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Interview with Lisa Lowell
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
I’ve seen you do that on Facebook.

Yes! It’s considerably easier I would have to say but no less work. It’s just more accessible now. I’ve never had anybody promote me. It’s very hard to find management on a grass roots level because there’s so much history about rock-n-roll available now. People know that if they book a band the ten percent that they earn is pittance … and there is no guarantee that the artist will sustain that relationship with that person. It’s pretty rough. But at the same time I think the Internet has encouraged self-motivated PR. Everyone is learning how to navigate. I’m a Luddite so [for me] this is a small miracle.

How has the Jersey Shore music scene changed since you first became a part of it?

To be honest, I don’t go to bars that much anymore so I’m not as up on what’s happening there, but I think there is a lot more coffeehousing…. There is so much imitative stuff going on in Asbury [Park] in the bigger venues. There’s a strong desire for nostalgia in Asbury Park for Asbury to be what it was and it will never be that thing. I’m fonder of these writers who come out in these small cafés, these more original types. Do you know what I mean?

Yes. The shore music scene has changed from the earlier days when there was a thriving competition among both original and cover bands in the small and larger venues. That‘s what disappeared.

I think it’s because of finances, again. It comes down to that they want to pack as many bodies as they can into a club. A Bruce Springsteen cover band is going to draw more, as well as a young band that has a big following of high school or post-high school kids. There are some great bands out there that I’m sure I’m not seeing because I’m not in the clubs very much. I think Clear Channel has created an audience of people that are not getting enough exposure to real brilliance. Real brilliance exists. That’s why a lot of people are ending up in the smaller coffeehouse environment. There are two opposing forces. One is arena rock, or a place where everybody gets kind of loaded and hormonal and amped up and wants to just get their groove on, so to speak – which is cool. It’s a visceral, tribal, animal part. Then there’s this other sort of coffeehousing scene. Bruce is somebody who has straddled both ends of that spectrum. That’s why he is such a gratifying artist…. Now it has come down to apples and pears. It’s hard to get people to come out and listen to a new band that maybe has all of those elements of the [Stone] Pony that they haven’t heard of, that they know they can bank on and spend $15 or whatever to get in…. Young people will dictate what’s going to happen to the future of Asbury.

Lisa, as a professional vocalist, what training and maintenance should an aspiring vocalist think about in order to build and protect their vocal chords?

Let’s split this into technical and conceptual parts. I was an adjunct professor teaching at Catawba College in North Carolina. What I did with my students was twofold. One was to examine your range:  Just stand at a piano and figure out what your range is and then try to expand your range because more is definitely better. Take vocal lessons from someone that really understands technically how the voice works and who can lead you into confidently doing that. Going through your break is the biggest obstacle for most people – more so for women. Oddly enough I’m always reluctant to say this because it’s always taken sexually but men have bigger equipment than women and for some reason that lends to more ease of going through the break, the break in the voice…. [You need to] discover your voice technically but in terms of discovering who you are as an artist and what your sound is. As a popular music person or as someone trying to get an original sound I don’t recommend classical training. Classical training is one of the strongholds of academia, but it takes you into trying to create a specific type of sound but is not needed necessarily for what you want to sound like as an artist. The way to find out who you are (this is the second part) as an artist is through imitation of other greats that have come before you. I’m not talking about this school of melismatic singers. Are you familiar with that term?


Melisma is like a shake note in between the two notes that you are going for. [Lisa demonstrates]
It is indeed a very organic and soulful record. The effort that was put into it absolutely comes through.

Thank you. I’m glad that you could appreciate it…. Do you want to hear a wild story?


This is unbelievable. This is like out of a movie. When we turned up [at the recording studio] the piano was being tuned which is a standard thing to do if you’re using an acoustic piano. You want it perfectly tuned for a record. And so we had someone come who worked on the piano at Carnegie Hall, a really nice man. But the man was such a fanatic about getting it right that he took the piano apart. The studio was booked for six or seven hours. He had the parts of the piano out on the floor for two or three hours into the session. It was not my choice and it was not directed by Lincoln. It was just one of those things that just happened. Every one of those tracks was put down in about four hours. We played through them two or three times each and the guys had never heard this stuff before. That was the base. Then my producer crafted and made things work. I did a lot of my tracks live. I was standing in a little room in the back. It was like a utility mudroom. I was standing there with oil cans and racks. It was storming that day. We had to stop a couple of times because the rain was coming through the drainpipes. That’s how organic this record was.

