Is it possible to
be a contemporary of such greats from the past, such as Loretta
Lynn and Hank Williams Sr., while simultaneously also being a
contemporary of modern songwriters and performers like Laura
Cantrell and Carla Bozulich? Singer-songwriter Laurel Lee pulls
this off with relative ease. It's an easy task to emulate songs
from the past but how do you make them your own? Laurel
understands that in order to look back, you must be constantly
I first experienced
Laurel Lee (with her most capable backing band, The Escapees)
when I ran sound for her at The Riverside Arts Market during the
2009 season. Memorable, to-the-point songs with a country bent
that wasn't a schtick but the real deal. Quirky? Sure. Fun? You
Roy: For anyone who
has never heard your music, explain your sound in one sentence.
Laurel: A guy I never met on the Internet put it well: Itís like
Mother Maybelle (Carter) if sheíd been Goth.
Roy: What is your songwriting process? Are you a words first
kind of writer or does melody come first?
Laurel: Usually, the mood comes first, then the words (usually
assisted by walking and bicycling, both have the patterns of the
heartbeat, the worldís first beatbox), then the sounds of the
words help me carve out what the words would be like with
Roy: How much time do you generally spend on a song?
Laurel: Of course, some songs write themselves in a few minutes.
ďI Should Not be in the KitchenĒ is a little ďfunny funnyĒ that
I giggled through when I really shouldnít have been trying to
cook around hot, burning domestic instruments of torture. Other
songs, though might start with a line in a notebook that reminds
me of an attitude or a mood and Iíll let my mind percolate on it
for years, trying to decide if I have more to say other than
that line and that particular consideration. Some lines grow up
to be a real song, most stay where they are.
Roy: Has your songwriting process changed in any way over the
Laurel: I started writing songs during a breakup,
so the focus was songs related to love and loss. The songs have
followed my love life a little personal, but thatís okayÖ Iím
not afraid to show the world that I experienced a completely
non-novel but sensitive love life. All of this love stuff has
been tortured over by many well-intended or manipulative people.
Writing it out, however, so that itís an identifiable mood, is
the difference I think. If I write it just so, I can
compartmentalize the experience of a singular event and look at
it from the outside in. Conversely, a listener can recall an old
experience and re-live it for a few minutes, good or bad.
In the past few years, however, Iíve noticed that my songs are
covering more diverse topical material: traveling across the
country, theology, funny regional traditions, for example. I
finished writing ď(Iíve Got the I Canít Get a) Goddamn Fucking
Job BluesĒ and have performed it a lot lately in front of adult
audiences. The economy sucks so badly lately, and people try so
hard with so little response, they cheer and laugh at my song,
and they feel relief. I do too! Thereís no rest in job hunting,
and youíre constantly denied.
Iíve also noticed that Iím less concerned with manufacturing
old-time country for the sake of old time country. For example,
the swearing. The country gentleman would never be so garish,
even if they fancy themselves undereducated good ole boys.
Still, Iím a product of the 80s, punk rock, alternative live
music, grunge, and electronic music. Iíve been a big fan of old
time music including Cuban, collegiate, doo-wop, and jazz. In
every style of music, someone goes outside of the norm and lays
it out with the parlance that matters while nicking the bone.
Itís not the Top 40 Country stuff, but expletives or racy,
forward messages are an important element of independent music.
Roy: What have you learned from previous songs you've written?
Laurel: Iíve learned that I tend to sing in G, so Iíve had to
divert some songs away from G. Also, Iíve learned that just
because I write a song, it doesnít mean itíll have legs. Iíve
learned that just writing out stinkers can be helpful later. You
never know when an idea will meld together related thoughts, but
you canít recall the thoughts unless you write it down. On the
flip side, not every deep thought deserves a song.
Roy: Can you name a few of your favorite songwriters and why
they are important to you and tell us what you have learned from
Laurel: Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn come to
mind first. They were all of a school where there should be a
clever hook, a deep feeling, and the acceptance or defiance from
the source of love. I needed that frame. I didnít know I relied
on that frame until Iíd written twenty songs. I thought I should
be a little more punk rock, but it turned out I was more Ď70s AM
To be honest, the most important song writers are local talents
and people Iíve met on tourÖthe music thatís being used live.
Local recording artists that try to focus on their attention on
their art are wonderful. I lived in Portland, Oregon for
seventeen years and moved to N. Florida five years ago, and found
that Iíve been sort of trained to respect the active local
artists, and give them their due. In Portland I found great
freedom in song writing after falling for Elliott Smithís work:
he was soft spoken but would be so harsh and forward! James Low,
in Portland, writes a great mix of country and rock without
going to the stupid hick end of the spectrum. These are only two
names of two guys, but there are so many original artists that
Roy: What are a few of your influences outside of
songwriting--that is, who or what has inspired you to write
songs that has nothing to do with music? (Film, books, people,
Laurel: I enjoy literature, and think songwriting is a type of
literate storytelling. Music writers verses print storytellersÖ
they are equals. For example, Willie Nelson is equal to Thomas
Hardy, or perhaps Jack London is equal to Roger Miller. They all
entertained as they strove to hit that nerve. That said, I think
lately Iíve been a product of Carson McCullers, Flannery
OíConner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marjorie Rawlings. The location
of their work has been helpful. The Deep South is difficult to
understand sometimes, and these authors offered their views as
socially aware women.
