Canadian singer Lee Aaron has taken an unusual trajectory during her 34-year recording career. Throughout the ’80s she performed hook-driven, melodic hard rock on albums like Metal Queen and Call Of The Wild, then achieved commercial success in Canada and Europe with her self-titled 1987 album and 1989’s Body Rock, which shot past double platinum (200,000 units) in Canada.
Unlike her hard-rocking peers, she embraced grunge in the ’90s, but given that her name was associated with ’80s music, she had a harder time sustaining her appeal. In the early 2000s she indulged in a jazz and blues career that proved she could capably cross over to other styles of music, reinventing select rock tunes from her catalog for that musical idiom.
Rock eventually beckoned the seductive singer once more, though, and after coming to terms with her rock goddess past and revisiting it live in 2007, she began performing rock shows again, culminating in her new album, Fire and Gasoline, her first official U.S. release ever and her first rock release in two decades.
Now that she is a married mother of an 11-year-old girl (her husband John Cody is her drummer), Aaron has a fresh perspective, one that focuses on being assured in yourself as you grow older and realizing that you have to love yourself first before anybody else.
The vivacious vocalist has certainly accumulated many life lessons. The Observer caught up with her recently to discuss her early career exploitation, what it was like performing at Riker’s Island, challenging notions of her identity, and how her different musical choices lead her back to her rock roots. She is hoping to play European festivals and do some American tour dates by 2017.
You switched over from rock to jazz for many years, and on Fire and Gasoline, particularly on the second and third songs, I hear a jazzy quality to the vocals.
A couple of other people have said that they thought it was soulful or bluesy, but I guess it’s all under the same umbrella, right? I enjoy that style of music as well, so it makes sense that you would hear those influences in there. When I took a diversion from doing rock and started singing jazz and blues for a few years, a lot of rock fans were like, “Man, Lee Aaron’s totally not a rocker anymore.” No, I’m exploring the history of where this music came from in the first place!
The beauty of jazz and blues music is that it’s really a heads up gig. Once you know the form, the players might alter their parts. I might sing a verse and then [decide to] scat the next verse because it just feels right. It’s like a conversation that’s happening on stage between the musicians, and it’s almost like this musical conversation that transcends words.
To me that was an absolutely mind-blowing education. I think that it made me a far better songwriter, a far better performer, and a far better singer all around. I feel really blessed that I did it.
One of the new tunes, “If You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” is a melancholy song that tries to deal with the idea of a potential breakup in a mature fashion.
I didn’t actually mean that to be a breakup song. It’s interesting how different people interpret it. I think everybody has reached a point in a relationship where they’ve looked at their partner and think, “I don’t know, today I don’t feel like I love this person.” I’m sure everyone has felt like that, but the test of true love is being able to stick it out so that that comes back again.
And thinking what would happen if you didn’t have that person tomorrow.
Then you think of all the huge ramifications of that and realize that’s just stupid. The reality of life is just pack your suitcase because you just take it forward into the next relationship with you, if you don’t deal with your crap.
I’ve heard it said that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.
Absolutely. I’m fascinated by the human condition and what motivates people and what informs their reactions. What makes them tick, what makes them do the things they do, say the things they say. “Fire and Gasoline” is about how that same thing that makes you totally crazy and hate this person is also the same passionate thing that makes you stay and draws you in. I think we’ve all been in relationships like that, right? That doesn’t make it healthy, but that makes it some people’s reality.
“Fire and Gasoline” is more of a reflection on maybe something like that that happened to me in the past, not something that’s in my present day. A lot of it is experiences, things I’ve walked through, things that I thought would be relatable for people because we’ve all walked through them. From a more mature perspective lyrically, with the same kind of tip to the hat to rock ‘n roll with a fun undercurrent to the whole record. That’s what I was hoping for.
When did you feel like your voice was really emerging as far as who Lee Aaron was? What do you think was the first album that really represented you?
That’s a very interesting question because there are so many variables involved. No. 1, I started out really young. I cut my first album when I was like 18 years old, so we’re talking early Britney Spears age, right? I was this wide-eyed, dumb kid going, “Wow! Rock ‘n’ roll! Look at these musicians I get to play with!” Moxy and Rik Emmett and Santers and all these [Canadian] bands that I admired. You could’ve told me to sing almost anything and I would’ve done it.
