Twangin'!

Interview: Laurie Lewis ~

by Jana Pendragon


Laurie Lewis wears many hats. Champion fiddler, bluegrass artist, chanteuse supreme, bandleader, songwriter, whitewater adventurer, teacher. A long- time favorite in the San Francisco Bay Area, this Berkeley resident reflects the many changes that have colored her life through her music, including the old Missouri fiddlers and the Tex-Mex music of California's Central Valley. When not making music of her own, she listens to a wide variety of artists including Walter Hyatt, Los Lobos, Bill Monroe and the thirties and forties stylings of Billie Holiday. Her solo release on Rounder Records, True Stories, is a highly acclaimed album that has won Laurie Lewis and Grant Street rave reviews as well as air play of their first video on CMT. As a performer Lewis is versatile, joyful and shares an easy rapport with her band and with her audience. As a person she is articulate, well-read, aware, and quick to laugh.

Jana Pendragon: True Stories is a very eclectic compilation of musical genres. You are able to mix bluegrass, cajun, jazz, gospel and honky-tonk without losing your identity or causing confusion. Why do you think that is?

Laurie Lewis: I'm not exactly sure... but I do know that I've listened -- it's obvious that I've listened -- to a lot of different styles of music. I love a lot of different styles of music. I've learned, say for instance, from singers in a lot of different styles. But, I'm not a mimic, I've learned techniques from singers but I always am aware that it's my own body creating the sound -- my own self doing it and so I think I'm not readily confused with anybody else. And I guess I'm just lucky that way. I used to think that a large part of it was that I've listened to mostly men singers. I mean, I've learned mostly from men singers so just having a female voice doing it sounds different enough that it doesn't sound like I'm imitating them... but, I'm not so sure if that's really true; I've learned a lot from women singers too and I'm just a person who's like a [laughs] bull dog of a person, I've latched on to my sound and I just hold on [laughs].

Pendragon: Your video for "Slow Learner" portrays women as strong fighters. The use of women boxing goes way beyond what we are used to as far as the image of women is concerned. What would you like to see change in how women are portrayed in videos and other media?

Lewis: I was wondering how CMT or The Nashville Network would relate to it -- if they would be able to, or if.. I just didn't know... well, I guess I don't think there should be any boundaries or any roles that should be "off limits." I mean, every human is an individual, very different from everybody else. I would love to see that whole spectrum portrayed in all media -- it's so much more interesting to see that than yes, okay, a woman can play this role -- she can be the victim, she can be the nurturing mother, she can be the lover... people are very complex and I think there needs to be room for that complexity to come through. It's difficult, it's just like musical styles, people want to put a label on the music I play and say it's bluegrass or something. But, very little of it is really bluegrass and every time somebody comes up with one of those labels I go, "Oh no, it's not really." I try and fight them all the way. I think it's kind of a losing battle, I think people are going to try and pigeon-hole... it's the human condition, we try to define things forever, we have to have heaven and hell [laughs] so that we can know where we are.

Pendragon: You use a lot of natural imagery in your songwriting, "Val's Cabin" being just one example. How do you relate to the natural world and what does it give you as a creative being?

Lewis: Wow, it gives so much to me. I can't say how much it gives to me. It gives everything to me. I really feel that we humans are animals on the earth; we try and forget that or avoid the issue or whatever, but I think it's really, really important to understand where we as a species come from and what our relation is with everything else around us -- to hold that as a very sacred thing. We're not very good at doing that, but to me that's really important and I look to the natural world for guidance and help in how to live my life. To me, it is the most beautiful thing... "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree..." It's really true.

Pendragon: In addition to your training in classical violin, you studied modern dance. But as a singer you have had no "formal" training. Since a singer's instrument is the voice, how do you care for your instrument?

Lewis: My voice comes out of my body, therefore it is very important to me. I did learn quite a bit about singing, I think, in my dance classes because I learned how to relax muscles that aren't being used and how to really use muscles correctly. For instance, when I'm singing I know if I'm singing right. My body, the big muscle groups, the abs and the back, are really working hard to control the air coming out and the pressure, and that allows the rest of me to relax and to be able to deliver a song well. That's strictly from dance training that I learned that. In terms of taking care of my voice I try to drink lots of water and stay really hydrated. I don't smoke, I never drink any alcohol or coffee before a gig. I might have a beer afterwards if I know I'm not going to sing anymore, but that will trash my singing voice for the night -- good night! [laughs]. And I try to get enough sleep on the road, a really important thing and sometimes a very difficult thing to do. I try to stay in good physical shape so I'm strong... to me it's a total body philosophy. It's being centered inside your body... for me being centered inside my body is the way in which I sing the best.

Pendragon: Let's talk about the state of country radio. There was a time when you could hear hillbilly, bluegrass, western swing and other forms of traditional music on country radio. It's not like that anymore; in fact country radio seems to be becoming very narrowly formatted, closing itself off from anyone who is different, edgier, older. Less emphasis is placed on the music and more on the slick image and youth. What do you think?

