A 'jazzier' Lee Aaron comes to Barrie's Gryphon Theatre

By Jim Barber
The Advance

Image can be a prison, especially in the music business. If you have been identified as a certain 'thing', it's very hard to break the bondage of that identity and move on to where you're heart and talent want to take you. Lee Aaron is almost free from the shackles of her former persona. Almost, because there are still those people - mostly in the media - who want to refer to her as the former Metal Queen, with all the sword, sorcery and suggestive stagewear.

That was 20 years ago - a time period when Karen Lynn Greening was a young woman trying her best to make a living in the rough-and-tumble world of rock and roll. She trusted management and record label people who told her that changing her name, and singing songs like Lady of the Darkest Night, and Metal Queen, would be good for her career, and that wearing sexy outfits on stage would help her achieve the success of which she had always dreamed. For a time, it was working. She was getting airplay on rock radio, her videos were being played around the world, and she was becoming a pin-up poster maven in international metal mags.

Looking back, Aaron isn't exactly thrilled with this period in her life, and is still mystified that other people won't get past the heavy metal image. "When I see the cover of Metal Queen, I guess I feel [that] ... it's comical, sad and somewhat embarrassing. Most people don't have to do their growing up in the public eye," she said. "Unfortunately, my awkward, formative years are immortalized for the world to see and judge - or fiercely hang on if you're so inclined. "I try to keep it in perspective. I just wish the media could. It gets mentioned constantly, and it was 20 years ago and [was] not my best-selling album in the least. Strange, I mean Jane Fonda was allowed to move on after Barbarella."

The Lee Aaron of today is a happier, more artistically satisfied 42-year-old woman, who is finally able to live the dream she had as a little girl growing up in suburban southern Ontario. Now living in the Vancouver area, Aaron has turned her powerful, emotive and versatile voice away from hard rock, to a unique blend of playful jazz and gritty blues.

Seven months pregnant, Aaron will be performing at Barrie's Gryphon Theatre on Sunday, April 18, at 8 p.m., in support of her recently-released album, Beautiful Things. This record follows Slick Chick, which came out to great acclaim in 2000, and re-launched Aaron's career as a mature, but still sassy vocalist, who would mix wonderful jazz standards, with quirky cuts that tested her impeccable vocal range.

For a couple of years prior, Aaron had begun venturing out into the Vancouver jazz and blues scene, testing the waters with her new style, seeing whether she could shake off the shackles of her previous incarnation. It worked, beautifully, "I'd been doing intimate jazz shows an had received very positive feedback. Slick Chick evolved because I had so many requests for a CD of what I was doing live, and didn't have one," she said. "I decided to make a record of songs I'd loved for a long time. It was really that simple. I also wanted to do something drastic that would change people's myopic idea of me as an artist." Critics who man-aged to lift their heads out of the sand, understood what a significant and courageous transformation had taken place in Aaron's career, and offered her the kudos she richly deserved.

"If Britney Spears did a stint with The Royal Shakespeare Company, it wouldn't be any more surprising than the latest album by Canada's Lee Aaron," chimed Billboard Magazine. The Globe and Mail said "Lee Aaron has pulled off one of the biggest musical transformations ... while many find it hard to believe Aaron could tread so confidently in so many jazz subgenres, the fact is she did."

As a child, Aaron listened to a wide variety of music, from Motown, to Anne Murray, but really seemed drawn to George Harrison's My Sweet Lord and Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. "I was first exposed to jazz and Broadway standards in high school, when I was involved in theatre. I had a fantastic music teacher who would send me home with Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart recordings to study," Aaron explained. "I truly fell in love with it when I heard a Nina Simone song about 20 years at in a Berlin nightclub. I became a huge fan of hers and that was the beginning of my journey to discovering other great jazz and blues artists. There was a lot of pressure during my popular years as a 'rocker' to be consistent with that image ... it wasn't exactly hip to admit you were listening to that stuff - but I was."

Beautiful Things is Aaron's most honest and revealing work, as it is arguably the first record where she was free to set its tone. "My only agenda with Beautiful Things was to write honestly and unedited and see what happened. It was great to create music that way - without the pressure to fit in to a particular format. It was one of the most creative and enjoyable times I've ever had making a record," she said.

While some people, including some fans, want to keep Lee Aaron confined within her own artistic prison, she refuses to even allow music to be a dominant aspect of her life. It certainly is no longer what defines her or her idea of happiness. "I have a great husband, great friends, a lovely home with a recording studio, two awesome dogs, and to top it off, we're expecting our first baby in June of this year," she said. "I have many things besides music in my life that bring me joy. The fact that I get to make music as well is simply a bonus."

That being said, she still has things she would like to do with her music. "My aspirations are to become a better songwriter, improve my piano playing and producing skills and hopefully continue to create music that moves people. (Wherever that leads me is up to the big guy upstairs ... it's simply my job to follow."

Jazz vocal fans can follow their ears to the Gryphon Theatre, by calling the box office at 728-4613. For more information on Aaron, visit www.leeaaron.com.

© Jim Barber: The Advance 2004