We caught up with Amanda Dill on the road from San Diego to artsy Prescott, Arizona. Driving west to play a gig with her band, the Cadillac Angels were headlining on a Saturday night at the city’s very happening Raven Cafe.
Now, Dill is no stranger to the spotlight, modeling and acting intermittently over many years. Heck, she even appears in Top Gun. Playing a general’s wife at a funeral, she got to “hang out with Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise on set.” But, it’s this recent turn as a self-taught bassist in the Cali-based Cadillac Angels that’s really making her a rockstar.
One might think Amanda Dill leads a charmed life. But this was not always so, due to the volatility and intense struggle of her early years. Hard earned, this latest success, Amanda calmly insists that she lives every day with deep gratitude for all the good stuff that has come her way despite those growing-up pains.
The down-to-earth, gently effusive Dill grew up with an often-absentee mother and a violent alcoholic father (who she is actually close to today). Her parents divorced when she was only two. Moving around a lot as a kid, they depended on the kindness of friends (sometimes strangers), or lived in low-income housing. Years that toughened her up, but didn’t make her a victim.
Dill’s been on her own since the tender age of 15 (she was a junior in high school). Forced to support herself, she graduated with a small scholarship, continued to work and went to college at night. That bachelor’s degree finally came at the age of twenty-seven. Going on to a good career in tech, she later returned to study, starting her own interior design firm which today remains one of her many creative outlets.
So how did this mother of four college-age kids, world traveler, vegetarian and dog lover start jamming on a bass in the first place? She explains: “I was just curious about it. You know, something I’d never done…I never played an instrument before in my life. I always thought of myself as not musical at all. I like to dance and I enjoy music, but I didn’t grow up with it though either, wasn’t in our household…I just thought, four strings, it’d be easy, easier than a guitar. Come to find out it is quite difficult,” she confesses with a throaty laugh.
“I’m pretty adventurous and I’ve never ever felt that there are limitations.”
“So, being in my early 50s, I’ve never thought I’m too old for anything. I was always curious about instruments and I do have four children and no one has had a lesson and they’re all incredibly musical.”
Amanda’s children have all clearly inherited her zest for living life fully and finding what makes you happy. This is no small feat, considering where Dill came from.
“A lot of my attitude about all this comes from my childhood. I had to survive and succeed.”
But it’s those difficult times, which she tends to humbly downplay, that built Amanda’s resiliency and fearlessness. “A lot of my attitude about all this comes from my childhood. I was presented with a whole lot of challenges and I worked hard and tried to be a good, honest person and do the right thing — and every time, really, it paid off. And things have worked out,” she confesses, “knock on wood.” Knock knock indeed!
She will admit to a fear of heights, though. But in typical Amanda Dill style, she went skydiving for the first time last year with her then 74-year-old mom (who has since passed). “Just that moment of looking out of the plane, the 1, 2, 3, jump — the reward of accomplishing something that you were so fearful of — I love that feeling. I love putting myself in an uncomfortable situation, and then trying to get to the point where you’re comfortable with it.” Her other biggest fear: great white sharks. So, of course Amanda plans to go cage diving in South Africa in the near future.
“Girlfriends are good. Good for the soul.”
She summited Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, with some girlfriends recently. “We started at 3:30 in the morning. Freezing cold at the top. It’s super treacherous, a really difficult hike. The next one on my radar screen is Machu Picchu in Peru.” For Amanda, that’ll be another girls’ trip. She adds, “That’s another trick to happiness, having girlfriends. I have my close-knit group, my best girlfriends, and my aunt Laura. They’re my rocks. They keep me grounded and support me.”
Playing shows is the scariest, most vulnerable thing
Amanda started following the Cadillac Angels because her aunt Laura (who’s also her best friend) was a big fan. Introduced to frontman and singer/songwriter Tony Balbinot back in 2009, Amanda fell in love with their music. During a show, Tony invited Amanda up on stage to sit in and play for the first time. She only had one song learned under her leather-studded belt, mind you.
She recounts with a chuckle, “My feet are glued to the stage, I did not move an inch. And the whole time I thought I was going to barf. I thought I was going to absolutely lose it. I did one song, and then Tony, the lead singer, the songwriter of the band, looks over and goes, “Do you have anything else?” I was like, ‘Nope, that’s it.‘ ”
“It truly was one of the scariest moments of my life. It’s just that you’re so vulnerable up there. It’s a different thing. And even now, I think to be good you have to kind of reveal yourself and just be passionate,” which she’s got in excess.
“Playing music is magical; there’s nothing like it. It’s an amazing experience. And that’s why, for me anyway, it just keeps me coming back.” There may even be some evidence of her debut performance online, hint hint. Sorry, Amanda, but we know you rocked the house, even as a newbie.
Role Model to the Kids
This badass, bass-playing babe gets a kick out of her 21-year-old daughter’s friends, who love that her mom’s a rocker. “I’m so different than most of their moms. So it’s an absolute hoot. I love to send a message that you can truly do anything that you set your mind to.”
