For Anthony Lai, it’s never too late for a fresh start.
The Dearborn vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist boldly weathers life’s painful losses, changes and challenges on his latest hopeful, folk-inspired album, Take Me with You.
“Every song is a very real experience, and some are more specific than others, but they’re all very honest. As I was choosing what songs I’ve written, I kept gravitating toward the honest ones and the ones that gave an emotional response,” Lai said.
“The album just started to take shape, and it ended up having this theme. I originally set out for it to be less themed and more of just a collection of tunes, but it looked like I had a common thread after all.”
Each thread weaves different tonal colors and instrumental palettes to represent a cohesive sound tinged with hints of pop, rock, bluegrass, classical, choral and folk.
“It feels like this album is finally me saying I understand who I am as a Beatles fan and as someone who has also studied classical music and is a choral director. You can hear all avenues of my life in this album,” Lai said.
Bobbi and Lisa Glide Away
Spirited mandolin, ruminative harmonica, lively piano, bouncy bass, smooth percussion and shiny harmonies provide much-needed inner strength for focusing on the future without forgetting the past.
Lai reassuringly sings, “You’ve got a long road ahead/Please take me with you/You don’t belong here in such an empty room/It may seem small, but take a look at all the things you say and do/She isn’t gone, she’s living on inside of you.”
“My grandparents were my heroes. And when I met Bobbi, one of the ways we had initially connected was when she had just lost her grandma, who was her hero. And I still had my grandma at the time, but my grandpa was already gone,” he said.
“We really connected on that pain, and she was really just starting to go through it, and I really understood the feeling. She would talk so much about her grandma’s loving heart, and I was seeing that very thing in her.”
A lush, heavenly choir of harmonies, peaceful acoustic strums, gleaming piano, buoyant mandolin and serene flute infuse a magical sense of confidence and vitality in worrisome listeners.
Lai beautifully sings, “When your world is unfolding and all that you’re holding/Are plans that don’t always take shape/And for all your arranging the wind keeps on changing/And everything’s blowing away/Glide away/Show me all you do and I’ll stay with you.”
“Most of the music is pretty calming, adventurous or optimistic. There’s an optimism to it, but also a realism to that optimism. I tried to avoid being too saccharine,” Lai said.
“There are stories about pain in there, although I tried to avoid it sounding too painful, but not denying that the pain is there. You can’t really have hope without something you’re hoping to relieve.”
Lai also brings an instant sense of relief on “Sweet Lisa Hazel Eyes,” a bright folk-pop ray of sunshine beaming down on a new relationship.
Ecstatic mandolin, thumping drums, strolling bass, vibrant ukulele, bold Mellotron, cozy acoustic strums and summery Beach Boy-esque harmonies remind people to take life’s crucial risks.
Lai encouragingly sings, “We’ll dig into the candy stash and put on the Crosby, Stills, and Nash/Stop for a kitschy lunch along the way/We’ll humor every tourist trap/We’ll fill up the tank and we won’t look back/We’ll let our imagination lead the way.
“I was dating this girl Lisa and she had just gotten into Crosby, Stills & Nash. She absolutely loved ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.’ She said as a joke, ‘You should write me ‘Sweet Lisa Hazel Eyes.’ When somebody says that, it usually doesn’t work out that you can, unless you’re Paul McCartney just writing a song on a whim,” he said.
“I was driving home from a Phoenix Theory rehearsal, and all of a sudden, the chorus popped into my head with a little hook. I started working on it, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too close to Crosby, Stills & Nash if I was going to be taking that idea for the title.”
Take Me with You
Lai started writing and recording the eight tracks for Take Me with You last year in his home studio. While fragments of some tracks date back nearly a decade, others were written this past summer in time for a September album release.
“I started recording just before the pandemic, and I was thinking, ‘If I only had a little bit more time,’ and then I got all the time in the world, and that actually killed the creativity. You can’t write about life without life,” Lai said.
“It really got shelved, even though I would try to chip at it. It was not very inspired-sounding. As I started to see glimpses of my life coming back, I realized, ‘When your life comes back, you’re going to be busy as hell again, so why don’t you actually sit down and get serious?’”
