-To begin with, I’d like to thank you so much for granting us this interview, Karen! How are you living the current situation in which we find ourselves, with the global pandemic of the coronavirus?
Well you know, we had a lot of shows booked for this summer and we just found out now that a show that had been postponed to September 2021 is now gonna be postponed to 2022. The pandemic is sadly, even though we have the vaccines , apparently getting worse not better. We’re in the third wave in Canada. So that’s been tough, you know? Not being able to do any live performance, not being able to hug people… I can’t fly to see my family, and my father is ageing, he’s turning 85 next month and I wanna see him before he passes. It’s been tough. The only good thing I think that’s coming of this, it’s that every artist in the world is affording their home equipment and a lot of music is happening (laughs). So that’s a positive thing, right?
–(laughs) Yes, look at the bright side.
My husband and I live in a beautiful property here in Southern BC. We have a lot of beautiful environmental parks and the mountains and the sunshine and lots of green here, so we can go for a hike every day. That, hiking and music it’s been what’s been keeping me sane through all this, because I can exercise and create. Otherwise I think I would go bananas (laughs).
–(laughs) Well, let’s hope your father gets better. Moving to the next question, why did you decide to go under the pseudonym Lee Aaron? Does it have any special meaning for you?
It’s funny that you ask that. As you know many, many artists… Alice Cooper, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Elton John… All of them had a pseudonym. When I was in a band when I was a teenager, 15, 16 years old, we wanted to create a band name and, you know, we wanted a name that sounded like a name, like Jethro Tull. It’s really kind of a stupid story (laughs). We took a bunch of references from our culture at that time, which was like Lee Jeans, Aaron Spelling who was a big TV producer in America, as well as a bunch of other stuff. We just threw all that we had and we picked up a couple of names that we had; Aaron, Lee, then we went “Lee… Lee Aaron! That’s a good name”. And so we called our band Lee Aaron. But as the years progressed my first manager… I used to play keyboards and saxophone and I only sang 50% of the songs. And he said “no, no, no, you got the look, you got the voice… We need to bring you upfront, make you the front person in the band”. So I ended upgrading to be the lead singer, the front person in the band. And then people just thought “that’s Lee Aaron!” People kept calling me Lee Aaron, so eventually I adopted the name -much like Alice Cooper-, as my own. Because it’s way easier to have a different name than the one that’s in the phone book, right?
-Yes, yes. I know. How old were you when you started singing? What artists or bands do you consider to have been a major influence on your style?
I started singing when I was 5. I did a lot of musical theatre productions so you know, the whole idea of the look being part of your thing was always important for me, because that came from the theatre background. So when I was 15 I joined a band, a Rock band, and I started really digging into Rock ‘n’ Roll. But also there’s this story that a couple of years before that, when I was 13, 14, my father worked at a college in Toronto and the college radio station decided that they would gonna get rid of all their vinyl and that they would gonna get rid of the 8-track. That was a very short-lived format (laughs). They had all these vinyl albums just sitting on the hall and they were going to throw them away, so my father brought them home. And in that pile of records I found you know, Bowie, Zeppelin, The Who, Heart, The Runaways, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd.. All these amazing artists… Fleetwood Mac… So I would say probably at that stage of my life my biggest influences were like Stevie Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac, the girls from Heart: Ann and Nancy Wilson. I was obsessed with the “Little Queen” album. So there would be no “Metal Queen” if I hadn’t heard the song “Barracuda”. It was a prototype for that production for sure. And The Runaways. Joan Jett and Lita Ford were influences when I was that age. Later I discovered Suzi Quatro and I was like “oh man, she’s really cool” (laughs).
-(laughs) Well, after debuting in 1982 with The Lee Aron Project you achieved success with the legendary “Metal Queen”, an album with a hard and heavy sound. Did you think people misunderstood the meaning of the song back then? Was it difficult for you to get rid of the “Metal Queen” label, so that people would take into account the rest of your recordings?
That’s a great question by the way. Great question.
Can you please repeat the first part of the question again?
-Yes, it’s a bit long.
Yes, there’s two parts to that question so…
-Yes. Do you think people misunderstood the meaning of the “Metal Queen” song back then?
