANA Grigorieva, the fiance of actor Mel Gibson, talks exclusively to IndieLondon about her debut album, Beautiful Heartache, and the inspiration behind some of the songs.

She also reflects on her career to date, growing up in Russia, teaching piano and meeting and forming a relationship with Mel Gibson – especially when he decided to co-write one of her songs and direct four of her music videos…

Q. This must be a pretty amazing time in your life, what with a new album on the way, a relationship with Mel Gibson and your first child together?
Oksana Grigorieva: Yeah, it’s amazing.

Q. How was putting together your debut [Beautiful Heartache] album? I gather you were given more creative freedom than you anticipated?
Oksana Grigorieva: It’s been an amazing ride and I think any artist would be surprised to have such a fantastic opportunity to control so much.

Q. It’s a very personal album…
Oksana Grigorieva: Yes it is, it’s very personal. It’s a combination of impressions, observations, emotions and it’s mostly about letters from the heart. It’s storytelling. Each song tells a story and a strong one too. It’s important to me to be able to tell a story. But it’s not a diary. The majority of the album was conceptualised quite a while ago because I’ve been writing music for 20 years now…

Q. You started at the age of seven, didn’t you?
Oksana Grigorieva: Yeah, six or seven I started. I was just playing with it. I wasn’t sure what I was doing but it was fun playing the piano. Every emotion has a rhythm. When I write melodies it’s very visual somehow. I see pictures.. I very much love ballet and always wanted to do it as a child. But my career pretty much ended when I was six when I was hand-picked to be taken to Kirov ballet [in St Petersburg], which in late ’70s/early ’80s kind of Soviet era meant you were literally taken away from your parents. It means you don’t see your parents much… twice a year or so. But if your parents don’t live in St Petersburg it’s quite difficult. So, my mother decided that I should continue to follow in the footsteps of my parents who are music teachers. I think I resented it a little bit.

But music is just another function… I see dance and music as being very related, along with images and choreography. I have a lot of ideas that wake me up at night, so I literally have to get up and write them down. They’re not always good ones, though [laughs]! In the morning, you can wake up and think: “Hmm, why did I think that was so great? In my dream it was brilliant…” But some of those ideas have made it onto this album.

Q. What’s the greatest piece of advice your parents gave you? Or the greatest life lesson?
Oksana Grigorieva: Follow your dreams no matter what. Even if you have to side-track a little bit… not side-track so much, but do other things. You’ve got to carry on with your dreams and never give up. I know it sounds like a cliche but it’s actually a beautiful notion.

Q. And in your case you’ve proved that it’s true…
Oksana Grigorieva: Yeah, even though I’ve had to work very hard to get where I’m at… I always supported myself financially. I’m lucky that I also had another set of skills. I graduated at 19, so I had a profession. I taught piano [as well as music composition and theory], so I could always support myself that way. When I came to Britain in my 20s I also did some modelling, which led to some commercials, and that also gave me the capability to support myself as well. So, I’ve been lucky as well…

Q. Can you explain the name of the album, Beautiful Heartache?
Oksana Grigorieva: Well, one of the tracks on the album is called Beautiful Heartache… everybody has a heartbreak at some point in their lives. It’s how you deal with it that’s important. So, I guess I was drawn to that notion for the album title.

Q. It’s a fascinating title because it puts an optimistic spin on heartbreak – that you can learn from it…
Oksana Grigorieva: And grow from it, yeah. It makes you think about what it means.

Q. What was the inspiration behind Say My Name, the first single from the album?
Oksana Grigorieva: Well, that one was co-written with Mel Gibson. He wrote the lyrics for that song. Interestingly enough, even though we were in different cities at that time it was inspired by the story of his upcoming film, Edge of Darkness. It’s the story of a parent who loses a child. It’s heartbreaking. I was trying to write a melody that slowly builds, like Bolero… it keeps building with that rhythm… repeated rhythm. Independently, he wrote those beautiful words and it worked amazingly well. I’ve changed the melody a bit… but as far as the orchestration goes, I’ve tried to keep it simple so that the emotion and the lyrics can speak for themselves. I kept it to just the piano and the voice, with just a little trace of the band and the orchestra.

But Mel is amazing. He shot four different videos for four different songs, which are very, very different. They’re like miniature films. But I think what he found interesting was the storytelling in the lyrics, as well as the music. You can create a rich palette with your sounds and I think he relates to that a lot. Creatively, we’re very together and on the same page. We spark off one another quite a bit. Of course, I’m not comparing myself to his greatness… but in a small way.

