Let’s forget about Nita Strauss as a guitar player for a moment.
Disregard the tours with Alice Cooper, the formative years with the Iron Maidens, and all of her manufacturer endorsements and signature models from companies such as Ibanez and DiMarzio.
Instead, picture her as one of the mythic dreamscapes of America—a place where hard work and vision can still slaughter all challenges and bring rewards to those who dare to place their shoulders against the wheel, grunting and struggling to move forward, and never ever take “no” for an answer or consider defeat.
Because that is how her recent album, Controlled Chaos [Sumerian Records], battled its way into the light.
Sure, you can poo-poo the achievement by arguing Strauss had access to a hard-rock community (thanks to frequent tours by the legend that is Alice Cooper), industry contacts, and, if you dare to go there, the benefit of a more female-friendly entertainment culture of late.
It’s likely that some or all of these situations helped somewhat. But not every musician working with a superstar, not every artist with deep manufacturer relationships, and not every aspiring performer who is not male gets a record deal with an established label these days. Furthermore, very few emerging talents about to work on their first album can garner enough financial support from fans to fund their entire recording project and more. And then, even fewer artists can commit to making an album their own way—without creative interference of any kind—and get a label to release it completely as is.
So when Strauss started tracking Controlled Chaos with drummer Josh Villalta, keyboardist Katt Scarlett, and cellist Tina Guo, she wasn’t making music as merely a guitar player.
She was a force of nature.
Impassioned. Gutsy. Dedicated. Unstoppable.
Controlled Chaos is all your ball game. With all that creative freedom in hand, what ultimately guided your concept for the album?
I wanted to make a record that was a snapshot of who I am as a guitar player, but also as a person. We’re all complex beings. Nobody is aggressive all the time, or dark all the time, or happy all the time. I wanted to cover each aspect of my personality on this record, which is a big reason that I didn’t recycle a bunch of riffs I had used in the past for other projects—although, to be honest, I did throw some of my favorite licks in from time to time. For the most part, I wanted everything to be fresh and new, so the music would reflect the various aspects of what is going on in my head right now. For example, “Our Most Desperate Hour” is, to me, a good snapshot of the all-encompassing vibe of the record. It’s a dark and aggressive song, but it also has a melody and a flow that balances things out.
Watch! “Our Most Desperate Hour”
That song is a journey with a few different dynamic and melodic shifts. Did you chart out the arrangement, or let emotion guide you?
Everything I do is emotion driven and very spontaneous. It’s all on the fly. I’m not great at mapping things out before I do them. Actually, when the album was done, Josh asked me, “What would you do differently next time around?” I thought, “Well, perhaps I would plan out the album’s structure so that it was designed to flow a certain way.” But this one was so organic in the way it all came together. I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, I already have four fast songs, so now I have to write a slow song.” I was just writing whatever came into my head, but I think everything ended up being a nice balance.
I’d like to clarify your “spontaneous” comment. Do you mean that you improvise your parts on the fly?
Yes. I improvise just about everything. I’m a totally instinctive player. It’s not all one take, obviously, but the first thing I do is sit and improvise. Sometimes, I’ll improvise for an hour, and after five or six run-throughs, the beginning will start out the same way. After a few more times, it starts ending the same way. Eventually, it gets to where I want it.
And you’re able to let emotion take over and not unconsciously circle back on comfortable licks?
It really is complete improvisation. Channeling the emotion you’re trying to get across—putting it first and foremost in your mind—makes all the difference. I cried so many times during the making of this record, and not even on the sad songs. Sometimes, I cried on the happy songs, but it was triumphant crying, like, “I did it!” It was an emotional process making this album.
How did you approach the manifestation of emotion from a guitar standpoint?
I started off each song with a clear emotion, so often the title would come before the riffs, notes, and chord progressions. I wanted each song to be about something, so I would look for notes that best told the story I was trying to get across.
So you didn’t jot down something like a little libretto for each song in order to have a musical script to follow?
Oh no. I tried to steer clear of interpreting the songs too much, because I wanted to leave everything to a listener’s imagination. When I put out “Pandemonium” in 2017, I actually reached out to my fans and asked them what the song was about. One person said it’s about a general leading his troops to war, and at the end of the war, you look around and see the peacefulness on the battlefield. Another person said they saw it as a boat sailing on a stormy sea, but it makes it through the storm and gets home. There were all of these completely different interpretations, but the main feeling I was trying to put across came through in all of them. That was the biggest compliment I could ever ask for.
Did any favorite musical influences seep into your consciousness during the sessions?
You’re always going to have aspects of your influences that find a way into your playing. For me, I guess that includes Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Jason Becker, and Marty Friedman. But there wasn’t ever a time where I said, “I want to write a Marty Friedman-style part for this.” It was really what served the song best.
How do you determine when a guitar track needs effects, as well as what effects should be deployed for certain parts?
It’s all by feel. I ask myself, “What will make the notes I’m playing stand out the best?” I tend to put short slapback delays on my leads, and I go pretty crisp and clean on my rhythm guitars. Pretty standard stuff. Nothing super groundbreaking.
