Interview with LEE AARON
Interview by Mark Dean
Your new album, Fire and Gasoline, has had some very positive reviews already. I wonder if the reaction to the album has surprised you?
Lee Aaron: Well, not to sound egotistical in any way, but I knew I was making a good record. I knew that I was making a record and that the songs were good. To be honest, I was a little more surprised by some of more hard-core, sort of metal web-zines that are out there, I was a little more surprised that they were kind of, even though the reviews were positive, for the most, almost begrudgingly positive because they’re a little disappointed that I’m not the full on metal maven for them anymore. To be honest with you, I was little more surprised by those because I thought, “Jeepers folks, haven’t we all grown up here over the years?” In terms of all the others that are glowingly positive, all I can say is that I just feel really blessed and I’m really grateful.
I’m actually quite surprised that you’re still releasing albums. Reading through your biography, you must have experienced a heck of a lot of disillusionment with the whole industry over the years.
I think I had about a year of my life where I was really disillusioned. In 1996, I had to go bankrupt. I don’t know if that’s actually in my biography, but that’s the truth. The music industry completely shifted in the ’90s, as you know, with the advent of grunge. As much as, to be honest with you, I started doing this so young I almost felt a little bit like I missed out on part of my teenager-hood because I was working so hard. When grunge came along, I felt almost like I was experiencing my teenage years again. This music totally rocks. I fully, full-on embraced it. I loved it.
I made a couple of more, alternative rock sounding records in the early ’90s. The problem was that because I’d had my greatest success right at the tail end of the ’80s, which was ’89-’90, with Bodyrock, and Some Girls Do. Actually that was between ’89 and ’91. My name was still, unfortunately, attached to that whole era of big hair rock and corporate rock. You seriously couldn’t get arrested by the time grunge hit. It was very, very difficult.
Even though I continued to make records into the mid-’90s, rock records, my Emotional Rain, was from 1995 and I did an album called, 2preciious in ’96, they just weren’t the commercial successes that I had before. In ’96 my manager, at the time, I guess because the cash train wasn’t coming into his office anymore, he took a fairly high powered job. He took a job as a foreign licensing rep for Koch America, and all of a sudden it was like he was unavailable. I couldn’t get him on the phone. The next thing I know, a few weeks later a bunch of banker boxes show up on my doorstep. I was going through them. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m half a million dollars in debt here and I have no manager, now what do I do?” I actually had to go bankrupt in 1996.
It was a pretty dark little period for me. I was quite depressed. I decided to come back and sing at all again, I started doing some local night clubs here and doing jazz and blues. I never intended for that to really turn into much. Before you knew it, all the local papers were reviewing me and giving me rave reviews. The next thing I knew I felt like I needed to make an album, which I did in 2000. and I was touring Jazz festivals across country, that’s kind of how that little period went for me.
With Fire and Gasoline, do you feel that you have reinvented yourself musically? It’s been promoted as your first rock album in twenty years.
I don’t know that I’d necessarily say reinvented. That’s an interesting question, Mark, because no one’s actually asked me that. It’s a rock record but I feel like it’s a straight-up rock record. It’s not really a metal record. It’s not a full-on pop rock record.
It reminds me of the albums that I loved when I was a teenager. I look back and I remember listening to albums, for one example, Fleetwood Mac Rumors. It kind of floats around stylistically quite a bit because there were different writers in the band but it made a complete, whole in the end. It was a musical journey. I love listening to that record still, after X number of year, you know? It takes the listener on a musical journey. We’ve got Christine McVie singing a tender piano ballad at one point. Then, you’ve got “The Chain,” which is a full-on blues rocker. Then, something like, “Second Hand News,” which is almost bluegrass. I love that album because it’s like a treat for your ears.
That’s the kind of album I was trying to make when I made Fire and Gasoline. I wasn’t really so concerned with having it to sound like a cookie cutter style. I just wanted to write good songs that were authentic, and authentic to me.
I did feel, personally, like your musical style has progressed, even from the likes of your self-titled album in ’87, because you were bringing in more different tunes, more melodic even then. Were you constantly vocal and changing your sound?