Yes. You know, the mid 80’s were an era where it was still acceptable in culture to completely objectify women actually. Most of the male Rock bands at that time like Mötley Crüe or Poison, these were guys running around with long hair and makeup… Very feminine. But then they always had like beautiful trophy girlfriends hanging off their arms or washing the car or something in the video that made them look more masculine, if that makes any sense. So a lot of the record companies’ agendas back then, if you were a woman and you were attractive like you know, me and many, many other women, was to market you as a pin-up girl. But unfortunately that kind of marketing diluted the meaning of the music and it diluted respect for your artistry I think. Because I was always a songwriter. On my sixth album, “Some Girls do”, in the early 90’s, people were still calling my manager going “who wrote the hit for Lee?”, “she wrote it!!!” And it was very, very frustrating for me.
So “Metal Queen”… I have gone through -with the previous album- a very sexualized marketing. I was very pressured by my first manager team to, you know, like tape my breasts together to make them look larger in photographs. Crazy stuff like that. And I was a teenage girl at that time and I didn’t really understand the power of sexuality, my own sexuality, or that this wasn’t really okay. So “Metal Queen” was supposed to be kind of a push-back. It was supposed to be like “no” and taking my power back. I’m the person in charge. I’m a force to be reckoned with, like a “Queen of Steel”, right? Pardon the pun.
Because it was all in this package people were like “there’s Lee Aaron running around in a fur bikini”. And then there’s this section on the video where I’m sat on that it’s supposed to be an allegory about a strong feminine heroin that triumphs over evil. And there’s a scene on the video where I’m set on fire and people, like all the censorship boys, the typical thing that was happening in America at that time… All the censorship boys were like “oh! That’s violence against women! This video needs to be banned”! And I was like “no! You don’t do that!” (laughs) So the video actually got banned in Australia and in the UK. The nice thing now in 2021 is that people go “wow, that was a powerful song”. It was a strong message of empowerment for women and people in general. But it’s like 30 years later that people finally get it. 37 years later.
-The other part of the question… I think you already answered that. Do you think that it was difficult for you to get rid of the “Metal Queen” tag, so that people would take into account the rest of your recordings?
Again, I fought long and hard. People still call me “the metal queen”. I truly think there are probably other female artists more worthy of that title. Probably Doro Pesch. Probably Lzzy Hale (she’s great). They’ve stayed consistently true to a pure Metal sound. My music has evolved a lot over the years and the truth is “Metal Queen” was probably the heaviest song on the album “Metal Queen” album. My style of music has always been powerful with the guitars, but it has also been extremely melodic and very choral, that’s my theatre and my choir background. I’ve always had big harmonies on all my albums as well so, you know, I’m OK if people want to call me that for sure. To me it’s like a term of respect to this stage of my career. Of my life. I think my true fans know that my sound has evolved a lot over the years, a lot more like what The Rolling Stones or David Bowie changed their sound a little bit but each album still sounded like them.
-I agree. Your most commercially successful album, “Bodyrock”, features a distinctly AOR sound, which has influenced rising stars like Chez Kane. How do you remember that time? Is there any new band of this musical subgenre that you particularly enjoy?
Are you talking about my new album “Radio On!”? I’m sorry, my dog is barking in the background. (laughs) “Be quiet!!” (turning around to him) I can’t hear you, my dog is barking (laughs)
–(laughs) No problem. I was saying that your most commercially successful album which was “Bodyrock” , features a distinctly AOR (Adult Oriented Rock) sound, which has influenced rising stars like Chez Kane. How do you remember that time? Is there any new band of this musical subgenre that you particularly enjoy?
Well, I think Chez Kane is great. I think it’s really refreshing that someone… I think that there’s a younger generation of artists embracing that 80’s sound is really cool. There’s another female artist from Canada called JJ Wilde, I don’t know if you’re familiar with her. She’s really, really good. Her sound is kind of you know, Hard Rock but soulful as well… And I don’t really know what to say other than “Bodyrock” was a very important album for me, especially in Canada. It was almost triple platinum here, I won a songwriting awards for it which was like “yay, finally!” It was pretty cool. And I mean, many female artists have gone to say that one and the “Metal Queen” album were definitely influential for their sound so I’m really honored by that for sure.
-Related to what we’ve talked before, in songs like “Whatcha Do To My Body” from this same album or “Some Girls Do” from your next recording in 1991, you openly denounce the objectification of women within the music industry. Do you think that the situation has improved nowadays, or do we still have to achieve real equality of opportunities, based only on sheer talent?
