Saturday, September 17, 2011

about face : balancing bibi mcgill

Beyoncé and Birkenstocks do not often appear in the same circles. At least, that’s what you would naturally assume. But allow Bibi McGill to defy your expectations. The touring guitarist and musical director of Beyoncé’s ten-piece, all-female band (affectionately referred to as Suga Mama) has found peace of mind in Portland, but not in the music scene. For Bibi McGill, it’s all about healthy living, yoga, and kale chips.

With Beyoncé Knowles’s fourth album debuting at number one in the US and 13 other countries (and with her and hip-hop mogul hubby Jay-Z expecting), you’d think it would be hard not to let that success overshadow the other band members. However with Bibi’s distinctive afro and tattoos, her rock star style and sex appeal, she stands out like a female Lenny Kravitz. Yet, she’s hardly defined by that.

Her ferocity on stage is contrasted by a solitary calmness off. Yoga may be Bibi’s true calling and it is central to her life off stage. A yogi of thirteen years and a certified instructor, she strives to practice every day, especially while on tour. It rejuvenates her body and gives her peace of mind away from the dynamic but draining performances.

Drawing pleasure from “low-key” key activities, Bibi relishes gardening, outdoor sports, raw food preparation, and spending time with her animals, family and friends—elements that sustain her. Rest, self-reflection and healthy eating maintain her life force, and she hopes to share these principles with the world through Bibi Kale Chips and her plans to create an “eco-empire” for food processing and community building.

Humbly, she’ll tell you she’s only interested in being the being the best person she can be, but her consciousness will have an impact on the world at large. It requires a strong, sensible woman to balance all of these roles. It also takes a self-assured boldness to pick up and move to a city that you’ve never even seen.

When was the first time that you came to Portland?

The first time I ever came was three years ago, right before I moved here. I guess what attracted me was the green environment, the outdoor beauty, the clean air, the conscious people. It's a beautiful city and it's down to earth. LA's cool if you like the sunshine and the ocean, but it's not the place for me. It's too busy, it's too chaotic, too much smog, people are, unfortunately, very pretentious there. It wasn't my vibe; I stayed there as long as I needed to be there to make my career happen and now I can live where I wanna live.

You hadn't even been here on tour or anything before you moved?!

Well, we did a tour date in Portland about three weeks before I came here and bought my house. But I had already decided long before that that I was going to move here. When I joined Beyoncé, I saw the tour dates and went, "Oh, we're going to Portland! This is great because that's where I'm gonna move!" I knew I was going to move here and when that tour was over, I flew back three weeks later and bought my house.

After getting your big break with Pink in 2001, you spent several years touring Latin countries with Mexico's Paulina Rubio and Chile's La Ley but the experiences left you burnt out. When the call came from Beyoncé, you weren't even going to try out. Why did you finally decide to audition?

At the end of La Lay, I just really was done with music. I was going to teach yoga and I was never going to pick up my guitar again. I started teaching yoga for a year, and it was one of the best years of my life, but after about a year my bank account was wiped out, my credit cards were maxed, and even though it's sappy [laughs], I got a million calls from so many people… texts saying, "Beyoncé's looking to put together an all-female band, you should go to the auditions." I told everybody, "No. No way." Beyoncé's cool, I've always loved her, but I wasn't going to play music again; I was done with that industry that just sucks the life out of you. It wasn't until I was going to bed and my dad called me late at night. Someone had called him in Denver looking for me; it was a little odd that someone found him. I told him no and I hung up the phone. Then I decided, "Well, I'm going to go because my dad called." [Laughs] Because I didn't want him to feel bad; I appreciated him calling to tell me. So I went to the audition, reluctantly, and once I got there I knew I was supposed to get the gig.

You started working with Beyoncé in 2006 and soon after you were tapped to be her Musical Director. What exactly does that mean?

It means a lot of different things. Beyoncé has a creative director. The creative director and Beyoncé work with the music and the entire show to come up with a blueprint of what she wants. When we go into rehearsals, I work with the creative director to execute and implement Beyoncé's desire, her dream, her blueprint of how things are supposed to go. Once we go on tour, the creative director does not go on tour with us so there needs to be someone in the band to make sure the rehearsals and sound checks are done properly; that people show up on time; that people play the right notes.