So you did the vocals in just a few takes?

No, we overdubbed them later. It’s never going to be perfect when you’re standing there in a mudroom. You can’t even see anybody else. But I wanted to give it an organic feel by both emotionally and musically guiding the band so they were not just playing a track. They were hearing the melody as we played it and responded to it.

That comes through on the record. You can hear the professionalism and craftsmanship. Lisa, you did a wonderful job writing lyrics and telling stories. Songwriters often gloss over lyrics. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I’m definitely a Content Queen.  (Laughing)


There is no question I’m looking for the story. Had I not been so fixated on content I would not have spent 30 years writing volumes of chicken scratch lyrically, to find my voice equally as much by lyric as by what my musical choices were. In fact, I think I leaned a little too heavy in that direction. I became obsessed with it. In the interim I became sort of a writer…. I was always looking for the interior message as much as I was looking for music…. I write from that direction.  I have a lyric that I want to express lyrically.

Do you write the lyrics first?

Always…. That’s how it evolved for me. I used to write in the other direction. I have friends pull me in for commercial projects and I know how to do that as well. For my own sound now I think I’d be lost trying to do it in the opposite direction. It would become too much like a crossword puzzle…. I try to write from a poetic, metaphoric place.

Unfortunately, many songwriters treat lyrics as an afterthought.

There’s some pretty unimpressive lyric writing going on in the mainstream. [The art] has gotten lost. The casualization of language, LOL, and all this sort of Morse code texting has really diminished language. It’s sad. It’s a loss.

Tell us about your involvement with the iPoet project in Long Branch, NJ.

I didn’t even know what I was going to do there because I don’t usually do poetry reading. But essentially that is what I do – I sit around and write prose all the time. I cull from that prose. I cull my lyrics from that prose so that there is some gutbucket expression going on.

How is your book coming along?

That book is something that has been in the works for a really long time, like over ten years. The idea to write that book, “Voices in the Shadows,” which is the working title, is my life. It’s very hard to write about until you’re at a point that you’re looking back. I’m still in the middle of my life. I don’t know how to write that book except to fictionalize it because it’s not over yet. The fat lady hasn’t sung.

How would you characterize playing with legends such as B.B. King and Stevie Wonder?

I have to be really candid about this. For years I would never list people like that even though I have worked with them because I haven’t worked with them as extensively as I have with Bruce or David Johansen….They [B.B. King and Stevie Wonder] were on a roster at the White house when we were singing to the President. It was the Schriver's presentation of a very special Christmas. I got those all in one whack if I’m honest. Friends of mine said you have to post that. For years I would think I didn’t really work with them, I sang one or two songs with them at the White house. They would say, “That’s a credit though.”

Of course!

So I only worked with Mr. Wonder and Mr. King marginally. Soozie Tyrell and I actually background sang for them, so that was a passing thrill. Bobby Bandiera pulled Soozie Tyrell and I in on that gig as part of Jon Bon Jovi's house band. Bobby was the musical director for that. It was just a blast! You know, you wing-and-a-prayer it. You listen to what they’re doing. The way that stuff was done was on the fly. You made up the parts or they would ask you to sing a part. You rehearsed it and the next day you performed it. That’s how background singers work.
Lisa Lowell is the popular vocalist, songwriter, and vocalist/arranger whose passion for writing qualifies her as the Content Queen. As a journeywoman, Lisa sang background vocals on several Bruce Springsteen records, co-arranged and appeared on David Johansen’s hit song, “Hot, Hot, Hot” and performed live, toured, and/or recorded with a who’s who of music including Stevie Wonder,
Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, Cissy Houston, B.B. King….
I notice you are quite popular on Facebook. What are your thoughts on promoting yourself and interacting with your fans on this space?

