It's no surprise that Lee Aaron is enjoying a new swell in popularity. Perseverance is a big part of success. Despite an impressive career that began in the early '80s and included many popular records, singles ("Metal Queen", "Whatcha Do to My Body", "Hot to be Rocked" and "Sex With Love" just to name a few) and videos, Aaron fell victim to the plague that affected many established acts --- '90s music. When life gave Lee lemons however, she simply changed lanes and pursued self-satisfying ventures into blues and jazz, creating a tasty new lemonade.
Eventually, she found her way back to rock and along with her new band began to tear it up on stages across her native Canada once again. 2016 saw the release of the first new rock record from her in 20 years, Fire and Gasoline. Full of upbeat, energetic songs that proved she could still deliver what her vast audience were waiting for, this excellent disc paved the way for last year's Diamond Baby Blues. Half-original and half covers, song after song showcased Lee's tremendous voice that seems to get better with each passing year. Tracks like the covers of Deep Purple's "Mistreated" and Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good", along with the amazing title track only served to show that Lee Aaron was back in a big way,
In between the two albums, a show was recorded and several months ago, Power Soul, Rock N' Roll - Live in Germany was released. Always a fantastic live performer, Lee doesn't disappoint with this disc. The CD/DVD package is jammed with material from all stages of Lee's career and she has never sounded better --- and from someone who has seen some of her earliest '80s shows, that's saying something.
I talked to Lee recently about her new live album and if I could have told my early '20's self in 1982 that this moment would be happening, the excitement level would have been off the charts. And so it was this week when I spoke to the amazing.....Lee Aaron (she sang in my ear --- I'm still recovering).
antiMusic: Before we start, I just have to say "Metal Queen" has always been my favorite song of yours but the title tracks of the last two records have shoved that to the side. "Diamond Baby" and "Fire and Gasoline" are awesome songs and I love both of them to death.
Lee: Oh, well...thank you. That really, really means a lot to me. When you're an artist and you've had some bigger hits in the past, a lot of people...I don't want it to sound in a negative way...they end up on the oldies circuit where you get stuck in this hamster wheel of playing just your old songs. But I'm not really content in doing that.
I know some other artists say they feel they are writing their best material now but I really feel that I'm writing my best songs now. Now that my kids are a little bit older, I just feel that I have this whole creative bloom again. I have my world view and obviously my whole perspective on so many things has adjusted a bit because I'm a parent and more mature. Yeah, I'm just having fun writing a lot of songs. But what's important to me is that it's not just writing for posterity. I really care about the craft of songwriting so I've been working hard at that.
And our fans around the globe have been extremely open and excited about the new material and in fact, almost half of our set is new material and people are very, very excited by it. They either already have the new record and are singing along to the songs or...it's funny, during the set I do this spiel where I explain the impetus behind "American High". And people are singing to the song and then they flock to the merch table after the show and they buy it. So it's really fun. I'm really enjoying this time in my career.
antiMusic: What was it about a live album that appealed to you at this time?
Lee: Well, number one, I've never done one. Not an official live audio album. Over the years various labels that I was on, put out live concert DVDs. Like there's Live at Camden Palace and Live in London at the Dominion Theatre. There's a couple of others that exist and I know fans really like those. But they are all pre-1999. They're all from the beginnings of my career.
And then I was signed to Virgin Records in the late '80s...it was a subsidiary of Virgin out of England called 10 Records which unfortunately only lasted for a couple of years. They were sort of spearheading the A&R component of the rock contingent on Virgin.
At that time, they had discussed doing a live audio album and we had...I'm trying to remember. I think it was our concert in Bonn that year, Dieter Dirks' studio came out and recorded the whole show live. That's how I ended up singing on the Scorpion's Savage Amusement record. Dieter heard me singing and he said (adopts German voice), "Oh Lee, your voice is very great" (laughs).
They had Don Dokken and Udo from Accept try to hit this note that they wanted in this song and they said, it never occurred to us that maybe there's a girl rock singer out there who can do it. So that's how that led to that. They heard me and said, "Oh you can actually sing." But unfortunately the label only lasted a little over a year and folded. I have no idea what happened to the audio tapes. I wasn't in control of a lot of that stuff and didn't outright own it. So it was just circumstantial that I never ended up with a live album.