On stage, if there are any problems or issues I have to be able to communicate them to everybody in the band as well as people behind the scenes in production. I wear in-ear monitors, I have a mic and I'm able to speak to people. I have to call cues on stage and I have to cue people in production as well--there's certain parts of the show where stairs might need to be raised or people backstage, behind the scenes, sometimes beneath the stage, can't see what's going so I have to cue them and say, "Beyoncé's in place, raise the stairs " or "cue video." Things like that. So in addition to playing guitar, I have to do all that on stage and, honestly, a lot of times it's being a freaking psychologist, learning how to deal with people's personalities, and being the head babysitter.

It's way, way more than being rockstar and just going out there and shredding. You are conducting so many technical aspects of the performance… it sounds stressful!

Absolutely, it's stressful. I didn't sign up for that but I got picked for it and I have to say that I've grown a lot. I've learned a lot, and I've made myself a more valuable person for people to bring into their situation with that experience. So I'm really, really grateful that she picked me [laughs].

That's the technical side of things, but what's it like emotionally--sharing the stage with an international presence and playing every night in front of huge, sold-out crowds all over the world?

Between the screaming fans, who adore you and give you the biggest rush, and the personalities of the whole group, and seeing how people live their lives away from their homes, you got through every range of emotion from sadness, loneliness, and fear to being sometimes resentful. But for me mostly, I just am elated and blissful about the fact that I get to be on stage every night with Beyoncé. Beyoncé is amazing; I definitely look up to her and admire her. It's a great feeling; it's like a drug. You step out there on stage and you are literally exchanging energy with the audience. They feel your energy and you feel their energy; the more they give you, the more you're able to give and it goes back and forth between the two until you've escalated yourself into euphoria.

And then you have the issue of taking care of yourself [on tour]. I like to feel good when I'm on stage. I'm not likely to go out and party after a show and stay out till six in the morning. I'll get up early in the morning, I'll do yoga, I'll feel good, and then I'll make sure I'm ready for sound check. Being the Musical Director, you're not there to be people's friends even though I'm a very friendly person. But, nobody wants to listen to the Musical Director so between that and the fact that I don't choose the typical rockstar, party lifestyle on the road, I tend to be a little bit more isolated, so that gets lonely. Plus the fact that I'm away from my home, my animals, my garden, my friends, that wears on you. But that comes with the territory. You gotta find a way to balance it out and that's why I do yoga every single day on the road; it gives me the energy, stability and grounding that I need to keep going because the travel gets to you, the workload gets to you--we rarely have days off. But right now, I wouldn't trade it.

Although Beyoncé is technically your boss, what kind of relationship have you developed over the years?

Beyoncé employs hundreds of people and she's not there to be our friend. It's impossible with her workload and her other businesses responsibilities, interviews and schedule. She is really friendly and she goes above and beyond to make time for the band when she can. She will schedule something like a party at her hotel where we'll come over and we'll eat good food and talk and play charades… she loves to play charades [laughs]. Or she'll rent out a roller skating rink and have a party there. She tries but it's impossible to take the energy to try to get to know everybody and be their friend. That's not what we're there for--we're there to work for her and do a show; it's a production.

Do you play any solo music when you're not on tour?

Actually, I have no interest in that at all. I'm at a point in my career where I've been doing this a long time and I've been in bands where I've put together the band, held auditions, ran the rehearsals, flyered the town, booked the shows, struggled… I've done that for years and years and as a guitar player I'm not interested in a solo music career. There's other things that are important to me in my life that don't involve music. When I come off tour, I don't really pick up my guitar very much and I definitely don't play out. Once again, I'm not the typical band member. I'm very happy being a hired gun. I'm able to add my own flavor to Beyoncé's music because her music doesn't have a lot of guitar in it. I'm able to listen to it and create my own guitar parts. And when I'm done with tour, I'm done. I'm relaxing, I'm chilling. I'm not doing music.

Even though you've "made it" as musician, it's obvious that music's not the only thing that drives you. Music seems to be a job for you so tell me about your involvement in yoga and teaching yoga in Portland public schools over the last year.

Yes, absolutely. I've been doing yoga since 1998; I've gone through intensive yoga training and certification, which I completed back in 2004. I just love yoga and because of what I do, people watch what I do and how I live so a lot of my fans are just so interested in how I eat and yoga. When I came to Portland I heard about this yoga program called Street Yoga which teaches yoga to "underserviced youth" dealing with challenges such as abuse, homelessness, or metal illnesses, and it's helping them amazingly. The kids are like "Wow! I feel different" and realize the benefits of yoga--it decreases stress, lowers your heart rate, makes you feel better, releases endorphins in your brain that give you a high. Also, during my time off, I took on regular classes that I could teach just in public studios. I love to share yoga during my time off. It makes people feel better, it helps people become more healthy. I miss it greatly when I go on the road, but I have a regular practice when I am touring.

