Lee Aaron – Queen From The North
After Delain with Charlotte (Holland) and Xandria with Dianne (Germany/Holland) tore through Seattle last Thursday, I thought it was appropriate to finally publish my interview with a pioneer in rock/metal music: Lee Aaron!
Hailing from our neighbors to the north (aka Canada), Lee has been rocking audiences since the early 80’s. One of the most underrated vocalists and songwriters of her day, Lee’s career has taken twists and turns like many do. She is currently back in the studio working on a new rock album release!
I grew up listening to Lee’s music so this was a real awesome opportunity for me to interview her. Anyone that listens to the current gothic/symphonic/female fronted rock-metal artists out there, owe something to Lee Aaron, who helped pave the way. Read on!
EA: Thanks so much for taking the time Lee! I really appreciate it. It’s getting warm down here in Seattle (80’s F). How are you this fine Summer July 2014?
LA: Really great..thanks for asking. Summertime is always fun because I get to play great music festivals as well as hang out at the beach with my kids.
EA: When you first started with the Lee Aaron Project did you ever think all these years later you’d be doing interviews for your music career in 2014?
LA: When I was a teenager, I never thought that far ahead about anything. Everything was so immediate. I think a lot more about the future now…but, yes, I’m really flattered that people are still interested in me and my music.
EA: I know in other interviews I read about how Attic Records wanted to open an Attic America but the stipulation was that they wanted the whole roster on Attic America and it never materialized. Meanwhile, all these offers from American labels came and went.
One doesn’t like to spend too much time speculating, but for fun, where do you think your career would of gone had your releases been available widespread in America back then?
LA: That’s a difficult question to answer. Many Canadian acts that were released in America (that already had success in Canada) often didn’t achieve the success stateside that they hoped for anyway. Especially if it was, for instance, MAJOR LABEL Canada with a subsequent token release on MAJOR LABEL America. This was because it wasn’t a MAJOR LABEL America ‘discovery’ or ‘signing’ by their A&R department. In fact, that scenario was more common than not. Back in the 80’s so much of your success hinged upon the actual person or people who signed you and believed in you at the label. I witnessed entire careers slide into oblivion when personnel changes occurred internally at labels. I really don’t invest any time thinking of what could have been. I’m pretty happy with having a psuedo-cult status I have with people in the know.
EA: What was young Lee (or Karen) like as a child growing up? I know you were involved with musicals at an early age.
LA: Well, according to my mother, I came home from kindergarten at age 5 and announced that I planned to sing (solo) ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ at the Christmas recital. She was shocked because I’d never expressed much interest in singing before then. She also said that my practicing was pretty awful and was concerned I would embarrass myself. Apparently when I got in front of an audience I was really good. Now, this is according to my mom…other than that I spent many long, lazy Winnipeg summers catching frogs and climbing trees. I was a tomboy. I also continued my interest in music by joining choir and getting involved in musical theatre. I appeared in quite a few musicals between the age of 6 and 18.
EA: I’ve also read how the tag of Metal Queen became synonymous with Lee Aaron. It reminds me a bit of an actor/actress that gets stereotyped due to one popular role they played. On one hand they’re grateful for what the role brought them but on the other hand they’re (sometimes) tired of being compared or stereotyped for it. Would you say that’s similar to what happened with you and the Metal Queen tag?
LA: Umm… yes…that pretty much sums it up. Essentially, my music has always been more like Suzi Quatro or Joan Jett than Metallica or Slayer. That ‘label’ put many listeners off because they assumed I was a female fronted death metal act, or, conversely, I would get booked on a metal festival and the audience would be disappointed because every song was not a ‘Metal Queen’ clone. If you understand anything about song writing and break it down into parts, you see that even Metal Queen is a pop tune with massive guitars. That’s a huge part of its appeal – the fact that it’s easy to sing along to. For a while I did a mash up version of the song infusing U2’s Mysterious Ways. Believe it or not, the song structure is exactly the same. Musically it was really fun, but it made some fans upset….
EA: Yeah, I saw a clip of this a few years ago and it’s also on the Sweden Rock Fest DVD I believe. I’m a fan of U2 so I thought it was an interesting mash-up myself. Who do you look to as songwriting inspirations (in the early days)?
