THANKS TO JYM HARRIS AND BALLBASTER MUSIC FOR SHARING THIS INTERVIEW WITH SOULGRINDER.
ANOTHER BALLBUSTER EXCLUSIVE! THIS TIME WE HOOKED UP WITH THE METAL QUEEN HERSELF, LEE AARON, TO TALK ABOUT HER PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE! ENJOY!
JYM HARRIS - I think it's fair to assume that many American headbangers like myself became aware of your music in the early 80's. How did you initially get into the business? Were you singing professionally at a really young age?
LEE AARON - Well I don't know if you'd say sort of 'professionally'. I joined a band when I was in high school, when I was 15 years old and I'd been singing in some theater productions locally and a bass player from a local band saw me in a production and said "man we want you to come and audition for our band" and my father drove to this rehearsal space because he was like "there's no way I'm letting my young daughter go into this basement rehearsal space with boys" right? They were older... I think I was only in grade 10 at the time? They were some guys from grade 12, from the music program at my high school and another neighboring high school, and there was sort of all this skepticism like "what are you doing having a girl come and audition for a band?" but I got the call back and I guess they didn't find a male singer who could sing the way I could so I got to join this band when I was 15 years old and we started out playing some small all all ages local gigs and that sort of evolved into... the biggest concert of our career was the summer that I graduated I was 17 years old and we played at the local band show in the local park where we lived in a Toronto suburb and the gentleman that became our first manager saw us there and was like, "Wow I really want to work with you guys!" He ended up putting us on the road and I wasn't even old enough to be in bars and I had scholarships to go onto university at that point I told my family like, "A couple of years and if this doesn't work out then I'll go back to college". Our keyboard player was 20 and he officially signed on as my chaperone. So I was just very young to answer your question.
Wow! That leads me into the question, I read somewhere that first band that you joined was actually called LEE AARON before you joined and that's where the stage name came from. Any truth to that?
LA-That is correct. It's was like Max Webster or Jethro Tull... just a name. I joined and was in for a very short period of time and it just became synonymous with myself. People thought I was Lee Aaron so it was kind of easier. I had some issues especially in the early days of my career with... what's a polite way to put it? Very very passionate fans, or we could call them stalkers I guess. So just having the anonymity provided by having the stage was really beneficial so I just ended up keeping the name.
Wow. That's a great story! Well everyone knows you have this really powerful vocal style. Who were some of your influences at the beginning?
Well throughout my younger years I was kind of schooled on jazz and blues and sort of Broadway standards because I did a lot of theater. And studied and learned about proper projection, but a couple of things happened when I was 17 years old...my father who worked at a college in Toronto called Humber College...Their college radio station was getting rid of their vinyl since they were switching formats, and he showed up with this trunk full of vinyl albums and up to that point I had very limited exposure to Rock. My parents weren't really into it, you know growing up here in Canada we heard a lot of Canadian content so I was hearing BTO and the Guess Who on the radio, but in this pile of records were The Runaways and Heart and Fleetwood Mac... they blew my mind because I had never really listened to women in a rock band before so those three were super influential when I was quite young. As well, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin... My first band, they were listening to heavier stuff like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. we covered some Sabbath, some Deep Purple, some Joplin, stuff like that so when you start digging deep and start listening to some of those bands, especially like Zeppelin, you know those guys stole from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf which sort of explains when I went back in my career and started researching more of the history of Rock and Roll you realize, well, I heard a great quote on, well I watched the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame special and one of the artists that got up said that 'roots and blues had a baby and it's name was rock n roll' and I went 'it's true' you know?
Yeah of course! I saw that in the early 80's you were compared to a female Ronnie James Dio. I don't know if you ever got that.
Yeah, people said that because I had a strong vocal style without being like a screamer. Cause that was Dio, you know, kind of his thing.
Cause you sound operatic and trained while still kind of affecting your voice a little bit, at least for the early material, like the 'Metal Queen'-era...
LA - Yeah. For sure!
