Lee Aaron: Portrait Of A Survivor
Last weekend veteran rock ‘n roller Lee Aaron was inducted into the Brampton Arts Walk Of Fame, a well-deserved, if belated, recognition of her career achievements.
In a recent interview with FYI, Aaron recounted the experience. “On September 24th, mayor Linda Jeffries, along with city councillors, the Arts Council and a large crowd of locals attended an induction ceremony in the main city square in front of the historic Rose Theatre.
“They had a well researched intro for each inductee and each of us were able to speak about the significance of Brampton in our respective artistic histories. I was able to bring my Mom and Dad which was really cool. I think they were more excited than me."
The list of Aaron’s fellow inductees is an impressive one, she explains. “Canadian political cartoonist, Andy Donato, four-time Juno winner (reggae) Exco Levi, playwright Trey Anthony and opera singer Othalie Graham were the 2016 recipients. Past recipients include actor Michael Cera, Scott Thompson from Kids in The Hall, Johnny Reid and Alan Thicke.”
She adds that “it's certainly humbling to be considered among the company of so many other distinguished talents and to be given a permanent star on the main walkway is quite an honor. It makes you feel like all the starving and sweat was worth it. Respect boosts the heart far more than money.”
Over the course of a fascinating and diverse career, Lee Aaron has definitely earned respect, even if the money hasn't always flowed her way.
She has worked in many different musical genres, but remains best known for the powerful hard rock style that brought her platinum success in Canada and popularity in the UK in her earlier years.
Aaron has returned to her rock sound with the album Fire and Gasoline, released earlier this year.
Born as Karen Greening in Belleville, Ontario, Lee Aaron’s recording career began with her debut 1982 album The Lee Aaron Project on Freedom Records (later reissued on Attic). Guests included members of Moxy, Riff Raff, Santers, and Triumph's Rik Emmett, and the disc found fans in England, leading to an appearance at the famed Reading Festival.
Her 1984 album Metal Queen was the first of six albums to appear on leading independent label Attic Records. Commercially, her biggest hit album was 1989’s Bodyrock, certified double platinum in Canada. Aaron’s CV also includes ten Juno Award nominations and three Toronto Music Awards for Best Female Vocalist.
In our interview, she reflected eloquently on her rollercoaster ride in the music biz and her ongoing passion for making music.
“I’m committed to making music for the right reasons,” she stresses. “Once upon a time I was a direct label signing and the powers that be had much say about the direction and the A&R-ing of material that would appear on the album. Fair enough, they were investing huge dollars and the final product was their investment. But pressure like that can impair creativity somewhat. Today, it's more pure...I get to write music simply because it's enjoyable."
Aaron finds ideas for material easy to come by, as she explains. “I find the journey of life inspiring. It's wild and unpredictable and heartbreaking and joyous. And I find people fascinating; what makes us do the wonderful things we do and what keeps us trapped in destructive patterns of behaviour. Ha, ha..and I don't preclude myself in that, however, when I was younger my motivations were more emotional and now they are more philosophical. “
At one stage, back in the ‘90s, career setbacks caused her to declare bankruptcy, as she candidly recalls. “I had gone independent on the advice of my lawyer and manager (at the time) and borrowed in excess of a 1/2 million dollars to finance another album and launch a second label.
“No one could have predicted the impact that the grunge movement would have on the rock industry. It literally annihilated the careers of almost every melodic rock artist I know. Mine included. In the end I was left holding the purse for the whole lot so going bankrupt seemed like the best option. Writing music to dig yourself out of a mountain of debt is not particularly inspiring. Bankruptcy was actually quite freeing.”
She adds that “music is a tough business and you are going to have some failures along the way if you're in for the long haul. You also put yourself out there to be criticized, misunderstood and/or dismissed by an industry that knows nothing about you personally, so you need to develop a thick skin."
After digging herself out of this fiscal hole, Aaron surprised many by venturing into jazz and blues terrain, a detour she made in convincing fashion.
“I didn't set foot on a stage for a year after my bankruptcy and when I did, I had zero desire to get back on the industry treadmill. I started singing jazz in a few smaller venues around Vancouver. I'd always loved jazz and blues and this ended up being an opportunity to go deeper and explore the genre from a historical perspective as well.
“When I say deeper I mean understanding the influences of the artists that had influenced me and gaining greater scope of the roots of rock and roll. Studying the craftsmanship of jazz greats like Sarah Vaughn, Anita O'Day, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, just to name a few, has made me a better singer and songwriter.”
Some but not all of her original fans came along for the ride, she notes. “Many had never listened to jazz or blues and discovered they liked it because I was their 'gateway' artist. In fact I still get folks writing in to my social media saying they love the jazz stuff best. Then again, I still get folks saying they loved Metal Queen best...some people get stuck there.”
Another stylistic change of direction Aaron made was into alt-rock with 2preciious, a 1995 album she made with Vancouver rockers Sons of Freedom.
“I rarely get asked about that record,” she says. “I was definitely pushed out of my comfort zone a few times making that album but in the very best way. They invited me to come out west and make a record with them so it was liberating and flattering to be respected by the elite of Canada's alt scene.
"Those guys had a very unique sound and they invited me to collaborate in that with them. Artistically I'm proud of that album even if it wasn't a huge commercial success. In fact, it's out of print and I think it's probably a collector's item by now."
Aaron is pleased with the response to Fire and Gasoline. “It has been extremely favorable. It seems the faithful had been waiting for me to return with a new rock album...and, surprisingly, it seems to be reflected in physical sales. It's sold quite well and consistently on Amazon since its release, which is nice.
European fans are very loyal but they are also very vocal when they don't approve. Most are loving the new album, however, a couple of hard core webzines have really gone after me for not re-creating my 80's sound. There is a gap there where I continued to produce a whole evolving body of work that someone missed, obviously.
Fans in Aaron’s old stomping grounds of the GTA are eagerly anticipating her gig tomorrow (Friday) at The Rockpile, “The reception is always amazing when we come back and play Toronto and I see many of the same dedicated fans from years ago,” she says.
“We decided to showcase the Fire and Gasoline album there because it has a roots-level vibe reminiscent of the cool clubs of yesteryear like the El Mocambo and the Gasworks on Yonge street.
One highlight of recent summer gigs was “a sold out show at the Chrome showroom in Calgary and were invited to visit the National Music Centre while we were there. The building itself, architecturally, is an incredible work of art, breathtaking. I got to touch the very console that 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was recorded on and hang out in the Rolling Stones mobile recording truck. They have even managed to acquire 'Tonto' from Phantom of The Paradise. I had been approached earlier this year by the collections department about donating the Metal Queen and Bodyrock outfits so I was able to deliver those in person as well. I guess I'm geeking out more about the NMC...the gig was great too!”
She’s pleased to observe a wide age range in her current fanbase. “These days I see fans ranging from early 20's right through their 50's and 60's enjoying the music. There seems to be a movement among some youth trending away from overly digitized music and seeking out stuff that sounds more authentic and human. I work with a couple of Vancouver guitarists that are 23 and 25 and they are nuts for Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend, Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore."
Aaron has retained a following in the UK and Europe too. "We are heading to England in October to play Rockingham Fest in Nottingham, and working with a German boutique agency on tour dates for 2017," she explains.
A true survivor.