Lithium Magazine - March 18, 2014
An Interview with Lee Aaron - March 18, 2014
For 30 years, journalists, record label promo types and millions of hard rock/metal fans had put the term ‘metal queen’ in the same sentence as the name Lee Aaron.
Metal Queen was the title of a single and video from the breakthrough album of the same name by a talented young singer/songwriter performing under the stage name Lee Aaron. But it also became her epithet for many years.
The video in particular, as well as the photography associated with the album created an ‘image’ of Aaron, one that stuck in the collective minds of music fans (particularly teenaged boys and young men) as well as critics. In today’s marketing terminology, Metal Queen became as much of a ‘brand’ as the Lee Aaron name.
Even through the latter half of the decade of the 1980s, when she was producing hit albums such as 1989’s Bodyrock and Some Girls Do two years later, the term Metal Queen always seem to pop up in press clippings, either in headlines or somewhere else prominently in the story.
It defined her, and not always in ways that she considered to be respectful or favourable. And later in her career, particularly throughout most of the 1990s and into the 21st century, she did her best to shed that image and explore other facets of her muse, including a pretty successful foray into the singer/songwriter genre and jazz.
But in recent years the woman who was born Karen Greening and who grew up in Belleville, Ontario before moving to Toronto to pursue her rock and roll dreams, has come to peace with the ‘Metal Queen’ facet of her career and has also reached out to her long-time rock fans by performing from her impressive catalogue at a dozen or so shows a year.
Three of those shows are in Ontario as Aaron performs in Ottawa on Thursday, April 17 at the Brass Monkey and then back to back nights in Toronto, first at the Rockpile East on Friday, April 18 and the next night at the Rockpile West.
What has helped her to gain perspective on her life and career is the fact that the music isn’t as big a deal as it was throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She is now a wife and mother of two kids under 10 years of age, and is living an enviable life of balance and fulfillment. There is no compulsion to tour relentlessly, even though she is very much in demand.
“I have offers all the time and although I don’t want to disappoint fans I had a family almost a decade ago. I have an eight and a nine year old, and as much as I absolutely adore music, giving my children a normal life is my priority. Back in the day, when I had no attachments and nothing tying me down, music was everything. There were a lot more dates that I would be doing. But now I pick and choose the things that I think are worthwhile to take me away from my family,” she said.
“It’s quite disruptive to your kids, the music lifestyle. And I know if you’re someone like U2 you can bring a nanny on the road and have an extra tour bus for the family, but I am not in that position. And frankly, I kind of love the idea of my kids having a neighbourhood and having friends and the stability that comes from that kind of life. I think when they are a little bit older coming out on the road might be fun, especially in the summer.”
She said she does still enjoying playing live and digging deep into her catalogue to play the songs that made her one of the biggest names in Canadian hard rock for more than a decade.
“It’s fun for me to hop on a plane and do three or four shows in Ontario. I was out there last summer and it was great. I think we all sort of hold this place of nostalgia in our hearts for the music of our youth. So to be able to come into my old stomping grounds for an evening or two is over-the-top fun.”
She said the shows in Toronto and Ottawa will basically be ‘best of’ shows, featuring songs such as Rock Me All Over, Only Human, Watcha Do To My Body, Hands On, Sex with Love, Some Girls Do and Baby Go Round, among many others.
And Metal Queen – a song that was never intended to be the anchor of what became her second album, and the song that propelled Lee Aaron from talented young Toronto singer to international metal star.
“I have said this in the past but the whole Metal Queen thing was almost an accident. We wrote this material for an album and we had this song called Metal Queen which was supposed to be about this strong female warrior. It was based on the character from the animated film Heavy Metal. It was not supposed to be autobiographical,” she said.
It was a chance visit to Universal Studios in California with her band and representatives from her record label that changed everything. There was a display from the Conan the Barbarian movie, and that seemed to stick in the heads of the label officials.
“And then when we get back to Toronto I walk out to the photo shoot for the Metal Queen cover and there was this costume sitting on the rack that had been rented from Malabar’s and it was like the Xena outfit. And I was like, ‘oh, this is what we’re doing?’ And the rest is history,” Aaron explained.
