LISA LOWELL'S BEAUTIFUL BEHAVIOR
Lisa is a self-described "journeywoman" vocalist, singer/songwriter and arranger, the daughter of a jazz singer and a jazz drummer from the Jersey Shore. For the past two years, she’s been working on a collection of six songs which have now been released independently under the title Beautiful Behavior. The record smokes and seethes with lush romanticism, love and loss. Produced by Lincoln Schleifer, vocal arrangements by Lincoln and Lisa with an assist from old friend Patti Scialfa, it's quite wonderful. Lowell's clear, strong alto is a joy. When she opens up and sings full-throated, well, step out of the way. Girlfriend can sing (and write great songs). She's joined by a spectacular cast of New York studio musicians like Hugh McCracken, Joel Diamond, Bill Holloman, Larry Campbell, Marc Shulman, and Adrian Harpham as well as some special guests (Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Soozie Tyrell).
"The Big Odd" starts the record off with a catchy hook-laden drive, backing chorus provided by her longtime friends Patti and Soozie (gypsy violin provided by Soozie). "A Love So True" could have been recorded by Gamble and Huff in the 70's; it's shot through and through with Philly Soul right down to the final sha la las. "For the Love of God" feels epic, anthemic — it's orchestral and richly nuanced and informed by a fantastic horn section, all played by one man, Bill Holloman. "Moulin Rouge" is a sassy strut, threaded through with Bruce Springsteen's electric guitar, Larry Campbell's mandolin, and harmonies (all sung by Lisa) that recall Labelle. "The Moon Borrows Light From the Sun" — about loving the wrong man — features Soozie Tyrell on violin and Marc Shulman providing spooky and shimmering guitar. In the final track, "Until You Come Undone," Lisa gets a lesson at the Coney Island Aquarium about life and death and learning how to let go of a dying parent.
Growing up in Long Branch, Lisa hung out at the Upstage and other Jersey bars in the mid-late 60's at the tender age of 14, encouraged by her jazz singer mother who saw she had a passion for music. She first met Southside Johnny at that time, back when Asbury Park was rife with little thriving clubs like the Hullabaloo Club, the Student Prince. "The Upstage was a coffee house, that’s how I got in. Albee (Tellone), and Bruce, Sonny Kenn, Steve (Van Zandt) were on the scene at that time and played in these clubs, and I went. I wore my little granny dresses with the matching purse. And I met Johnny, my girlfriend was dating Johnny at the time, and we were both music fanatics."
Southside turned Lisa on to early Van Morrison and Howlin' Wolf, as well as literature. He also taught her first Chuck Berry chords on the guitar. At the time she was eagerly listening to her parents' jazz records as well as the Kinks, the Beatles, the Stones, and Motown. "By the time I was 16 I had a real crush on Laura Nyro. I would make all the pilgrimages to Carnegie Hall to hear her with Labelle at Christmastime, and I had a real identification with her because she’s complex and she was a real composer. And she had all those classical and jazz influences, and she was being produced like an artist — not like a pop singer.
"When I got a little older, Bruce used to play at the Beachcomber in North Long Branch, I'd sit on a surfboard and watch him play. He was always the star. We always knew he was going places. There wasn't any question. And I watched him go through his various stages from being folk house singer to Season of the Witch, Steel Mill, Funky Dusty and the Soul Brooms.... I was so young, and it was a boys' club, so girls were more in the background. Girls were there to basically make them feel good about themselves. But they were always about the music.... I was quiet, I was in the shadows."
She didn't get up the courage to sing until she was out of high school. "I wanted so much to be a singer since I was a tiny child that it took me until I was 17 to just get on stage, and it was this horrible band called Thunderchicken, out in Farmingdale, New Jersey. I was having conceptual arguments with the leader, so they canned me pretty quickly. I was willing to wear hot pants and go-go boots... but I had opinions, and I didn't really have a strong voice yet. So I took it as a sign and I moved to New England and I decided to play sax." She enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music and studied the craft, then moved to New York City in 1977 to live the dream — becoming, eventually, a professional backup singer. A friend from the shore joined her there — Patti Scialfa. They sang on the streets and sometimes even made money doing it.
