You can hear it in their voices that this is something genuinely exciting. With last Friday’s release of Rise, the first collaborative EP from Orianthi and Richie Sambora, you can easily imagine this is only the tip of the iceberg for the duo who call their project RSO. The five songs spring to life with energy, terrific harmonies and good-time rock & roll beats – which is not surprising since the two guitar players honed their talents in bands such as Alice Cooper and Bon Jovi. Here, though, they have a chance to really allow all their assets to shine at the forefront, from lead vocals to songwriting.
We already knew they both could sing. Orianthi has released three solo records, the last one being 2013’s Dave Stewart produced Heaven In This Hell. Sambora made a dozen albums with Bon Jovi where his vocals and lead guitar were an integral part of the band’s sound, along with three solo albums. Put these two together and the chemistry seems to ignite, from the ballad “Truth” to the anthemic rocker “Rise” to the confessional “Take Me,” it leaves you wanting more, and according to Sambora, there is definitely more coming.
For Orianthi, Steve Vai was a beacon in the night when she was a young teenaged girl starting to play guitar and create songs. As she told me during a 2012 interview, “I found his support to be so awesome cause I was sending him emails with crappy demos from my bedroom (laughs). And he’d be like, ‘I really like this part but maybe if you change the chords in this part here, it’d be better. Maybe try your melody somewhere else.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, great demo.’ He actually listened to it and wrote an email to me and I was like, wow.” Her gig with Cooper lasted from 2011 to 2014. “He’s always thinking big,” the Australian-born Orianthi explained about what she learned about being a performer from her boss. “What I have learned from him is to like really put yourself in the audience in a way, from the fan’s point of view and what they want to see, not only musically but visually and show respect.”
The New Jersey-born Sambora also found his calling early on and began his journey via an accordion before a real guitar got into his hands. “When I listened to Eric Clapton he’d be wrenching my heart bending those strings,” Sambora once told Metal Edge Magazine about his early heroes. Clapton would end up playing on a track on Sambora’s first solo album, Stranger in This Town, in 1991. Before finding his home in Bon Jovi, Sambora was in bands and doing session work; he even auditioned for KISS.
Since meeting in 2014, the couple has been on a songwriting frenzy. According to Sambora, they’ve written around seventy songs and have been playing shows together to enthusiastic crowds, which makes them about as happy as kids again. And that is what you hear in their voices, that pure glee, when they call in for an interview a few days ago.
How are you guys doing today?
Richie: It’s a fabulous day!
Ori: Yeah, it’s a great day. We’re really excited about everything.
Ori, we did an interview a few years ago when you were still with Alice and we talked a lot about your influences. How has Richie inspired you musically at this time in your musical life?
Ori: A lot. Richie is a huge music fan, as I am. He has such a great record collection and we love listening to music late at night and he’s turned me on to a lot of different artists and great songs. He has really inspired me in the way that he writes songs as well. I think I’m a much better songwriter working with Richie and it’s been a really wonderful time.
Richie, you want to add your 2 cents in about making music with Ori?
Richie: It’s terrific. I think this is the essence of what we do together. It’s call and answer with Ori and I. We started this thing a little ass-backwards. We started playing and touring first and with no material except for our solo stuff, and obviously the legacy material that we have in our past, and we started killing crowds, man. We moved up to #2 on the festivals underneath like Queen and Aerosmith and a bunch of people out there. We had a lot of fun doing that and during that period of time, obviously, that’s when the songwriting started to happen and obviously a romantic connection so it’s a very neat story. We inspire each other. We just keep throwing the ball back and forth and that’s really what it comes down to. It’s all encompassing, from the song up and we take it out to the people and play it live and I think people are going to dig it.
When did the musical collaborating get serious, especially in terms of original material?
Ori: We started writing kind of right off the bat, on the road, and we always had ideas and jamming out. We had so many songs. I think we wrote like what, fifty or sixty songs or something like that.
Richie: Yeah, I think we ended up with seventy at the end, and more, that we finished over a two year period of time between touring and all that stuff. We got twenty-five masters done so there are more EPs on the way.