“I am even surprised at the sort of legacy that the video and that image created for people in the hard rock world. And even to this day, it’s iconic to a lot of people and it garnered a lot of press around the world.”
Aaron is forthright in talking about the difficulty she had with the image that the Metal Queen concept engendered, but she is also confident that the vast majority of her fans have come to understand the same thing as she has - that it was just a point in time in their lives, one that is in the past, but one that can still provoke sentimental, youthful memories.
“For a period of time I did have difficulty with it. I didn’t want to play that song live, only because it conjures some not always favourable emotional and mental images for people. And I felt like I was put into this one dimensional box. So I did stop playing it, but I have sort of come full circle in that I would like to believe all my fans today or even the fans from that era, have grown up and matured. Maybe now the song embodies what I hoped it would when I wrote it - strength,” Aaron said.
“Seriously, though, if you’re 45 and still living in your mom’s basement and you think I get up every morning and make my coffee in a loincloth, you’ve got some problems. I think people realize that, like them, I am a real person. That’s the bottom line. And it’s not just with my own image; it’s with many other entertainers and their images. People tend to select a few memorable visual images and they put you into this mental box where you represent something to them. And they put all these expectations on you and it’s impossible to live up to them.”
An unfortunate part of the ‘image’ created was that even after a number of hit albums and songs, many of which bear no resemblance to that Metal Queen vibe, many people within the record industry still didn’t believe that Lee Aaron was as gifted a songwriter as she was a vocalist and onstage performer. Practically every song she recorded from Metal Queen on was at least partially written by Aaron – many co-written with long-time songwriting partner John Albani.
“I always took songwriting seriously. And John and I were always pushing ourselves as writers in terms of evolving with our craft and working with different people to glean songwriting skills. I wrote oodles and oodles of songs back then and I am still writing,” she said.
After leaving her label in the early 1990s and releasing two albums on her own Hip Chic Music label, working with the likes of Sons of Freedom and former Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Aaron took a leap of faith and jumped into the jazz waters with her 2000 album Slick Chick and it’s follow up, Beautiful Thing in 2004.
In similar fashion to former Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett, who stepped out of the rock world and into the realm of jazz, classical, blues and singer/songwriter stylings for many years before also re-embracing his inner rock star in the mid-2000s, Aaron immersed herself in this new challenge.
“I think part of it was a personal challenge to myself that I could step outside of the box that I had been put into. I had grown up doing musical theatre and singing jazz and blues and Broadway standards, so returning to that and producing a couple of my own records and showing that I was vocally proficient in another area was important to me,” she said.
“And I think it was a necessary thing for me to go through personally and to come out on the other end and say, ‘wow, I can look back now and be really proud of my early career.’
And it’s also been important for me to hear from fans as to the impact those songs had in their lives. I get so many emails and Facebook messages from women especially saying ‘your songs got me through a really tough time in my life and were very inspirational for me and gave me strength.’ And that has helped me to reconcile with my earlier career.”
As for the future, Aaron said he has written enough material for a new album – a new rock album at that – but doesn’t feel the time is quite right to record and release it. Again, it’s not uppermost in her mind, in the greater scheme of her very full, fulfilling life.
“Throughout this course of being a wife and mother I know I keep promising I am going to put something out, it just hasn’t exactly been the right time for me yet. So, are you going to see something from me in the future? Yes. But I can’t give you a definitive time frame.
Although I do occasionally bring some of those songs and sneak it into a live show to see how the response is. And I will be doing that at my shows in Ottawa and Toronto,” she said.
“And I have done a lot of things over the last few years besides write music. I went back to university and got a degree in Special Education because I have worked with kids with exceptionalities. Life is about challenging myself personally and that doesn’t always mean musically.”
For more information on Lee Aaron, visit her website at www.leeaaron.com
For more information on the two Toronto shows, visit http://therockpile.ca
Jim Barber, Lithium Mgazine ©