I walk into the dressing room at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto to meet with pop singer and guitar sensation Orianthi. With her blonde hair tied in pigtail braids under a hat, she stands up to greet me. Orianthi reaches out one hand to shake mine, and in the other hand she holds a stuffed animal chicken. Apparently I am the only one in the room who finds this peculiar.
“I grew up with chickens and I want to have a chicken out on the road with me but I can’t,” she says, staring at the stuffed toy that now sits on the coffee table in front of her. “Everyone keeps giving me chickens, stuffed ones, so hopefully I’ll get a real rooster. That would be awesome. I’ve had chickens as pets since I was really young.”
At this point everyone in the room is giggling, including Orianthi and I. She flashes a gorgeous smile that lets me know she does not take herself too seriously. And for someone who became instantly famous for being Michael Jackson’s main guitarist in This Is It, that is no easy feat.
“A lot of people say that,” Orianthi says of the fact that even though she now has an established singing career of her own, she is still widely known as the girl who played guitar for Michael Jackson. “I don’t want to break away from that because I got to work with him for three months. … It was such an awesome time and I wish he was still around.”
For Orianthi, now 24, music goes back as far as she can remember. She started playing piano at the age of three and switched to guitar at the age of six.
“I can’t remember not playing [the guitar],” the Australian native says. “I wrote my first song when I was six. It was kind of terrible but I thought it was awesome. I played it to everyone in the school and I performed it at assemblies and had back-up dancers.”
Starting so young definitely paid off, because at the age of 18 Orianthi had the amazing opportunity to play on stage with one of her idols: Carlos Santana.
“It took me a while actually, afterwards, for it to sink in that I had actually got up there and jammed with him because he’s my idol and he’s the reason why I picked up the electric guitar,” she says modestly, almost as if she still does not quite believe it actually happened.
Not only an established guitarist, Orianthi is a songwriter and also has the vocal talent to back it up. Her first album, Believe (featuring the hit song “According To You”), is already out and is gaining momentum for its bright outlook and high energy.
“When I’m going in to write a song, I want it to be fun to play live,” she says. “I don’t want it to be a drag, so you look down the set list and you kind of get excited by it. That was sort of my frame of mind going into the record.”
And while staying true to pop music, Orianthi does not leave behind the instrument that made her into the person she is today, making room for various guitar solos amongst her pop melodies.
“[It was about] bringing in the guitar solos and also the guitar parts sort of throughout the songs, but not too much,” says Orianthi. “It’s finding the right balance so that people who are not guitar players are not turned off by it.”
Growing up in the guitar world, Orianthi often faced the double standard of being a talented woman in a predominantly male-oriented world. Still, it did not stop her from succeeding, and now it just fuels her to inspire other young women to pick up the guitar.
“My main goal is to inspire more kids, more girls to pick up the guitar and keep at it,” she says. “When people, when young kids come to my show, I want them to go home and want to pick up a guitar or paint a picture or be creative.”
“It’s pretty hard being a female guitar player,” Orianthi continues. “And some guys say, ‘You’re just getting attention because you’re a girl,’ so you’ve got to work twice as hard. You’ve got to play twice as hard just to get the respect. And for a guy to say, ‘Oh, you know, you’re just ok,’ I think there’s sort of a double standard with that, which hopefully will change.”
For Orianthi, gender is not an issue; the only thing that matters is the heart of the player.
“And it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl, it’s the way that you play,” she says thoughtfully. “[If it’s] with conviction and you put a lot of passion into it and you love it, I think it shows.”