Genesis and Beyond: Q&A with Wendy Flower of Wendy and Bonnie | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Genesis and Beyond: Q&A with Wendy Flower of Wendy and Bonnie

Mar 07, 2014 Web Exclusive By Frank Valish Bookmark and Share


Genesis, released in 1969, was the one and only album from sisters Wendy and Bonnie Flower. The San Francisco-based siblings were 18 and 15 at the time the album was originally released, and the music of Genesis belies their tender ages. The songs on Genesis are light psychedelic folk, reminiscent of artists like The Free Design, Tim Buckley, and, to a certain degree, fellow Californians, The Mamas and the Papas. The sisters’ harmonies are the main draw, floating into the ether above the airy soundscapes. While songs like “Let Yourself Go Another Time” and “The Winter Is Cold” are upbeat and jaunty, most of Genesis is restrained beauty.

The album has been championed of late by artists the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Stereolab, and Super Furry Animals, the latter of which sampled the gentle Wendy & Bonnie paean “By the Sea” in the opening of its 2003 song, “Hello Sunshine.” Unfortunately, at the time of its initial release, Genesis did not find as impressive a following. Shortly after the album was released, and amid promotion for the record that included an aborted slot on The Merv Griffin show, the group’s record label, Skye Records, dissolved due to bankruptcy. Subsequently, Wendy and Bonnie Flower faded into seeming obscurity. Wendy eventually earned a degree in childhood education, taught music, and wrote children’s songs.

In 2013, however, 44 years after Genesis’ original release, Wendy Flower released, New, a follow up to the cult classic she recorded with her sister as a teenager. The album, spurred by the recent interest in Genesis, is an eminently enjoyable set of songs that echoes the sensibilities so spectacularly evident in Wendy & Bonnie’s lone album from 1969.

Still living in California, Flower took a moment to talk with Under the Radar about her early history singing in the psychedelic band Crystal Fountain, the joy and heartbreak that came along with Genesis, the recent interest in that album, and her renewed passion for writing and recording.


Frank Valish (Under the Radar): How old were you when you joined Crystal Fountain?

Wendy Flower: I was 16, going on 17.

 

That band only recorded a couple singles, right? 

We did. It was kind of a garage-psych band. I made a record with them called “Sensations.” I don’t think that one got airplay. But I still have the little record from a long time ago…We were playing for grad nights and local gigs around the Bay area. The other recordings are actually on the Genesis deluxe issue that the Sundazed record company put out originally. And that is “The Night Behind Us” and “Never To Rest.” We did some covers, like “Tobacco Road,” and I used to remember singing the Whiskey Bar song, the song that the Doors did [“Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”], but none of those were out there.

 

And then the Genesis project just took precedence, right? Cal [Tjader, co-owner of Skye Records and family friend] took you under his wing and took you to LA to record the Genesis album, right?

That’s true. It’s really a long story and there’s a lot to this, a lot of politics and a lot of things that happened. But basically we were minors. We had three drummers in the Crystal Fountain, and the third drummer that came in was my sister Bonnie, who was only 13 and an amazing drummer. My parents became a little bit involved, of course. They realized that I was older and they weren’t going to try to step in too much with me, but with my sister it was a whole other ballgame. Then they became concerned. Cal Tjader was worried about us recording with the other people in San Francisco, and he felt that they could take care of us better if we went to the Skye record label, which was the record label that he was part owner of. And that’s how Gary McFarland [composer, producer] ended up producing our album as well, as he was also part owner.

 

So you were 17 and she was 14 when you recorded that album. 

I think so. Yes. It’s really sketchy, all of this, I’m sorry to say, because it did happen so many years ago. But when it finally came out, I know I was 18. I think we did most of the recording at the end of ’68 and it was released in ’69. You probably know more about this than me.

 

Did you do much support for the album? Because Skye folded very shortly after that album came out, right?

Unfortunately yes. For me, it was quite a heartbreak when the company went bankrupt and went belly up. We had a PR woman, Debbie O’Brien, and she took us to do some local TV shows, like Pow in San Francisco, and the Jack Carney show—Bonnie and I were on the same show as John Denver and John Denver was wonderful to us by the way; what a sweetheart. And so we did these shows and then we were all scheduled to do The Merv Griffin show and then Debbie called us up and said, “I’m sorry. I’m not working for Skye anymore. I’m really sorry girls, but that’s the way it goes, so it’s not going to happen.” And the next thing we knew, the company had bellied up.

 

But you kept trying to make it work with other band members at that time. 

I did. I was really struggling quite a bit for other reasons at that point in my life, and I really wanted to continue with Bonnie, because I felt that we had a great thing, and I could hear these wonderful sibling harmonies. She’s very talented. She was a consummate musician, even at her young age, and I thought, “Wow we really have something there.” I wanted to just keep growing and doing it, but Bonnie was very young and Bonnie wanted to go back to college. She had her first serious boyfriend about that time. You can understand. She thought, “Well the company went bankrupt. Why do I want to do this? I want to go to college.” She was bored with it. I can understand that. I certainly forgave her for ending it for the Wendy & Bonnie thing. She thought it wasn’t meant to be, basically.

 

I read an article where you said you weren’t sure you wanted the album to be reissued because it was not a happy time for you?

