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Laurel Lee

Laurel Lee

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 moving forward.

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 bet!
 

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 melody.


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 years?

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 them.

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 radio.

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 are amazing.


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, etc.)

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 wrong.


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, plaintive cry.

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 written?

Laurel: Hm. I donít want to tell you. I like that itís a secretive story.

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 envious.)

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: http://laurelleemusic.com/

Laurel Lee's three CDs, all with her excellent backing band, The Escapees, are available at cdbaby: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/LaurelLeeandtheEscapees