Interview: Lee Aaron
June 2, 2016
For a decade between 1982 – 1992 Canadian rocker Lee Aaron was a superstar among the hard rock/metal faithful. Affectionately known as “The Metal Queen”, Aaron, like so many of her contemporise, was cut down in the prime of her career with the rise of the grunge scene in the mid ‘90s. It is a tale that is all too familiar to followers of the hard rock community; grunge was like a raging bull in a China shop and the hard rockers of the day were all left on the floor with their careers in tatters, many of them bankrupt. Aaron was no different. But after a short hiatus she would find her voice again, albeit as a Jazz performer, and the rock world would wonder if she would ever return to the rock arena again. Thankfully she has, releasing her first rock album in over two decades titled Fire and Gasoline. As a long-time fan of those early days I thought this was the perfect opportunity to catch up with her to discuss her career, the music industry and the new album Fire and Gasoline.
Rock Man: Firstly, congratulations on the release of the new album Fire and Gasoline which we will talk about shortly. But let me also congratulate you on an outstanding recording career which had lasted 36 years. When you started out back in the early 1980s would you have ever dared to dream it would endure this long?
Lee Aaron: No, to be honest with you [laughs]. I don’t really know what I thought at that point. Obviously as you mature as a person and also bearing in mind the fact that I started so young, I was basically fresh out of high school, 17 years old and on the road. By 18 I was recording my first album and everything kind of happened in a world wind fashion when I was young. You know, at that point in time obviously my world view was completely different than it is now; I mean I know when I was a kid growing up in the Toronto suburbs I thought the epitome of stardom was playing the Gasworks Tavern in Toronto because that’s where all the big bands played. So I didn’t really have much scope beyond that, of course I ended up becoming one of those bands a few years later, I almost had a house installed there because we became so popular, but then realising later that there is a whole world stage out there. So I don’t know if I ever envisioned that it would continue this long because at that time I had graduated with a couple of scholarships to go to University and I kind of threw caution to the wind. My parents were a little disgruntled that I wasn’t going to continue on at that juncture in time with my post-secondary education. I was like “Oh Mom and Dad, if it doesn’t work out I can just go back in a couple of years and pick up and go to college”, but my career kept on an upward slope trajectory. So I guess none of it was pre-planned; but these days I’ve got to tell you, I took a bit of a hiatus obviously for motherhood, I had my daughter in 2004 and my son in 2006 so now for me to go back and make another rock record it is purely because I have to, I’m a creative person and creating is part of my nature. It is fun and it is what I do; it is like getting back on a bicycle and riding again, it’s like “Okay, yeah this is what I was born to do, to make music right?… I forgot” [laughs].
RM: I’d like to take you back to the start of it all. You came into the world as Karen Lynn Greening but you would become known to the music world as Lee Aaron. Can you tell me about your early musical influences and the transition into becoming Lee Aaron?
LA: Well, first I’ll talk to you about the transition. When we met my first manager, again, I was 17 years old and he put us on the road. The band, I had joined this band at 15, called Lee Aaron. It was like Alice Cooper or Jethro Tull, I mean, Vincent Furnier has become synonymous with Alice Cooper, it has become like a stage name. But at that point in time it was just a name, the Lee Aaron Band, but all the club owners thought “Oh that lovely Lee Aaron girl, can you bring her back here?” So it was just a gradual progression; people started calling me Lee and what I realised after a while was it was far easier to have a kind of pseudonym for a couple of reasons: personal privacy, it was kind of nice to have, you know, no one can look up Lee Aaron in the phone book and stalk you, although I did have issues with stalker over the years [laughs], and also to be able to separate it mentally in my own head. To go “Okay, this is the person that I dig on stage but it is not the person that I’m living with day to day in your real life”, you know, when I had a bit of popularity in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I would run into people in a grocery store and they would go “Lee Aaron! What are you doing?” and I’d be like “Ah, buying toilet paper like a normal person” [laughs). And they thought you mounted a private jet and flew to L.A. to get your toilet paper or something, you know? So in terms of early influences, I was a young teenager in the late ‘70s and I was really a child of that era, so when I was about 16 years old my father showed up and he had a trunk full of albums that he had gotten from a college radio station. He worked at a local college and they were changing formats and they got rid of their entire vinyl library and he showed up and in that pile of records was Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Fleetwood Mac – Rumours, and a few Led Zeppelin albums. I was very impacted by Zeppelin because I had never heard anybody doing Roots and Blues music with electric guitars before; it was mind blowing. I wasn’t really exposed to a whole lot of cool music growing up because my parents just weren’t [into it]. It wasn’t a big music home so this was just mind blowing for me. But probably one of the most quintessential and important record for me was finding the Heart – Dreamboat Annie album, putting that on and going “Oh my gosh, these girls play their instruments, they write songs, they’re super cool, they’re not trading on their sexuality” and I aspired to be like them, they made me want to become a girl rocker. I also found a couple of Runaways albums too in that pile of records and that really impacted me too. Because I was like “Man, girls playing very heavy, crunching guitars, this is cool” so this just really resonated with me and it was quite an anomaly for a women to go out and do that style of music at that point in time and that was just very inspiring for me.
