The latest album release by Barbara Lusch (“Rock Me Sweet”) has been described as “a surprising and magnetic reinterpretation of some of the best loved rock anthems of the 1980s”. “Rock Me Sweet” was recorded at the legendary Capital Studios Studio and features Lusch reinterpreting and rearranging well-known releases of 80’s male rock icons such as Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Bono on this project. The sessions feature an all-star cast, including Earl Rose, who arranged the music and conducted the orchestra, multiple Grammy Award winner Al Schmitt, pianist Michael Lang, bassist Hassan Jiffry, guitarist Larry Koonse, and drummer Harvey Mason. Says Barbara: “I wanted to do these songs my way, and bring out the vulnerability and emotional depth of the lyrics”. Enjoy the full interview with Barbara Lusch below.
Could you tell us a bit about your musical background?
“My grandpa and my father played the accordion and I grew up singing with my grandmother. My major influence was my grandmother, Alice Warren, a member of the Warren Sisters Quartet, who performed and recorded during the 20’s and 30’s. When Grandma Warren taught me to harmonize, I was hooked. My sisters and I would sing with her whenever we could. I performed in musicals in high school and sang in a competitive swing group. The group traveled around the northwest performing in front of large audiences. Singing led me to Los Angeles and New York where I worked as a petite model, appeared in commercials, and acted in television shows such as “Coach” and “The Trials Of Rosie O’Neil”. I returned to musicals, playing opposite Theodore Bikel in “Fiddler On The Roof” during an Atlantic City run.
What inspired you to begin writing and performing music in the first place? Could you tell us about life as a member of the Portland, Oregon band Pepe and the Bottle Blondes?
Growing up with music was my inspiration. Also being the youngest child of four and feeling like I was never heard. I learned at a very young age that when I performed my siblings listened. Singing makes me feel like I am sharing myself with the world. I feel empty when I am not singing regularly and feel lost without the expression of music. (In Pepe and the Bottle Blondes) we had so much fun and the band had great energy. I performed with Pepe for five years and loved singing three-part harmony with “the blondes”. I miss that. We were a popular band and played amazing venues; I gained a ton of performance experience during those five years. (This experience with the band) served as a great foundation for me and helped lead the path to my solo career.”
What can you tell us about the music scene of your hometown (Portland, Oregon)? What is life like in Portland?
“We have some of the best musicians in the world here in Portland. The music community is very supportive and close. Because Portland is such a great place to live the area attracts world-class musicians (that want) to make Portland their home base. There is live music at many of the restaurants and hotels in town. Jimmy Mak’s is a well-established jazz club that attracts both local and national talent. There are a couple of outstanding recording studios as well. Portland is the best-kept secret, even though I think most people know about it now. I’m Portland born and raised and because of that I feel lucky. It’s amazing. The beauty, the clean air, fabulous restaurants, great music scene, wine country, beaches, mountains, all within an hour. Portland is charming with a lot of character and I don’t know of a better place to live. I hear stories about so many people that come for a vacation or to visit a friend or relative and then fall in love (with Portland) and move here. It’s a special place.”
“Some of it was really hard but most of it good. I lived between LA and New York for twelve years. I grew up during the time I lived away from Portland. It was good for me to be away from family and understand that I could make it on my own. I started working as a petite model and actress here in Portland. I went on a cattle call for a Miller Beer commercial that was shooting in Portland and booked it. I got my SAG card and knew I needed to move to LA if I wanted to move my career forward. I had two childhood friends, Sara and Anne Schedeen, that lived in LA and were in the business. They were wonderful and took me under their wings. I was always surrounded by good people. I went to New York to spend a summer auditioning for commercials and loved it (so much that I) stayed. New York was more my kind of place; it felt more real to me and I loved the energy of the city. There was more for me to do in and around New York as far as theatre and music go. It also gave me the opportunity to study with some of the very best acting and vocal coaches (the city offered me). In between print work, modeling, commercials, industrial films, and theatre gigs, I waited tables, worked as a shoe model and was a fit model for a clothing line. Shoe modeling took me to Florence, Italy and London. (Not only) was it was the first time I had been out of the country but also a great gig! I’d travel around to the shoe factories and walk around in the shoes. They actually designed the shoe around my foot! So much life happened during that time. I look back and wonder what the experience would have been like if I had the confidence and wisdom then that I have today. The journey was good though and I would do it all over again!”
What life experiences and events led to the writing and recording of your new album “Rock Me Sweet”? Could you walk us through each of the featured tracks?
“The concept for “Rock Me Sweet” came from my dear friend Tom Nunan, an executive producer of many films and TV shows. Tom suggested taking rock anthems originally recorded by male artists and slowing the tempos to give them a smoky ballad feel. I wanted to perform a different genre but in a similar style as my other recordings. I love the songs that we covered on the album and have many memories of growing up listening and singing along to them. I started with about 30 songs from the 1980s that were my favorites. I wanted the songs to be recognizable and ones that people could sing along to. Then, upon listening closely to the lyrics, if I didn’t feel that I could relate to the lyrics and tell the story well, I put it aside. I also listened to the basic structure of the song. In some cases there wasn’t enough variation to re-arrange the song into a ballad form. It was a combination of favorites and what I thought would be a good fit for the music we were going to produce.”
“That is really nice of you to say! I never thought of it that way. I think I have to give the credit to the musicians on that one! The genre and time period (covered on) “Rock Me Sweet” are both very different from my two previous albums. I recorded with a 12 piece orchestra. All the songs on “Rock Me Sweet” were originally performed by men. The arrangements are very different from the original ones, (so much so that) listeners usually don’t recognize the song at first. That’s been really fun to watch. There is definitely an element of surprise that the first two releases didn’t have. I would say this album is more sophisticated than my other two releases.”
What was it like working with Earl Rose and the accompanying all-star cast (Al Schmitt, pianist Michael Lang, bassist Hassan Jiffry, guitarist Larry Koonse, and drummer Harvey Mason) on this record? What was the experience of recording at the famous Capital Studios Studio A like?
“It was an amazing experience. I want to do it again, soon. Everyone was supportive and being around such talented people pushed me to produce some of my best work. Earl was incredible in the way he combined such hugely different types of music and made it seem effortless. I can sure assure you, it wasn’t. Some of the people Al has worked with include Jackson Browne, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cook, Diana Krall, and Barbra Streisand. I am such a huge fan of these singers and to record in the same place with the same engineer they used was like a dream. I felt like pinching myself everyday. All the musicians were great to work with as well. They were so supportive. I loved driving to Capitol Records every day and parking in a space with my name on it. The first day I was nervous but they all put me at ease and I felt like I never wanted to leave.”
“My influences include Shirley Horne (I love the space she uses in her phrasing), Peggy Lee (her phrasing, clarity, and storytelling), Rosemary Clooney (her tone and the way she sings in the center of the note), Blossom Dearie (her simplicity), Nina Simone (her tone and pain in her story), and Chet Baker (his phrasing).”
What does 2015 hold in store for Barbara Lusch?
“I have already been gigging quite a bit. I am booked through most of the year at the Heathman, Benson, and Allison hotels. I’ve been working with Bobby Torres (who produced my first two CDs) and we’re going to record together again. I’m also working on a “Rock Me Sweet” cabaret-jazz-pop style live show, blending the songs and lyrics with some of my experiences. (Universal themes such as) dealing with the loss of love, feeling alone in a crowd, looking back to a happier past and enjoying a hard-earned freedom!”