"Patti and I moved to the city in '77. And we met Soozie (Tyrell) that same year, it was almost magical the way it happened. I was quitting another band, a street group of girls that I had just finished up with, and I was just moving through and Patti said hey, this chick I've been working with is at this place called Puddings, a country bar, she's really cool. She had met Soozie through Hiram Bullock. And I said, well let's go hear her play, and we did.... We went to the Empire Diner and rehearsed, and we went out the next night as three." The three of them would tour soon after as backing singers for the Asbury Jukes, and they went in and out of each other's bands for years.
Beautiful Behavior was born of a very difficult period in Lisa’s life, starting with the death of her father, then two close girlfriends, and then her boyfriend of several years, Scott Beal. Beal had been her constant companion for a long time, and the plan was for this record to be released on his label, Gaff Music. That plan ended with Scott’s untimely death in 2008. He's "The Big Odd" on the record.
"He inspired that song. He was a label owner, he owned Gaff Music, and he came to town to try to take his small indie label to the next level. He came to me in a very classic southern male way and said, Lisa, you're my girlfriend, you can put out whatever you want to put out, so just write your little heart out, honey. I said, I've been really confused because for the last 20 years I've been trying to put out something I think America will buy so I could get a record deal, and now that I have a record deal I don't give a rat’s ass. I'm going to pretend I'm 18 or 20 and go back to that point in time when I was listening to Laura Nyro or just beautiful, really free-ranging type of chords and approach without giving any thought to what I'm writing. And I just tried to write from my voice in a way that I thought sounded honest. Not even pretty. Not even good. I wanted to get something artful because I didn't really think as someone middle-aged who'd had a long career as a backing vocalist I was going to sell a billion anyway, I might as well just make it as artistic as possible and bring all of my experience and my truth."
Before the album was finished, she'd been through a somber period of losing friends and family, losing Scott, and then a frightening bout herself with cancer which she was fortunate to catch early and beat. "Cancer is a link, it pushes you to the edge, you want your work to be what your epitaph would be. You realize you're not immortal, and you want to leave something beautiful behind.... After watching my boyfriend die, that gave me the courage to write the record. He was the muse, he was the Big Odd, he also got a lot of writing out of me, he was a classic wonderful bastard, the black prince. He put me in that space, and then when he died, the company died with him; I really think it was my own illness that made me say do or die. In the same way he was losing the label because people were hearing he was sick and funds were running out and they were dropping him and he was like balls to the wall. I finally got that balls to the wall which was: I have to leave something behind."
The title, Beautiful Behavior is actually a Freudian slip Lisa made in a conversation with Scott. "I was talking to my boyfriend and I meant to say 'bad behavior' and I said 'beautiful' and he laughed and thought it was really funny. And I said, you never hear those two words together — nobody ever says, wow that was beautiful behavior. And we both decided maybe that would be the album title."
The artwork, the photos — it’s all done in a very Laura Nyro New York Tendaberry kind of way, lovely and understated. The design was done by Fran Fresquez. Lisa brought in Hudson Valley photographer Ronnie Farley — known for her exquisitely unstudied, truthful portraits of women — to do the photographs for the cover. "I wanted to claim myself as a middle-aged woman who wasn't looking for an airbrush at this point, but as somebody who could be attractive and dramatic. I wanted it to be artistic, and the reason it's artistic is because nobody told me look this way or look that way, Ronnie just caught me live, candid. She does it quietly without saying a word to you, and she tricks you into it if you're self conscious, because as a girlfriend of mine once put it, molecules in motion — that's what we are — and every second is a different increment. And so I'm grateful that she was around for that.”
The songs, most of them, all hail from the same time period, from 2003 to 2005. One exception is "Moulin Rouge," from the mid-80's. "The song was written around the time when Soozie Tyrell, Ramona Jan, and I had a band called Venus Flytrap. We decided to do a busking tour of Europe for a full month.... We got stranded in Paris because we lost our connection for an apartment. We got picked up by an Algerian diplomat's son who was there on a chess weekend and we stayed up near the Sacre Coeur; we were watching the girls coming and going, and the people up in the Moulin Rouge, so that lyric was written then and the rest of the song was written when I got back to New York."