JH - And you said that the song "Metal Queen" wasn't autobiographical and that it maybe unfairly pigeon-holed you, stylistically? I was wondering when you broke into the music business after doing theater and all that; was it your intention as a young artist to become kind of a Heavy Metal rocker?
Haha! No! Not all, actually. And it is not that I don't enjoy that genre of music. I still really like some heavy stuff, but it wasn't like I lied in bed awake at night dreaming I would become an icon in the Hard Rock world. It was almost sort of an accident. You have to remember that the 80's were this era where people were signed to big record deals, there were huge record budgets, everybody had a role or a job. I mean independently the way people do things now, a lot of it is a one person operation but back then, the vision for the album, they thought this song 'Metal Queen' could be a single and that got handed over to the art department, and an art director decided "what is an image that we can create here that would go good with that song?" then that gets handed off to the video director and there's a stylist on the shoot, so everyone had these roles. I remember showing up for the "Metal Queen" album cover shoot, and see all this... It was loosely discussed that they wanted to create a real powerful female image for me but I was really envisioning a Xena costume, haha. That's kind of what the whole thing got fashioned around. I mean, no complaining! It was a real fun time in my life and I think it complimented the song quite well. I had no idea that it would create this iconic kind of legacy for me in the Hard Rock world though. That wasn't really the intention, and at the time I guess I was having fun with it. It was a little more like being Alice Cooper where, we all know Alice Cooper's a really cool normal guy but Cooper is this persona, it's a lot of role playing, and for me at that time that's kind of how I looked at it.
Sure. At first, I saw that video when it came out. They've got you chained up and swinging a sword. You got the spider and the snake and the dove and all that which leads me to the question as a female artist do you find it difficult to have to be sort of feminine and sexy while also being expected to appear kinda strong and somewhat masculine in Rock music?
It is a double edged sword, isn't it? Haha. It's like yeah, that's interesting you say that because in the 80's when people were signed to big records deals and there's hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on production and marketing. There was definitely an awkward dynamic to deal with. You know if you were not that attractive and overweight they just looked at you like there was zero marketability for you. There was a real emphasis on the fact that you needed to be attractive, and we needed to be able to market you that way...a lot of the images that were put out there for female artists were such very sexualized images. Let's be honest. It put you in the position of sometimes feeling like "well is this eclipsing the merit of what I'm doing artistically here?" I often felt that the fact that I was a singer and a songwriter I remember being in my manager's office when my 6th album came out, "Some Girls Do" him taking this phone call from a big Canadian publication called "The Record". At the time it was a big industry magazine. And them asking, "Who wrote this hit for Lee?" And he was like. "She wrote it". I remember thinking, "Man, I'm on my sixth album and people don't even know that I write my own songs yet! There's something wrong with this picture!" And I put a lot of that down to the marketing. There was just a lot of emphasis put on how you looked and creating a pin-up girl image. But you know it is interesting. I remember a VP at my records label in the 80's saying, "We want to create something where men want to be with you and woman want to be like you." And I went, "Oh, ok." Haha, so yeah, you had to carry your weight in terms of strength to compete in that world but there was definitely an emphasis on sexualizing women, I think. And I mean that happened with men in the industry at that time too. Look at those Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, all those videos they all had oiled up women in very, very minimal clothing, right? That seemed to be the way the way of the world back then.
Right. Well I understand that early on you were quite a bit more successful in some of the European countries. I mean more so than in North America, right? By the late 80's I had heard that "Bodyrock" went nearly triple platinum?
I did not truly break big in Canada until my 5th album. But I had a tremendous amount of success in Europe with my 2nd and 3rd record. I toured with Bon Jovi actually in '85. Right around the time of the release of my 3rd album "Call Of The Wild" and we were signed at the time to a very small label out of, I think it was Belgium called Road Runner. I don't think they are so small anymore. By the end of that tour we had sold 100,000 albums in a short period of time. To the point that some of the reviews were kinda suggesting that Bon Jovi was opening for me. It was very awkward, haha. Yeah, I had a lot of big success. I had a top 40 hit in Canada with my 4th album with a song called "Only Human" so I broke with radio play but that did not really translate much into album sales but what really broke things wide open for me in Canada was the "Bodyrock" album in 1989. It was right around the time that MTV and Much Music in Canada had really peaked in terms of their power to sell artists visually so video had become paramountly important. I had hit videos at that time and they were in heavy rotation up here so that did a tremendous amount to catapult my career.