Roy: How do you deal with criticism?
Laurel: Iíve been told that I donít seem to take it very well.
Ha ha. I do okay, I think. The thing is, if I canít let
anotherís criticism affect the eventual outcome of my music.
Thereís a lot of time and trouble that goes into the processes
of music, and I hate it when I know what Iím doing and I get
off-tracked by someone who dogs my creative process by trying to
divert me towards his ideas or preferences. I try to be nice
about it, but sometimes itís my vision that has to be the final
choice. Alternately, Iím human and learning, and sometimes
Roy: You generally write in a traditional, albeit slightly
skewed, country format, is that deliberate or just the way the
songs come out? Have you ever written anything that you think
wouldn't work with your band?
Laurel: It's the way the songs come out, although I've learned
methods to personalize the music. It seems my formative years in
music was next to 1450am KFLY in Corvallis, Oregon. In the 70s,
top 40 am radio was still country music, so I suppose I fell
back on that influence. Also, I relearned to love country music
in the pizza shop I worked at for many years, and a chunk of
what we heard was Outlaw country and outcast misfits, like
Graham Parsons and Johnny Cash. I heard music as a crooning,
I originally thought of ďWhy Donít We Donít Get MarriedĒ as a
barbershop quartet kind of thing. It would be acapella, and weíd
all wear vertical stripes on our collegiate sweaters. I have a
jazzy song called ďHalf of MeĒ that the band likes to play, but
it seems so out of character for a tavern bar show. Itís not
easy to switch over into being the chanteuse. If the songs come
out then the band seems to find their place with it, itís just a
matter of bringing them back out when we have a good setting for
it. We brought out more blues in our songs in the past year,
like, "Without a Man Iím a Rabid Dog."
Roy: Have you ever had a song that changed considerably during
the recording process from what you thought it was going to be
like when you initially wrote it? Has working in the studio
changed the way you write songs?
Laurel: I would say no. Most of the songs we've recorded were
established by playing live so often. I have so little access to
a studio I canít dink around a studio to create. I look forward
to an established station with a four track, at least. Recently
I just came into the ownership of a multiple-cassette
duplicator, so perhaps Iíll make copies of my demos for those
who still own tape players.
Roy: Can you tell me how "Darkness At My Door" came to be
Laurel: Hm. I donít want to tell you. I like that itís a
How long/how long/has that evening train been gone/how long how
long how long/When did it leave here and leave me/so lost and
all along/has it been a year or more.
Well, he left and I kept missing him, even though I knew better.
I heard the Hazel and Alice song ďThe One I Love is GoneĒ and
took some of its framework for my purpose. Their female vocals
are gritty and bluegrass, and then they pull off some of the
best ďhigh lonesomeĒ duets. I see the train station in
moonlight, a drive home, a lonely porch light for the person
that does not come.
Roy: What about "Sorrow"? (Great video by the way--I'm very
Laurel: The first part of ďSorrowĒ came to me while I rode my
bike home from a sub assignment. I was thinking about a student,
wondered if he had a rock in his heart. I stopped and wrote the
idea on a sticky note. The next day something was up with my
bike so I bussed to work but walked home. On the way home I
filled out a bunch of the sticky notes with ideas. When I got
home I assembled them and wrote it into a single piece.
Thanks, about the videoÖ Iím jazzed about it. Some of the
Flagler College communications people made it happen. My next
video will be a funnier one, perhaps GDFing Job Blues, weíll
see. Iím not sure that would be a good idea as a participating
member of the teaching profession. Still, I think grown-ups can
swear if they canít seem to get employed after busting their
hump to get a job.
Roy: Can a song change after you play it in front of people?
Laurel: They tend to get faster, at least. When we play in front
of a lot of people, we want them to be energized, so we play
music in a way that might touch them. Slower music is
appreciated live, but Iíve literally seen someone fall asleep
(early on), so I try to keep that from happening again.
Roy: How do you deal with writer's block?
Laurel: I tell myself that being blocked is a good thing. I
havenít wanted to bitch about anything, Iím settling in, I am
healthy and warm. I used to write strictly for the outlet while
I wanted to be outraged. Then I wrote to experiment with topical
and musical ideas, then to emulate the younger and elder
statesmen of Americana music. Now I know more, Iím less
surprised that people are cruel and stupid toward one another. I
donít know exactly how to write ten songs on command, but I
suppose I could, like Woody Guthrie when he had thirty days to
write thirty songs for the Bonneville Dam in Oregon. No one is
paying me for quantity, so Iíll rely on my attachment to music
as a lifestyle, one that includes creative interaction.
Roy: What's next for Laurel Lee and the Escapees?
Laurel: Iíd like to play festivals. The regional festivals seem
to be the best venues for music fans. I could use some help
getting on those stages.
You can find out more about the talented Laurel
Lee at her website:
Laurel Lee's three CDs, all with her excellent
backing band, The Escapees, are available at cdbaby: