Lee Aaron: Solid Rock From A Metal Queen
By David DeRocco
This is an interview with Karen Lynn Greening, part time baroque opera singer and smoldering jazz aficionado. Of course, fans of her rock career are more apt to refer to her as LEE AARON, metal queen extraordinaire, 10-time JUNO Award nominee and super-hot torchbearer for Canada’s metal scene. While new family commitments and side recording projects may have reduced her exposure on both local concert stages and local airwaves for more than a decade, LEE returned in 2016 with a killer rock record, FIRE AND GASOLINE, reminding us all why her voice and image were as prevalent in the 80s and 90s as spandex, hairspray, waifish super models and internet chat rooms. Now, Lee’s back in the studio, working on a new spring release that may just see this rock queen regain the vacant throne. In town at the Seneca Queen Theatre October 28th, Lee took the time to talk with Go/BeWeekly about recording covers, playing live and explaining her videos to her children.
GO/BE: I was going to talk about FIRE AND GASOLINE but after checking your website I see you’re already teasing us with a new album. Did releasing FIRE AND GASOLINE help remove the shackles of responsibility that life may have put on your creativity? Or was it just time…..?
LEE: It was time. I recorded and toured right up until our daughter was born in 2004. I actually put an album out called Beautiful Thing that year. I had this crazy idea that I was going to keep recording and touring after I had children, but then reality kind of takes over. You just don’t have any real idea how much you have to alter your life to raise these little people. My son was born in 2006, so I took a little 10 year hiatus, not from touring altogether. I did do some isolated shows during that time frame when my kids were little. But the energy to write an entire album, a body of work, and record it and produce it and put it out there, it’s pretty labour intensive. It’s like writing a book right. So I took a hiatus of about a decade. When my daughter was about 10 and my son was about eight I had a little more space and independence and I just started to get flooded with ideas and I thought, now is the time.
GO/BE: With the new album sessions, you’re talking about mining the vaults, everything from Janet Jackson to Little Walter. Those are some broad parametres. What does putting no limits or boundaries on what you can sing add to the excitement of recording new music?
LEE: Part of the joy of making music for me involves the creative process. It’s not just finishing the record and going to tour and make money, it’s the process of doing it. I don’t really like to put severe restrictions on things – maybe that’s been a curse for me sometimes in my career. I know even when I sang jazz and did some jazz and blues infused albums, people were like, ‘no you’re the metal queen. You’re a rock artist. You can’t do that.’ I said why not? Robert Plant has grown and evolved and done multiple different projects. I think even though he would make so much more money touring with Led Zeppelin at this point – or some configuration of Led Zeppelin – people still look at him as someone vital who is respecting his art. For me, if I said, okay, let’s pump out a stock blues record with some blues standards, that would be the easy way to do it. When I decided I wanted to put some covers on this record I thought I’d just look at some songs I just loved. The whole approach was to record them with a blues-infused mindset for the musicality of the songs. So when you hear Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat,” you can’t recognize it off the top because it sounds like a Rolling Stones blues tune, and when it kicks in you go ‘oh my gosh,’ this is that Janet Jackson song. The Little Walter tune turned almost into a sort of punk song. For me, I just love the process of taking something, turning it inside out and then recreating it. It all fits on the new Lee Aaron record. You’ll be surprised.
GO/BE: I think that speaks to your versatility as a vocalist, something hard core fans of Lee Aaron the rocker may not know if they’re not aware that you’ve sang jazz or baroque opera.
LEE: (Laughs) I see you’ve done your homework. Some of them do. Never underestimate your fans because they’re a lot smarter than you assume sometimes. I think the true real hard core Lee Aaron fans are quite aware of some of the things I’ve done and they just kind of stick with you or they don’t. Again, I just have to reiterate that maybe we haven’t always made the most commercially successful choices, but that’s never really been my motivation. It would have been easier just to keep making (1989’s) Body Rock over and over and over again. That’s what a lot of people do.
GO/BE: So what are you thinking about, or what’s more important, when you head into the studio to record a new album – recording something fans like, something radio likes or something you like?
