Lee Aaron’s post-eighties adventures

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Last year, Lee Aaron released Fire and Gasoline – one of the New York Observer’s ‘Most Overlooked Albums of 2016.’ In this interview, the singer talks about the record, surviving the nineties, and her next album.

Although Lee Aaron’s Fire and Gasoline received little media attention in Canada, the self-released record managed to score a position in the New York Observer’s list of the best overlooked albums of 2016.

After learning of the record while researching my lists of 2016 Vancouver album releases, and hearing it – it rocks! – I wanted to talk to Aaron about what she’s been up to and the genesis of the record.

The Belleville, Ontario born-and-raised Aaron released her debut album in 1982. Huge multi-platinum success came in 1989 with the release of her fifth album, Bodyrock. In the nineties, she embraced the dirty, industrial sounds of the time, working with members of Vancouver band Sons of Freedom on 1994’s Emotional Rain (released as a Lee Aaron record) and more collaboratively in 1996, under the name 2preciious (listen to their song “Black Metal Jesus” here). Following those records, Aaron took her formidable voice in a jazz-pop direction, including 2004’s Beautiful Things.

Aaron has continued to play one-off dates in Canada and tour Europe, where she’s enjoyed a loyal following since the ’80s. Fire and Gasoline is her 11th album.

Video – Lee Aaron, “Tom Boy”:

SC: I was just listening to a track from 2preciious, the 1996 project you did with Sons of Freedom.

LA: I’d just moved out here a year before that. The guys in Sons of Freedom were like, “Let’s do a project record together, it would be fun.” Their whole songwriting process was different from the way I’d written in the past. Usually I’d work with one particular player, like my guitarist. We’d come up with the song elements together and I would take the rough demo and fine-tune the lyrics and melodies. And these guys just went into a jam-space at the bottom of some apartment building in Vancouver that they’d rented and they’d just start jamming and say, “Just walk up to the mic and sing.”

SC: Did you just make the lyrics up on the spot, and then work on them?

LA: Quite often, I’ll sing the first kind of gibberish that comes into my head. It’s the first inspiration, it’s what feels natural. Quite often that’s just a few lines here or there or the chorus or it might be black metal, something different. Then when I go back and listen to it, the song starts taking shape in my head. Fire and Gasoline, that song, was like that. Sean had sent me part of the track, just a riff, and I took it into my studio and wrote the chorus. Then I just sat in front of a mic and sang some rhythmic stuff that came into my head. I ended up keeping a bunch of little phrases. I like writing that way. It’s not too over-thought then. I’m certainly at the stage with my songwriting, if I have to belabour over something too long, I’m like, “You know, I think I should just shelve this for awhile.”

SC: Did you write the songs in a batch, or over a period of time?

LA: For the last four or five years we’ve been playing “Bad Boyfriend” as an encore tune for fun, ’til I felt I was in a place to make another record. My kids are still in elementary school. When they were quite little, I just felt like I couldn’t put in the focused amount of energy and time it would take to make an album.

But when some time opened up as they got a little older, the songs kind of came fast. Sean and I wrote five tunes and I wrote another five on my own in about a nine-month period.

SC: Who is Sean?

LA: That’s Sean Kelly, he’s a guitar player from Toronto and I met him as an author about three or four years ago. He wrote a book called Metal on Ice about all the music he loved growing up in North Bay. It was a lot of acts that had been neglected in rock history books, like Triumph, Coney Hatch, Goddo. He asked me a bunch of questions for that, and that’s how we originally connected. And he happens to be a fabulous guitar player. He plays in Nelly Furtado‘s band as well. Then one time I was coming to Toronto for a couple of shows and I needed a guitar player to sub and I called Sean and, after, we were like, “Wow, we should be in a band together.”

SC: It doesn’t seem like Fire and Gasoline has gotten a lot of attention here in Canada.

LA: Well, it’s distributed by Universal worldwide. But I started my own boutique label (Big Sister Records) just for the album. Because it was coming out in the States and in England and I was the label and financing the promotion, I had to pick and choose where I was going to spend money. I did hire a Canadian guy, not to really solicit reviews, but to focus on particular cities when I was playing there. I played a big show at the PNE in 2015 but I didn’t really do a Vancouver showcase.

SC: Where are you at with the album now, then?

LA: Well, it came out in March (of 2016). It had a very good run. It was in the top 10 sellers on the Canadian amazon list in the rock category for quite awhile. We’re hoping we’re going to get a Juno nomination. I don’t really tour-tour any more, I try to do isolated pockets of dates. We did quite a bit of that. I’m already starting to book dates in 2017. I have German dates in July. And I’m looking at recording another album this spring. We have quite a few songs written. We’re probably going to throw a few covers on there that I think would fit in the vein of this album. Some rather obscure tunes, actually.

SC: Is it going to be another hard rock record?

LA: I don’t know that I would say Fire and Gasoline is a “hard rock” record, I’d say it’s a “rock” record. I think the new record will be slightly more bluesy. I’ve tried not to ever make the same record twice. I have to feel like I’m always moving forward.

SC: You have a David Bowie connection – you worked with Reeves Gabrels on Emotional Rain (1994).

LA: And with Knox Chandler from the Psychedelic Furs. At that point, the landscape in music was changing. Grunge had happened. I was wanting to continue to write good songs and make good music, but I thought it might be neat idea to bring in some modern-sounding, timely elements. So I hired the rhythm section from the Sons of Freedom, brought Knox up from New York and Reeves – gosh, I don’t know where he was living at the time.

I was really intimidated, thinking “Why would these guys play on my album?” Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking.

Reeves was a really really sweet guy. In fact he was the husband of one of David Bowie’s press reps or something. He told me this story, that when David was looking for a new guitar player, this woman who worked for him said, “If you don’t do anything else in my career of working for you, just listen to this tape.” And he (Bowie) listened to it and loved it. And that’s how Reeves got hired.

SC: It doesn’t sound like you were threatened by grunge.

LA: I loved grunge. Eighties music was getting pretty crappy, and a lot of that was because so much money being made, and there was this agenda. When something was successful there was a big push to not find the newest innovative thing. I think the two most similar albums that I made were Bodyrock and Some Girls Do (1991) because they (Attic Records in Canada) wanted to repeat the success of Bodyrock. And all the record companies were signing bands that sounded like other bands. Something needed to happen to shake it up. Grunge came along and it was like, “Yes, this is refreshing.”

Unfortunately at the time, because I had started really young, the media’s perception of me was that I was an eighties act. I could have made the most brilliant albums. I’m proud of the records I made, but I couldn’t get arrested. But there’s a long list of others who couldn’t get arrested either. It’s just what it was. Trends changed.

SC: People grow up, people mature. I know a lot more open-minded than I was*.

LA: My husband is a musicologist. He one of the biggest record collections on the West Coast. When we got together I thought, “I’m so cool, I’ve got like 500 records.” Then I realized, “Oh, actually I’m a neophyte, I don’t know a thing.”

You become a lot more open-minded as you get older. You realize how stupid you were to think music belongs in one category or another.

*Which isn’t saying a lot, unfortunately.

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