We were. To some degree that had to do with the producers I was working with. I worked with Paul Gross on the Metal Queen album. My follow-up album to that I worked with Bob Ezrin, who was one of the biggest producers in the world. It’s crazy to think that Bob Ezrin’s not going to have his stamp on the production values of the album.
Then on the self-titled album in ’87, I worked with Peter Coleman who was very popular for doing quite a few Pat Benatar records. I feel like to some degree, Peter Coleman brought elements of himself into that album in that it was more commercial sounding. Every year, as John Albani and I, who was my co-writer at the time, continued to work on more material, we did evolve as writers. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with writing a catchy chorus for people to sing along with.
I still love that album. I had it playing this morning. I still remember the lyrics and sing along. It’s a great album.
That’s so cool, thank you.
Going back, you’ve touched on, and I’m sure it’s dogged your career throughout it, this ‘Metal Queen’ label. Do you feel you’re unfairly or wrongly marked by a label in those days?
Looking back, I’m not the type of person that has regrets or feels bitter about anything. It was what it was, really, at the time. The ’80s was an era when people were marketed in sort of huge ways. There was a whole industry to support that. Back then, you have to remember, I went into the studio and spent a quarter million dollars doing my records. They put a quarter million dollars into marketing after. On that marketing team you’d walk into a photo shoot and there would be the guy from the label, the VP. There’s the marketing rep. There’s the art director. Then there’s the stylist.
I remember walking into the “Metal Queen” shoot. They had sort of said we want to put forward a very strong, almost Gothic female warrior princess image. I didn’t really quite know what they had in mind until I showed up and saw that they rented me a complete costume from, it was a huge costume rental place in Toronto called Malabar. I saw the whole thing and I was such a young girl at the time. I was sort of like, “Okay, I guess this is what I’m doing and this is what I’m wearing.” At that time, I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to become such an iconic image for me that really kept me attached to the metal world for quite a few years.
Even when I was making more melodic, commercial, straight-up rock records, people were still labeling me as a metal artist. That was a little disheartening. Not that there’s anything wrong, there’s lots of metal that I love. To some degree I felt maybe it was keeping my audience a bit narrow. I have to be honest with you, and I know I’ve said that a few times, at this point in time, certainly in Canada where I reside and where I have had my greatest success in the past. It’s my home. The “Metal Queen,” when they call me that, it’s almost like with a tip of the hat and a wink. It’s more of a badge of honor here to be called Canada’s “Metal Queen.” They just sort of look at me like the reigning Queen of Rock. It’s not something that I find an albatross or offensive.
Leading on from that, was the whole precious album musical project that you put together, was that an attempt to escape from the “Metal Queen” label, an anonymous name?
Ha ha. No, it wasn’t but it was an attempt to escape from the Lee Aaron name that was the big hair name that was attached to corporate ’80s rock. I’ll tell you a little interesting story about that album. I wrote and recorded that album with a band from Vancouver here in Canada called The Sons of Freedom who were quite a successful alternative rock band. I had originally got connected with them because I hired their rhythm section to play on my 1995 release Emotional Rain. I told you I embraced grunge, so I was a huge fan of that then.
When I worked with the rhythm section they invited me to come to Vancouver. They said if you ever want to come to Vancouver and just write an album that’s totally different, with us, we invite you. We think you’re really talented and have a good voice. I was kind of bowled over by that. I thought what a cool idea. I did fly out to Vancouver. I actually eventually moved her. I wrote that album with them. We put out under the nom de plume, 2preciious, in the hopes that it would be heard without prejudice, against what my name represented from the past.
We hired a big Canadian radio tracker named Bobby Gale to work that album. He took it to a variety of stations, the biggest one being CFNY. CFNY was the huge alt station in Toronto. Was hugely influential in the ’90s, in that point in time. He took it to them and he played them our very first single off the album and they were crazy for it. He said, “I can’t tell you who the singer is, but you’ll never guess.”
