New Album, New Market… Well Worth The Wait: An Exclusive Interview With LEE AARON
Curt Miller, Pittsburgh Correspondent
April 25, 2016
Since her debut album The Lee Aaron Project in 1982, Lee Aaron has taken her home country of Canada and the European market by storm. On March 25, 2016, after taking a 20-year break between rock records, she released Fire And Gasoline, her first official release in the U.S. The album has a rock/pop feel and is an absolute expression of who Aaron is as a person. Its upbeat tone captures the hopefulness of her personality. All the while, the record’s lyrics are centered on life’s ups and downs and the lessons Aaron has taken away from her life experiences.
There’s a lot to Lee Aaron and her music, so the U.S. market certainly has some catching up to do as compared to the rest of the world. Fire And Gasoline reveals how Aaron has evolved as a rock musician and as an artist in general. She’s definitely not the same person making the same music that she was back in the ‘80s or even the ‘90s. Nor does she want to be. Her time spent working in other genres has further strengthened Aaron as a vocalist and helped to diversify her sound.
I had a chance to chat with Lee Aaron about the writing and recording of Fire And Gasoline as well as some of her other projects. Here’s what she had to say.
KNAC.COM: Fire And Gasoline is your first rock album since 2preciious in 1996. The record’s theme is that of relationships and the human condition. What set your focus on these topics?
AARON: [Laughing] Well, you know, a few years of therapy. When we’re younger we all plow ahead through our lives with a great lack of self-awareness. By a certain point in my life, I had achieved a lot of career success, not so much in the U.S. Until recently a U.S. record deal had been elusive, but I’ve definitely had a great deal of success in Canada and Europe. I woke up one day, though, in the mid’90s and my personal life was a disaster. I’d made a lot of compromises and sacrifices over the years, but I eventually came to the conclusion that the common denominator with things not going right was I. That’s an interesting place at which to arrive in your life and some people never get there. They plow forward, point fingers and blame others for the bad things that happen to them.
I did a lot of deep, personal exploring. I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and even went back to college a few years ago to do further study in that area. It makes sense that it would be reflected on this album. The things that interest me most are questions like, ‘What is it that forms people’s choices? Why do they do the things they do? Why do people stay trapped in terrible relationships when it seems as though the things that make them want to scream and leave their partners are the same ones that hold them there?’ I delved a bit deeper into that subject matter when I was writing Fire And Gasoline.
KNAC.COM: What made you take time off from recording and performing and was it difficult to jump back into it after having been away?
AARON: [Laughing] Let’s be honest. By the mid-90’s, anyone who had any success in the ‘80s couldn’t even get arrested, right? My greatest success came at the tail end of the ‘80s. I had two hugely successful albums here in Canada in ‘89 and ‘91, but they were attached to that commercial rock movement of the ‘80s. The sad thing is, something really did need to come along to shake things up. There were lots of bands that were good at it, but when something becomes successful, the mainstream record industry at least back then ran to sign every band that sounded like this band or the other. All of a sudden you had a bunch of music out there, but only a small portion of it was any good.
The grunge movement had to happen to shake up corporate rock. I had a couple of years of feeling pretty bitter thinking, ‘Wow! That was it? That was my five minutes?’ I did a few albums exploring the alt-rock vibe, Emotional Rain (’94) and 2preciious (’96). I really liked grunge, bands like NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN, PEARL JAM, GREEN DAY, and all of those bands that came out of the Seattle movement. The two releases I did in alt-rock weren’t well received by the media, and again, it was about perception. So I took some time off.
Unfortunately, in ’96 I had to go bankrupt because I left my label and went independent. My manager, my lawyer and I borrowed about $500k to start a new label anticipating that the success would continue, but it didn’t. I was the one holding the purse in the end.
KNAC.COM: What were some of the projects you worked on during your time away from the rock scene?
AARON: When I was younger I did a lot of musical theater, jazz, blues and Broadway standard, so when I came back after taking a year off in ’96, I went backward exploring those genres again. Some people have commented to me, ‘Jazz and blues are so different than rock.’ Actually, they’re where rock ‘n’ roll are rooted. LED ZEPPELIN pulled from all those guys, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon. It was a bit of a musical education while artistically stepping out of my traditional comfort zone.
There are a few of the artists who I’ve always admired outside of the rock genre while still loving say Ann Wilson from . I love Nina Simone. She’s incredible and also has a lower, almost alto jazz voice. During my time away from rock I put together some sets where I went out and did a bunch of Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday didn’t have a particularly high voice, but she’s revered as one of the absolute greats. Contrary to what some might think, jazz is not a squeaky clean genre. Billie Holiday was completely badass.
Another singer that I love is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was a soul/gospel guitar player from the ‘30s/’40s. This woman played guitar like nobody’s business and accompanied herself. A lot of female rock artists, especially guitarists, like the Joan Jetts, the Lita Fords, the Orianthis; they owe a debt to her because she was truly an original. I found it fascinating to explore some of this stuff and to challenge myself vocally. I learned a lot about song structure, vocalizing, improvising, and taking risks and chances, things I never would have done had I confined myself to the rock realm.