Again, that’s a great question, and I love it that you’re asking intelligent, good questions. I was talking about this with somebody yesterday. What I feel kind of happens is that artists like myself, Heart, Joan Jett… All those female rockers from the 80’s were kind of pushing against that sexualized marketing and finally broke through. We were pioneers and broke through that barrier, and we paved the way for artists like Shirley Manson from Garbage, Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love and Hole… Even if they were only a couple of years behind us, they came right up to grunge it. And it kind of paved the way for a girl to pick up a guitar, scream and be angry and go “yeah! I’m taking my power back”. And that was a real union of women gaining respectability in the Rock field.
But now it’s like it’s a lot to stage wear… It’s almost turned its back on its head again. There’s people like, no disrespect, but like Nicki Minaj, writing about her “thing” and Miley Cyrus running around half naked and going like “we can do whatever we want and you can’t judge us because we can take back our sexuality”, but the reality is, as a mother of a 16 years old girl, these aren’t the women I want as role models for my darling. I think that the focus has gone back to not being on artistry anymore but to be on shock value. A culture now where you’re not even allowed to judge that or stand up against that in any way, or you know, it’s a culture where your career would be over if you do, in the social media age. So maybe my career is over now, I don’t know (laughs). I think Nicki Minaj is a great artist. I think she’s talented but you know, come on… What’s the message? Let’s not go there.
-Well, after the release of “Emotional Rain” in 1994 you decided to open yourself up to new influences and recorded the alternative Rock album “2preciious” together with members from Sons of Freedom. What is the story behind that recording?
The story behind that recording is that I had worked with the rhythm section, Don Binns and Don Short, on my “Emotional Rain” album. When Grunge came along and I was starting to get some real momentum in my career I was only still 29 years old and I looked at Grunge as “wow! This is really cool music! This is something I wanna embrace and I wanna carry it forward into my own kind of Rock sound” and I hired Reeves Gabrels from David Bowie’s Tin Machine and Knox Chandler from the Psychedelic Furs to play on the album as well. But unfortunately because the way the industry kind of evaporated, it’s all about perception, and the new wave of journalism and media were like “but that’s Lee Aaron, it’s Heavy Metal. She’s associated with the past, this is the future. We don’t want that”. And I was like “OK…” So I had a really hard time getting to any momentum going from the “Emotional Rain” record back then.Many people today told me that was one of their favourite albums.
So I was very frustrated with the industry. I sold everything I had. I sold my house… Pretty much everything except the suitcase and the guitar and I drove to the West Coast. That’s when I moved here in 1995, because the members of Sons of Freedom, who were two of the members I had already worked with, said “if you ever want to do an album that is completely different come to the West Coast and write it with us”, so I went “this is the time I’m gonna do it”. So I drove to the West Coast. I moved there. We worked on this album, which is the “2preciious” album and to this day I’m very proud of that record. It’s a really cool album and it got really great critical reviews, it just wasn’t commercially successful. I think it had more to do with the timing of that album in terms of culture rather than the actual art. But you know, it happens to any artist, years go by and people go back and they go “oh! That’s a great album now! We didn’t hear it at the time”. In retrospect, people respect it so… Yeah.
There are certain fans that want you keep making the same album over and over and over again. The only band in the world that it’s completely successful doing that is AC/DC (laughs). They’re amazing.
–(laughs) Yeah. Well, you continued with the experimentation in the year 2000, when you surprised everyone with the release of “Slick Chick”, your first Jazz album. Was it something you were thinking about, to expand your horizons in this genre? Or did you rather find yourself pushed due to your disappointment with the music industry?
I would say both. You know, “2preciious” wasn’t too commercially successful, again. The reviews were great, but not a commercial success so yeah… I mean in 1997 I had to go bankrupt because my manager and my lawyer from Toronto just decided that they were gonna jump ship. And my manager took a job as a foreign licencing representative for Coach America. They showed up one day at my residence and they were like, I don’t know about 20 banker boxes at my doorstep. There were almost half a million dollars worth of that. My manager and lawyer kind of facilitated getting me into. I had a couple of choices there: I can spend the next ten albums of my life trying to pay off this debt or I can go bankrupt and start anew. So I decided to go bankrupt.