Okay, but as your playing is driven by emotion, do you worry about how to best present the emotion you’re going for with just the right effect and the right blend between the wet and dry signals?
I think the main thing is letting the notes ring through for the song. If you saturate everything—or use a bunch of different tones and effects—you’ll confuse a listener’s ears. “What am I supposed to be hearing?” So I keep the sounds fairly consistent, because I want the emotion to come through the notes, rather than have someone focus on a cool reverb or delay.
What’s your typical compositional process?
I record everything in Pro Tools, because it’s the best way to get my ideas across. A lot of what you hear on Controlled Chaos are my demos, because I was careful to get a good signal with my Universal Audio Apollo Twin that could be reamped later if I wanted a different guitar sound. Of course, there are also times when I get an idea and my rig isn’t set up, so I’ll play the lick into my phone.
Where did you create all of these tracks?
My studio was a combination of my house, the back of the tour bus, desks in hotel rooms, tables in dressing rooms—anywhere that I could lay something down. Then, I had the summer to do the bulk of the drum recording and my solos in a Los Angele studio. But I was still pressing all the buttons. I did all the engineering myself.
Did you encounter any challenges after you opted to record the album by yourself?
I read a lot of stuff about engineering that I thought I already knew, but it turned out that I didn’t. I just learned as I went.
Well, I felt strongly about making an album that was my vision. I didn’t want anyone else’s input. Maybe that was selfish of me, but I’ve spent my entire career playing other people’s songs and realizing other people’s visions. So Controlled Chaos was my turn to make the album I wanted. Maybe the next time around, I’ll work with an engineer and have some people around who will make sure a take is as good as it needs to be. But I don’t know if I would bring on an actual producer, because then you’re kind of realizing their vision for an album, and not your own. For this album, it was my turn. I will ask for your opinion when I’m done with it!
Making albums today is a long way from the typical methodology back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where it was pretty much required that artists were assigned producers and sent to work in big studios.
Yeah. I’m sure some people still think you need a gigantic studio, 96 tracks, and a million dollars to make a good-sounding record. But the reality is if you’re willing to work with what you have, you can get amazing sounds at any budget.
Some renowned producers have told me the bummer about single songs being downloaded more often than entire albums is that they loved sequencing the tracks on a record to take the listener on a journey. Was either of those approaches a consideration for Controlled Chaos?
Actually, I did put a lot of thought into sequencing. There is definitely a journey and a flow to the album as a whole. But on the flip side, it wouldn’t bother me if people just picked a track or two, because I’m guilty of that, too. When I make my Spotify playlist for the gym, I pick super-upbeat, aggressive songs. So if someone uses one of my songs on a playlist, I’m still happy, because they are listening to it.
Watch! “Mariana Trench”
You work so closely with your drummer, Josh Villalta. Do you direct him very much about how he approaches your music?
Josh has been my boyfriend, manager, and drummer for so long now that he knows my personality and what I’m trying to get across—sometimes, better better than I do. So, by the time he gets to a track, I rarely give him much direction. Every once in a while, I might say, “I’d rather have an eighth-note feel here,” but, for the most part, I just let him do what he does. He’s such a technical and passionate drummer that he really elevates the songs to such high levels.
I assume it’s his job to reinterpret the drum machines, loops, or click tracks you use when getting your initial guitar ideas documented. It’s pretty amazing that he can translate things that were just meant as timing references into the cinematic parts he plays on the album.
That’s a big reason why I like to work with him. The two people who played on every song on this record are Josh and Katt Scarlett. Katt has been my best friend for 12 years, and Josh is the closest person to me in my life. It doesn’t get much better than having those two help me interpret my vision. The only other guest on the album is Tina Guo, who played cello on the Queen cover, “The Show Must Go On.” Tina is one of the most emotional musicians I’ve ever seen, so she was a perfect fit for the project, as well.
How extensive were the demos you gave to Josh and Katt?
I gave everyone a very complete demo, but I always say, “Take this and do your thing.” There’s no ego of mine saying you have to copy my keyboard line or drum part. I’m always like, “Here’s my idea. Make it better.” And they do. Every time.
Are they free to suggest amendments or change the basic song arrangements?
I would be open to collaborating on arrangements, but what they do is take my blueprint and make it into a house. They don’t add on an attic or a basement. That’s the best way I can describe it.
On that note, what tools did you use to build the house, so to speak?
All the electric guitars were recorded through a Universal Audio Apollo Twin to Pro Tools, because it was the easiest way for me to keep consistency in the sound. Even when I was in a big studio, I found it easier to work with the gear that I was used to. I did all the electric guitars with my signature Ibanez JIVA10.
Really? Usually, when I talk to guitarists about recording their albums, I get a list of the different guitars they used in the studio.
The reason I stuck to the JIVA was because I wanted to build a really versatile guitar with Ibanez, and the only way I could truly test it was to use it myself for every sound I needed. I didn’t want to reach for a Les Paul if I wanted a fat tone, or a Strat if I wanted a drier sound. I wanted my guitar to hold up for everything I wanted to do. And it did. It held up and more.