Ori: We have a lot more material. We’re really excited about it.
Are any of these songs from those earliest sessions of writing together?
Ori: You know what, I think “Truth” was the first song that we wrote together.
Richie: And “Rise.” They were right at the beginning.
Ori: Then “Masterpiece.” And “Good Times,” cause we wrote that in Hawaii on the balcony.
Richie: Yeah, we wrote “Good Times” on the balcony in Hawaii while Alice Cooper was playing golf.
Ori: We started writing it around 3:00 or 4:00 AM and up till like 6:00 we kind of finished it; and Alice was out there golfing and he was surprised to see us at that hour (laughs). He was like, “Richie, Ori, is that you?” It was funny.
Richie: Chronologically, yeah, I actually never thought about that. Thanks for bringing it up. Those four songs were during the infant stages of what RSO was going to turn out to be.
You mentioned “Masterpiece” and it has that lovely piano in the intro but it also has an R&B foundation. Who brought that influence in?
Richie: It kind of happened organically
Ori: Yeah, it just happened, you know, experimenting with different beats and stuff and that kind of got that going. And Richie had that title from a very long time ago.
Richie: Yeah, the concept of “Masterpiece” is a very interesting way to say, I love you, I need you; “I’m going to paint you mine, my masterpiece.” In other words, you’re going to live your life in love, you’re going to live your life that way. “I’m going to paint you mine, my masterpiece.” It was a title I was working on many years ago and I lost it and I just brought it back and Ori and I revived it and that little bit of R&B thing. I played bass on that track.
I felt that piano has a strong presence on this record. Was that a base from which you worked from or was it mostly guitars?
Ori: You know what, we write a lot on piano and Richie is a fantastic piano player.
Richie: No, I’m not
Ori: Yes, you are. I’m going to get him to play onstage one day. I’m going to get him to so everyone can hear him (laughs). But yeah, we write a lot on piano and different instruments and I think it just kind of goes well with what we’re doing with this record and everything.
Richie: We basically set up the studio in our kitchen and I mean like a world class studio, great microphones, great preamps, great all that kind of stuff you need to actually make great sounding records. You know, Bob Rock, our wonderful producer, he convinced me that we could actually make that happen and have a pro sound and then we could work anytime we wanted with no pressure. So I said, let’s go, and we put it together and now it’s become a staple of the family. We’d go to a big studio to record most of the drums and stuff like that but then everything else we recorded basically at the house – all the vocals, everything, it was done here.
“Take Me” seems very autobiographical
Was that one a hard one to write?
Richie: No, that one came flying out of my mouth. It was wild! It really did cause it came flying out of my heart and actually an interesting story too because I woke up one morning and I sat down at the piano and that chorus, I recorded it with the iPhone. Bob started putting the track together and that vocal is from the iPhone, that chorus vocal. Not the verses, cause I didn’t write that till later. We put the track together and you know what, that song kind of came out almost like on the fly. It’s the story of my life in a way, in a lot of different aspects. There is a lot of stuff I went through and there are a lot of things, I guess, I needed to get off my chest and I did. I like that song a lot. I think people will be happy with that.
Ori: It’s one of my favorites. I just love the lyrics.
Ori, you told me before that you like co-writing with people. Do you feel writing with somebody helps bring things out that you might not necessarily put out there?
Ori: Yes, I think so, because, you know, Richie and I, we were talking about this the other day, how like all the songs came out of having conversations, and to sit down and write something and write out the lyrics, it’s great. Richie is an amazing lyricist, he knows how to paint that picture really well. I love writing lyrics and I like writing really early in the morning. That’s my thing. When I get up early, it’s like a clean slate and I usually write them then. Then, you know, we sit around and sort of go back and forth and try to make them the best they can be. And we’re always changing. You know, it’s funny, it’s like we’ll get right to the end of mixing a song and be like, you know what, that lyric should be changed, and go back in, pick up the mic and it’s better. Sometimes it takes getting to that point. We’re always trying to better it.