It wasn’t like I was some sort of Bob Dylan prodigy where I knew exactly where my own voice would lie at that stage of my life and career. Metal Queen was a heavier album, although outside of the title song title I don’t feel that that is a hardcore metal album by any stretch of the imagination.
“Metal Queen” was this iconic song and an iconic image that was created for me by the record label, and the next thing you know I was sort of this underground icon with these legions of hard rock fans, and it was almost accidental.
Even though you were doing your best Manowar impression at the time.
You’re talking about my Xena costume. You have to remember that the nature of the record industry in the ’80s was this huge corporate machine. Unlike today, when you can record an album for 10 grand in somebody’s digital studio and don’t have to know how to play your instrument, you just have to know how to program a loop and use Auto-Tune, back then they were investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in record production and promotion, so the record industry had a huge say in the direction and the marketing.
I was operating under that veil as well. On my third album I worked with Bob Ezrin, who is one of the world’s biggest producers, and I was so intimidated by him. It was a great learning curve for me, but Bob Ezrin’s stamp is certainly on that album.
I would definitely say that my original voice started to emerge on my 1987 self-titled [album], but I think it fully hit its stride on Body Rock. Ironically, that was my most successful record here in Canada, and the reason I say ironic is because by that point my label [Attic Records] had kind of thrown in the towel. They had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars—I worked with Bob Ezrin and Peter Coleman, who did a few Pat Benatar records—but they still hadn’t quite achieve the monster success that they were hoping for.
They didn’t know what to do on that record, and my co-writer at the time, John Albani, and I suggested that we work with our A&R guy, who was a guy named Brian Allen. He produced a couple of local records but he got what we were trying to do. So John and I were very involved in the direction, the production, and the writing of that entire album.
Another thing that is interesting is there was a big producer who’d flown up from L.A.—I don’t want to mention his name—and he was very interested in doing the [Body Rock] album.
I remember sitting around in a board room and having this discussion, and all the suits from my label were there. This big producer said, “I don’t really hear that many of these songs, but I happen to have some great songs in my arsenal.” He happened to own some of the publishing on [them]. You know how that works.
I remember getting out of that meeting and the record company was so excited that this big producer was interested in doing our album, and I remember standing there going, “Gee guys, he doesn’t like any of our songs. Did it ever occur to anybody that maybe he’s not the right guy?”
That’s what ended up resulting in John and I taking over and getting involved with our A&R guy and just doing the record ourselves. Again, the irony is that this was my most successful record here in Canada. It was almost triple platinum.
There are still pressures for women in the industry today, but there was tremendous pressure back then to really show off your body. That must’ve been exhausting after a certain point, especially when you were asked to strip down for Oui magazine in 1983.
For me, I had a huge personal backlash over my early experience. From getting on a plane when I was 18 years old and going to New York and doing that shoot under the pressure of my first manager, I ended up in therapy over it years later because I hadn’t worked through these feelings of feeling that I was really exploited. I had [my therapist] tell me: “You were exploited.”
There was definitely that kind of pressure, but it’s like a double-edged sword. When you’re the label and investing a quarter-million or half a million dollars in an artist, you want to have a say in how things are going to go down, and part of that of course filtered over into the marketing aspect of it. Even a band like Heart fell a little bit victim to that in the ’80s as well.
One of the reasons I became a female musician and wanted to write songs and make music in the first place was because of the Wilson sisters. I admired them so much. I remember getting Little Queen and Bébé le Strange and looking at those covers and listening to the music and thinking, “Man, if I could ever be as cool as Nancy Wilson…” One of the things that I loved about them the most was that the fact that they wrote their own songs, they played their instruments, they were totally badass, and they didn’t trade on their sexuality.
But that all changed in the ’80s where all of a sudden there’s Heart doing covers that were written for them and the tops get a little bit lower cut and a little bit lower cut and their hair gets a little bit bigger. There was this whole expectation that you were going to fit into that box in the ’80s, and amongst other reasons as well, that was part of why I said, “O.K., everybody piss off, I’m just going to sing jazz.”