By the early 90's though you were all over the world and supporting your albums on Attic Records, but then didn't you release an album on your own label? Was it Hip Chick Records? Do I have that right?
Yeah, I've had 3 different label various incarnations of my career. I left the record label in 1992. And kinda went independent. I was actually one of the first artists in Canada to do so and started a label called Hip Chick Music and I put out the album "Emotional Rain" on that imprint, and then I started another label called Spastic Plastic later in the 90's I put out another album on that.
Was that the 2Preciious album?
Yeah that's correct.
I actually wasn't that familiar with that album. Wasn't that kind of a grungy alt-rock kind of a vibe?
It was kind of a project record. I had hired the rhythm section to play on my "Emotional Rain" album in 1994. Those guys were from a Canadian alt band in the 90's called the Sons of Freedom. Amazing band, if you ever get a chance check out their stuff. And I was just in love with that band so I hired the rhythm section, brought them out and we all got along like a house on fire! And they said if you want to do something really different come over to Vancouver and let's write a record together. It would be fun! Traditionally I have liked challenges like that and I have reinvented myself a few times and taken some risks so I was like, "Yeah let's do it!". So I get on a plane and came out here and we wrote this album and we wrote under the nom de plume 2Preciious and that album got really good critical reviews. Unfortunately it was kind of a commercial failure because my name wasn't attached to it. Kinda like being a brand new band again.
Oh, you were using your real name?
Yeah, I actually still to this day really love that album. I think it was some of my best work. I think it's almost out-of-print now. If you find it online, it's very rare.
I noticed in the late 90's a lot of the Hard Rock & metal bands changing direction due to the climate in the music business. Something I didn't know until recently was that you were exploring Jazz and Blues at that time and you were successful with that as well. Tell us about the transition from Rock to Jazz.
Well, I had to go bankrupt in 1996. A lot of people don't know that. The state of the music industry. Grunge came in full force. Basically anyone's name who was attached to any AOR Rock from the 80's, music trends shifted so dramatically. You couldn't get arrested! I am not the only person who has this story. It was a very, very difficult for hard rock bands who had had success at that time. Because we were displaced, basically. So...
No, I remember. I remember clearly.
So my manager took a job working as a foreign licensing rep for a big US label and my lawyer kinda jumped ship. I kind of showed up one day in Vancouver there were all these banker boxes on my doorstep and they had been sent from out East, and I was going through them going "oh man! I'm in like $450,000 worth of debt here" that I wasn't even completely aware of, with other people managing my affairs. It was a tough time but it was probably the best thing I could have done was just go bankrupt and start with a clean slate. I took a year off through because, I am going to be honest, I was somewhat depressed and I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. but I had a lot of people urging me to get back on stage and sing. And when I decided to do that I was just like "I cannot be part of the pop culture meat grinder". It was just too brutal. I just thought "I'm just gonna start singing some music that I like" so I kinda went back to my roots. Right? For me, some people thought jazz and blues was a very dramatic shift away from Rock but really what I was doing I felt was exploring the history of where the music that I loved came from. Like we said, jazz and blues had a baby and it's name was Rock n Roll. So I went back and I had put together this band and I was covering all this old cool Dinah Washington and Nina Simone stuff and old Billie Holiday and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I mean, she was one of the first gospel singers and guitarists that accompanied herself. This woman was completely bad ass, let me tell you. Some of the female guitarists like Bonnie Raitt and Lita Ford and Joan Jett and Nancy Wilson, they owe a huge debt to her. It was really a great experience and it led to me making an album in 2000 and then getting invited to go across Canada doing a bunch of jazz festivals. Again, I didn't really expect it to be successful. But I got quite a few really great reviews so that ended up being what I was doing right up until 2004.I had just cut another album, "Beautiful Things", again, independently. It was kinda like a Pop/Jazz. It was moving a little more in a Pop direction cause "Slick Chick" in 2000 was Jazz covers this one was original material. And it was very heavily Jazz & Blues influenced. But my inclination, I feel, as a songwriter, what I feel I do best, is Power Pop. Like Pop with huge guitars. That album was sorta Jazz/Pop. And then I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and I was on tour. I finished my tour in Newfoundland at the very far East end of Canada, seven months pregnant. Got on a plane, came home. I had my daughter in 2004 and my son in 2006. I don't know if I was anticipating such a huge life hiccup having children and I don't mean that in a negative way. My kids are an absolute blessing. I love them. They are amazing, but it sucks a lot of your creative energy, trust me. So I took a decade away from doing a studio album.