So when we were touring in Europe in 2017, I had arranged for the Bang Your Head show to be recorded, audio and visual. And when we showed up in Nuremberg to play the Hirsch Club, a local company called Little Guitar Slinger showed up. There was a couple, Franz and Martina and they had a crew with them. They said, "Do you mind if we record your show? We have all the bells and whistles here to do it digitally, high quality and if you like it, we can work out an arrangement and you can own it. And if you don't like it, then it's just a good practice for us."
So the Nuremberg show was our headlining one, We got a proper soundcheck. The audio turned out to be a bit better than Bang Your Head but with that show...those giant festivals, there's like a half-hour changeover. No one gets a soundcheck. It's a throw and go. So in the end, we had video and audio from both of those shows.
People have been asking for a live album for years. So it started out as just an audio album and when it was all done and the artwork was all done, the European label Metalville approached me and said, "You know, Lee. These things sell even better if we make it a DVD package." And I said, "Oh, it just so happens that I have the video too." It set the release date back a month but I hired a friend of ours, Frank Gryner out of Toronto. Frank has done a lot of work with Def Leppard and many others. He's an amazingly talented fellow. So he put the visuals together and we ended up with a package and that's how it came about.
I just thought it was high time. And you know, it's amazing after all these years...I've been in the industry 35 years....I still get the odd reviewer or critic who has never seen the live show that just kind of goes after me about being a pretty face that doesn't have a lot of talent. It's absolutely frustrating that after this many years, this many albums, this many songs that I've written in my life. I've produced a bunch of my own albums. So I thought it would just be nice to put this out there and have people say, "Oh, the band is actually really good live."
antiMusic: This recording is from 2017. What do you remember about the shows that made you want them to be your live recording statement?
Lee: Oh, the band was on fire that night. It started a year previous. Metalville had approached me and said "We're doing a 10 yr Best Of sample and we would like to show an unreleased track by you." I looked at the song, "I'm a Woman" from Diamond Baby Blues...I went through the audio and said, "Gosh, the band is so good on this song tonight." So I gave them that a year previous and that's what started all of this. I said, I should listen to the whole thing and see if there's an album there.
So yeah, the band was really great in Nuremeberg. We were equally great on the Bang Your Head stage and the audience was just great. But you know, you get several opportunities a year to play in front of crowds of 25,000 - 30,000 people. That's not our every day on a tour, right? It's usually festivals that are anchor dates and between that you're doing either larger club venues or casino show rooms or in between venues that are about 1,000 seats.
antiMusic: Your voice is obviously front and center of everything you do. It seems to have gotten stronger since you started out. "Barely Holding On" and "Mistreated" from this record are prime examples but it's in "Rock Candy" that my eyebrows really started to go up, just power-wise. Did you learn any tricks in your side trips into blues and jazz areas that have allowed your voice to flourish after so many records and shows?
Lee: Well, a few journalists have said, "blues and jazz...that's quite a diversion for you." Well, actually no. It's exploring the roots of rock and roll. Let's be honest, this is where Zeppelin started and Deep Purple and many other bands like that started out playing blues with electric guitars and they stole from Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf and all those guys. So for me, it was a great exploration into understanding about musicians who made the music that I loved, where their influences came from. I personally love all singers who have blues inflections.
It's funny. Last night I was jogging on my treadmill and I pulled up Led Zeppelin III and was listening to it again. And Plant did all this scatting kind of stuff that was unstructured and there's no room in rock music or pop to do that anymore, which sucks. It's got me really thinking about the next record that we do and I want to explore that a little bit, go backwards and do stuff like that. But overall by singing all that music, I think it has made me a much better singer. I understand facets of improvisation and ways that you can approach a song and actually make it a little bit different than the original.
We do this thing, that we're playing live now. It's not on the live album but in "Only Human" where it's a straight rock ballad, we now do it acoustically. And during the chorus people start clapping along and it almost has a bit of a soul feel. (sings a verse of the song) There's a bunch of bluesy stuff I can do in there. Because I sang that music, I think I'm able to hang a picture in a different frame.
antiMusic: That's a great way of putting it.