That’s absolutely true. I felt like since it had such a bad outcome the first time around, I thought, why would I want to put myself through this again? And what if we put this out there and the same thing happens? I thought, oh god do I have to relive this all over again? What if we put this album out there and people hear it and they hate it? I have already done this. Do I want to do this again? But then I started thinking, what do I have to lose? Everybody kept encouraging us to do it. Finally, after thinking about it, I thought, well fine, the chips are going to fall where they may. And if you don’t put yourself out there, how are you going to know? I have a lot thicker skin now than I did when I was younger, and I felt like I learned a lot along the way and I really wanted to do something with grown up music. I call it grown up music, because I don’t want to say adult music, because I think somebody might get the wrong idea. But I have to separate it from the children’s music that I write. So I thought this might be a new adventure for me, and how cool this could be. I really hoped Bonnie might see that too. I thought maybe we’ll collaborate and we’ll do a new album. For many reasons, it couldn’t get off the floor for the two of us doing another project together. It jut didn’t happen. But we were thrilled. When it came out. My gosh, who would predict this?

 

I wanted to ask also how involved you were in the San Francisco scene in the late 60s. Of course, I’ve read so much about that era and that city, the music and the culture, but you were so young at the time. 

There was nothing like it. I have to say that I kind of was on the outside looking in sometimes. Bonnie and I led a bit of a sheltered life at times, especially my sister because she was younger. I was a bit of a rebel. I did some goofy things back then. I left high school, I’m not proud of this by the way, but I left high school a month before graduation, because I didn’t like high school at all. I loved college though (laughs). That’s another story. But at the time I just thought I was going to do my music, and I was bored with the whole school thing. I went from being a straight A student to just barely getting through, getting an Incomplete in government at the very end, and that’s why I didn’t get my high school diploma for years. I had to go back and get all this stuff later. I don’t know if the piece of paper means that much, but it certainly does in the long run. You need an education. I didn’t see that at the time; I just wanted to be a star.

 

You were gigging and performing though.

Well, I think I had something. When I was onstage with the band, I was electric. It’s a funny thing. I’m kind of a shy person but a different personality would emerge. I felt in charge. I would just be completely absorbed in the music. Now that I look back on it, I wish I saw some of those films of me dancing around the stage and singing and doing all that. I probably overdid it a bit. I’m sure I was a bit cartoon-y. But at the time you’re doing it, you think you know it all and are doing it all. I wanted to learn all that I could possibly learn in music, and I wanted to grow as a singer-songwriter. And yet, I had no idea that it would be as difficult as it was. Because immediately, we had a lot of chances that maybe people don’t even get nowadays. I made a record. Next thing we know, we’re signing with this big company, Skye record company and we can put out a record album. It all sounded very cool at the time, like something big was going to happen, and then to have it just completely blow up in our faces, for me at least, was difficult. And then I was struggling. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

 

When did you first have the idea to record the new album?

My husband [Paul Freeman] and I had collaborated on some songs together. It was something that was just evolving at that time, which was about 2003. I thought I better put out some sort of follow up. First I thought of Bonnie and I doing something, but we just couldn’t get it together and she moved out of the area, sadly, to Arizona. Then I was asked to sing with the Super Furry Animals. They sampled “By the Sea” in their song “Hello Sunshine.” That sort of started it all. Because I thought that I really should do some grown up music. So the bug bit me. I started recorded writing and recording my own songs. 

In 2007 I got to go over to England to sing. Jarvis Cocker curated the Meltdown Festival. It was the early part of 2007 that started this wonderful ride. And thanks to the Genesis album coming out, I got to work with these great people, such as The High Llamas. I was one of the Lost Ladies of Folk. Jane Weaver sang with me. And then Trish Keenan, who sadly passed away, whom I loved from Broadcast—she left us the month after my father passed. All these people have encouraged me along the way, including Laetitia Sadier, who has covered “By the Sea,” and more recently Larry Gus, who is an electronica, kind of hip-hop/R&B artists. They are covering my old songs. I just think I got inspired by all these young people, there’s so many more and I should be listing names, because I know I’m forgetting to mention people who were significant to us, who helped us along the way. All these people have inspired me. I think the young people have inspired me to continue and keep growing as a musician and singer-songwriter. I kind of feel sad that Bonnie and I can’t do it together at this point, but I know Bonnie is working on doing her album. The bug bit me and I got inspired and I decided to go put myself out there again and do it. And I’m currently working on another two albums.

 

It must feel so redemptive for you after all this time and having essentially given up the grown up music for other pursuits, to be able to do it and have it end right this time.

Yes, thank you so much. It didn’t just fall into my lap. On the other hand, I’ve been very, very fortunate and so many other people out there are so deserving, and they may never get their day in the sun. And that breaks my heart when I see that.

 

I have just one more question. Do you have a favorite memory, from back in the old days?

Oh my golly. There’s so many. This is a question I never thought you’d ask me. From the Crystal Fountain days, I had a standing ovation when I was singing. That was cool, because I never had that before. Someone complimented my singing afterward. There were some people from a recording company who were pulling me. One guy was pulling one arm and the other was pulling the other arm. “You’re coming with me.” “No, she’s coming with me.” That was fun. And then later, jut working with my sister Bonnie. She was and still is an amazing person to work with.…Going to Skye record company, from that time I have two great memories. The Gabor Szabo thing, “we shall overdub,” when my voice was faltering. [Guitarist Gabor Szabo, in the studio for “By the Sea” reassured Wendy, who at the time was uncertain about her vocal performance, by telling her “we shall overdub.”] And Gary McFarland putting his arm on my shoulder and saying, “It’s all good and I’ll see you the next time we’re in San Fran.” I was not feeling like I was doing my best job. Of course, it didn’t happen. He passed after that. But I felt like they were happy with it. When we finally finished, they were happy with it.

(wendyflower.com)

 



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