What about the acoustic-guitar parts?
I don’t remember what guitar it was, actually. It was one they had at the studio. I’ve never even owned an acoustic. I’m not really an acoustic player.
Yet you obviously wanted some acoustic textures in the album mix?
I had always planned to play an acoustic on “Hope Grows,” which is definitely the most vulnerable song I’ve ever written. I didn’t want to have my normal huge chain of effects and distortion and this and that. Maybe it would have been nice to have a distorted, singing-lead sound on the choruses, but I opted for the vulnerability of an acoustic guitar.
How did you record the acoustic?
I sat in a chair, put a microphone on a stand, and I played close to the mic. That was it—although there’s maybe a compressor and a bit of delay from a room mic.
That was actually the first time I recorded with an acoustic guitar and a mic. Usually, when I record acoustic parts, I plug my electric guitar into a BOSS AC-3 Acoustic Simulator pedal.
It’s interesting that you’ve probably “faked” your fair share of acoustic parts on sessions using the AC-3.
To me, there’s no technology that’s off limits as far as making your guitar sound good. I’m going through my rig for my tour right now, and I considered using Positive Grid software and an iPad. I didn’t end up going with that, but the reason why I ended up even thinking about it is because it sounds so good.
I’m really impressed at how you embraced the DIY concept—deciding to just do it all, get it done, and worry about who might release it after all the recording was completed.
That’s exactly what it was. We did shop the idea before there was any music, but the conversations were not very encouraging. No one knew what to expect from me. I didn’t have a solo career, and there was no proven track record of Nita Strauss music. I was basically just a musician who played guitar with a lot of other bands who also had a decent social-media following. People would go, “How is that going to translate to the real world?” I totally got that, so the Kickstarter campaign was our proof of concept. That showed the labels and the music industry that I wasn’t just a novelty, and that people wanted to hear this record. We went 800 percent over our goal. That’s the statement the fans made for me. After that, our conversations with labels were a lot different.
Were there any concerns about reaching out to your fan base to finance the project?
Well, relatively speaking, we weren’t asking for a lot. We asked for $20,000 to cover the recording, mixing, mastering, printing, and pressing, with a small amount set aside for press. We hit $20,000 in two hours, and we doubled it by the end of the day. The next day, we tripled the amount. It was shocking and it was amazing. I can’t thank people enough for making it all happen for me.
When the current, so-called wisdom is that no one sells records anymore, how do you think you amassed so much support for your album?
I looked at the numbers and thought, “Well, whoever is saying fans don’t buy records is perhaps not making records fans want to buy.”
Can any of us really know what music fans want, though?
Maybe not, but my fans know what kind of music I’ve been making already, and they know I will put 100 percent of my effort into whatever I do. They also know that I wasn’t asking for a handout. The people who follow me trust that I was going to come up with something to make them proud.
You planned for a $20,000 budget, and then you received commitments upwards of $60,000. When that happened, did you recast the budget?
We didn’t change plans and make an extravagantly expensive record. We saved the bulk of the extra funds for tour support. We didn’t just say, “Oh, we have some extra money, so let’s spend it because it’s there.” I’m Nita Strauss, but “Nita Strauss Incorporated” is the name on my credit card. I am a business, and we want to be self-sufficient. The extra revenue is mainly going to be used for touring Europe.
Your ambition is so formidable that I would have assumed you’d take the DIY approach to the max, and start your own label to distribute Controlled Chaos.
There are so many other things besides just playing guitar that go into releasing a record. Josh and I have been a team of two for the past four years, and we don’t know how to do any of that stuff—how to put a record in the stores, how to get a track on the radio, and so on. We had a completely finished album in our hands, and when Sumerian stepped in around the 11th hour and said, “We want to put this out exactly the way you envision it, we believe in you and your music, and we don’t want to take a piece of your other revenue streams,” it was almost too good to be true.
Almost like a fairy tale…
I was thrilled! I mean, the recording was done, the mixing was done, the album cover was shot, and Sumerian just said, “Great. Give it to us and we’ll put it out.” And that’s what they did. I was so glad that we didn’t sign with a label to make this record, because if we had, the label might have owned my image. They could have decided how I dressed on the cover, and the direction of the songs, and they could have vetoed things that I wanted to do. I wasn’t ready to give up that kind of control—not for my first album.
There’s so much instrumental guitar music out there now. Does an artist need to consider how to cut through all of the chatter and attract an audience? I mean, did you devise how to promote yourself as a commercial entity, or did you say, “I’m just going to be myself and not worry about that”?
Totally option number two. I’m fully aware of who I am as a guitar player, and I know how many incredible guitar players there are out there. I’m not trying to step over anybody, or say I’m better than anybody, or make any kind of competitive statement like that. I just made the record I wanted to make. I’m super proud of it, but some people are going to love it, and some people are going to love it less. That’s just life.