Facebook is really my only experience. I started with MySpace and everybody gravitated over towards Facebook. As a writer I found it to be a much better format. Visually I liked it. I found it superior, and I suppose half the world did too. I’m a good person to ask about this because I’m a screwball when it comes to Facebook. I started a fan page and my fans are really not that interested in a fan page because I don’t think they feel they could interact with me as much as on a personal page…. I really didn’t make a lot of differentiation in the beginning between who was a fan, who was a musician that just wanted to know me that way, and who my real friends were. So I let everybody on. I said this is fun. It’s interesting (in the beginning). And now nobody will go to my fan page because they want to know me. They want to know real Lisa. So I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea because I have to be careful what I write as Lisa the person. But part of the reason why people want to go to my page is because I post these sorts of heartfelt real things. It’s almost like an ersatz diary. I have to say ersatz because I certainly don’t post everything on there. But I do give them a piece of myself. I think something real really sticks out in a world of hype. If you watch what the people say on the Grammy’s, it’s like gag me, it’s so boring. You know they’re being good, corporate … and polite. As an artist, I don’t think it’s my job to be polite. I think it’s my job to be truthful. Facebook has given me personally an opportunity to say welcome to my world and also to become politically active. In the beginning it was very gingerly because I was never a political person…. I found out that everybody kind of wants the same thing. There is a lot of confusion about what’s been happening in our government. It became an incredible resource to finding out the truth about humanity at large…. If people have the opportunity to really talk, it’s nothing but good. Social media rocks for me. I also don’t have to do those hand-colored invitations anymore and go to the post office to buy the too expensive stamps. Now it’s more important that I go to a brilliant photographer, like my friend Daniel Epstein. He’s pretty well-known. He turned to doing private portraits…. So, I feel like I can be in control of my PR now. I love Facebook. I’ve taken some real risks out there. I’ve held my breath and been upset a few nights in a row but I’ve learned how to communicate on a whole different level.

Lisa, how has the rise in prominence of Facebook and other social media affected the relevance of websites?

Personal websites?


They’re important because you need them. They’re like a calling card professionally. Things stay up there. Facebook is fluid. It’s moving. The information is constantly going in a trajectory that’s moving. Websites are static, but they are your marker in the Internet universe. They are stable. You can provide more information and post things like your reviews, which may be lengthy.

You have in bold letters on your website the great line: “Buy My CD.”

My girlfriend, Linda Zingg, designs that website. She’s great. She’s funny and very direct.

What does Lisa Lowell have in store for us this year and maybe even beyond that?

I want to further my band and I want to play in a string of clubs. I want to string beads as I call it. [I want to play at] a lot of little gigs, coffeehouses. I will play a combination of different sized stages, but I want to maintain a certain intimacy. That’s one goal. I would like to make another record, God willing, finances willing. I want to make a video, a video performance. I will be recording.

Do you have material already written?

Oh yeah! I have a backlog that can choke a horse. Put that in the article.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Yeah: Buy my record! [Laughing]


I mean, please buy my record! I really appreciate support. And your questions were amazing. I appreciate that you went into a little depth there about music itself. You’re speaking like an artist yourself and probing real issues. One thing I noticed with the students that I was teaching was some of them really have a hunger to know those things, but if nobody’s teaching them those things they’re not going to know them.

Lisa, it was a pleasure speaking with you today. I’d like to wish you lots of success on your up-and-coming endeavors.

Thank you very much for considering me and I do appreciate it.

You can buy
Lisa Lowell's Beautiful Behavior CD at:

Feb 15, 2012

Lisa Lowell's website:

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How did you enjoy your recent performance on the Salt Stage in Stanhope, NJ?

I think we made real music on that stage. By real music I mean … it became artistic. We only had one rehearsal because two of the guys were out on the road. It’s amazing to me that a lot of it was done based on them listening to my record, tapes, and charts that I had given them. [The band members] had to internalize that material. It’s not the same as being really well rehearsed but I did not want to delay the gig so we went ahead and did it. I think a lot of what was exhibited up there was shear nerve. I have a lot of respect for my band for going on that journey with me. In spearheading the Lisa Lowell tour in such a fashion it was not what I would have preferred but the truth is that it comes out to finances…. If you get your opening night to be spontaneously musical and people trust you enough and are willing to tackle material in front of an audience at that level then I couldn’t say that I’m less than 100 percent pleased….

Does it seem like today’s artists need to creatively promote themselves in order to stand out from the crowd?