The tour de force, "For the Love of God," was written in 2007. Theme-wise it's very different from the other songs. "There's a lot of gutbucket on the record, a lot of deeply emotional songs, but that one in particular was like something I wanted on my tombstone, you know — stop the shit. It's an anti-war song... don’t kill what is essentially the feminine aspect of earth or its over, people. I was thinking of Laura Nyro's "Save the Country," Annie Lennox’s Songs of Mass Destruction, and I had just read an article by Norman Mailer about his relationship to God. It was typical Norman Mailer, it was tongue in cheek intellectual, and he was talking about religion. It's also not an anti-religious song but it's a song about forget being secular. We're taking about saving the planet, forget it, I mean religion is pointless. We're killing in the name of God, for the love of God, stop fighting. Love God, don't fight in the name of God."
What's next for Lisa? Any shows planned? She's totally for the idea, should the opportunity arise. She's also working on a book of memoirs, Life in the Shadows, inspired anew by recently reading Patti Smith's book Just Kids. Lisa still has all her journals, dating back to age 18. "I really think I could bring to life trundling around New York the past 40 years…'cause I was at CBGB’s for five minutes, I was at the Mudd Club for five minutes, but then I was in the jazz scene when I was a teenager. I'm a whore," she laughs, "I wanted it all."
Lisa Lowell is justifiably proud of this work. Her life in a very short period of time had become a baptism by fire. "My father died, my two best friends, Scott, my label died with him, and then I got cancer. And I said, holy shit, if I don't have the strength now... it's like a piece of coal under pressure, it turns into a diamond. If I don't do this soon I might as well just fade away. I'm not feeling sorry for myself — I'm kind of rising from the ashes."
Beautiful Behavior is available from lisalowell.com.
An abridged version of this article appears at huffingtonpost.com.
- January 19, 2011 - Holly Cara Price reporting
Beautiful Behavior Review
Lisa Lowell Steps Out
Lisa Lowell Beautiful Behavior
Lowell has released her first solo effort on her own Madame Boo Boo label, a collection of six well crafted songs with formidable assistance from her community of fellow performers – Trickster and Springsteen mates Scialfa (now Mrs. Springsteen in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years) and Tyrell are front and center with Scialfa contributing the BGV arrangements and Tyrell’s fiery violin lighting up the disk’s most dramatic and cinematic track, The Moon Borrows Light From the Sun.
Lowell’s first effort is an appealing one for the general boomer mindset, but especially in Springsteen circles where Lowell attracted a sturdy fan base from her most recent work with Bruce on the Seegar Sessions recording and subsequent world tour. This initial solo release has put her on the map at Sirius Satellite radio where she now frequently appears as a guest DJ.
Beautiful Behavior is definitely not just a “girl’s night out romp”, because it succeeds on many levels – especially considering the “guys” in the studio. Lowell’s writing and delivery are ably supported by album Producer and bassist Lincoln Schlieffer’s spare, rootsy approach. With support from a roster of the East Coast’s finest guitarists - Hugh McCracken and Marc Shulman as well as a cameo from Springsteen make the tracks sizzle with character and commitment from all concerned. The horn charts “pop”. These guys came to play.
Two up tempo tracks – The Big Odd and The Moulin Rouge should earn mainstream rock radio airplay, especially the latter New Orleans inflected romp that dares the listener not to let loose in the Big Easy.
Lowell’s lyric line is more narrative than formulaic pop couplets and the result is her writing lends itself to easy and empathetic absorption. Her lower register seduces the listener’s understanding of the composer’s vulnerabilities and prominently placed back ground vocals make the experience a remarkable vocal statement amidst the studio talent assembled for these six fluid and engaging tracks. Amidst a sea of computer generated releases, this project will no doubt appeal to a more organically inclined palette.
Two tracks - A Love So True and the closer Until You Come Undone, hark back to an earlier radio era most boomers will surely respond to and I cannot say enough about the vocal arrangements in place on these two songs. For the Love of God’s horn arrangement begs to be turned up on the iPod.
As a solo artist Lowell shows great strength and credibility. Her vocal style defies comparison; shadows of Tracy Nelson and Annie Lenox mix naturally with an exuberant gospel inflected delivery. Her strength as a leader is self evident and the self assured support of her studio players begs to see what Lisa could do to her own audience on a Saturday night in a suitable venue somewhere between Asbury Park and New Orleans.
Beautiful Behavior is available from lisalowell.com