LEE: Well radio’s not really a consideration anymore. It’s interesting you ask that because I was just speaking with someone the moment I got off the plane today. I tried to hire a radio tracker for Fire and Gasoline. And I was told, why do that? I was like ‘because there’s really great songs on the record and I’m excited about it.’ And they were like ‘you’re what radio calls a heritage artist.’ And I was like ‘what does that even mean.’ What it means is, if you’ve had a career that spans longer than 20 years (radio) is not interested in playing anything new you do. They just want to play your hits. So it was quite an epiphany for me that if the new Brian Adams can’t get on the radio and the new Bruce Springsteen can’t get on the radio, what am I thinking to believe that the new Lee Aaron is going to get on, know what I mean? So I realized I had to rethink how we’re doing things. First and foremost I think of the creative process and if I’m getting excited by this. A lot of times we will go into the studio fairly rehearsed but someone will have an idea. Me or engineer or one of the guys in the band. Then it’s like let’s try this, we always run tape, and then it’s ‘oh my gosh, that was totally amazing we have to keep that’ because some brilliant magic just happened.
GO/BE: And that’s happened with the new recording sessions?
LEE: We experienced that with a newer version of Koko Taylor’s version of “I’m A Woman.” Rather than just record it verbatim, we thought wouldn’t it be cool to throw some Zeppelin-esque kind of licks into the middle of this and bring it way up in volume and then bring it way back down. We just kind of goofed around in the studio for two or three takes and what wound up on the album is just, wow. I’m so excited by that. When we play it live does it ever resonate with people. To me that’s what it’s about, something that resonates with people.
GO/BE: Lee Aaron started off in 1984 proclaiming to be the “Metal Queen.” With 2016’s Fire and Gasoline, you’re singing about being a “Tom Boy.” Is that some revisionist therapy or just the eternal youthfulness that making music gives to you?
LEE: If you read the lyrics to “Tom Boy,” they’re really supposed to be inspiring to anyone to just be free and be in touch with your quintessential self, not to conform to societal or sexual or cultural stereotypes, to be our own person. It started with my daughter asking me to write a song. She’s 13 now and was 10 and I started working on this tune. It sort of evolved into something more than just being about being a tom boy. It’s an anthem about being empowered to be your own original self.
GO/BE: It looks like you have fun making the video for “Tom Boy” with your daughter and friends. Are you the cool mom in your daughter’s circle – and more important, are you still cool to your daughter?
LEE: (laughing) Well, let’s say this. When she was 10 and we made that video I used to think so. She just turned 13 and unfortunately I’m not that cool anymore. She respects me. Of all the moms she thinks her mom is pretty cool. But there’s sort of unspoken rule, I have to be really careful about what I say around her and her friends because if I’m myself, she’ll turn to me and say ‘mom, you’re embarrassing me.’ I won’t even know what I did.
GO/BE. I feel your pain. I took my daughter to see Fall Out Boy last night and she made me sit in a different section.
LEE: So you know the pain I’m feeling. You embarrass her by virtue of your presence.
GO/BE: Have you ever sat with your kids and watched the videos for “What You Do To My Body,” “Sex with Love” or “Hands On” and had THAT conversation?
LEE: When they were younger they were somewhat interested. Now they’re older they don’t care. When my daughter was in grade two she said ‘mom there’s this boy named Jaden in my class and he said his mom showed him this cool video of you with this cool robot thingy. I was like, what are you talking about? Then I realized she must be talking about the “Metal Queen” video and the stupid drum riser, it was supposed to be a cool spider but it looked like an aluminum turtle with fake lasers coming out of the eyes. She lasted on my lap watching it with me and when the robot came on she said, ‘that’s it?’ I said yeah. She just jumped off. You can’t compete with CGI.
GO/BE: Well that video is totally retro now, like Game of Thrones retro. You’re kind of cutting edge again.
LEE: I guess I was way ahead of my time.
GO/BE: You alluded to sex in the music. Given the fact that rock and roll was a euphemism for sex, when it disappears from the music – as it did during the grunge era – the music isn’t as fun. How do you feel about that at – I’ll say this stage of your career rather than saying at this age of your life?
