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Bleu '96: Shades of Bleu

  Songwriter and performer Bleu '96

A few years ago, moviegoers were first introduced to the music of singer/songwriter/producer Bleu '96 (a.k.a. William James McAuley III ). His song "Somebody Else" appeared in the Spider-Man soundtrack, and the movie Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! featured the track "I Won't Go to Hollywood." Concertgoers have seen him open for John Mayer, Five for Fighting, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and other acts. And now the rising pop artist's latest recording, the Jeff Lynne-inspired tribute CD Alpacas Orgling, has critics consulting their thesauruses for new ways to heap praise on Bleu.

The new CD features Bleu and some of his pop pals-who hail from the ranks of the Black Crowes, Chicago, the Candy Butchers, Jellyfish, and others-with the contributors recording under the nom de disque, L.E.O. This record, pretty and melodic, has virtually no precedent in pop music. Sure, it's a nod to Lynne and his band Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), whose Beatles-inspired, choir-laden pop was a staple of seventies radio, but L.E.O.'s disc shouldn't be lumped in with the glut of tribute recordings that have been issued in recent years. The distinction is that the songs aren't simply covers from Lynne's catalog; they are new tunes written in the spirit of Lynne's music by Bleu and his cast of friends.

"This whole record started out very much like an academic exercise," says Bleu. "I wondered what would it be like to write and produce songs in the style of a particular songwriter, not just do covers of his tunes. So, I solicited different people to help me write material in the Jeff Lynne style from his days in ELO through the Traveling Wilburys, and I slowly began to put it together. Collaborators include Mike Viola; Andy Sturmer from the nineties pop band Jellyfish; Jason Scheff who's in [the group] Chicago; Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes; Isaac Hanson; and other like-minded, Jeff Lynne-loving guys."

Known for his sumptuous pop songs recorded with his band the Candy Butchers, Viola played with Bleu in Boston. He cowrote the tunes "Distracted" and "Make Me" for Alpacas, and was impressed with Bleu's arranging, production, and songwriting capabilities.

"I'm a producer as well as a songwriter," Viola says. "But when I'm working with people, I don't have a master plan for how their record will sound. I sort of make it up as we go along. Bleu was really amazing as far as our collaboration went. He would send me a file, and I'd do some stuff at my home studio in New York. Maybe a tune needed a bridge, so, I'd give him one. He'd listen to it, do some editing, and then send it back to me. It was a meticulous way of working, and I really got into it."

Growing up in Virginia, Bleu listened to a range of pop artists. "I was just as likely to listen to hair-metal guys like Poison as 'Bridge over Trouble Water,'" he says. "Of course, Jeff Lynne and ELO were in the mix too." Bleu attended Berklee and earned his degree in songwriting. "I loved every minute of my time at Berklee," Bleu says. "When I applied, I didn't even have a back-up school. That's how much I wanted to go and study music for four years. I also made contacts there that have remained strong. Joe Ross ['99] was one of my classmates at school, and he's one of the guys who started Cheap Lullaby, my current label. John Mayer was also really supportive about gigs and recommending people that I should contact."

Leaving his Jeff Lynne penchant aside, there's a lot more to Monsieur Bleu. He's currently working with Viola on a new record of original material and a solo disc that will be the follow-up to his acclaimed solo debut recording, Redhead. Bleu's future plans include continuing to perform on a circuit that periodically takes him on swings through Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He's also hoping to build his following in other cities. Bleu is cooking up a new "tribute" CD too. This time it will be all about showing the love for hard-rock recluse Mutt Lange.

"There's no question that Mutt is not only the most successful producer today, but he's eclectic and incredibly underrated," Bleu says with genuine awe in his voice. "Who else could produce Def Leppard, AC/DC, Graham Parker, and Shania Twain? The Mutt Lange tribute project is tentatively called Loud Lion, and it will have songs in the spirit of Mutt's hard-rocking stuff."

With intriguing projects past and present on his résumé, Bleu is an artist many are watching. And perhaps the day will come when some young musician will do a Shades of Bleu tribute.