Lewis: Stations have gotten much more narrowly formatted. I don't expect -- of course I would love to hear my music played on commercial AM radio -- but it's not something that I expect unless I were to sign with a major label. But, that's all beside the point. It's really true, everybody is getting much more narrow... it's a sort of marketing thing that people are doing. Which I don't understand because for me my favorite stations are... well, we used to have this very, very popular station in the South Bay called KFAT. They would play anything -- anything. They would play soul music, country music, bluegrass, jazz, anything they wanted to play. The DJs had complete free reign and it was an extremely popular station. Of course it got sold and the new owner said, "We can't do this, doesn't make any sense. We have to make this a Top 40 station," or whatever they did to it. I personally like being surprised. Maybe it's advertisers or people trying to sell something and they think what makes people like things is repetition, "If we play this song enough times they're gonna love it!" [Laughs.]

Pendragon: You had the opportunity to work with one of your heroes, Ralph Stanley. What was that like?

Lewis: Oh, he's such a hero for me, Ralph Stanley, such a hero. He's one of my very favorite singers in the world, his voice is spooky. So lonesome, so back-in-the-mountains sounding. He's just a wonderful and very deep singer and I've learned a lot from him. Being able to actually stand on stage and play with him was beyond my wildest dreams. Ralph was really very supportive, he said he really enjoyed my singing and playing and made me feel really good. He said he liked my singing because I have a lonesome voice.

Pendragon: Is there anyone you'd like to record one of your songs?

Lewis: You might laugh -- I'd love George Jones to record "You'll Be Leaving Me." I would love it if Merle Haggard recorded one of my songs, if I could hear him sing one of my songs I'd just die. Then of course there's the people I'd love to record one of my songs for monetary reasons [laughs], like Garth Brooks [laughs]. I think Garth Brooks recording an album of Laurie Lewis songs would be very nice! [Laughs.] Actually, I love it when other people do my songs, it makes me feel really good. It's really a treat for me. I've gone through this process, I've expressed myself and put it out there and somebody says, "Oh yeah, I relate to that so much I want to sing that." That happens to me with other's people's songs all the time.

Pendragon: There is a lot of spirituality in your work. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Lewis: [Laughs.] That's quite a question. Yes I do so consider myself a spiritual person. I do not practice any organized religion. I have very strong spiritual beliefs and in my everyday life I try and do the best I can. Whether that's making a decision about, "Okay, I know it's a drag that they don't recycle plastic in Berkeley -- am I going to go to Oakland and recycle this stuff or am I going to toss it out?" That's a spiritual decision. So my trunk is full of plastic that I've got to take to Oakland sometime. It can be things like that, which seems kind of a mundane level, but it's not. You've got to act on your beliefs. I try to live lightly on the earth and it is very difficult to be a performer and do that. I'm getting into planes all the time, that's against my religion [laughs]. But, what am I going to do about it? You have to make these decisions, these choices and I know that I'm here in the 20th century and I can't go live in a cave somewhere, I wouldn't like it [laughs]. I try to make my peace with being a 20th century person, trying to live in a way that is not harmful to the other beings around me and I don't mean just humans, the other creatures, plants and the earth.

Pendragon: If you could change one thing about the world, what that be?

Lewis: [Laughs.] Geez, what kind of an interview is this [laughs]. It's funny because I just read an interview with Merle Haggard where he says the main problem is overpopulation and I completely agree. If I could change one thing in the world it would be to make everybody understand that. To be sensible in their reproduction. Then we'd have a someplace to start working on everything else.

Pendragon: If you could meet anybody from history, who would that be?

Lewis: Oh man, can I think about this for a week and get back to you? [Laughs.] You know, the one person I'd like to meet, it's not a famous person, is Opal Whitely as a child. She was a very interesting woman. When she was five years old she started writing this diary. She grew up in an Oregon lumber camp with her parents. She was just a strange little girl who talked to trees and plants and animals and they actually talked to her. She kept this diary from the age of five until she was twelve, until her younger sister tore it all up. She kept all the little pieces of it and carried them around in a little box. When she was trying to get something else published when she was twenty, the editor asked her if she had anything else that she had written. She started crying and said, "I have this diary." She showed it to him in this box, all completely in pieces. They spent a couple of years putting it back together. It is the most incredible writing. I would like to see what that little girl was like. If you ever get a chance to read it just remember, The Diary of Opal Whitely. It's out of print, of course.

Pendragon: What do you see for your future?

Lewis: I have a lot of different recording projects I would like to do. I love performing and playing in my band. I would like to get to a level where it is a little easier, where we could have a road manager and a sound person with us all the time. I'm not looking for a lot or some major change or to break in and be the next Garth Brooks [laughs]. I think I have a great life and I love it -- it's really hard work, no bones about it, but I love it.

Pendragon: Have your dreams come true?

Lewis: I would say that certainly a dream came true playing with Ralph Stanley. I have lots of dreams and a lot have come true. I'm real interested in the ride. I want to understand myself and that is something I work at all the time. I want to be a better musician. It sounds cliche, but life is a constant learning experience and I want to stay involved, learning, growing for as long as I'm alive. I want to keep growing but I don't want to grow up! [Laughs.]

True Stories is available from Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140. E-mail: info@rounder.com. WWW: http://harp.rounder.com/. To book Laurie Lewis and Grant Street, contact Cash Edwards, Under the Hat Productions, 1121-B Bluebonnet Lane, Austin, TX 78704. (512) 447-0544, Fax: (512) 444-0388.


Twangin'! readers will be cheered to know that KPIG in Freedom, California, is carrying on the KFAT tradition ((http://www.kpig.com), and that a new edition off Opal Whitely's diary, Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart, edited by Eliza Scott, has been published by Crown Publishing.

Copyright 1995 Jana Pendragon

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