LEE: That’s a really interesting question and no one’s asked me that. I am acutely aware that with rock and roll there is a sexual element to writing powerful music. However I feel that as an adult, a grown up with children now, I can’t be out there bouncing around writing the same subject matter that I did when I was 25 or even 30. A lot of the songs on Fire and Gasoline are reflections on past love affairs or the human condition. A lot of human condition revolves around how we feel about other people. I’m definitely more conscious and aware of how I’m crafting my lyrics these days because I don’t’ want to embarrass myself. I’m not going to write a “What You Do To My Body” now. The music might be similar, but the lyrics won’t be.
GO/BE: That makes it hard I would think, because you’re still an iconic figure, a beautiful woman, and for some fans your sexuality will still be their primary appeal first and foremost. However, for me, I’m listening to a song like “Bitter Sweet,” and I think that song hit me personally more than any of your songs ever has. Obviously lyrics become more meaningful as you age and its reflected in the music in a profound way.
LEE: Yes, it doesn’t mean you can’t write songs that have sexual inferences in them. Like I wrote the song “Bad Boyfriend.” That song is about a girl who keeps having relationship with bad boyfriends but she finally has the self-awareness to know that the epicentre of all her problems really is herself right. So it’s sort of disguised in the form of a fun rock song. If you only listen on a surface level you’re not going to get it. The new album coming out in spring, one we’re working on now, Sean and I have written this great song called “American High.” It’s basically about all the great highs in America, even though we’re really at the lowest low that America has ever been. It’s super catchy and anthemy. These are the kinds of things I want to write about: life, the human condition, the state of the world. I’m not about to write, “baby I’m hot.” That’s just not going to fly anymore.
GO/BE: No matter what you write it should be fun to perform live. Do you still get a rush of electricity from performing live?
LEE: Yes, totally. Sometimes I look at my videos on YouTube and think, you know, I actually think I jump around too much! I should stand in place a little longer so people can actually get a good picture! It’s still very exciting for me, I love performing. And it’s funny because I was just talking to (Helix’s) Brian Volmer downstairs. We were commenting on how many people are gone, people are just dropping like flies. All our artists that we loved, Bowie, Prince, Lemmy. How many people have to cancel their tours over health problems. It makes you realize, even though I’m not as old as those guys, I still feel blessed every day to be able to jump on stage, strap on a guitar and jump around. It’s just such a gift.
GO/BE: Not to side track our conversation, but did you have dealings with or thoughts on Gord Downie’s death?
LEE: I didn’t know him personally. We would run into each other at industry functions and always exchanged pleasantries. It’s interesting. My mother is in her last stages of her cancer, staying in Bath, where The Tragically Hip have a studio. I was there the week Gord died. I remember walking out, going for a jog in the downtown, it’s so quaint and beautiful there. And I remember distinctly my thoughts being, ‘I wonder how he’s doing, how’s his family doing, how are they coping?’ Not expecting that he was actually going to pass away the next day. I don’t know what’s worse. His was aggressive and quick, my mom’s has been battling for the last 8 years. Sometimes it’s hard to lose someone slower.
GO/BE: You’re on the road again, heading into Niagara Falls for an intimate club show. You’ve also performed at some giant festivals this year. Which of those stages do you prefer?
LEE: There’s definitely a wonderful energy being on a big stage. We just got invited back to Germany for the summer of 2018 to play to play an even bigger festival, the Wacken Festival, the biggest outdoor festival in Germany. We’ll be there first week of August. I like both but I like them for different reasons. I like big open air festivals because you’ve just got so many music lovers in one place, there’s such an energy to it. But when you’re doing a smaller venue you can actually be more intimate with your audience.
GO/BE: Let’s wrap up with this. What’s the best part about being Lee Aaron these days. You’ve been afforded a lot of great blessings by virtue of your career, you’ve got a great family, still writing great music and recording and touring. But what’s the thing you cherish most?
LEE: The greatest part of this life is actually being able to bring my kids to a show sometimes and get them to see what mom and dad do. To just foster a love of music in our home. We own a home that’s big enough to be able to have a rehearsal space in there. It’s very common to see musicians come through the door. Kids will know they’re going to hear rock and roll music while they watch Harry Potter and have a bowl of popcorn. To be around music and be immersed in it is the greatest joy for me, and to give that gift to our kids.