What was fun for you about doing jazz, beyond the change of pace?
It was the looseness, the spontaneity of the form, and also really discovering that some jazz is pretty heavy. I covered a ton of Nina Simone. I love, love Nina Simone. She is still to this day one of my favorite artists. You go back and dig a little deeper and uncover Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and guitar players like Suzy Quatro, Lita Ford, and Joan Jett owe a huge debt to this woman because she was truly an original.
She was totally bad ass. She accompanied herself, she sang this really intense soul/gospel stuff. What I discovered was there was a lot of this music that was way cool if not cooler than the rock I liked.
An interesting little story: I had a house installment here in Vancouver at a fairly notable jazz venue that I played every Thursday night. We had gained quite a following that was coming out to see us every week, and one night I went into the ladies room. I looked up in the stall and [saw] someone had Sharpied across the wall, “Lee Aaron’s jazz rocks!” I thought, “Right on, I’m doing something right here.”
You performed a two-hour show for about 1,000 inmates at Riker’s Island back in 1983. How did that come about?
There was a Canadian harp [harmonica] player from Montréal [Jim Zeller] who had been imprisoned down there. He’d been caught with I believe a very small amount of cocaine, and they put him in Riker’s Island [where he was facing a potential life sentence].
To be honest with you, it was a bit of a publicity stunt that was orchestrated by my first manager. He had this idea to go down there and play a show for the inmates and try to get the media to come down, and he said it would be good career-wise for me but also the idea was to get the Canadian government to notice that this guy needed help.
They were trying to get him out and up into a Canadian prison where his sentence would be much lighter because horrendous things were happening to him at Riker’s Island. So I went down and did this show, and yes, it was bodyguard time.
How did people treat you?
Believe it or not, very, very respectfully. I don’t think the inmates knew what to make of it at first, but it was good music. We got him up and he jammed with us and played his harp, so we got to show his gifts. Hopefully that was a feather in his cap in terms of status in the prison, and we were really appreciated.
It was a treat for the inmates, and in fact it was really a positive thing to do. It was a great experience for me. I like to step outside my comfort zone, and that was definitely outside my comfort zone.
It was good to see that not everybody sitting in an American prison is a terrible person. They’re not. There’s a lot of corrupt stuff and a lot of people getting way intense sentences for things that are not justified.
Getting back to your new album, what I like about the first song “Tomboy” is that it is a sexy, playful song that is tongue-in-cheek. It plays upon your past while being very much in the present.
You totally get it. Thank you! The song was written for my daughter. At the time I wrote the song she was 10; she’s 11 now. She said, “Mommy, you’ve got to write me a song.” A week later I was like, “I guess I have to write her a song. You can’t make a promise to a child [and then break it].”
“Tomboy” embraces a bunch of things—it embraces the whole female empowerment theme that I brought forward through Metal Queen and Some Girls Do. You can be a tomboy at 10 and still be a tomboy at 45 if you want. It’s meant to be a song of empowerment for anybody who’s ever felt like they had to conform to religious or societal or parental stereotypes. It’s also meant to be an inspiring song for young girls.
My daughter actually contributed a couple of little lyric parts. I approached her and said I was working on a song called “Tomboy,” so what does it mean to you to be a tomboy? She said, “Well, it’s like I’d rather shoot an arrow than have a tea party.”
I went, “I’m writing that down, O.K.”
She said, “I’m not a girly girl.”
O.K. I threw in a couple of little ideas that she gave me, right? It’s supposed to be a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, fun, get on the dance floor empowerment number. And hopefully a positive message for young girls.
If your daughter told you she wanted to pursue a career in music, what advice would you give her?
Don’t let anyone market you in a way you don’t feel comfortable. Pretty is as pretty does, that’s what I always say. My mom used to say to me, you’re only as pretty as your actions.
And develop an authentic voice. So many people try to sound like other people. There was no trying to be anything on this record other than genuine.
Bryan Reesman is the author of the forthcoming biography Bon Jovi: The Story (Sterling, November 2016). You can reach him on Twitter @BryanReesman.