Gretchen Menn: From Shakespeare to Dante to Zepparella – Motivated to Keep the Momentum Going and to Keep Learning

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If you majored in English or enrolled in any literature classes, chances are that Dante’s Inferno was part of the required reading. Somehow, throughout her studies, Gretchen Menn never crossed paths with the classic. Instead, it became required reading for the making of her most recent album, 2017’s Abandon All Hope. The project is based around her musical interpretation of the allegorical journey through Hell, and given the complexity of the work and the nearly five years she put into it, one might find that fitting.

Featured photo credit:  Max Crace

Menn, however, has never been one to walk away from professional challenges; if anything, she seems to thrive on them. And so, when presented with a collaborative idea to set the allegorical poem to music — including scoring and arranging the many instrumental parts — she didn’t hesitate to become involved.

Guitar Girl caught up with Gretchen Menn via e-mail, where she revisited the painstaking creation of Abandon All Hope and the perspective she gained from the experience.

Abandon All Hope has been out for almost a year and a half. With some time and distance behind its release, what are your thoughts about it now, as compared to when it was a work in progress?

I think with some distance I can better appreciate just how much I learned in the process. It consumed me creatively for close to five years. Undertaking such a colossal concept meant a huge amount of necessary growth for me, both as a composer and guitarist. I was simultaneously studying composition, orchestration, and working on my guitar chops throughout. Over the course of the album, I had been focused on whatever aspect was right in front of me — as an independent artist, it means you’re handling or overseeing almost everything. Now that the dust has settled, I can really look back and see, “Wow … that was a journey!” And like any journey, one emerges transformed. I’m a different musician from the one I was when I started the album. And I’m very motivated to keep that momentum going, to keep learning.

Abandon All Hope Album Artwork by Max Crace

When did you first discover Dante’s Inferno? Was it mandatory reading in a high school or college English class, or something you read on your own? Were you taken by it at that time, or did you revisit it over the years?

I actually first read it to do this album! Coming from a family of writers, I’ve had a decently solid literary education, but Dante was a glaring, though totally unintentional, omission. There are so many important, influential, and beautiful pieces of literature out there, and Dante simply hadn’t come up in any of my English classes or recreational reading.

My experience with it was unique in that I read it because I was intending to do this concept album. As a result, I was heavily involved from the first to the last phrases. I was carefully considering not just the words and storyline, but the moods, the imagery, anything that might suggest something musically. I was voracious with it. I read it, reread it, found lectures on it, tried reading some of it in Italian …

How did it become the basis for a concept album?

It was the concept of Michael Molenda, editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine at the time. He had heard my first album, Hale Souls, and sensed glimmerings of a deeper interest in composition. He approached me saying he had a proposal for a collaboration. I admittedly assumed he, like many others, was going to advise me to sing and write more commercially friendly music. We met at a cafe and he produced a sheet of paper, which I still have. It said:

Concept/Project Proposal
Michael Molenda > Gretchen Menn
Dante’s Inferno
(* A Journey of 11 Different Musical Moods)

It listed 11 scenes from The Inferno. I took one look at it and knew in an instant what would dominate the next few years of my creative life. I had been considering doing something more to join my music and my love of literature. The title of my first album, Hale Souls, is taken from a Shakespeare quote, one of my favorites about the guitar:

Now, divine air! Now is his soul ravished. Is it not
strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?
(Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 3)

Michael’s concept spoke to me — or rather screamed to me — immediately. I’ve never been so simultaneously excited for and intimidated by a project.

We enlisted Max Crace right away to handle the album artwork and photography. His images and attention to detail are stunning.

Did you write the songs in sequence, or did you place them in order after they were written?

I wrote each piece specifically and strictly for the concept. I created a document with all the track titles and would write down general thoughts — key, meter, approximate tempo, feel, instrumentation, and adjectives that would occur to me. Even before a single note was written, I had a clear notion of what the piece should sound like or feel like. Not in a Mozartian way, mind you. I did not have every note for every instrument and all the complex counterpoint figured out in my mind ahead of time. But I did have ideas for melodies, harmonies, concepts, structures, and moreover, the overall sound of the piece.

Tempest – artwork by Max Crace

Was it a visual process, composing from a written work that is heavy with imagery?