LA: I equally loved bands like Heart as well as jazz artists like Nina Simone and Ella. It was so inspiring to me to see women who were genuine talents – players and songwriters – who were actually doing it right and could project strength and femininity without trading on their sexuality. I think I have spent most of my career trying to be half as cool as Ann and Nancy Wilson. Nina Simone is untouchable.
EA: It seems that today you’ve come to terms with the music and/or image of your past. Is that an accurate assessment? It seems that with time, life experiences, and just being in a different head-space, things come around full circle for many musicians.
LA: I was really flattered last year when SOCAN magazine here in Canada wanted to interview me regarding that tune (“Metal Queen”). It was featured in the ‘songs that stick with you’ section. I’m happy to say that I’ve made my peace with it now. It seems that as my detractors have gotten more mature, in hindsight they also recognize the tune as an anthem of empowerment. For both men and women. Hey baby, it was Rock and Roll suffragette 1984.
EA: The music industry back then was very different than it is now. If artists wanted to grow in popularity and expand their fan base, they had to be signed to a label and (usually) get signed to a major label if they really wanted to break though on an international level. Today you can record an album in your home that sounds as good as anything from a professional studio and distribute/promote it on your own via social media. What’s your take on the current state of the music industry, your own opinion of the pros/cons of the changes from the 80’s to now, and where do you think the industry is headed in the future?
LA: Digital technology and the advent of the internet has changed everything for sure. I came up in the decadent 80’s where spending a quarter million on an album was pretty standard. Artists lived in perpetual un-recoupable debt and rarely made a royalty. Digital recording has changed that thankfully. In fact, recorded music is almost simply an advertisement or your live show these days.
The down side is that so much music has lost its organic-ness. I’m not sure if organic-ness is even a word….It’s created by people that know how to use their music software really well but not necessarily play an instrument. Songs are crafted with loops and soundscapes. Not to knock that…it’s an art in itself, however, I still feel the best songs can stand alone with a piano or guitar and a voice.
EA: I know when you were getting ready to release your third album, “Call Of The Wild”, you were booked for a tour in the UK but the album wasn’t finished so you released an EP with the lead off single “Rock Me All Over”. As a teen, I always wondered why the lyrics for the single were eventually changed when the album version came out?
LA: Ha, ha…brilliant question! No one has ever asked me that before. Yes, the original was about the power of rock music as a transcendent experience. Bob Ezrin (our producer on that album) didn’t think it was ‘sexy’ enough. So it was reluctantly re-vamped to be about a girl with the hots for a band member. ‘Rock me all Over’ became a euphemism for ‘shagging’. Hey, I was a 22 year old kid at that time. I wasn’t about to question the dude that produced Pink Floyd! That music shaped my adolescence!
EA: When your next album came out, 1987’s self titled release, it seemed at least here in the US, that some of your fans were not happy with the more pop oriented direction of the album. It happens to be my favorite album of your’s for that very reason – the songwriting seemed to go to another level, the melodies, choruses, everything. It certainly wasn’t the metallic edge of “Metal Queen”. What are your thoughts and recollections about that album?
LA: That was definitely a more refined album. The songwriting did go to another level and having Peter Coleman (producer for Pat Benetar) influenced that as well. I think that my inclinations as a writer have always been more pop, as I mentioned before. Peter was a perfectionist and pushed me really hard vocally. At times I was ready to freak out because he would make me punch in one line 40 times to get it just right. I’m grateful though because it did make me a better singer in the end and I learned a lot about pitch and phrasing from him. Also – one little tidbit of fun info – when we were cutting BGs for Only Human, we all sang around one mic, old style. Whenever we got to the line “feed our hearts and fill our souls” we totally cracked up as someone had suggested before the sessions that maybe we were actually singing ‘arseholes (our souls)’…okay not very mature but hey, neither were we at the time.
EA: (laughs) That’s funny and I appreciate the little behind the scenes info! One song on the album, “If This Is Love”, was one of my favorite tunes on that record. It was one of the few tunes that wasn’t written by you is that true? What can you tell me about that song and how it came across your desk to record?
LA: I was signed to Attic Records (Above Water/Pond Water) publishing at the time so I was regularly being presented with songs. It was a great song, plus I was a Beach Boys fan and thought that covering a song written by Carl Wilson would be cool.