KNAC.COM: Though you’re known as a Canada’s rock queen, there’s really a lot of diversity to your sound. There are raucous songs on Fire And Gasoline, some with rock/pop sensibilities, and even those that feature jazz vocals, like “Wanna Be”. Did combining these styles seem to flow naturally with the mood of the material?
AARON: It would be crazy to say that my influences wouldn’t crop up on the album. What’s most important, though, about Fire And Gasoline as a whole is that it was recorded with my live band. It’s the same band on all of the recordings. It’s my voice that provides the consistent thread and continuity to the album. I have reinvented myself a few times throughout my career and done some exploration musically that maybe others haven’t. All of those things are going to pop up in the writing.
One of my favorite bands growing up was FLEETWOOD MAC. When the Rumours album came out I remember listening to it over and over. What made that album great was the fact that they have several writers in the band each with different influences. It really comes through in the music. You’ve got Christine McVie doing a tender piano ballad. “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Woman” are heavy, blues/rock songs. There’s “Second Hand News”, which borders on bluegrass with Lindsey Buckingham’s influence and guitar playing. Then there’s “Dreams”, which is a straight-ahead rock/pop song. That record is so fantastic because FLEETWOOD MAC still sounds like a cohesive band. The album takes you on a musical journey. It’s interesting every time you listen to it and that’s what merits its longevity.
I was hoping to create a piece of work like that with Fire And Gasoline. The song “Wanna Be” was a completed punk/pop number, and then it occurred to me after the vocals were almost finished that it might be fun to put a jazz prelude on the front of it. In fact, the original prelude is about four times longer than the one that appears on the record, but we edited it because we thought it might be too much for fans to handle.
KNAC.COM: The creation of this album included collaborating with guitarist Sean Kelly. Did you have a lot of the music and lyrics prior to working with him, or was the writing more of an evolutionary process?
AARON: This album is a bit different for me. In the past most of my records have been co-written. I worked for about eleven years with a gentleman by the name of John Albani, who now lives in Nashville. On my last album, Beautiful Things (’04), before I had my children in ’04 and ’06, I ventured into writing a bit on my own. It’s important for people to know that having my children was another big part of the reason I made the decision to take a decade off.
I wrote six of the eleven tracks on Fire And Gasoline and the other five were co-writes with Sean Kelly. Writing a little more than half of the record is new, but I had a lot to say after being off for ten years. As far as writing with Sean, he and I met about three years ago. He wrote a book called Metal On Ice. It fills in a very big gap in Canadian music history, all of those cool rock bands from the ‘80s that have been almost neglected in a lot of Canadian history books. Sean is a great writer in addition to being a great guitarist. He and I met over a couple of interviews that I contributed to the body of Metal On Ice. We got along like a house on fire. He ended up playing a couple of my live shows and we eventually decided that he should join my band.
I knew I was going to make another rock record whenever some space and freedom opened up, when my children were a bit older. Now seemed like the right time. Sean and I began bouncing ideas around. He’s from Toronto, though, and I’m from Vancouver. Thankfully, because of modern technology, like being able to send an iPhone text memo, he’d sit down with a guitar; play a riff or two, and then text it to me. I took ones I liked into my own studio, programmed up drumbeats, and built chord structures around them. I’d write vocal top lines and the lyrics, and that’s how most of the songs came together.
In terms of subject matter, a lot of the time I get a basic track down, and then sing absolute gibberish on top of it, the first thing that comes into my head. Sometimes those are the most pure ideas. I take that gibberish and keep some of the phrases. I did a lot of that on Fire And Gasoline. Then I think about what I’m really trying to say and what the song is all about. The rest of the song formulates itself.
KNAC.COM: Though the music remains accessible, the record covers a broad spectrum of thoughts and emotions, positive and negative. Something that sets it apart from its contemporaries in rock/pop-rock music is the voice of experience. Does the album provide hopefulness and offer lessons that only time can teach and was there a catharsis in releasing those emotions via your music?
AARON: [Laughing] I’ve done the young, stupid stuff, multiple times actually and learned some pretty crazy lessons along the way. I’ve been in and out of good and bad relationships. I’ve had good relationships and screwed them up. I’ve had bad relationships and stayed in them like we all have. I’m certainly writing from a different perspective because I’m in a stable place in my life. I’ve got my kids. But by no stretch of the imagination have I lost my soul, my heart, or my fire or passion for music.
The song “Bitter Sweet” is a mature reflection on something that happened in the past. Am I able to write from a different place? Yeah! [Laughing] It would be foolish for me to be trying to write from a 25yo.’s perspective because I’d embarrass myself. 25yo. or 20yo. artists are still writing from the point of view, ‘You broke my heart. I hate you and I’m a victim because you’re a bad person.’ I’m writing from the perspective, ‘Yeah. You broke my heart, but I should’ve known better. I’ve moved on and now I’m with someone who loves me much better.’