Most definitely. Often the trick was finding whatever felt the most musically compelling that also provided textural and emotional variety. An album of fire and brimstone delivered 15 ways wouldn’t be much of a journey or hold any interest. I tried to get at what was special about each circle and use that as my starting place. In “Tempest,” for example, I opted to enhance the star-crossed nature of Francesca and Paolo, two spirits being punished for the sin of lust. I saw the opportunity to justify writing something more melodic, and I jumped on it. It made sense programmatically, and was a welcome musical respite at that point of the album, at least for my ears.

As far removed as Zepparella and AC/DShe are from orchestral pieces, they require/required interpreting someone else’s work while staying true to the originals. Did those experiences come into play at all while interpreting Inferno into a musical setting?

I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a cool point! Wow … Maybe. Probably.

You’ve said that you studied for this by digging deep into composition and orchestration. You have a music degree, so what did your album-related study consist of? Was it solo study, or did you take classes, or work with teachers and musicians? Did you draw on the music studies from your college years as well?

My undergraduate education certainly provided a meaningful start, but continued application was key to composing on the scale necessary for the album. I had been working with a wonderful composition teacher, Elizabeth Erickson, shortly before starting Abandon All Hope. We had been focusing on a variety of fundamentals — 16th-century counterpoint, sight singing, rhythm reading studies, four-part harmony writing. When I decided to tackle this project, the lessons shifted to focus on composition. Elizabeth is a brilliant teacher; she is specific without ever doing my work for me. Rather than saying, “Change that note to this or that chord to this one,” her corrections would be something like, “See if you can cadence a little less directly,” or “Try prolonging the tension a few measures longer.”

Self-study was critical as well — textbooks, score reading, listening.

Gretchen Menn – Photo by Max Crace

What is the guitar’s role in this work, and how did you bring the instrument into an orchestral project?

I wanted the guitar to be part of the ensemble — not the lead instrument. I feel that’s an area significantly less explored, and it interests me greatly. In theater, one-man/woman shows can certainly be moving and brilliant, but I find the interactions between various characters more naturally compelling. You get dialogues, conversations, juxtapositions. Rather than have the other instruments be subservient to the guitar, I wanted the guitar to be a part of the larger whole, sometimes featured, sometimes supportive. Of course, there are a lot of moments in which the guitar is featured (and in ways where Composer Me really kicked the ass of Guitarist Me), but the album wasn’t intended to be a glorification of the guitar above the other instruments.

You composed and arranged all of the music. Did that include scoring for all instruments? If so, did the musicians work according to your charts, or was there some collaboration and bringing their ideas to the works? 

Yes, yes, and yes. I did try to have all the scores in polished form, but I always invited the feedback of the musicians so that I might improve my writing and awareness of what was effectively written and what was less natural. I did make it a point to go over the parts with my composition teacher (who incidentally plays violin, viola, cello, and piano), and I have a shelf of orchestration textbooks to which I constantly refer. The scores were mostly in decent shape by the time I got them to the musicians. The most common changes we made in the studio were with certain dynamics or articulations. Daniele Gottardo, album co-producer, weighed in most heavily on arrangement suggestions. He happens to be an absolutely brilliant composer/guitarist who combines classical and rock instruments into modern compositions. This was familiar territory for him, and he gave some valuable insight and advice. Drummer Thomas Perry was very adept at taking my scored drum ideas and developing them into his final drum parts. And the solo drum piece, “Sentry,” is Tom’s. I told him the mood and approximate length, and he came up with the rest.

How did you assemble the musicians? Had you worked together in the past? 

Thomas Perry has been the drummer in my original trio, and I knew he’d be perfect for this. He instantly gets where I’m going with a composition, and he comes up with ideas that totally enhance the music. His technical chops are formidable. Add to that his tone, musicality, sensitivity to nuance, and truly delightful attitude, and you get an irreplaceable musical cohort.

Daniele Gottardo and I met because a mutual friend insisted on it — Mike Bemesderfer knew we were both serious guitarists who happened to be passionate about composition. I knew of Daniele as a face-melting virtuoso, but I wasn’t familiar with his original music, which turned out to be shockingly sophisticated and compositionally profound. We became fast friends and first worked together when I remotely produced some vocal tracks of my sister for his album, Non Temperato.

Soon after, he was telling me about this badass string quartet with whom he had recently performed, and mentioned the first violinist, Glauco Bertagnin, was truly exceptional. I asked if he might be willing to approach Glauco and oversee the tracking of some violin parts for my album. We started with three pieces initially. The violin has such a featured role on the album — in many places, it’s the counterpart of the guitar, and I knew I’d be matching the violin’s phrasing, vibrato, articulation. It needed to feel right. The tracking with Glauco went so well that we signed him up for the whole album, and I decided to go to Italy to be present at the rest of the sessions.

