Most of us know Lisa Lowell from her backing vocals with various artists, perhaps most famously as a member of Bruce Springsteen's Sessions Band in 2006. Lowell's also honed her prodigious chops for the past several years with Garland Jeffreys, Sheryl Crow, Buster Poindexter, Jon Bon Jovi, Cissy Houston, Chuck Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ashford and Simpson, Bobby Blue Bland, Percy Sledge, Stephen Bishop, and B.B. King, to name only a few.
Lisa - a self-described "journeywoman" vocalist, singer/songwriter and arranger - is the daughter of a jazz singer and a jazz drummer. Her new record, Beautiful Behavior, 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 (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell).
The Big Odd starts the record off with a catchy hook laden drive, backing chorus provided by her long time 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.
As a music-obsessed teenager growing up at the Jersey Shore, Lowell frequented the many thriving clubs in Asbury Park in the mid-late 60's like the Hullabaloo Club, the Upstage, the Student Prince. "Albee (Tellone), and Bruce (Springsteen), Sonny Kenn, Steve (Van Zandt) were on the scene at that time and played in these clubs...I wore my little granny dresses with the matching purse. And I met (Southside) 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. She was also 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."
At age 17, Lisa briefly joined a local band called Thunderchicken and was booted out because she had her own opinions and made them known. "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 gave up the sax to be a singer, moving to New York City in 1977. A friend from the shore joined her there - Patti Scialfa. They sang on the streets and sometimes even made money doing it. They eventually met Soozie Tyrell and the three of them toured as backing singers for the Asbury Jukes, going 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 (the inspiration for The Big Odd) 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. She herself had a frightening bout 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."
The packaging is done in a very lovely, understated Laura Nyro New York Tendaberry kind of way. Fran Fresquez did the design. 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...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."
The songs, most of them, all hail from the same time period, from 2003 to 2007. 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 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, is very different theme-wise from the other songs. "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 it's over, people...It's also not an anti-religious song but it's a song about forget being secular...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's justifiably proud of this work. Her life in a very short period of time had become a baptism by fire and this record is what was forged from the flames. "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 http://www.lisalowell.com