Well you did return to Rock music at least in a live setting in about 2007... weren't you playing some shows with Heart?
Yeah. At that point were you eager to get back to playing Rock music?
Well, I was still getting offers to go out and do a live Rock show every summer. And said no several times. And it wasn't until I got the offer to play with Heart that it was really worth it to me. These gals are my idols. I was like, I cannot turn down this opportunity. So I put my Rock show back together and when I got on the stage it was like "Ooh Yeah! I forgot how fun this is! I need to be doing this again!" So from that point forwards I did go out periodically. I do pockets of dates. That's kind of how I've made it work with my life and my family and also with the intention of supporting "Fire & Gasoline", my new album, is to do targeting pockets of dates. I'll call my agent and go ok we're gonna go to Southern Ontario in September, we put together 5 or 6 shows. Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Niagara Beach we will do that. And I will come home for a couple of weeks. I'll go back out and I'll do Albert. The person who gave me that idea was Nancy Wilson. We had this great conversation backstage, because her twins at the time were still quite young. And I said "How do you do this? How do you be a rock mom? I'm really trying to figure this out!" And she said, "Oh yeah, you just become a weekend warrior!" I'm like a "Weekend warrior? What is that?" and she said "Yeah, you just go out like every other weekend and do like 4 or 5 shows and come home. Do it that way." And I am like, "Right on. Ok, that's doable. I can do that. " And so that is how it started for me to go out and do some shows.
So mentioning "Fire and Gasoline", that appears to draw a bit of influence from your entire career. I gotta ask, how is this records different from your back catalog? I understand you wrote a lot of material without any songwriting partners?
Well, I did write in the past but I almost always had a songwriting partner. One of my former label's agendas was to fly me around and have me work with other writers. It's just what they do. Try to pair you up with the hit factory, right? So I flew to Nashville, LA, New Jersey a bunch of times and worked with different people. Can be a very awkward situation. Sometimes you find yourself in a room with this complete stranger, going ok...let's write a hit! This whole songwriting process is quite vulnerable... you know you're putting yourself out there, your most vulnerable self right? I did write quite a bit of material for 'Fire And Gasoline' on my own, which I'd never done in the past but with digital technology, I've got this project studio down there so I now have the tools and the capability to do almost whatever I want on my own, it's like OK I need a drum beat? I can pull this loop and put this here and be a drummer right now and then get my real drummer to play it. And then I co-wrote five songs with my guitarist Sean Kelly. He's from Toronto and I'm from here but again with modern technology...and when I say that I don't mean I flew tracks out there for him to put guitar parts on, he would send me like an I-phone memo and go "I've got this cool riff, what do you think?" and I'd go "Yeah! Here let me work that up in the studio! Let me see what I can do with it" and then I'd write a top line and maybe a couple other parts to go with it and send it back and he'd go "Yeah I love the direction we're going! What about adding this part?" and we'd bounce ideas back and forth like that but when it came time to trying actually to record the album, my whole band was here and we recorded in the former Little Mountain Sound here in Vancouver. And we recorded live off the floor and what else is different is that it's the first Rock album that I produced by myself. I produced a couple of my former albums..my jazz album in 2000 and 'Beautiful Things' in 2004. In some ways I think it's more authentic than anything I've ever done.