EA: For the younger readers, the mid and late 80’s definitely saw the popularity of bands such as Warrant, Poison, Cinderella, Winger, Vixen, etc. Even the old veterans were dabbling in an image or sound change (KISS’s albums and videos reflected this change in the hard rock climate at the time, Maiden and Priest using guitar synths on their albums, AC/DC putting out “slicker” sounding albums like “Fly On The Wall”, “Who Made Who”, and “Blow Up Your Video”). At this time you put out “Bodyrock” and “Some Girls Do” which were very well received releases – earning you gold and platinum awards. Both of these releases also reflect this, for lack of a better term, hair metal movement at the time. Do these albums reflect the music you wanted to write and release or was their any pressure from the record label to make your music similar to what was popular at the time?
LA: Ah, yes, the key-tar. That thing should have been outlawed! And yes, there was always pressure. The labels were your investors and wanted to make their return, so they had huge input into the direction of the recordings. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Often the ‘suits’ were telling the musicians how to make their music. Sometimes that input was objective and needed, but sometimes, they didn’t have a clue.
EA: Being from Seattle, when the grunge movement hit, it was like a tsunami came through and wiped out many of the very same melodic metal acts of the late 80’s. I know you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you were no exception to this. You also left Attic Records at this time and started your own label with the first release being “Emotional Rain”. What prompted the change? Was it the change in musical climate? The lack of US distribution from Attic?
LA: All of the above…
EA: At this point – during the 90’s, what was it like for you and your career?
LA: Well, to be honest, it was tough for all of us. There was no industry support for that style of music so many of my colleagues just disappeared. Money has never been a huge motivating factor for me (which explains some of the more adventurous artistic choices I have made) so I decided to sing jazz and blues because I loved so many songs and artists from that milieu. The media called it a ‘re-invention’ at the time but it was really just me exploring an earlier passion of mine. It’s not as though you jump on the jazz bandwagon to get rich and famous..ha! It’s funny because at the time people thought it was so weird for me, as a hard rock artist to make an edgy, jazz influenced record and take that to the stage. As a live band, we would totally rock out Nina Simone’s ‘Do I Move You’ with Bonham style drumming and this insane guitar solo. Now Jack White does it and people think it’s cool. Well…he is totally cool.
EA: The “Slick Chick” release showcased something you’ve always been a fan of (jazz/blues) but to the majority of your fans, it was something drastically different and new. It has since spawned concerts where you were playing jazz festivals, jazz sets instead of rock sets, etc. Where did your love of jazz come from in your early years? Do you think you could of done something like it back in the 80’s as a solo/departure album?
LA: Ha, ha….no. I was scared to even admit my love of that genre during the 80’s. I feared my fans would think I was ‘selling out’ or ‘going soft’ on them. Stupid when I think of that in hindsight now, because really, it made me a more well rounded musician.
EA: I read the videos for the “Slick Chick” album were shot in your own home. Is that right? They look awesome! Were they do it yourself productions then? Who did the directing and editing?
LA: “Why Don’t You Do Right” was shot in my former home in Vancouver. Glad you like it!! And yes, I financed and worked with the director (Chris Hooper – drummer for Grapes of Wrath) on both productions. “I’d Love To” was shot in a warehouse facility.
EA: 2004 saw the release of “Beautiful Things” which was also well received. (The title track is amazing by the way – Mark/editor). This was your last studio release. If you don’t release another record in your career, where does this release rank for you out of all your albums? I think it’s a really complete record with a myriad of styles which show just how underrated you’ve been all these years, not only as a vocalist, but as a songwriter.
LA: Wow, thanks. It was a hybrid of pop/jazz/rock I think, and it did blend all my musical influences. I think my songwriting is always evolving and I’ll probably never be completely satisfied with any record I make. There is always room to grow right?? It’s funny because another fan of mine – who flew all the way from Liverpool to Toronto to see my show – said that he felt that the 2 Preciious release from 1996 was my best and most underrated album. It’s my most unheard and hardest to find release anyway…so I was impressed that he had dug so deep into that album.
EA: Did you ever feel like dropping the Lee Aaron stage name and using your birth name for future projects after the 2Precious release? Kind of start anew?