These are things I had spinning in my head that I wanted to sing about. It’s fascinating how I can love my husband so much, but we sometimes fight like idiots. Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that you get into arguments where you can’t even remember what you’re fighting about. It’s really important that you win or have the last word, though. Let’s be honest. We all do it, but nobody really talks about it. With the song “Heart Fix” I wanted to express how we’re all complete disasters. We put our shiny faces forward to the world, the persona who we project to our friends and on social media. Being able to recognize, embrace, and understand the dark side of ourselves helps us to heal.
It’s interesting that you say that I’m honest in my music (a topic of discussion not printed). I’m glad that you appreciate that and see it. You’re actually the first person who said that. Writing about things that have happened does help you work through it. The flip side is that we’ve got the Lita Fords and the Doros, and they’re absolutely fantastic at what they do. But singing about rocking all night, well, there are a bunch of other singers out there who do it better than I. It’s also not where I’m at personally. I’ve been there, done that.
KNAC.COM: Even though you address the best and worst of the human condition, the album never feels moody or down. The song “Find The Love” is inspiring while dealing with very difficult subject matter. Was it more a consequence of the record’s rock feel or did you make a concerted effort to have its sound remain upbeat?
AARON: You’re asking a very difficult question for me to answer. It’s like having me explain the complete writing process. The best songs write themselves. Sometimes I feel as though I don’t even write the song. It just arrives as a nearly fully formed idea in my psyche. It needs to get out, it gets out, and then it’s done. Then I go, ‘Wow! That’s cool! I just wrote that song.’ A lot of the time I feel like I’m just the vessel. I often don’t know what a song is totally about until it’s completed.
With “Find The Love” I had a very good friend who was battling cancer. It had been a four-year process with ups and downs. She had the same surgeries as had Angelina Jolie because she found out that she was a carrier of a cancer causing gene mutation. I was vacationing in the interior of British Columbia with my family when I got the text that she’d been diagnosed with stage-4 bone cancer and it was terminal. I was devastated. I was sitting down by the lake with my acoustic guitar and wrote that song in about a half-an-hour. It’s an expression of my feelings and how I was processing the news I’d just received.
At the same time I am a hopeful person. A true testament of the human condition is how we behave through the dark times. What is our character when we’re suffering? Do we become bitter and angry, and finger point? Do we go inward or do we use it as an opportunity to show the greatest love we can imagine? That’s the process I was going through when I wrote “Find The Love”. Unfortunately, I lost my friend last June. She was only 40 when she passed away and now my mom is going through the same thing. My friend inspired that song, but it’s for anyone who’s experienced illness, death, loss.
KNAC.COM: Having been a critically acclaimed artist at home and worldwide since the release of your 1982 debut The Lee Aaron Project you’re certainly no stranger to performing live. What are you plans for taking Fire And Gasoline on the road and who might make up the touring lineup?
AARON: The touring lineup will be my band. There’s bassist Dave Reimer, who’s also the backup singer on the record. My husband is drummer John Cody. On guitar is Sean Kelly. Sometimes we do an ensemble with a keyboardist, so Toronto’s Matt Weidinger will play with us. We’ll also do a two-guitar lineup with Danny Sveinson from Vancouver from time to time.
In terms of touring the U.S., at this point the album is available, and I’m doing as much press and promotion as possible to elevate awareness for it and for me as an artist. I’ve never had an official release there due to contractual issues and music business politics in previous years. We’re gauging the response to the record, but certainly if there’s enough interest, I’d like to hit some key festivals and then add some dates around them.
KNAC.COM: It’s my understanding that part of what made you decide to get back into writing new material is your children’s burgeoning interest in music and spending time with them listening to classic rock. Any chance they’ll follow in your footsteps, pursuing music as a career or playing a part in this upcoming tour?
AARON: What I’ve been doing up until now is doing pockets of dates, which works really well for someone with a family. I did a show a few years ago with Ann and Nancy Wilson of HEART. I opened for them at a show here in Ontario. Nancy said that’s how she’d structured her life when her boys were younger. We jokingly call it ‘weekend warrior work.’ You go out from Friday through Sunday, bang off three shows, come home during the week, and then do it all over again the next weekend. That’s how I envision things working at this point, but if the album is successful enough to merit larger scale touring, I’ll just bring my children with me.
KNAC.COM: What’s something your fans probably don’t know about you?
AARON: One thing that not many people know is that my husband and I have a room in our home about 1500 sq ft in size that holds approximately 250k pieces of vinyl. So, I have a vinyl library. [Laughing] It’s outrageous. Add to that about 30k CDs, and another 20k classic and critically acclaimed movies and films. When I met my husband 15 years ago he was the big collector, but I’ve since joined him on that mission. We have a room in our house that holds one of the biggest music and movie libraries in North America. That’s something I don’t think a lot of people know.
The thing that’s grown the most in the last five years is the movie collection because we built a theater in one end of the home for our kids to enjoy. Yeah! I’m kind of a movie geek. I have boxed sets of certain directors, like Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, even foreign films.
Lee Aaron’s diverse interests and myriad life experiences can well be heard in her music. Fire And Gasoline is a rock record with tracks ranging from bluesy to pop to riff-driven anthems. It’s taken a bit for Lee Aaron’s music to get here. It’s about time the rest of the world shares it with U.S.
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