You know it sounds a little bit like you draw influence from multiple parts of your career and kinda all put it together on the new record. I mean, am I hearing that right?
Yeah. Well, cause I know when I write on guitar. My inclination is to draw off of my Joan Jett and my Chrissy Hynde type of influences because I am no virtuoso on the guitar. So you hear that on say "Wanna Be" and "Bad Boyfriend" And then when I write on the keyboards I'm drawing a little more off my jazz and roots influences. So I think some of that has to do with the instrument I am writing on and where my head is at during that time. Yeah, I definitely think I draw on everything. But at the same time I think it all belongs on one record. It's a Rock record. I know growing up for me, I loved seeing what an artist like David Bowie was going to do next. I am not comparing myself to the brilliance of David Bowie by any stretch of the imagination! ...You knew that you weren't just going to get a cookie cutter version of the album before. Those are my favorite kind of artists. I kind of picture myself that way. What's wrong with change? What's wrong with being influenced by what you are loving in the moment?
Yeah, there's almost like a Pop/Danceable quality to some of the tunes? But like you said it is all cohesive, and it all belongs on the same record, right?
Yeah, I mean, I have used this example a few times. Fleetwood Mac, "Rumors" is like that for me. I still go back and listen to that album again and again. It is such a masterpiece! You have Christie McVie singing a really tender piano ballad. On one track you've got, "The Chain" which is a sort of heavy blues rock. And you've got, "Secondhand News" which is almost bluegrass. And then, "Dreams" which is a pure pop song. And it is all on the same album because there are different writers in the band. All influenced by different things. But it definitely all sounds like it belongs on the same album. It takes you kinda on a musical journey. And you never get bored listening to it. You know what I am saying?
Yeah, of course.
Because on no song do they sound like cookie cutter versions of each other.
Sure. So the last couple of questions for you here. Being a rock singer and songwriter for so long, what's your secret? Do you have a routine? What keeps you in shape physically and vocally?
For the last decade, running after my kids has kept me in shape! (laughter) Gee, at the risk of sounding shallow, I don't have a trainer that comes by twice a week...like a movie star or anything like that. I am an outdoorsy kind of person and I enjoy physical activities like hiking and biking, because I've got a young family, right? I've become quite vigilant about taking care of my voice now that I have gotten older and more mature. Because I think I used to really abuse it when I was younger. Four years ago I caught this bug from my son and it just kept getting worse and worse because I was just plowing forward on the hamster wheel of everyday life. You know taking care of my family but not taking care of myself. And I got really, really sick and it took me quite a while to get over it. And for the back half of that I lost my voice for several weeks. I was freaking out. I though man, like am I never going to sing again? I had an infection on my vocal chords. And I had to go see a specialist here in Vancouver. It was all resolved and it was all 'tickety-boo' but it was sure made me go, "Wow. I really need to be valuing this gift that I have and taking care of it better. So the last 4 years of my life I have become sort of a Whole Foods junkie. I don't really eat anything that's got preservatives and junk in it. I am very particular about what I am putting into my body. And I also got myself an in-ear monitor system so I can take better care of those vocal chords. Yeah, so like other than that, I don't really know what to say. So yeah, just trying to take good care of yourself. Everything in moderation, right? You know I still love music! I still get inspired by so many things. Have you discovered Courtney Barnett yet?
Oh my gosh, she's so cool! She's from Australia. She's kinda like a modern day punk Bob Dylan. I am just so inspired by her and by new artists that I discover! I am always listening to music. Always allowing myself to be open to be influenced by things. You know, that's important not get stuck, right?
Yeah! So lastly, I understand that early on in your career there were some professional decisions made that you didn't necessarily agree with. What kind of advice would you give to a upcoming female musician?