RM: So it can be argued that during the 1980s the hard rock/metal scene was a predominately male driven industry and somewhat sexist. As you point out at the time there were only a small handful of female artists trying to forge a career in that genre; did you then, or even now, see yourself as a pioneer for women’s music?
LA: No. When I was in it and living it, no. I didn’t necessarily feel that I was pioneering any kind of new movement. Now that I have lived through a few different eras of music in terms of hard rock, which then turned into corporate rock, which then turned into crappy music which facilitated the advent of grunge music coming out of Seattle and then that scene died, you know, when you have lived through a few of those and I look back now and people say “You really pioneered something for women” I can see it a little more clearly now. But at the time when I was in it I didn’t think that I was some trailblazer or anything.
RM: As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, you have a new album out titled Fire and Gasoline. I would imagine you are very excited at how well this project had turned out?
LA: I am. It is funny today I am hanging out with an old keyboard player friend of mine that I worked with for quite some time and she said to me “I have to say this new album is probably my desert island Lee Aaron album, it is like my favourite Lee Aaron record” and I’m like “That’s awesome” because even though I have produced a couple of my own albums in the past in 2000 and 2004 which were a Jazz and a Pop-Jazz Fusion record, this is my first rock album that I produced solely on my own. So in terms of I guess genuineness and clarity of vision I would think that Fire and Gasoline expresses that the best for me. Also I think that my period of time going away and exploring Jazz and Blues music made me a far better song writer and a far better vocalist, and I feel I was able to bring a lot of those influences forward and have them incorporated into the writing on Fire and Gasoline. In terms of it being a more complete, authentic Lee Aaron representation, I feel it more so than any of the other albums that I have done, so I do. It is one of the only albums of my own I can actually listen to over and over again without picking it apart completely [laughs].
RM: Let’s talk about some of the songs from the record. I wanted to start with the lead single Tom Boy. Before the song was released was there a sense of hesitation as to how the track would be received, given that you had been away from the rock world an extended period of time.
LA: You know, I guess in many ways I just felt I didn’t have a lot to lose by making this record. My motivation wasn’t that I’m going to make a record that panders to ever old rock fan I had, not that I don’t value those fans, I do very much; but I kind of wanted to make something that was a little more of a pure creative effort without putting too many filters around myself. So Tom Boy was a song that was inspired by my 10 year old daughter and in the end when the song was completed I realised that sort of was an anthem for anybody out there that has felt misunderstood; or felt that they had to conform to a stereotype, or a cultural stereotype, or a sexual stereotype, or any kind of stereotype that they are not comfortable with. Generally it had been received very well because it is a catchy tune, but I guess a few of my really die-hard hard rock fans were disappointed because I think they felt it was too catchy, that it had a little bit of a pop-rock edge to it.
RM: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the song Find The Love, was that track based on real people or actual events?
LA: Indeed it was. That song was written on my acoustic guitar when I was on vacation a couple of summers ago. I got a text, I had a very good friend named Kerry, mother of four children, one of the most beautiful people I knew personally, inside and out, she had discovered that she had breast cancer a few years before and she had been in a battle with that. Unfortunately it ended up culminating into full blown bone cancer and it took her life in June 2015. So yeah, it was inspired by my friend Kerry. But it is also, again like, sometimes when I am writing songs the initial inspiration and spark comes from a place, but the song as it evolves through the writing process and through the recording process and then obviously through the mixing process, when the final product is there you realise quite often that songs take on a life of their own. And in the end I realised (I dedicated the song to my Mother who is also fighting a battle right now with cancer) that it is really a song for anybody who has had a terminal illness or lost someone they loved or had to live through that. Because at this point in our lives, most of us have had doubt or loss touch our lives in some way, so it is kind of a song of hope about loss.
RM: So in lyrical terms can you tell me about the track Popular and what the thinking was behind that.
