Acoustic duo Amber and Smoke makes its mark on local music scene - Moorpark Acorn
GOOD TIMES—Bill Rotella and Amber Olive share a laugh while rehearsing at Rotella’s home April 24. Rotella taught at Community High School in Moorpark for 18 years before retiring in 2015.
As Bill Rotella gently strummed his six-string guitar, Amber Olive closed her eyes and crooned the words to his song, “Summer in Nice.”
“Summer winds come hold me closer,” she sang. “Summer nights never be over.”
The ballad was originally an instrumental guitar and harmonica song, Rotella said, but then he decided it needed lyrics.
“I’m going, ‘I think I want to write a love tune, something sweet,’ he said. “(So) I just wrote this poem to it.”
“Summer in Nice” appears on Rotella’s third solo album, “Amber and Smoke,” which was released last month and features lead vocals by Olive on several of the songs.
Since the end of last summer, the pair has been busy jamming and recording music together at Rotella’s Thousand Oaks home, as well as performing gigs around Ventura County as the duo Amber and Smoke. Rotella describes their sound as “California country rock.”
“(When) we get to sit down and make beautiful music, it’s a great day,” said Olive, 26. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Rotella considers Olive to be his musical inspiration, and vice versa.
“Anyone that comes to see us is just mesmerized by Amber,” Rotella said. “For being so young, she’s got a throwback sound that’s really retro.”
“My inspiration is honestly Bill,” said Olive, a Simi Valley resident. “The way he writes is just beautiful. And as an aspiring songwriter . . . I want to get to that level.”
For Rotella, music is in his blood.
His father, Johnny Rotella, penned the tune “Nothing but the Best” for Frank Sinatra and played woodwinds on tracks by Steely Dan, The Turtles, Neil Diamond and Frank Zappa. His uncle is famed swing composer Jerry Gray, who wrote songs like “String of Pearls” and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
The younger Rotella has performed and recorded with various groups since the early 1980s, including Baywood and Dakota.
When he wasn’t busy rocking out on tour, he taught social studies, government and history at Community High School in Moorpark for 18 years before retiring in 2015.
“The greatest thing about teaching is that you get these summers off,” he said. “I would go to Europe over the summer with the band, winter breaks I’d be in Tahoe. We just played a bunch.”
He brought his music passion into the classroom by teaching a Garage Band 101 course at the high school.
“These kids had never, ever played, like, never touched an instrument,” Rotella said. “We built this thing from scratch, and it was so much fun. For a lot of those kids, it was really special. People don’t realize how important fine arts are for a lot of kids.”
Rotella released his first solo CD, “Gates of Change,” in 2009 and followed it up with “All Roads Lead Home” in 2012.
For Olive, her music career has just begun, though she’s always had a passion for singing.
“It was my anchor,” she said. “When everything was out of control and there was chaos, I always had my voice. (If) you feel like you’re in a cage, you’re still a songbird.”
After graduating from New Mexico State University on a softball scholarship in 2013, she began working on an EP with Zenobia Records Group, a Los Angeles-based independent record label.
“The first genre I ever started singing was country,” Olive said. “When I started singing more professionally . . . it was more of a pop sound with a jazz flavor. But my heart was still in country rock, classic rock with a little bit of Motown, soul (and) blues.”
Her deal with Zenobia fell apart when she was struck by an autoimmune disease.
“It took my voice away for about six months, so the record company dropped me,” she said.
Not long after she recovered, a mutual friend introduced Olive to Rotella at one of Rotella’s gigs last September at Café Firenze in Moorpark.
After hearing Olive singing along during one of the songs, Rotella invited her onstage to perform with him.
“She came up in the middle of the song and we finished that song together,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Olive said. “It was my first time singing in a very, very long time after being sick.”
That impromptu performance went well and they soon began collaborating. They’ve got no plans to slow down.
Rotella and Olive have been busy lately playing gigs in cities throughout the area.
“Eventually, I foresee us doing some road work,” Rotella said. “The best is yet to come.”
“It’s been incredible. It’s been a fun ride so far,” the singer said. “Even though it feels like we’ve done so much, we’re really just at the beginning stages. This is going to take off, I know it.”
To hear tracks off the “Amber and Smoke” CD, visit www.billrotellamusic.com [and www.amberandsmokemusic.com.]