After the second session, Glauco told me he’d like me to write something for his quartet. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and I went home and considered which pieces on the album should have string quartet, if that was now available to me. The third session we did in Italy was with the full quartet: Glauco, Matteo Marzaro (second violin), Alessandro Pandolfi (viola), Giordano Pegoraro (cello). They all are phenomenal musicians and gave glorious performances.

Around this time, Daniele had become such an invaluable advisor that I asked him to be artistic co-producer. His rare combination of immense guitar skills (which made him an invaluable coach when it was time for me to track my parts), compositional abilities, and familiarity with combining electric guitar and classical instruments meant he was the perfect partner in the adventure. He ended up playing bass as well, and doing a crazy great job with it.

Kristen Menn – photo by Peter Jensen

When I imagine the sound of angels singing, it’s always the voice of my sister, Kirsten Menn. I remember her getting into singing when we were kids and being vaguely annoyed, as older siblings so often are at the very existence of their younger siblings. That soon changed dramatically, not just because we became best friends when we were in high school, but also because she started to get good. Like really, really good. Though she opted not to pursue becoming a professional opera singer, she certainly could have been. Writing for her and hearing her vocals come to life was one of my favorite parts of doing this album. She also played all the keys that weren’t classical piano.

I met pianist Salome Scheidegger on a gig for a project called Critical Hit. We hit it off immediately. She comes from the classical world (she was playing with the Zurich Symphony Orchestra when she was 16!), but she loves rock. When she said she’d be willing to be involved with the album, I went back and rewrote parts specifically because I knew a musician of her caliber could kill it on anything playable I could write. And she did. “Savages” has her all over the place, “Grace” and “Tempest” have some featured moments for her as well.

Angeline Saris, former Zepparella bassist, made a cameo on “Limbo,” where she played bowed, upright bass. Quite a departure from what she and I did together in Zepparella, and I so enjoyed what she brought to that track.

You also studied contemporary artists as part of your homework — Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, and of course Led Zeppelin, in whose music you are already well versed. Why those particular three as relates to the music you had in mind to create?

Mostly it was organic — music that speaks to me. But I think all of those three artists/bands you mentioned have an expansive palette of emotions, atmospheres, textures. All pushed the edges of imagination and creativity in ways that were wonderfully effective and accessible.

Gretchen Menn – photo by Max Crace

Which guitars, amps, and effects did you use on the album?

The main guitar I used is my #1 Music Man Silhouette Special with single coil DiMarzio pickups. I did use my Les Paul Standard (my primary guitar for Zepparella) to record the riff of “Shadows,” and the guitars for “Hound of Hades” and “Beast.” My Kenny Hill Ruck classical guitar is featured on “Hellward Swoon,” “Lake of Ice,” and “Grace.”

For amps, it’s all my Engl SE 670 el 34, with the exception of “Limbo,” which is through my 1966 Fender Deluxe.

The delay is a Providence Chrono Delay. Reverbs mostly came from the amps with some additional reverbs added in mixing.

Did you know which guitars and amps you wanted to use, or were those decisions made as you created and worked on the compositions? 

Yes on the Music Man and Kenny Hill guitars. I hadn’t planned to use my Les Paul, but a few tracks called for that sound. I do quite a bit of re-amping, as it allows me to get my basic guitar tracks at home, take them into the studio, and audition amps for the final sounds. I brought all my amps, and the Engl ended up having the right sound for what I envisioned for the guitar as well as how the guitar sat with the other instruments. Combining electric guitar with classical instruments requires some sensitivity to get things to inhabit their own sonic space, yet still feel cohesive as an ensemble.

Did you sometimes change course as the songs took shape, determining that the guitar with which you began writing was, in fact, not the one for recording the completed piece?

I did almost all of the writing away from the guitar, and the majority was thought out in advance. The biggest surprise in that respect was deciding to use the Les Paul for a few tracks.

Recording took place in San Francisco and Italy and included some tracking at your home. How much was done in each location, and how long did the entire project take from idea until completion? 