LA: I have a love hate relationship with social media [laughs]. I recognise that it is a necessary platform we all need to use these days to communicate with our fans and our followers and friends and it is great that it enables people to stay in touch long distance, you know, three quarters of the way around the world but it is also such a shallow form. I mean I’ve had so many people go “Lee, please follow me” and it is like, I can’t navigate through multi-thousand twitter followers, how can you ever know what is exactly is going on with anybody. And it is almost a popularity contest, you know, how many followers do I have? And let’s be honest, nobody puts their crappiest photo out there. Everyone has become the master of taking the beautiful selfie and people put their best face out there. And I even notice, I’ll give you this as an example: part of the work that I do here in Vancouver is I work with the local school system and I have been working in a program where we are working directly with Syrian refugees who are coming into our country and trying to integrate them into the local school system. So I tweet something like “Hey it’s such a gift that I am able to work with these refugees and see the smiles on their faces” and I’ll get 15 likes but then if I do a throwback Thursday and for instance I tweeted this old picture of myself, not revealing, but it is this ridiculous spandex leopard body suit I had in the ‘80s and I was laughing so hard when I found it I thought “My fans are going to get a chuckle out of this”, well on Facebook it gets like 378 likes! And I’m kind of going “Okay?” It just kind of shows you where people are at and I don’t mean to be critical, but what is happening to our value system? Like I said, I have a love/hate relationship with social media and that is what the song Popular is about.
RM: It’s been 22 years since the last rock record. When it was announced that you would be returning to the rock arena I think it’s fair to say nobody expected you to re-create Metal Queen or any of those early hard rock sounding albums. So does this record represent an opportunity to re-brand or reinvent what the name Lee Aaron stands for?
LA: That’s a cool question; no one has asked me that before. On a conscience level I guess… no I wasn’t really thinking about that but I’m really hoping that with this album I am able to reach some new fans. Because people who are really married to that idea of Lee Aaron as the “Metal Queen” probably will be disappointed with this record. So I went forward with my vision for this album with the hope and understanding that most of my fans aren’t 20 anymore right? [laughs]; we’ve all matured, a lot of us have families now and our world views have changed, hopefully somewhat dramatically and there’s different things we’re interested in hearing about and talking about and listening to. So I am hoping in that process the album is able to reach a whole different level of people who might be not interested in listen to the Lee Aaron of the past. So I guess that is a roundabout way of saying yes.
RM: So as we have established, the last record was some time ago. After this you released several Jazz records. Can you tell me about that period of your life; did you simply fall out of love with rock music, was Jazz something you always wanted to pursue or was this change another by-product of the grunge movement changing the musical landscape of the day?
LA: Your last comment is probably the most accurate. You have to remember I had the majority of my success at the tail end of ‘89/’90. Actually between ’89 and ’92 I had my biggest record, especially here in Canada, I was almost like triple platinum. So when the advent of grunge happened, which like I said I fully embraced that, it needed to happen because rock music, half of it was good but half of it had been co-opted by the big labels and it was getting crappy, so grunge had to happen. But when it did, it displaced every single artist whose name had association with corporate rock and so you couldn’t get arrested, you couldn’t get played on the radio, you couldn’t get the media to touch you or talk to you and so many people’s careers just ended abruptly including my own to some degree. It was a very tough time, and at that time I was one of the first artists in Canada that saw the indie movement coming and I got off my label in ’92 and went independent. So here I was in ’95, my manager, lawyer and myself had started a new label and we had borrowed like in excess of $500,000 from the Business Development Bank here, we took an equity loan from A&M Records, we had taken all this money but then when grunge happened it just killed the sales. So I ended up selling about 1/5 of my regular sales and unfortunately I was the one left holding the purse at the end, so in 1996 I had to go bankrupt. This was not an uncommon story with a lot of artists that had found themselves in that position and I took a year off actually. I took all of 1996 off [and] I didn’t sing, I didn’t set foot on a stage because it was a pretty dark time for me. I was quite depressed and trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do with myself and during that time I went back and listened to a lot of my old Jazz records because I kind of grew up in theatre singing Jazz and Blues and Broadway standards. And a friend said “You love this style of music, why don’t you go out and sing it? “ So I started working with a pianist and we put together a little repetiteur and we did a couple of local shows here in Vancouver and the next thing you know I had the media coming out and reviewing it and I was getting good reviews. Then it snowballed into me having a quintet and people started asking if I was going to record an album, then I made Slick Chick in 2000 and then I started getting invited to play Jazz Festivals across the country and I had no idea that would happen. But it did and so it was a completely beautiful thing in many ways. It was a history lesson for me to go back hear all these wonderful artists like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, you know, these guys stole from Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixson and all these old Jazz and Blues artists, to see where the roots of Rock and Roll really came from.