Amanda may be a role model to the millennial set, but she’s a fire-starter among her peers. “The really fun thing that I’m finding now is talking to women my age, when they find out what I do, they’re just like, flabbergasted; like, ‘What?!’ I can just see the spark in their eyes and know what they’re going to say: ‘You’re making me think I’ve always loved this, I want to try this or that.’ ”
“I’m having the time of my life, traveling and playing festivals with 5,000 people there.”
There’s also that thing about landing an endorsement deal right after (as in the very same night) of her first gig (we know, we know).
Katie Teague from MTD (Michael Tobias Design, Kingston Bass Company) approached Amanda after that first show. “So now I’m kind of like the cover girl for their stuff; they use my images in their products. I now have a contract with them. Blew my mind.” Mind blowing puts it mildly.
“I never thought I had it in me but from the moment I picked up that bass it spoke to me. It just felt right. And I think I’ve probably picked it up every single day since then.”
“I listen to my body”
Performing live takes a lot of endurance. The Cadillac Angels play 8-10 gigs a month all over the country…mostly 3-hour shows and the occasional 4-hour show. “We’re not a partying band; we take it very seriously. We’re very professional; the moment we hit the stage it’s like, we’re on. Doing the job and delivering.”
Amanda credits a healthy lifestyle with the stamina to play those 8-10 gigs a month — and everything else she does. “I’ve always been pretty active, healthy eating, moderate drinking, no drugs, vegetarian for 10 years. Love to do yoga and Pilates, I grew up surfing in Southern California and playing beach volleyball. Everything in moderation truly is how I live my life.” And perhaps most refreshingly, “Not overdoing the gym. I have girlfriends that do CrossFit, pushing those big old tractor tires and stuff,” she muses.
“I listen to my body. Sleep is really important. I am conscientious about what I put in my mouth. I think food is medicine, or it can be. It can be toxic and bad, or it can fuel you.”
It comes as no surprise that Carol Kaye reigns supreme for Amanda. The most prolific session musician in history, Kaye’s had a hand in some of the most celebrated rock hits of all time. Think the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Simon & Garfunkel, The Monkees, Joe Cocker, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, and Lou Rawls. These were just some of the artists who benefited from Kaye’s low-end fretboard magic. Amanda gushingly cites the “first lady of bass” (who just celebrated her 84th birthday) as her number one rock idol.
Dill singles out The Blasters as a big influence, studying them for their musical style, similar to Cadillac Angels. “[Bass player] John Bazz has a style very similar to what I try to achieve. Real simple and strong notes. That 1, 4, 5 pattern…he’s someone that I look [up] to.” And, as far as musicians, Amanda really digs Sheryl Crow, her style and her sound. Pink, for her kick-ass live performances and female-empowerment message: “She’s so confident and gorgeous.” And, she “just saw Fleetwood Mac — Christine McVie, I really like her too.”
If you could jam with anyone, who would it be?
“It would be a group of women my age in their 50s, early 50s, a woman’s rock group. I know there are talented women that are like me, full of life and energy and inspiration and motivation. I see that happening — completely, definitely could happen. But, again, I wouldn’t mind, like, playing with Sheryl Crow (wink wink).”
On Waking Up Happy
There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness today. But Amanda is a long-time, strict adherent to that practice. She likes to focus on the things that are going well in her life: “It’s just who I am; I wake up happy and grateful for all the things in my life and are going well in my life. I think that being happy is a choice. And for me, it’s like, put it to the test. If you’re feeling gloomy, or a little down and you’re walking down the street, smile at someone and say good morning. I guarantee, they might think you’re weird or too friendly maybe, but even that, they’re going to look at you and smile back. That just fills you up.”
And what about those little doubting voices that creep up, especially for women, and especially as they age? Well, Amanda embodies that California hippie spirit in the best way: “You can control it, if you’re conscious about it. It can tell you bad things that you’re not good enough or worthy enough or pretty enough, or whatever, or it can tell you good things.”
And What About the Clothes?
Any guitar goddess worth her licks has to have style. And Amanda is no exception. Sure, she’s always been around fashion and great stylists as a model and actor. But as bassist for the Cadillac Angels, she’s kicking it up into high gear. “That [fashion] is a totally fun part of it. I kind of get made fun of in the band because I do put some thought into it. Because I love it. For me it’s like art, a way to express my personality and my creativity.”
She enjoys shopping online and has a couple of fave sites for that rock-n-roll look. She loves wearing leather (think lots of leather bracelets). “A fan said to me, ‘You’d look so pretty in red lipstick,’ so I bought and brought it to one of the gigs, this perfect red (from Clinique).” It’s become Dill’s signature look. Red lips, red suede boots and her new MTD guitar. Rock on!
“For me there’s no boundaries. That’s just how my brain works. It’s like, ‘Okay, here’s another idea. Let’s do it.’ Everybody that knows me knows I’m the make-it-happen kind of girl. I don’t just talk about stuff; I do it.
We don’t think there’s anything that Amanda Dill can’t do. She’s a woman to be reckoned with, a force of nature and nurture. Heck, she should run for president (nudge nudge).
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