With a renewed creative commitment, Lai invited a host of talented collaborators to paint an acoustic-centered sound built around his guitar, piano and mandolin.
Bonnie Schippling (vocals), Rachel Common (vocals, piano), Alaina Volante (flute), Rick Robinson (double bass), Nick Hamblin (clarinet), Amanda Kawucha (bassoon), Lucy Alessio (violin), Joseph Deller (violin), Leslie DeShazor (viola) and Tom Sullivan (cello) brought Lai’s enchanting multi-genre sound to life across several Take Me with You tracks.
“Bonnie and Rachel are two vocalists that I worked with at Greenfield Village and in other projects as well. Alaina is a longtime friend of mine, and she went to Wayne State and got a master’s (degree) in flute performance. Bonnie, Rachel and Alaina used to be in the acoustic version of The Anthony Lai Band,” he said.
“‘Glide Away’ was written specifically for their voices and Alaina’s flute playing. I think that really helped ‘Glide Away’ work the way it does because it was not, ‘I’m writing voice parts.’ It was, ‘I’m writing a voice part for this voice.’”
The Beatles, Composers and Beyond
While growing up in Texas, Lai discovered his love of music at age 11. At the time, he watched “The Beatles Anthology” documentary series in December 1995 and immediately wanted to learn guitar.
“That was like my Ed Sullivan Show, and I obsessed over The Beatles for years. I didn’t want to hear anything else, and then right toward the end of high school, I started to get into Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and some of the other contemporary bands at that time,” said Lai, who later added bass, piano and mandolin to his repertoire.
Lai also developed a deep appreciation for TV, film and classical composers, including James Horner, Alf Clausen, Alan Silvestri, Howard Shore and others.
“It turns out all of my favorite film music was actually inspired by some of the greatest classical music, so I became a classical orchestral snob for a hot minute,” he said.
After high school, Lai moved back to Dearborn, studied music at Henry Ford College and received a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition from Wayne State University.
In 2010, he earned a master of music in conducting from Wayne State University and returned to Henry Ford College to teach aspiring musicians.
“I never would have imagined that teaching would be such a learning experience for me. I have learned so much about myself by hearing what the students have come up with,” said Lai, who also taught at the Detroit Institute of Michigan (DIME).
“I spent a lot of my younger years seeing music as a competitive thing, which I sort of regret. I found myself always rooting for my students to succeed, and it shifted my mentality in my own stuff as well to seeing it as a very cooperative and collaborative thing.”
By 2014, Lai became the music director and conductor for Trenton’s Seaway Chorale and Orchestra, which includes performing with a voice choir, conducting a pit orchestra, and orchestrating, arranging and composing music for live performances.
“I’m really proud of the track record that we were having with that. It has been completely decimated at the moment (due to COVID), but if we can figure out what we were doing right once things are remotely close to normal again, then I think we’ll be doing all right,” he said.
Outside of his classical projects, Lai plays bass and sings with The Phoenix Theory, a metro Detroit pop-rock cover band that specializes in four-part harmonies. He performs alongside bandmates Allen David (keys, vocals), Dan Mazur (guitars, vocals) and Billy DeAngelo (drums, vocals).
“I had just recently left The Anthony Lai Band because I had decided to break that up. I wanted to get serious about playing gigs again, and I had messaged Dan, who I had known from years ago, and said, ‘Hey, Do you know of any bands looking for a guitarist or bassist?’” Lai said.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you a heads-up if I hear anything.’ Then, the next day their bassist said he was leaving the band.”
Today, Lai continues to juggle several multi-genre projects and plans to write and record new material. He also dropped a new animated pencil sketch lyric video recently for “Let’s Just Pretend” and released Take Me with You on CD.
“I’m not trying to search anymore for what exactly I’m trying to do with my own music. Now that I have one album that says this is who I really am, I feel like I can easily follow it up. After I’m done with the promotion of this album, that’s when the next writing period is going to start,” Lai said.