Published by Reuters
Orianthi Panagaris thought she had the perfect plan. The 24-year-old guitar virtuoso, who hails from Adelaide, Australia, was all set to shred as part of Michael Jackson’s band during his comeback shows in London. She was also working on a solo debut, but thought it would be released after the run of shows that would establish her as the female Carlos Santana.
Then tragedy intruded. Her plans came crashing down when Jackson died June 25 after suffering from cardiac arrest, just three weeks before his planned return to the stage.
But rather than retreating, Orianthi, who uses only her first name professionally, changed course. Her debut album, “Believe” — for which she wrote songs and sings and plays guitar — originally was due later in the fall, but Geffen Records moved up the release date to October 26 to take advantage of the hype surrounding the theatrical release of “This Is It,” the posthumous Jackson music film.
“When people see the movie, they’re going to think I’m either the fastest ambulance chaser in the business or that I know what I’m doing,” quipped Ron Fair, chairman of Geffen Records. “She’s absolutely the world’s greatest female guitar shredder of all time. No disrespect to Lita Ford, but there’s no comparison.”
The global release October 28 of “This Is It” to an estimated 25,000 theaters worldwide presented a promotional opportunity too irresistible for Geffen to ignore. “Believe” was released October 26, the same day as the soundtrack to “This Is It.”
For the last three months of Jackson’s life, Orianthi worked closely and intensely with the superstar, whose death is still a raw nerve for her.
“It was so devastating for all of us involved, working with him for three months preparing for the biggest show on Earth,” she says. “But I got to play music with him — I’m so grateful I got that time. The experience made me believe in myself more.”
Orianthi’s stint with Jackson wasn’t her first time working with a superstar collaborator. Her father, a performer in a Greek band, kept various guitars around the home, and it didn’t take long before Orianthi picked her instrument. Throughout her teens, she traded riffs with the best in the business. By the age of 15 she had worked with her “hero,” Steve Vai, and at 18 she had joined Santana onstage in her hometown. Tours and guest appearances followed with the likes of ZZ Top and Prince.
“It’s not easy being a female guitar player,” she says. “You have to believe in yourself. I had a teacher at school who told me to take up the harp. Hopefully we’ll be able to inspire a whole bunch of kids to pick up a guitar and take it seriously. That’s my goal: to inspire more female guitarists out there.”
Word of the prodigious — and eye-catching — guitarist found its way to Fair, who went on to sign her to a worldwide deal. In 2006, at the age of 21, Orianthi relocated to Los Angeles, where she worked on her album with producer Howard Benson (the All-American Rejects, Daughtry, My Chemical Romance, Three Days Grace).
Orianthi soon grabbed the attention of manager Stirling McIlwaine, who had guided the careers of Daughtry and Jordin Sparks in the United States for Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment. McIlwaine says he was “blown away” by his first glimpse of Orianthi. In early 2008, he and Fuller made her the first signing to 19 outside the “American Idol” franchise.
“Our plan was always to position her as a guitar player. A female Slash, if you will,” McIlwaine says. “In America, there are so many female pop singers who drop a guitar around their neck and strum a few chords to look cooler or better than they actually are. Ori is a totally different thing. She’s the real deal, and she happens to sing. We decided early on to look at tasty moments where we could position her as a guitar player and use our clout as a management company to create opportunities for her.”
The breakthrough presented itself in February, through a fortuitous onstage collaboration with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards. In the days after the performance, Orianthi received a message through her MySpace page from Jackson’s musical director, Michael Bearden, inviting her to audition for the lead guitarist spot for the “This Is It” concerts.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life, auditioning for Michael,” she recalls. After Orianthi tore her way through a rendition of “Beat It” — whose guitar solo originally was performed by Eddie Van Halen — Jackson gave the go-ahead, and she spent the next three months rehearsing with the icon, six hours each day.
“Believe” is essentially a conventional pop album with an utterly unconventional guitar solo on each track. Jackson fans no doubt will tune in to the album closer, “God Only Knows,” a late entry to the album that deals with loss. The first single, “According to You,” has been promoted to U.S. top 40 radio.
Orianthi will appear as a guest on Adam Lambert’s solo album. In 2010, she plans to mount a worldwide tour.