Well, a few things. Find your own voice. Don't be a copy cat. It's good to be influenced. And I guess sometimes what you have to do covering lots of other stuff before you find your own voice. Being different is what is going to get you noticed. Being the same is not. So many people try to emulate other people. Be like other people, you know? There's a reason the Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones and The Beatles are The Beatles. Cause nobody sounds like them. And work at being different not being the same. Don't trade on your sexuality to get noticed. It's not necessary. Keep your clothes on. I mean it might seem very odd for someone like me to be giving that kind of advice but I think I can speak from a place of feeling somewhat exploited when I was young. Some of that made it hard. I had to fight for musical credibility which I feel I now have. You can be sexy and keep your clothes on. Miley Cyrus would hate me for saying that but I think it is true. Showing skin does not make you edgy. It makes you just like everybody else. I was talking with someone the other day. You know, back in the day, having a tattoo meant something significant like you fought in a war or you have been in the navy or you have lost someone important to you. Now it just means you have gone to the mall.
It's true! So like, be different! Don't be like everybody else. Take the time to learn how to use a bit of recording equipment because it will go a long way. Don't be a dummy. Read your music industry books. Learn how to use decent recording equipment so you can get your ideas down. It's really important. That's the advice I would give.
Yeah it's seems that there's this message over the years that I've heard you talk about. The first single from the new album is "Tomboy", right? The way I understand it is it has that sort of classic "Metal Queen" thing with female empowerment. And the video has your kids? Or your daughter?
Well they're not all my kids! Haha... I have a son and a daughter. My daughter is in the video. She's the little blondie on the guitar.
Yeah. They're your back up band!
Yeah. I thought it would be really cool to have an actual band of tomboys. The inspiration for that song came from my daughter. Who at the time was 10 years old. You know you just look at those young girl. I just love that age. Where they are not self-conscious yet. They are not affected by all of the beauty culture images that is foisted upon our youth. Upon us all really. They're not affected by that. They are comfortable in their own skin. 'I love to climb trees. I'm just as good as a boy' and I love that energy! "Tomboy" was meant to capture that. But I also realized for me I sometimes don't understand what a song is fully about until it's finished. What I realized through the process of writing it and entering in to making the video with her and her friends was that the song is empowerment for anybody out there who felt that they had to conform to a stereotype or an expectation that they weren't comfortable with. You know, trying to be something that you are not. Or the expectation that you be something that you are not. The song is about being comfortable with the individual that you are and being proud to be that person. I think too when a woman goes through those years of life, with 'I'm not as pretty as the next girl.' Or 'I need be this or do that or I need to look like that'. You have your kids and you enter into the ickyness of motherhood and you sort of move all past that. You get comfortable in your own skin again. And I kind of feel like I am there as well. We're sort of sharing a bit of the same attitude. So yeah, it's a song for everyone, really.
It seems that is the case with you whole album and your return to rock. It's embracing your back catalog and everything you've been through and being comfortable in your own skin.
If that comes across, then I guess I've been successful. Thanks!
It absolutely comes across like that. Awesome! So thank you so much for talking to me. I'm just going to ask do you have any last thoughts?
Well, no. I am just really excited that this album...even though you can really buy everything online now. I couldn't really tell you which brick and mortar stores you might be able to find "Fire and Gasoline" but I am just excited that this album is finally available to an American audience. So people can get it on Amazon.com. If you want to know more about me LeeAaron.com is my site but I am also on Facebook at Lee Aaron and the Lee Aaron fan page and on Twitter @LeeAaronMusic. I'm really excited and one thing we are going to get down to the Western seaboard for some tour dates in the near future. I hope I get to make it to Oregon.
So do I! We look forward to seeing you live. Like you mentioned you won't be touring like you have in the past. Do you have some festival dates that are already in place right now?
We have some festival dates that are here in Canada for the summer. That was sort of our first order of business because the album came out here first. Right now we are looking at doing some dates in Europe and the United States. It may be that we come and do an LA and a New York showcase to start and see where that leads.
Sure. That would be awesome!
Interview by Jym Harris