Lee: In terms of just taking care of my voice, yeah I've learned hard lessons over the years. I use in-ear monitors now. My trick is to put one in and leave one out. I know a lot of sound guys say, "That's not good. You're going to wreck one ear." But I switch back and forth. But I always need to hear the live band and what's coming through the line as well. And also I make sure never to have the in-ear too loud. That's another thing. Sometimes singers have found when using the in-ear, if they're too loud, you will sing out of tune sometimes, because it distorts the tone in your head. And also I try to eat well and sleep well and do all of the normal things that you're supposed to do to take care of yourself. Sometimes that's hard when you're traveling. I've perfected the ear plugs in, sleep mask on, put my foot rest back an inch. That's my sleeping on an airplane trick (laughs).
antiMusic: The set list is a pretty solid representation of your career. You seem to have the same problem that a lot of artists with a packed array of popular material have --- how to make the crowds happy while still trying to stave off any boredom from being a jukebox of memories. I know your opinion of "Metal Queen" has varied over the years but how do you view most of the material from the early and middle part of your career that you have covered on this record? Do you view them as an obligation or do you find different parts of the songs that resonate differently with you now?
Lee: Well, the truth is I don't relate to a lot of the subject matter anymore. A song like "Hot to Be Rocked", it's just about the energy of live music. But I wrote those lyrics when I was what, 20? I don't know. So some of the early material, its hard for me to completely connect to the subject matter because I was 25 years younger when I wrote it. But I have much reverence for the fact that the older material represents a time capsule.
It evokes emotion and memories that are highly positive for everyone who comes to hear them. I have people come up to me all the time who ask "Can you play "Tough Girls Don't Cry"? It got me through such a rough time in my life." Or "'Metal Queen" became my anthem when my husband left and now I'm really happy and it got me through this terrible time." Or "This is my wife's and my song, We came to a Lee Aaron concert and that's how we met so this has always been our song."
It means very special and positive things to people. I undertake these songs with a new type of joy when I play them now because I understand what it means to people. And my band are excellent musicians and we've taken a lot of those songs and tried to approach them with a slightly more modern approach rhythmically and with some of the guitar sounds, just to make them seamlessly fit with the new material.
antiMusic: And you succeeded.
Lee: I hope so (laughs). I don't get many complaints.
antiMusic: "Mistreated" kicks off the set. When did you first hear the song and what was it about it that resonated with you?
Lee: I think it was either '74 or '76 at the Hollywood Bowl or somewhere they were playing, Coverdale's voice was at its absolute peak. It's stunning and I've always loved that version of the song. So for Diamond Baby Blues, we wanted to put out a follow-up album after Fire and Gasoline quite quickly.
I was talking to Sean Kelly and was saying, "I don't know how we're going to be able to come up with 10 or 12 new songs that quickly." And he just said, "How about we just come up with five and how about cherry-picking some beautiful covers we've always wanted to do?" Because I don't traditionally do a lot of covers. Most of my records are completely original. And I thought, "What a great idea actually."
So I went back and started digging through the archives. "I'm a Woman" by Koko Taylor was something I always wanted to cover. It's one of my favorite songs. But we took it into pre-production and put almost like a Zeppelin-esque spin on it. I've always wanted to a version of "You're No Good" by Linda Ronstadt.
With "Mistreated", we thought, wouldn't it be great to do an epic ballad and take it to another epic level by adding some keyboards and background vocals. I tried singing it in the original key, which I can, but I didn't sound like a girl. I sounded a lot like Coverdale so we bumped it up two tones. I thought it was just interesting to take a song that is epic in its stripped-down form, bass, drums, guitars and Coverdale's voice and just take it to another level, which I hope we successfully did. We were pretty nervous about doing that song because it's got a huge fan base. It's hard to do the song reverence and not have the fans think it's a worse version. (laughs) It was just a challenge to take on that song.
antiMusic: Well, it's a great vocal and a perfect way to start the set, which by the way, when I first heard it, I thought wow....that's different. Most people will start the set off with a rave-up of some kind. But I really like the way this kicks everything off.
