Photo by Stephen Holding, Shooting Stars Photography

Listen to "Frozen" from Heaven in this Hell:

At the ripe age of 7, Orianthi Panagaris proclaimed to her parents that she was “going to America” to make music. From there, the self-proclaimed terrible student sought out her own education by way of Elvis videos, guitar magazines, classical training, and hours of practicing guitar. “I’d come home from school and not see my parents for six hours or something,” she remembers. So no one was surprised when the Aussie native left school at 15 to devote all of her time to playing the band circuit in her hometown of Adelaide.

It was around that time she first played with Steve Vai, and soon Santana was in her corner too, an early champion of her skills in a long list of supporters that includes Michael Jackson. In 2009, Orianthi was invited by Jackson to try out for his This Is It tour after seeing her perform with Carrie Underwood at the Grammys. When Orianthi proved she could make the famous “Beat It” solo her own—and rock the stage with Jackson while playing it—she was chosen on the spot.

In 2011, she joined Alice Cooper’s touring band and continues to tackle those guitar duties while balancing a solo career in between. Her 2009 major label debut Believe included a song co-written with Vai, and her single “According to You” received heavy airplay and made the global charts. But while Believe was more of a pop record, she calls her new album more “organic.”

“I was really proud of [Believe],” Orianthi says, “but I feel that every record should be different, it’s part of this musical journey and you should evolve.” In fact, Heaven in this Hell wasn’t really planned, per se, but born out of inspired jam sessions with Ori’s writing comrade/producer Dave Stewart (Eurythmics). They recorded the tracks in two sessions: one at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, the other at Stewart's Hollywood studio.

In her new tunes, Orianthi references the blues-rock and country she grew up with while opening herself to new muses. “I’m discovering different sounds,” she says, “like the Delta blues of Robert Johnson where he’s not playing with his pick but with his hands,” Orianthi says. “It sounds swampy and I’ve just been discovering that and writing with a vibe in mind.” In light of this creative awakening, Orianthi tells us about her songwriting “walkabouts” and humming songs into her phone on the streets of L.A., her new favorite pedal combination, and how she sees herself as more than just a chick guitar player who can shred.

Photo by Stephen Holding, Shooting Stars Photography

You’ve said you’re going to keep touring with Alice Cooper as long as he’ll have you, but do you have plans for your own dates in the interim?
Totally, I’m setting that up now, trying to fit it in around Alice and his tour dates. I have such fun playing onstage with him and it’s fun to be the guitar player, but I want to do my own dates so it’s all about finding the balance and figuring it all out.

What have you learned as a player, working on the Alice Cooper tour?
They’re all like brothers to me, everyone in the band. I’ve learned a lot because there are so many parts in the songs. They’re great performers. We all have our own thing going on, like characters in a crazy Rocky Horror show. The first part of the tour I’d have blood all over my face and arms, and I’d be writing things on my arms and I had all of these Christian people thinking I was some sort of Satanist or something, with blood all over me and the guitar. I’m like no, I’m playing a part! I’m playing this irritable zombie onstage—I was called “Scarianthi” or “Gorianthi” for a while. Maybe I’ll be Frankenstein for the next one, I’m not quite sure.

Playing live shows is a lot different than making an album. What’s Orianthi like in the studio?
I like to bring a lot of people in, my friends and family or whoever I’m hanging out with for the day. I like the energy of people around, it sort of adds to it being a mini crowd. I like playing live, in front of people. When I’m alone, I’ll play differently. If there’s only one person in the studio, I won’t play as energetic as if there’s more people in the room and I’m putting on a show.

I’ve been playing live since I was 7, I started writing my first songs and played the school assembly. Even at lunch time I’d be playing in front of people. There’s something about performing and capturing the performance as opposed to hearing yourself think. The problem is, if I’m left alone too long I tend to drive myself insane because I’ll go over a solo too many times until I, like, destroy it. … I think energy is actually an important thing when you’re recording.