It was like this big mystery that he had created. They were very excited. They were going to on the first single. They were guessing names like Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield. When he finally told them it was Lee Aaron, they changed their mind about playing it because just what the association of my name being connected that whole era of music. All I can say is that kind of fed into my little depression that was to come. I thought I’d made a very strong piece of work.
But, I have to tell you another little story. Two years ago I was playing a club in Toronto called “The Rock Pile.” I had these two blokes that flew over from Manchester. I can’t remember, I think it was Manchester.
That’s actually where I’m living at the moment.
Oh are you? They were both had been university professors at Oxford. They came over and brought their 2preciious records and got in my autograph line after the show. They were like, “We love this album, Lee. It’s our favorite work of yours.”
I was like, “Wow, if I only sold two 2preciious records, and I sold them to you guys and you think it’s cool, then I think I can go to sleep a happier girl tonight.”
Then, of course you mentioned this earlier, you had a musical break and you started a family. You then came back and performed at a rock festival in 2007 with Heart. That was the first opportunity for you to revisit and play again your old songs. Did that create a rejuvenation for you personally? Why did you play those old songs again?
Yeah, I had taken a hiatus to sing jazz and also again, to have my family. I hadn’t played my rock songs on stage for a few years. A booking agent here called me up and said he had an opening slot with Heart but they want you to do your rock show. This particular festival in Thunder Bay where I played with them had seen me two years prior doing an all-women’s jazz festival. They liked the show so much they said if Lee can just add a few of her rock songs, we could put her on this bill. That’s the way it was presented to me.
I ended up putting together my rock show again and revisiting all my old material. I had so much fun doing it. I think, this was fairly significant for me. I had this great conversation with Nancy Wilson backstage. Because I was, I wouldn’t say struggling, but with the whole motherhood thing. I adore my kids so much. They’re the reason I live. Them and music, these days.
I remember talking to her and saying, “How do you do it? How do you do the artist thing with kids? It’s just so hard.”
She said, “Hey, I’ve become a weekend warrior.” At that time her twins were quite small as well, or younger. I think they were nine or ten or something at the time. She said, “I go out and I do selected dates. I put together little packages of dates so that I’m never gone for too, too long. This is the way you can maintain a career.”
I thought, “Okay, that’s a cool idea.” It sort of gave me a way to look at the whole motherhood-artist thing and try to reinvent it in a way. At that point I started to go out and do more selective shows at that time and go back out and do my rock show. That ultimately led to me doing Sweden Rock in 2011.
Is that something that you’re still trying to maintain, that balance between family and touring for short periods? Given that you’ve got a new album to promote, that’s going to be hard.
Well yeah, the way I’m looking at it right now is that I want to go do dates that matter. Am I going to get in a van and travel across Europe for six weeks in a little van doing really small venues? Probably not. I think I’m more interested now in doing targeted festival dates and then tagging on extra dates because I’ve got an anchor date. I’m not at all opposed to coming and doing shows to support the record. In fact, I’m quite excited about it.
That’s kind of how I’m looking at it at this point in time. However, if the album merited enough attention, was successful enough, I would just pull my kids out of school and take a nanny and I would go on the road and make it work. I would.
There is hope then that you might get back to the UK again someday?
I would say probably. The timing of this album is a bit awkward. It’s released at a time, the end of March, beginning of April, where it’s not really early enough to get onto summer festivals for 2016. We’re definitely looking at a 2017 plan.
Wonder if you could tell me just a little bit about your partnership with Sean Kelly?
Oh, Sean is awesome. I love him. I met Sean I guess about three years ago now when he approached me as an author. Well, he did mention that he was a guitarist for Nelly Furtado. He was writing a book called, “Metal on Ice.” Quite a significant book, I would say, here in Canada. Because in all the music history books here in Canada, because we are such conservative folk, none of them have covered all of the really, really cool rock bands from the ’80s and early ’90s that had such an impact on the youth of Canada and the Canadian music industry.