Lee: Well, I'm glad because it wasn't actually the first song in the set. I organized the DVD that way. I've been asked that question a few times, "Why did you start it that way?" Well, why not? Number one I think it's powerful. It's a powerful performance by the band. It's a powerful vocal performance. And every DVD on the planet starts with the rave-up. I just wanted to make a different choice rather than what people would expect.
antiMusic: The title cuts of your two latest records are both here and sound even better live. How is the new material being received along side your older hits?
Lee: Really well. We play "American High", "I'm A Woman", "Diamond Baby", "Fire and Gasoline"...we play "Hard Road" live. Oh people love "Hard Road". It goes over really well. It's cool because I get to pick up a guitar in that and "American High" and do a little jamming with Sean and it's a lot of fun. But yeah, they've been going over great.
antiMusic: Your last two records have contained some of your best material ever. Tell us about the writing of the title track of Fire and Gasoline.
Lee: Sean lives in Toronto and I live in Vancouver. For that album, Sean and I were just sending ideas back and forth digitally. It started out as us going into our little garage band studios and putting down ideas with drum machines and sending them back and forth. Then we realized we didn't even have to go to that much trouble. We started recording iPhone memos to each other. Like Sean would just sit down with a guitar, turn on his iPhone memo feature and record something and send it to me.
"Fire and Gasoline" actually came to me from Sean as that riff (sings riff). He had just written it on acoustic guitar. And then he had the bridge section, (sings) "You can tell everybody, this is your song". He'd written that section thinking it would be a chorus and when I heard it, I was just like, "I love, love, love both of these parts." But I didn't hear that section as a chorus.
So I took it into my studio and played it on a keyboard because on guitar, I'm a self-confessed hack (laughs). Truly. I mean I can play a few chords to write a song and I think that's all you need really. But as far as the virtuoso picking elements go, Sean is the guy. He's the master. So I took the riff and played it on keyboard bass and I wrote the chorus section (sings the line). And then I played it and sent it back to him.
That's how that song evolved. But what I loved about it, is we took it into the studio and realized that the cool thing about this song is that it has a shuffle, right? And a lot of Aerosmith material is like that, which is definitely one of all our influences as well. So we took my crappy keyboard demo using Sean's riff and bridge and took it into pre-production and worked it up as a band.
antiMusic: Like I said before, "Diamond Baby" is my latest favorite track by you. This one was written by you and Dave. How did this one come together?
Lee: Well, I gotta tell you. I love Dave Reimer. He's a fantastic writer but he has so may balls in the air in his life in terms of things he's got on the go. Number one being his Reimer Guitars. He's constantly in his shop building and fixing guitars for people. He's just amazing with his hands. So he's less inclined to take the time and put down an idea.
So I bugged and bugged him a lot on this record because he brings in so many great ideas. On the Fire and Gasoline record, he made huge contributions to arrangements little ideas when we were in pre-production but we never ended up writing anything together. So I finally told him, "Listen I know you played me a couple of things when we were coming back from wherever. I want you to put them down."
So he put down the "Diamond Baby" idea finally and sent it to me, But it had a completely different set of lyrics that went with it. But they didn't resonate with me. So I tore it apart and wrote a new set of lyrics. But you can tell in there that the melody follows the bass line...that descending riff. It's more difficult that you realize to write new lyrics and melody within the framework of something that already exists. Cuz it's like you're trapped in a box already.
But I wrote new lyrics because I wanted to write...the ongoing theme through most of my material is empowerment, right?. So that's what that song is all about. We all have diamonds within us. We all have the ability to reach our diamond potential and rise above the oppressive factors that we feel are stopping us from getting there. You can take those lyrics and they can be anything you want. It could be an oppressive relationship, or a work situation. It could be anything in your life that you want to extract yourself from and rise above. We all have the ability to do it.
antiMusic: Part of the secret to having a good live presence is a great band. Tell us about your guys and what they bring to the table. Let's start with the guy behind the kit. I know you don't know much about John but give it a try. (laughs) (John is Lee's husband)
Lee: (laughs) Well, I've known John 20 years. We've been married for 18. I met John in a jazz ensemble. We were in a trio of jazz bands doing a cross-country tour in Canada in 2001 for six weeks. None of us were sure about each other because I had called him on a couple of occasions to sub for the drummer that I was using at the time and he didn't even return my phone calls. (laughs)
So I thought he was a bit of a snob basically. And he just thought I was this cute girl who sang pop songs in the past who was now trying to be a jazz singer. A friend who worked at Nettwerk Records put this tour together which was one band and three different front people because it's impossible to make any money playing jazz.