What's your personal regimen when you're on tour?

Absolutely every day I do yoga; that's my goal. And if there's one time when I'm on a plane for 20 hours and can't do it then I just can't do it but it's something I do every day. I don't take days off.

Do you open it up to anyone else? Does anyone on the tour participate with you?

Absolutely. Last tour, one of the dancers had not done yoga and he wanted me to teach him everything. Not only the Sanskrit words but the chants and all the poses an the names of the poses in Sanskrit. Every day we did yoga together and I taught him. There were also a couple times where I taught classes in the park or out on the lawn in front of the hotel or on top of a roof. I'm open to teaching anybody that wants to learn.

As such a calm, composed person, how do you balance your spiritual side while touring in such a loud, flashy and hectic environment?

Yoga's number one, but number two is eating healthy. You can't eat junk. There's a McDonald's and a Kentucky Fried Chicken in every country. And a lot of times that's where people go eat. But I eat healthy, I maintain a good diet, I get as much rest as I can, and it's important to spend time alone, whether it's in meditation or just to have quiet time because it's so easy to get caught up in different things when you're on tour. You're already going a million miles an hour so when you have some time to be alone and clear your mind, you need to do it--meditation, yoga, eating properly, and just being conscious. It's necessary but a lot of people don't do that and they burn out quickly or they wonder why they're always in a bad mood or agitated. That's what I do and it definitely works.

What kind of diet do you maintain? Are you vegan or vegetarian?

I am about 75% vegan raw; that's what I prefer to eat. The other 25% of the time I really eat whatever I want because I feel like nothing is 100%. Nothing. Our bodies aren't 100% mass, the earth isn't 100% water. People will go to extremes feeling like "I have to be 100% vegan!" Or, "I have to eat 100% raw." Whatever. I don't have a need to have to feel superior to people by reaching 100% or being judgmental of other people. I respect everybody and what they want to eat but I prefer vegan raw. And if I want to eat a hamburger sometimes, I'm gonna do that, or if I want to eat chicken or calamari or shrimp or lobster, I'm gonna do that too!

That's a great philosophy because I couldn't imagine traveling the world and limiting your dietary options. Number one, it can be extremely difficult to find food options; and number two, you might prevent yourself from partaking in certain culinary or cultural experiences.

Absolutely. You go to different countries and you want to experience what they eat! Unless it's completely scary and disgusting [laughs]. Most of the time I can usually eat vegetarian or vegan in just about every country and still experience the culture. But in Argentina, they have grass-fed cows. They don't use chemicals there, and they're known for some of the best beef in the world so when I was there I wanted to experience it, the Argentinian barbecues [laughs].

Tell me about your vegan raw, organic, gluten-free, dehydrated Bibi Kale Chips, which you can find in a couple co-ops around Portland.

Bibi Kale Chips are exploding right now and I'm just doing everything I can to keep it out there. But I'm not really prepared yet to get really big with it. I do have a business plan that's in the works with an amazing marketing strategy and I'm looking for investors over the next year because I'm going to move into my own kitchen, which I would like to have on a plot of land where I can grow some of my own ingredients, like the kale, and have a processing plant and my farm and eventually turn it into a little eco-village where I'll use mostly green, renewable energy resources as well as green building options. Everybody that has eaten my chips absolutely become addicted to them and loves them.

Do you see yourself as a role model?

Yes and no. I will be the first to tell people don't follow me; I'm lost. I'm a human being with emotions and trauma and difficulties and I'm trying to figure this whole life thing out just like everybody else. But on the other hand, I think everybody is a role model. Everybody has somebody that's looking up to them for guidance. So, yes, I can't help that people look to me and want to know how I'm doing and how I'm living and are inspired by the fact that I'm a woman that steps out there on stage and puts my complete energy into what I'm doing. I live my life trying to be as positive and healthy as I possibly can and I do that for me. But, I'm not perfect and I'm not out there trying to save the world. I'm just trying to do things that are going to serve my highest good as well as the highest good of everybody.

Give us a piece of advice for aspiring musicians?

Be realistic, work hard, and don't step on anybody on your way up. Plant good seeds.

That sounds like good advice for just being a upstanding human being.

I think so. If you try to be the best human being you can be, you're going to create everything that you want in your life. I believe in the law of attraction, I believe we're all creators, and if we have our head and our heart in the right place, everything is going to fall into place and we can be happy.

Read this interview in About Face Magazine.

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