Sean, himself, attests to the fact that many of these bands, pre-me, and slightly after my sort of heyday, really impacted, were influential for him. He was this kid growing up in North Bay, Ontario, this little place. He was very influenced, as a guitar player, by many of these bands. This book kind of fills in an essential gap in Canadian music history, really, about all these bands. Most of the history books out there, they include Buffy St. Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Joanie Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. They’re all wonderful, wonderful books but there’s also Rush, Coney Hatch, Goddo, Triumph, and all of these very influential rock bands that sort of got omitted from a lot of these books.
Sean really filled a gap in when he wrote that. I contributed by way of an interview to that. We met that way. We became very fast friends. That’s how we met. Then, he had said to me, “If you ever want someone to play guitar for you, be like a dream, I’d love it.” I asked him to play on a couple of Toronto shows that I had. He was just fabulous. We got along so well we started kicking around the idea of writing songs. I told him that I’d love to make a new rock record. Some of it was as simple as him sending iPhone, recording a little idea on the iPhone memo and texting it to me. That’s how our writing partnership started. There you go. He co-wrote five songs on the album with me.
Looking back, you’ve mentioned your ’84 release Metal Queen, I just wonder how you view it looking back. Is that a milestone or just a natural step in your musical evolution? Basically how you view, looking back, your ’84 release Metal Queen? Do you feel positively or negatively?
I feel positively about it. That was a really super fun record to make. Everybody wants that one song that, you know, stands the test of time. Here I am, thirty years later, thirty plus years later, and people wait for it. When I’m playing live and I haven’t touched on that song yet and my keyboard player starts that Gothic intro, people go crazy. I’m like, okay, I guess I’m not dropping this one from my set list for a while.
I went through my frustration period with that song where I pulled it completely out of my set list for a while. Then, I did sort of a mash up version of it for a little while where I sort of changed the backend, the bass and the drum, sort of what was going on behind. Much to the chagrin of quite of few fans, they were not happy about that. It’s only the last couple of years I’ve gone back to playing the traditional version of that tune. I can’t really look at it in a negative way.
What stands out as the high points of your career? Would it be something that’s happened previously or maybe in the new album?
My highlights of my career are not necessarily like winning an award or anything like that. My highlights are the memories. It’s funny because someone sent me some photos of one of my favorite concerts that I ever played. It was the concert that I did in 1984, I think it was ’84 or ’85, on an Austrian mountain called Kitzsteinhorn. The backdrop for the stage, was an open back, framed a mountain the background. They cabled cared all of the audience, they could only get 5,000 people up there. They cable cared all the people up. It was just one of my favorite memories of ever performing. It was this wonderful concert we did in the Alps. People were skiing by in swimsuits.
Playing the Marquee Club in London for the very first time. I flew over there with my manager. We were totally broke. We didn’t even have the money to bring the band over. I hired a band from Manchester called “Sam Thunder.” These guys learned all the material on my first album and came down and were my backup band. We put it together to showcase in that way. The reviews were, were amazing. Actually, they were quite funny because I had been featured in a magazine called, “Kerrang!”
Yeah, I used to buy that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Their promotional pictures showed me looking, cute.
I have those posters.
You do? Oh god! My first manager was very concerned that I was marketed as a pinup. Here I am in those photo sessions with this kind of makeup and this kind of hair. My boobs taped together to make me appear to have cleavage. The reviews from that show said that I was flat compared to my promotional pictures but I had an amazing voice. I remember taking that as a huge compliment. At least they’re saying it’s the voice that matters, not the looks.
Doing the new album, doing Fire and Gasoline, huge highlight for me. Fire and Gasoline is the first album where I actually wrote the majority of material all by myself. In the past, I’ve been under record contract and I’d always been flown to LA and New York and Nashville to write. They’d always put me together with co-writers and really pushed that agenda with me. In a way, there’s a little more purity, I think, with Fire and Gasoline, than some of the albums that I’ve done. That’s for sure a highlight too.
It’s been fantastic to talk to you. Good luck with the album. Hopefully, it will have some success and you can get over to the UK and play some dates over here.
We’d love that, absolutely.
That would be fantastic. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Good talking to you, Mark.
All photos by Theresa Mitchell, courtesy BIG SISTER RECORDS.