We all fought to get the A players from our band into the touring band. So I ended up with my keyboard player and my horn player. I wanted my drummer but I got voted out so they took the drummer from another act and that ended up being John. But the funny thing is, we met that way but by the end of the tour we realized we had a ton in common.
He had a completely new respect for me when he saw me walk on stage and sing every night. And I realized that he was a really nice guy that just was not initially interested in someone who had been playing rock, It was really interesting. We ended up getting along and by the end of the six weeks he said that he knew he was going to marry me. That's how we met.
John is an avid collector of vinyl and cds. Basically I have a huge library at my house --- about 1,000 sq ft floor with multiple rows of shelves housing about a quarter of a million pieces of vinyl. It's probably one of the biggest in North America. It's pretty crazy. I don't really have the collector bug but he does. I appreciate it but honestly....(laughs) sometimes I don't know where things are. (laughs). But he does --- he has everything in a rolodex in his head...all these alphabetized sections.
He's a musicologist so whenever we're recording, at any given time, John can pull up a reference from somewhere. He can pull up references we've never heard of and find them and play it and say, "I was thinking about something like this." And we'll go, "Oh, right. That was so cool."
He pulled up something the other day. We were talking about the live show and he got this thing of I think it's Stephen Stills and Neil Young doing this guitar battle back and forth on stage in the '70s. And neither of them were playing anything virtuoso. They were just playing this rhythmic chord back and forth but it was so cool. He said, "You and Sean should do something like that in "American High", so we incorporated it into our show. He's got fantastic ideas like that that he brings into the pre-production and arrangement process.
I met Sean Kelly about six years ago and he approached me and wanted me to answer some questions for his book, Metal On Ice. He explained his history and told me he was playing with Nelly Furtado. He is a teacher and a writer and he was just eloquent and intelligent and well-spoken. We just ended up getting along really well and stayed in contact after that.
Then he put together the Metal on Ice show and companion CD as well that went along with the book. So we got to know each other even better. Then at one point he just said, "You know, if you ever want a sub for your guitar player and you're flying out to Toronto, I'd love to play in your band. That would be fun. I'd do it for free." (laughs)
So as it turned out, a few months later my regular guitar player wasn't available so I called Sean and said, "I'm in Toronto. Do you want to step in and play in my show?" I already knew he was a great player. But he came in and we rehearsed it and within the first hour it just became glaringly apparent to John and Dave and myself, this is the guitar player who needs to be in our band full-time.
So that's how it happened. He joined the band and that led to us having many long drives in vans and conversations about writing and starting to send ideas, Then it became very apparent that we needed to write together too.
And Dave, of course. Dave has been in my band about 15 years. John basically wanted to cherry-pick a bass player he wanted to work with and he picked Dave. Again, Dave and John have this special thing when they work together. John like many rock drummers, plays like a jazz drummer.
He plays just a little bit behind the beat. Bonham did that. Keith Moon did that. Charlie Watts does that as well in the Stones, which gives them that sort of unique rock 'n roll swagger. Most modern drummers play on the beat and most producers want them to. That's what I love about John's playing. And Dave thinks that way too so they make a magical rhythm section combination.
And then Sean, Dave and myself are all really strong songwriters and John is a strong arranger and again, he's our reference man.
I've played with many, many players over the years but every once in a while you'll just get a synergy of people that work together. It's like a conversation when you're playing and you work off each other and you can tell what that person is going to play before they play it. It's just an organic, natural thing, this musical conversation that happens. It's very rare. Bands like Zeppelin had that. Bands like The Who had that.
antiMusic: I'm sure that you always knew you had the voice when you first started. But how long did it take to turn into the confident performer you are now, because you were very young?