RM: When you look back through your career, which of the rock albums are you most proud of?
LA: Probably the one that was the most commercially successful and the one I’m still proud of is Bodyrock. At that time I had worked with some of the biggest producers in the world, I had worked with Bob Ezrin on Call Of The Wild in 1895 and I worked with Peter Coleman in 1987, he produced a few Pat Benetar records. So I had worked with some big producers and a lot of money was invested and the record company at that time they were willing to move forward, they were like “Okay, who is the next big producer we are going to bring in for album number five?” And I remember we were in a room together and I don’t really want to say his name, I’m not badmouthing anybody, but he was a big name American producer who had come up to me with my label. We were all in this boardroom and he basically pretty much said, and these were the demos for Bodyrock that we had done, he said he didn’t hear any of our material but he had some great songs for us if we wanted to work with him. I assume he owned half of the publishing on those because that’s how the industry worked; the producers would come in and take points, if they could give you songs that they could earn points on as well it was win-win for them. So this whole conversation happened and when it was done the record executives they were sold, they were over the moon, like so and so from L.A. wants to come in and do this record, you know like jumping, hopping excited. My guitarist and I were like “He doesn’t like any of our songs, did it occur to anybody he’s not the right guy to produce this record?” and they were so mad at us because this was their vision and we were like “No, we’re not going to work with somebody doesn’t hear our material”. So they clawed back a $250,000 budget to $60,000 and said “Here’s $60,000” and back in that day that was a cheap record and they said “Go make your own record then if you think you can do it”. So we collaborated with our A&R guy who saw the vision we had and myself, John Albani (guitarist) and the producer we did that entire record with a programmer, pretty much orchestrated the entire album ourselves and that was the beginning of the programming era. So the three of us did that album together and it was my biggest success in Canada. We proved to them that they were good songs in the end anyway.
RM: I’m really glad you mentioned Bodyrock and Call Of The Wild because for me they are the two standouts, just superb bodies of work. Everything you could possibly want from a hard rock album is on those two records.
LA: Well thank you. Working on Call Of The Wild was an amazing experience. I got to work with Bob Ezrin and I was a 22 year old girl, and when he came in I was just so intimidated by him because here was this guy who had done Alice Cooper and Meatloaf and Pink Floyd, these were bands that I idolised. So I learned a lot working with Bob Ezrin about doing a great vocal performance and pulling the most out of your songs, he is an amazing person to work with.
RM: Over the years you would have witnessed many changes in the music industry, what do you think has had the biggest effect?
LA: Well, the one that has had the biggest impact on the music industry is the advent of digital technology and the downloading/streaming era of music. That’s obviously what caused the entire record industry to fall apart [laughs]. The fact that there aren’t as many ways to monetise music anymore. It has made music more accessible but it’s also a tough choice to remain in the music industry, for instance: I got my very first streaming royalty statement and contrary to my radio play statements which are usually a few pages deep, this was as thick as a bible, I was like “Wow! Okay” and I’m looking and I counted how many streams per page and then I counted the pages and I see there’s a few thousand streams here of my material some of which I was paid absolutely zero for. Some of which made three cents, some of which I accumulated five cents for a stream, so the biggest statement I’ve ever gotten was a cheque for $56.00. I am so glad that my fans still actually like to have a physical product that they can have and hold and look at and love, because my fans still like to buy real albums and CDs. Because even the biggest artists in the world are not going to get rich off streaming, that has caused the biggest change and it has not been a musical change; it is a change in the whole infrastructure of the industry.
RM: So further to that then, in 2016 do we have a healthy music industry or are artists today in real trouble?
LA: That’s a tough question. There is two things going on in the music industry: it is very tough to be a new artist only because with digital technology and the YouTube era it is about saturation, there is a million things to choose from, so how do you get noticed out of the crowd? Unless you have got some kind of publicity blitz or something to talk about, it is very hard. The other thing is there is also ageism that goes on with artists. I know in Canada if you have a career that is longer than 20 years you can’t all get played on the radio because they are called a heritage artist. Even if you are in your 40s, it is crazy, you know, like Bryan Adams has a new album out here and he can’t get played on the radio and he’s Bryan Adams! Radio won’t touch it because it is all controlled by this very narrow pop industry that is controlled by the very few remaining big labels.
RM: Again congratulations on the album Fire and Gasoline and everything you have achieved over your career. On behalf of everyone here at Full Throttle Rock I would like to wish you many more years of continued success.
LA: Well, thank you so much, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to you Rock Man.
Lee Aaron – Fire and Gasoline is available on Big Sister Records.
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