It’s more that way perhaps for more people because it’s a bigger chasm between the people who are … superstars versus people who are not household names. I have always had to do a tremendous amount of self-promotion since I got involved in the industry and decided to have my own band. Playing is a form of self-promotion. You’re out playing to present your songs and you’re writing. Beyond that, navigating the Internet and using online PR [public relations] is a new thing. I can speak about that knowledgeably because I remember going to the post office and buying 300 stamps and water coloring my own hand-designed invitations to a gig. Now all I have to do is post an interesting photograph, type a few words in, and I can reach 3000 people.
Yes, I’ve heard of that.

A lot of the singers today … all sound the same. The reason is because they’re listening to that Clear Channel school of R&B…. It’s an excuse to not tell the story and to not sing the notes. My background is jazz. My parents are jazz musicians. My mom is a jazz singer and my dad, who is no longer with us, was a brilliant jazz drummer. He played with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ray Anthony, and all the big bands. And so I grew up in this environment where I heard everything from Mahalia Jackson to Ray Charles to Peggy Lee to Sarah Vaughn in the house. Some people ask me, “How did you get the nerve to be a singer?” And I said, “Well, I was always pretty delicate about it. I didn’t have tremendous nerves and I still don’t. I’m not as tough as I look.” My mother, instead of smacking me and going, “Shut up” when I was making noise, encouraged me while I raced around the dining room table screaming an Ella Fitzgerald solo. Part of what a singer needs to do is give himself the freedom to make sound. It’s very primal. Some people are much better at plugging in an amp and doing it…. So people have to give themselves permission to emit sound. Most people are very inhibited. The reason why so many great sounding singers come out of the church is because you can do it in the name of the lord. But can you do it in the name of yourself? It’s really an interesting point because I think that’s where a lot of people get shut off early.

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Interestingly, if you pull those parts out of a well-arranged song it’ll often leave huge holes.

Yes, if it is done well it is honed. What is right becomes clear after much experimentation.

As the songwriter for your Beautiful Behavior record, how much leeway did you give to the other musicians in creating their parts?

Beautiful Behavior was a fairly harmonically complex record which I wrote on piano so that I could be more expressive. Only “Moulin Rouge” was written on guitar where it had more of a percussive feel. That was the one Bruce played on, incidentally. My producer, Lincoln Schleifer, had a tremendous amount of influence. It was hard for me but I really gave over to allowing him to do the arranging. A lot of it happened spontaneously in the studio based on the players that we chose. We chose those players very specifically for knowing how they would approach the music. Most of the vocal arranging went down to me.  I gave my songs over to Lincoln to arrange. He took the stuff that I composed on piano and simplified it…. A composer has to get every note in so you can hear where it’s going. But an arranger refines it. I understand that process because I arrange vocals. But he took it and brought it to the next level and describes what the players should play. The players were given rein to contribute. Let’s say I gave over a lot on this record.
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That’s the way those artists do it. They are the working artists.

I call myself a journeywoman. People ask, “What do you do?” The first thing I say is I’ve been a journeywoman/background singer. Secondly, I’m an artist…. With this being my first record, I’ve just started defining who I am as an artist. I wanted to be at a certain level of sophistication before I could actually reveal what I was.  For me it was a long road. I’m a real perfectionist and I’m also complicated. I didn’t come out like Joan Jett. I’m a rocker, but I also covered a lot of other genres too, like jazz, R & B, and country and folk styles, too. I sang a lot of rock and roll, and I could rock. At one point I was ensconced in rockabilly. But I stopped it. I was in Germany and I stopped it after some concert and said I don’t want to be stuck in a play I can’t get out of.

Well you put together all of those things in your record. It’s something very much to be proud of.

Thank you. I greatly appreciate hearing that. It was a work of the heart. I had a tremendous amount of support from my producer, Lincoln. There is a lot of Lincoln in that record. He deserves a lot more acknowledgement and credit than he has received so far. I can’t talk about my voice and I can’t talk about the writing but I can talk about the production side of it. He did a remarkable job.
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So you encourage people to learn about their voice, imitate other people, and then develop their own unique sound?

