To say that Erica Wexler has lived a life that’s full and done it her way would be an understatement and do Paul Anka a disservice. It’s a life that has been poured into her debut album Sunlit Night (to be released on 25 Oct 2013) - and is the kind grand and detailed record that no one is making anymore.
Erica grew up on the Upper West Side of New York and her parents separated when she was five years old - hardly abnormal, except that her father, Norman Wexler, was a successful playwright with two Oscar nominations, for Joe and Serpico, and winner of a Guild award for Saturday Night Fever. A brilliant man with an IQ of 180 who suffered from severe manic depression.
Her mother, meanwhile, was an award winning advertising executive and copywriter who remarried, when Erica was 10, an award-winning art director called Robert Wilvers who achieved fame for his advertising campaigns for Alka Seltzer (“Plop-plop-fizz-fizz”) and Citibank (“The city that never sleeps”).
Raised on show tunes not rock'n'roll, Erica loved the timeless melodies of Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Elton John and Jimmy Webb, and admired “the chordal progressions of hymns”. “I went to church school, where I sang hymns every day for 10 years,” she explains. “These are etched in my musical brain.”
After leaving school - she felt that “an academic environment was not for her freewheeling, high-strung temperament” - she started singing and acting professionally. She did some jingles and commercials and won roles in several B movies, although not enough to get by, hence her extra employment recording “moan-overs” for Playboy cable TV and as, variously, an office temp, an au pair, a geisha girl in a Japanese karaoke bar and a freelance music journalist for Spin magazine.
She began making records herself, as Lluna (she originally operated as Luna but added an “L” because of a legal wrangle with rock group of the same name), notably an underground dance track called Shameless, a rhythmic but ethereal affair that was described by Billboard as “a cross between Ofra Haza and Kate Bush”. The single was self-released and earned Erica considerable attention and acclaim. It even charted and won her a record deal with Warner Bros.
She accrued a “big live gay following” due to her highly theatrical costumes. “They were very East Village,” she recalls of her outfits. “They were cabaret, magical, very beautiful and out-there. I even performed at a gay wedding where all the bridesmaids were in drag. It was sort of Lady Gaga by way of Fellini.”
When she was in her early twenties, she became the girlfriend of Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein and was the inspiration for his nude series. The drawings and prints that Erica acquired from him over the years helped finance her music. She didn’t begin recording her debut album Sunlit Night until 2005, due to the fact that, in the intervening decade, Erica became debilitatingly unwell with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ ME which meant she had to default on her record deal with Warners.
Luckily, help was at hand in the shape of XTC’s Andy Partridge, who Erica had briefly met in the early-90s and, by 1994, became her partner. “I wound up in Swindon with Andy, who because he’s always been something of a hermit, didn’t mind giving me the space to recover,” she reasons. “I was, basically, a blob. Andy was very patient with me. He offered me respite from all the trauma.”
“Round about 2004, I realised my life for the last 10 years had been about illness and trying to cure myself "I had an epiphany that if I didn’t have meaning and purpose I would never recover if I don't do music again and so I decided I had to make an album, and that lead me out of the dark maze.”
Some of the songs on Sunlit Night are from what Erica calls her “stockpile”, but the majority come from when, eight years into her illness, her “brain started coming back”. It was then that Andy bought her a piano and her cognitive ability returned.
Erica began what she calls “gypsy recordings” in a variety of studios in New York and England, the latter including producer Chris Hughes' Box studio and Peter Gabriel's Real World. She worked with her chief collaborator Art Labriola, several engineers (including world-famous engineer Haydn Bendal), and many of the world’s best session musicians, such as Charlie Jones on double bass (Robert Plant, Goldfrapp), Bob Kinkel on piano (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Tony Beard on drums (Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bee Gees, Bette Midler), and Adam Rogers on guitar (Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Michael Brecker).
She couldn't afford a producer so she handled production herself. "I worked at 14 different studios and stayed at my mom's when I was in New York," she explains. "There were many delays, trials and tribulations before I could finish the record."
And yet finish it she did in 2012, with the help of Andy Bradfield, who gave the album a warm analogue sound. "I was determined to have an analogue-sounding record in this age of digital harshness," she says. Erica chose Andy Bradfield , ( Rufus Wainwright, Josh Groban, David Gray, Elbow) to mix the album because of the grandeur and detail he brought to bear on Rufus Wainwright’s records. “Mine is a very ambitious record,” she says, proudly. “It took six years to produce because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I was pushing through my illness. It was more than a labour of love; it was an obsession. My salvation.”
She's even releasing it herself, such is her belief in Sunlit Night. Erica compares the songs on the album to three-act plays. “Growing up with a father who wrote dramatic narrative influenced the way I write songs. They start with conflict, move towards crisis, then there’s an epiphany and resolution,” she offers. “People tell me they find them comforting and uplifting. They’re a form of self-healing for me because of the chaotic arc of my life.”
Sunlit Night is an album of lush melodies with ethereal orchestrated pop arrangements. Sung by Erica and played by musicians with no electronics, there is a narrative depth, vocal purity and emotional resonance that makes few if any concessions to contemporary trends. “Andy Partridge said, ‘Make it timeless’“ she smiles.
“I didn’t want to make a trendy record. It’s for adults. For people who have lived a full life. It’s a celebration of the heroic journey everyone makes by surviving their own life.”
Just as the tracks are classically structured with an orchestral flare, they deal with classic themes: the gorgeous Wildflowers is about falling for an inappropriate person, whilst My Silent Star is about “making peace with separation and loss”. On I Unbecome, Wexler sings a song about how you can be “half a person” without your partner (which takes on an emotional new resonance when one understands it was actually written by Andy Partridge about how he feels when Erica isn’t around). If Sunlit Night has a leitmotif, it is the interconnectedness of people and the circular nature of love - as the title of the arresting and compelling closing track has it, Love Goes Round.
“This album saved me from a life rotting away, a life without meaning or hope,” Wexler reveals finally. “I tried to make an album of sonic beauty that people can bathe in, that envelops them and says everything will be ok.”