It’s difficult to say for certain how long the actual recording took, as I often had to put things on pause either because I didn’t have the time or didn’t have the money to continue. But the process was this: once the compositions were done, I set studio dates for a batch of songs — usually about three at a time. Drums and vocals were recorded with Robert Preston at Get Reel Productions in San Francisco. String quartet and piano were recorded with Ugo Bolzoni at New Frontiers Recording Studio in Rovigo, Italy. Bass, keyboards, and guitars were recorded at my home studio, and guitars were re-amped at Get Reel Productions. Mixing and mastering were done by Ugo Bolzoni in Italy … with lots of files going back and forth until we (Michael Molenda, Daniele Gottardo, and I) agreed that they were done.

Violinist Glauco Bertagnin, Gretchen Menn, and Artistic Producer Daniele Gottardo in Italy at New Frontiers Recording Studio – photo by Nicola Boschetti
Gretchen Menn, Artistic Producer Daniele Gottardo, and Engineer Ugo Bolzoni in Italy at New Frontiers Recording Studio – Photo by Nicola Boschetti



Are you in thought or in process regarding your next album?

Yes to both! I have two, maybe three, albums in various stages of development now.

In addition to writing and recording this album, you continue to tour and record with Zepparella. Earlier this year, you had some lineup changes, with Anna Kristina returning as vocalist and Holly West joining as your new bass player. Transitions are never easy, but these two seem to have been fairly seamless. What was key to making it so, and what is different and similar about Zepparella 2018?

Exactly what you said — transitions are never easy. In many ways, it has been a tough year. I adored the previous Zepparella lineup with Noelle Doughty and Angeline Saris, and I’m absolutely loving the new lineup with Anna Kristina and Holly West. It’s different flavors of awesome. I avoid making comparisons. It always feels there is no way to do so without sounding as if you’re putting one person or lineup over another. Everyone brings something singular and irreplaceable.

Fifty percent of proceeds from poster sales on your website are donated to charities, among them Nine Lives Foundation, Animal Welfare Institute, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Starlight Children’s Foundation, and disaster relief. Why those particular organizations, and why is philanthropy important to you?

Because I’m an independent artist, I see who places orders from my website — I’m the one packing the CDs or posters and going to the post office. I manage all my social media. I have an immediate connection to those who support me. And I know that many of my most outspoken supporters probably couldn’t be more different from me politically. One of the side benefits about music is it doesn’t allow you to live in a bubble. You meet good people with other priorities, other values, other ways of seeing the world. So in choosing charities, it was important to me to find common ground. I figured animal rescue, helping sick kids, and disaster relief are causes most of us can get behind. I researched some of the highest-rated charities and then selected those you mentioned for being outstanding at what they do. Nine Lives is a special connection for me … they saved my cat, Ferdinand, when he needed emergency surgery as a kitten.

I don’t view what I’m doing as philanthropy. Philanthropists devote their lives to causes. I wish I could do more, but I’ll do what I can. I live rather monastically, but I’m comfortable. I can afford groceries and rent and am able to do fun stuff once in awhile. That makes me very privileged in the grand scheme of things, and I feel it’s my responsibility to be of some service for those who don’t have it so easy.

Finally, the last time we spoke, we discussed the pitfalls of the music industry and how easy it is for young women to “go in blindly and trust the wrong people.” In the past year or so, women have bravely come forward with endless horror stories — not so much in the music industry, which is another conversation entirely, but there have been some, and certainly many in other fields. Are we making strides, making progress? Three years since we broached this topic, what are your thoughts?

It is a complex and charged topic, and it’s evident there have been problems bigger and more pervasive than many realized. But talking is where progress starts. My hope is that we confront these areas that need an overhaul in ways that promote legitimate, sustainable change. Most people don’t have bad intentions, and direct, diplomatic communication can do wonders for how we perceive and interact with each other. There will unfortunately always be the few truly bad apples, and they absolutely need to be held accountable.

Perhaps this wave of people coming forward will encourage others to speak up sooner. Individuals often have more power than they recognize, and we can affect big change. Sometimes it may be in speaking up with strength and confidence when we witness or experience an injustice. Or it could be keeping calm and setting a clear boundary rather than immediately assuming the worst about another person. But there are certain basic practices I’d encourage in anyone, regardless of gender, age, career, or whatever: Keep an open mind, but keep judicious boundaries. Let people earn your trust, but give everyone your courtesy and respect. True progress on a big issue takes time, but I do believe it’s happening, and each of us can make choices that hinder or help.

— Alison Richter


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