Kay Hanley and Michelle Lewis had been missing each other for over a decade. Their husbands were friends in college. They were label-mates on Giant records. But they never met. And now, after over a year of writing together, the apparently pre-destined Dilettantes have amassed over an album’s worth of material, a major label production deal, a standing engagement at Hollywood’s Hotel Café (where their revolving third members frequently appear on stage with them), and a rapidly growing “to do” list. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Veteran Letters To Cleo frontwoman Kay Hanley’s fortuitous relocation to Los Angeles occurred at the same time acclaimed songwriter and solo artist Michelle Lewis was looking to complete a female songwriting trio known as ladyapples. When Tracy Bonham departed the group for a year-long tour, fellow member and former Veruca Salt siren Nina Gordon suggested old friend Hanley as a replacement. Hanley and Lewis instantly bonded as recent transplants from Boston and New York, respectively, and thus began what would become both an enduring friendship and a musical powerhouse on every conceivable level.
It was a slow road finding a happy medium between three contrasting musical styles, but the work was satisfying enough to keep propelling the girls forward. When Gordon’s commitments to a solo project forced her to withdraw as a permanent member of the group the baton was passed, sparking a new direction for the band. The Dilettantes were born.
With laser-like focus, Hanley and Lewis quickly accumulated a staggering number of new songs. Lacking the harmonic influence of a third voice, the girls took a novel route: a “rotating” third slot to be filled by different artists to shake up the dynamic and raise the bar creatively, someone who could lend a fresh energy and vibe but not have to commit to joining the band. Among the first to sign up for stints as the “third” Dilettante after Bonham and Gordon were Leah Andreone, Kara DioGuardi, and Lisa Loeb. There have even been two men in the mix to date, Eric Schermehorn and Five for Fighting’s Kurt Schneider. All brought a unique outlook, but one that falls decidedly into the distinct Dilettante musical point of view.
The vision Hanley and Lewis bring to the Dilettantes is cross-eyed at first glance. Boston versus New York is pervasive in their individual personalities, sensibilities, and attitudes. Their intense love of baseball tested their friendship while recording demo tracks during the 2004 playoffs. Hanley coveted the songwriting career Lewis was trying to move away from – in order to develop into the kind of performer Hanley was. But these diametric perspectives were more seeds for brilliance than they were angst.
The self-described sandpaper to Lewis’s polish, Hanley’s rock and roll background brings to the group a visceral emotion and raw power. Lewis, the kid of a jazz musician, brings a cerebral quality, melodic and complex. Their styles blend and complement each other with a vividness that proves they were destined to make music together.
Every Dilettante fan subconsciously recognizes the measured influence of the band’s muse in their songs – their love of and appreciation for California inspires much of their work. But if there is a common thread to the Dilettantes music, it is that they construct perfectly structured, satisfying pop songs in the vein of the latter and modern-day masters of the craft: the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and Weezer.
Perhaps what makes the Dilettantes so interesting is that the band is an on-going, multi-faceted project. On one hand it represents an artist endeavor for Hanley and Lewis to express themselves and grow; a musical experiment that allows them to have fun while getting back in touch with what made them do music in the first place. Their records may be pure, but their live shows are different every time, helping inform what the band is going to be as it evolves and keeps their expanding horde of fans coming back to see what’s next. The Dilettantes as a writing team brazenly steps into diverse territory, gamely rising to the occasion to write material for other artists running the gamut from rock to R&B to pure pop. And, perhaps most tellingly, the Dilettantes is a true creative partnership with everything from a children’s television show to starting a record label in the offing.
That may seem like a lot of plates to spin at once, but not to Kay Hanley and Michelle Lewis. They’ve got a lot of lost time to make up together.