LP: Yes, for a nano-second. I tried to do that on the 2 Preciious album because, at the time, being ‘Lee Aaron’ carried a lot of baggage with it. Unfortunately, rebuilding from ground zero also has its drawbacks. I realized that my years of hard work shouldn’t be negated and music is cyclical…what comes around eventually comes around again and usually with a newfound respect.
EA: Switching gears a bit – your life took a major turn when you remarried and had two children. Was there ever a time, after your children were born, when your music career was possibly going to be put to rest for good?
LA: Well…no, not really. I’ve always felt that I would continue to make music and perform as long as I’m inspired and there is an audience enjoying what I do. That said, people underestimate the amount of creative energy that goes into raising children. I mean, they are little projects unto themselves, and you want to devote as much time as possible to doing that part of your life right because those first 10 years of socio-emotional development are paramount. It shapes them forever, and that’s huge. So, I’ve been busy investing in them. Also, my ego is not so attached to being ‘Lee Aaron’ that I would fall apart if it ended. That’s not healthy, really.
EA: I read that you have (or did) take classes in exceptionality (special needs). Are you pursuing a degree in the field? The reason I ask is that I taught special needs youth for seven years. I also taught at risk youth for nearly ten years. What drew you to the field?
LA: Yes, I am certified in that field as well. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of multiple intelligences and individuals that are considered low functioning in some areas but exceptional in others. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci for instance. I mean, this guy was on the spectrum for sure – but brilliant. I think we are all that way really…working with musicians my whole life – and let’s be honest, most are not ‘normal’ people – I think I have a gift for figuring out people’s strengths and working hard to channel those strengths into functional and empowering activities.
EA: That’s awesome! I also believe everyone has something to contribute and it was my job to help them unleash that unlimited potential as youth. How do you view your own two children – what strengths do you see in them?
LA: Well, they are both strong willed and passionate which makes parenting a bit challenging at times. My daughter is a perfectionist and my son is not. There are well thought out plans and details to everything my daughter creates and my son finishes everything creative in 5 minutes or less. With any luck they will end up working together one day so they balance each other out. She’s Michelangelo and he’s Picasso.
EA: It seems like your life and career are in balance – something that everyone strives for but is difficult to achieve. Your Sweden Rock appearance in 2011 (and DVD release in 2012 – buy it at LeeAaron.com) has been regarded as sort of a return of Lee Aaron – rocker. But, in reality, that’s just something the media have placed upon you. You’ve always been a rock artist, a jazz artist, and lover of music of all kinds I’d hazard to guess. And this is all secondary to being a wife and mother I’d also hazard to guess.
Where do you go from here? Will we here in the US – or at least here in Seattle since were just a drive down I-5 from BC – ever see you do a short west coast tour? Please?
LA: Well…the American record deal has always been elusive for me. I’m in preproduction for a new rock album as we speak – and I’m now a free agent – so maybe I’ll finally end up with a US release after all this time. Then playing some US cities would be possible! And fun!
EA: Amazing news – US fans would LOVE the chance to see you live on a proper tour! What can you tell me about the upcoming rock record? What can we expect from this release?
LA: It will be a rock record with big, nasty hooks and fun grooves.
EA: Just for fun – quick hits:
*(One) Favorite song of your own?
LA: I don’t have just one favorite…’How Deep’ Body Rock 1989, ‘Shed’ from the 2 Preciious album 1996.
*(One) Favorite song from another artist?
LA: Nina Simone – Lilac Wine
*Best piece of advice you could give someone starting out in the music business?
LA: Don’t underestimate the value of putting in the 10,000 hours…you need to know ‘how’ to play/sing despite the wonders of digital technology.
*I play music for fun in a duo (lead vocalist and I’m guitar/vocals) – what song of your’s should we cover?
LA: As a duo?? How about ‘Only Human?’ – (Pressure’s on to deliver now – Mark/Editor)
EA: Lee thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. If someone had told me back when I was in that record shop in Abbottsford on that band trip in the early 80’s that I’d be interviewing the very same artist in 2014, I’d of told them that they were crazy. And yet …..
Life is great in many ways – thanks again! The last words are for you.
LA: Hope to rock Seattle soon!!
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