Oksana Grigorieva

Q. What was it like meeting him for the very first time, when he signed you to Icon Distribution? Could you quite believe that Mel Gibson, the filmmaker, wanted to sign you?
Oksana Grigorieva: Yes, it did. In 2006, I wrote a song for Josh Groban [Un Dia Llegara] which was a huge hit and somehow everything seemed to happen at once… doors opened and offers came through. I was coming to sign a new production deal here in London when he started to hear my music… one of my friends, a producer, played it for him. So, I got a phone call to come into Icon and I had a meeting… he asked me to play live, which I enjoy the most. I love the energy you get from it. I thrive on it as an artist.

But he didn’t offer me the contract immediately. He sort of thought about it and spoke to a few people I’d work with, such as Charlie Midnight, who is a longtime friend and co-writer. He’s such a great poet and he wrote quite a few songs on the album, even though I wrote the music. But Mel spoke to him, and to Josh [Groban]… I’d also written quite a few pieces for theatre – Gregory Peck and Vanessa Redgrave were doing stage performances set to my music. I scored a couple of short films, some commercial music. Eventually, we met and I became quite smitten with him in a professional way more than anything else. I find him very versatile as an actor… very funny, yet he can be very dramatic in a serious role. What I admire him the most for is his direction…

Q. He’s made some incredible films…
Oksana Grigorieva: Just incredible. The visuals… The Passion of Christ, for example… every frame is like a Caravaggio. I paint a little bit, so I love the light. Apocalypto too… it’s very emotionally moving as well as striking in its imagery. So, I’m very lucky that he directed those four videos. But still, that first meeting was to do with work and was very professional. He was separated from his wife in 2006 and we didn’t start seeing each for a year and a half after that.

Q. How is he as a director? Is he tough? Or did he cut you any slack?
Oksana Grigorieva: You know what? No! Not really. But he was happy with what I was doing. He was very concentrated because, of course, there’s a lot of responsibility… we shot four videos in seven days, so it was a very fast pace. But the Mexican locations were tremendous. I’d never been there before. So, he felt a lot of resposibility for creating the right visions and I was quite responsible trying to be responsible for playing the right notes – lip syncing and piano syncing because my piano part was quite complicated. That’s where the classical comes into my genre.

So, we had a lot to do in a short space of time. I’d keep asking him what I should be doing, but he kept telling me I was doing great. He was more concerned with other people… there were a lot of extras that had to do certain things. There were so many people who needed to gel. But the images he’s created are so beautiful and each video is different.

Q. Another of the songs that stand out is Back From Russia. Is that a particularly personal one for you?
Oksana Grigorieva: Yeah. That was written a while back. I’m very proud to be Russian, it’s who I am and it’s what’s feeding my creativity. But I’m also grateful to Britain… it’s always been very kind to me. I’ve studied her, I had my son here… the personalities are very bubbly and London is so full of history and amazing architecture. So, I’m quite grateful because it helped make me who I am. Of course, I’m Russian through and through but I haven’t been there for so long. I’m preparing to go there touring next year… but I’d also love to come back here as well.

Q. Has your album been heard in Russia yet?
Oksana Grigorieva: It’s been on my website for some time… but it’s not even out in the US yet. But I’m really looking forward to live touring and taking it to people, wherever that may be in the world.

Q. What’s your favourite live memory?
Oksana Grigorieva: You know what? I haven’t done large audiences with my music; only small venues. But one that comes to mind, I met this incredible, genius piano player, Van Cliburn… he won the Tchaikovsky piano competition. He was the winner of the first international Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. He’s a genius. We met in the US about four years ago and at first I was feeling very nervous, but we got to play together and that was incredible.

Q. What music is currently on your iPod? Which musicians inspired you?
Oksana Grigorieva: There was a composer, Alexander Scriabin… and a piece called The Poem of Ecstasy (Le Poème de l’extase). It’s a symphony piece and I think it’s so beautiful. He was kind of overshadowed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, who lived at the same time. And he died at the age of 43, from septicemia. He shaved a pimple and a few months later he was gone. It was so terrible. But I just love his music.

I really like Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3, The Rock. It’s one of my favourite pieces of all time. But that’s classical again. I also love Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Elton John. I love Elton John. Stevie Nicks’ voice is so striking as well.

There was another very, very good composer, who wrote only for piano, called Nikolai Karlovich Medtner, who was also overshadowed by the great Rachmaninoff! What can you do [laughs]! But I’ve played a lot of his piano pieces. It’s very romantic music.

I also love Billy Joel and I saw him the other day in New York! He was walking along the street and just passed me by. I was like: “Wow!” But I love what he does.

Read our review of Beautiful Heartache