Speaking of lyrics, for each of you, what do you think is the most powerful line or lyric on this record?
Richie: I don’t know, man, we’re seventy songs in (laughs). You know, I think every song has their own lyrical power. I think “Truth” has some really powerful lyrics in it.
Ori: Yeah, I love that song a lot because we sing the same lyric together. It’s very unique, I think.
Richie: We sing that whole song in tandem together. “When I had doubt you inspired commitment.” That’s a pretty good lyric. That’ll get you started on a good song. When you get that kind of lyric going, it kind of starts the ball rolling.
Ori, of these five songs that are on this EP, do you remember which one you had the most input in changing from original chords that Richie had?
Ori: We changed stuff together. Every song evolved from when we first kind of wrote it. It’s gone through different phases, each track, but I guess all of them. The way they are on the EP right now, it seems quite a few years we’ve been working on it. We’ve added things, we’ve taken things away, rewrote a few lyrics. It’s all art and the way it ended up I’m really stoked about and really proud of it. I hope people dig it.
Richie, when you first started playing guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
Richie: Honestly, it wasn’t too hard because, here’s a crazy story. I taught myself how to play guitar, alright, and the way I did it, I used to make believe I could play guitar when I was a little kid. I was seven or eight years old and I was actually playing accordion, which I eventually switched out of because I couldn’t get any girls playing accordion (laughs). So what I did, cause I used to make believe and I wasn’t plugged in or anything like that, but I used to have like all my muscle memories so I was basically playing air guitar but without a guitar. I wasn’t playing the right notes but my fingers were moving as fast as Jimmy Page’s, you know what I mean. I wasn’t playing the right chords but I was playing good rhythm. I didn’t have the fingering or anything down yet. So by the time I really started to hone in when I was fourteen and a half and teach myself how to do it, once it kicked in it kicked in very fast cause my muscle memory was all over the place. Once I figured out the scales and once I figured out all that stuff, and how to emote on the instrument, I was in a band with older guys within six months of me really starting to figure it out.
What about you Ori, in the beginning what did you kind of struggle with the most on guitar?
Ori: I think barre chords. They were a pain in the ass. I was only like six and when you have small hands and I’m trying to play on my dad’s old, I don’t know, he had this kind of old beat around sort of classical guitar. And then I guess vibrato as well. I saw BB King on this video my dad had and playing “The Thrill Is Gone.” I was trying to get that freaking vibrato down and it took me forever. I just loved it so just being committed to it you finally get it. But it was a pain in the ass.
Richie: My first guitar, my dad bought me for ten bucks and it never stayed in tune so I thought I sucked for the first couple of months. I later broke that onstage like The Who. I did a Pete Townshend on that motherfucker (laughs).
Ori, Richie said he also played bass on these songs. Did you play anything different as well?
Ori: I played bass, I think, on a track.
Richie: She played some keys. We bang on everything. I have everything laying around this house. Everything from marimbas to tambourines, we basically have everything laying around the house and it’s almost impossible not to. I can’t walk by a piano without sitting and banging on it.
Who played the Spanish guitar?
Ori: Richie played the solo on “Take Me.” That’s Richie playing. Then in “Truth,” that’s back and forth, Richie and me playing the acoustic.
Since this is the tip of the iceberg – what do you have coming up and when?
Richie: That’s going to depend on how this does and how it catches. We’re throwing the line out there and hopefully we all catch some fish, you know what I’m saying (laughs). One of the main things we did on this record was try to expand ourselves on a genre level and almost surprise people, change people’s minds, cause everybody thinks we’re just guitar players. We tried to mold a new, fresh sound vocally. And the guitars, they’re all different on every track, as you hear. That’s the one thing we did, we went for different sounds for different stuff. We’re trying to mold a new sound so when people hear that sound they’re going to know it’s Ori and Richie. I think this first EP is a good taste test for all of that.
Portrait by Joseph Llanes; Live photographs by Amy Harris