Their own sound will evolve as an amalgam of what they absorbed. You are what you listen to in the end. I believe that. If you come from a certain limited culture you’ll sound like that tribe. But if you expose yourself to all the music in the world you’ll sound like an amalgam of that global village, that bigger tribe. So it stands to reason, right?


You’re limited only by what you listen to.

What are your thoughts about Whitney Houston?

I’ve actually sung with [Whitney Houston’s mother] Sissy Houston once. Her mother was one of the greatest gospel rooted singers in the world. I don’t think anybody ever acknowledges this.  Between her aunt Dionne Warwick, who is also one of the most incredible singers in the world in her own genre, and her mother, Whitney was blessed with one of the greatest voices in the world. [She was] discovered so young, was so beautiful, and had such an amazing instrument. Unfortunately the industry marginalized her when she was too young. I wish Whitney had a chance to muck around on the ground like her friend Lisa over here for at least ten years before being put into that system. I have a raw feeling, and this is conjecture, that she was very marginalized by the pop cultural bent that she was structured to go into. When you come out that early you become savantish.  It forces you to be savantish. You are so possessed…. Her talent was so great but she was processed so early directly in the recording industry, in a way that may have crushed her. Is that weird to say?

The loss of great talent is almost indescribable. You described it well. I’ve always felt a part of our own lives is taken away when something like this happens.

Yes, I’m really linking into this in an intuitively personal way, as if I were her, and Clive Davis put his arm around me and said, “Honey, you’re going places.” What was she, like 17?

Yes, but her original teachers who nurtured her, Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, and her Godmother Aretha Franklin knew what incredible talent Whitney had. It was inevitable that with those connections Whitney would have found her place in the music world.

It’s not as if she was found singing in some small bar. But I think that was her downfall. She never had the opportunity to experience life out of the bubble. I am not a big fan of the bubble because it’s corporate. Art has to refect life to some extent. There I’ve said it. Occupy Music. I’m a rebel. That’s part of my problem.

That’s good. We all need to be part rebel. Let’s talk about Lisa Lowell the songwriter. You’ve been on too many well-known projects to mention. You wrote the songs for you own CD, Beautiful Behavior. How would you characterize writing or contributing to someone else’s project versus writing for your own project?

[For me] one is arranging and the other is writing.

Okay. For example, let’s talk about arranging for Bruce Springsteen versus arranging for your own songs.

When you’re working with other singers, arranging is generally collaborative. There are songs on my own record where it’s just me overdubbing myself. Those arrangements were between me and my producer [Lincoln Schleifer]. I am a very good vocal arranger. On a couple of songs I specifically asked Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell to help me arrange. It’s a completely different process. When I’m writing I’m thinking about what the lead vocalist is singing. It’s sort of like a classical composer would be writing the melody and hearing the horns and the violins or whatever simultaneously. So sometimes that will happen as I’m writing, especially on piano. You can hear things popping out at you as you’re writing. But you’re not thinking about vocals because background vocals are the icing or the decoration on the cake. They are not the foundation. So, to put those in two class distinctions, vocals are the icing and composing is the cake – composing the song, which is basically the melody, chords, and the lyric. Never forget the lyric when you’re talking (lyrical as opposed to nonlyrical) songs. So one is cake, and the other is orchestration. Background singing is orchestration.

When you are working with Patti and Soozie, do you work out the vocal arrangements on an instrument or by singing together?

Usually we pull them out of the air because background vocalists hear extremely well. We have to be able to sing without hearing a note of what we’re singing on stage sometimes. Our hearing is very acute. Of course we’ll refer to a guitar or a piano. Its like, “Wait a minute. What is that chord?” In the studio we’ll work off a track and hear what the track is telling us. What would best serve the track? Then it depends on the artist. For Bruce it would be one thing, for Lisa it would be another. What is the song asking for? What enhances both the mood and the orchestration? If you already hear horns on it, then you’ve got to find a hole for places where it’s adding, not subtracting.

Up-and-coming artists should realize that it is a process.

It is a process. Sometimes a minimal thing is the most effective. It depends. Bruce’s music sometimes has that really dense quality where it’s almost like you’re just a little fleck in the painting. It’s really sonic painting when music is approached texturally. Sometimes it is much more linear. I’ve worked both ways.
Photo credit: Daniel Epstein
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