Lee: I did start really young. In my very first band, I was 15 years-old. I played keyboards and saxophone but sang only half the vocals. I was really shy and just stood at the mic near the back and sing. Then it was our first manager who pulled me out front and said, "No, you shouldn't be standing back there. You have to come out front." And he took me to see Bette Midler in the movie The Rose. He said, "You need to be like that", because she went out there with such bravado. I mean, she was all liquored up but anyway..." (laughs)
My first manager was influential in positive ways but also negative ways. He literally took me to buy a wardrobe because I was wearing pants and shirts up to my neck because that's how I was raised. He put me in more sexualized outfits which to be honest, I was completely uncomfortable with. I didn't feel comfortable showing my legs. I didn't feel comfortable wearing anything low-cut. But he would tell me, "This is what you need to do."
Then I began to realize that I had power when I dressed like that and when I behaved like that but it was me playing a role. It was like acting for me in the beginning. Unfortunately, that is kind of a negative legacy that I've been left with to try to live down from the early two or three years of my career. Then I realized that this wasn't working for me. I was too young to understand that it was creating such a negative legacy but I knew enough that it wasn't comfortable to me. Then I realized that this wasn't working for me.
But at first, I was too young to really understand the power that my own sexuality had. And then I was surprised when people reacted the way they did...and it hurt on a really little girl level. And I don't mean to have that sound like a lame excuse but I really didn't get it at first. And when I started to get it, I knew I needed to change it. So we parted ways and I tried to take more control over how I was being marketed. But it was hard in the '80s for women.
antiMusic: Well, the focus was supposed to be on the music.
Lee: I saw that it had eclipsed the entire reason I got into music. I got into music because it was music. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to make records and music that resonated with people. But the only thing that people were talking about was the way I looked and that's wrong.
But over the years, things that felt comfortable and worked for me, I adopted as my own. After awhile these things just synthesize into your own style
antiMusic: I know Sean has talked about the new record online. What can you tell us about it?
Lee: Well, it's completely written. I had an idea this time that rather than sending tracks back and forth constantly like we did on the last record, wouldn't it be cool if we just went totally old school band. If we just got into a room together and jammed. So I told everybody back in April after we did a couple of shows in Alberta. I told Sean, we're going to fly you in And you can bring your best three or four ideas. And Dave will bring his best three or four ideas and I'll do the same.
And that's what we did. We just got into a room and I pulled something up on my iPhone and said, "I was jamming around with this thing on my piano the other day. Have a listen." They would go, "Ooh, I like that." And then we worked it into a song. In two days, we wrote 13 songs and they all have solid choruses. All the nuanced verse lyrics weren't completed yet.
I just stepped up to the mic and sang the first thing that came into my head. Just things that sounded phonetically cool in a certain spot or whatever. I actually ended up keeping a lot of those lyrics but all of the chorus lyrics and titles ended up being solid. During March break I went to Mexico with my family but I pretty much ended up just lying on the beach writing lyrics so I had all these chorus ideas and other cool ideas for the new record.
This is what I mean when I talk about a musical conversation and synergy between people. Every single one of my title ideas fit into something Sean or Dave had written. And everything that I brought forward just clicked right away for them. So we literally wrote an album in two days.
We were touring throughout the summer. So when were in the van driving wherever, I would put on the tapes of what we had recorded. I would say, "I was thinking about this" and sing something and Sean would go, "Oh, what about this line?" And he'd throw out a line. So we ended up finishing all the lyrics over a few days this summer.
So we finished writing this album really fast but what I like about it, is that it has this real spontaneous energy about it. So the live album just came out but within a couple of months, we're going to go into the studio and lay down the tracks for the new one as well. Hopefully we'll get it out in 2020.
A lot of people don't understand that you can have your record completely done and then it's the photos and the artwork and the mastering process. And all that takes time. And a lot of labels need at least a minimum of three months lead time to prep everything on their end for the release. I know the live album was done at Christmas time last year and it didn't come out until September.
So we're just moving forward. You know, nobody's making a ton of money off of records anymore, off of actual physical product. But it's still so much fun to do. I love writing and I feel like I'm having this creative surge in my life so I'm just going to keep moving forward and doing what we're doing because it's satisfying and fun and the fans are enjoying it.
Morley and antiMusic thank Lee for taking the time to do this interview.
You can preview and purchase the new live set here
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