When I went bankrupt I was really down, I was clinically depressed, but when I came out of that, when I was in that period I listened to… I was really back in the Jazz. I was listening to Nina Simone and Billie Holiday records, and my friends said “you should go sing that stuff. You love it and you’re great at it”. And I come from the theatre background where I was very familiar with all the contemporary writers and material and with Jazz and Blues songs. So I started singing Jazz around local venues in 1997 when the venues I was playing at kept getting packed and packed and it grew and grew. And then I started getting offers for Jazz festivals. And that ended up in me making an album in 2000. It was just a musical diversion. I needed it. My head needed it at the time.
Then I made another Jazz-infused album in 2004 and I did a lot of touring in Europe and Canada doing Jazz festivals and alike during that time. And I sort of made a whole new audience of fans. And you know what? In a weird way that got me a lot of critical respect in Canada especially, because people were “oh, shit! She’s just not a “metal queen”, she can sing any style of music. And actually it’s good and authentic”. And I started producing my own albums at that stage as well. I produced “Slick Chick”. I’ve produced my last six albums. It was really good.
My personality is that I’m always trying to evolve as an artist and you know, in terms of my songwriting, my performance, my singing and also lately I’ve become a bit of a productionhead. Now I got a whole home studio set up where I’m working. I have a good preamp but I just bought a new mic a couple of weeks ago so yoohoo (laughs).
–(laughs). Do you think you will record some Jazz again in the future?
I say never say never. Maybe. I’m writing material for another original album right now, because of Covid obviously. The one that I’m gonna record for 2022. And it’s a Rock album again, but yeah, you know. It’s interesting because I have a very good friend here locally and she’s a Jazz pianist and she was talking to me just a couple of days ago about she wanted to do something. So we were just talking about the idea of just doing like a little Jazz side project. A lot is going on. And I think all o that creativity for me makes me a better singer and a better performer. It makes me a better songwriter. I think bringing all that to the table when I’m writing a Rock record makes me a more interesting artist.
-Yes, I agree. You came back to the Rock scene with “Fire and Gasoline”. Did you decide to take a break after the release of “Beautiful Things” in 2004?
(laughs) No, I had two children so that was a bit of a life interruption (laughs). It’s funny because my husband and I… I got married… I met my husband in 2000 and we were trying to have children. We were having a rough time. Starting a bit late because I’d focused so much on my career. We were having a tough time and finally I got pregnant in 2004 and I was also touring. I was touring up until 7 months pregnant on the “Beautiful Things” album.
I had this crazy idea that I would just have this baby and then I would just bring the baby on tour. I would just keep doing what I was doing and that baby would fit into my life. That I would just bring the baby on the tour bus, I would take the baby on airplanes. Babies are adaptable, aren’t they? Well, it turns out that babies rule your life. (laughs). We had a baby. My old daughter. And she screamed all the time! She hated the car seat! I would put her in the car seat to go to the grocery store and she would scream! So about the time my daughter was 4 or 5months old I had an absolute nervous rack. I was like “aaah!!!” (screams). So I was like “okay. My life is changing and I don’t have any choice here”.
So I really had to take a step back from the music industry and my husband and I were like “OK, this is the way it’s gonna be. Let’s have another baby right away”. Then my son was born about a year and a half later. So we had two babies really close together. And I took pretty much a decade off of writing songs, making albums and I did very minimal touring. I did the Art Festival show during that time. Only because it was really good money, like I said to my agent (laughs) “Don’t even call me if there’s not this much money”, because it means finding a babysitter, etc. So yeah, I took a big step back and it’s been very calm.
I’m really glad now that I did, because I realized in the end that being a mother is my most important job in my whole life. I think my kids are quite well-adjusted and they’re beautiful children. I love them so much. And you know, they take all your creative energy when they’re little, trust me. When they’re old enough I’m like “okay! You guys are like 8 and 10 years old! I’m gonna write another record now!” (laughs).
-And why did you decide to come back to the Rock scene after making Jazz?
I wasn’t done making Rock. I always knew that. When we started writing for “Fire and Gasoline” in 2015 I just said to the guys in my band and my own psyche: “No, I’m not putting any features on my ideas, I’m just gonna write whatever I feel like writing. If it comes out Jazz, if it comes out Blues, if it comes out Rock, if it comes out Pop… I’m just gonna let it happen”. And “Fire and Gasoline” was the result. It’s a Rock record with a lot of different colors on it, you know. Yeah, so that was the result. I mean, in the end I think it turned into a Rock record but it’s got a lot of nuances, they take you to a few different places but it still sounds like Lee Aaron.
-I agree, yes.
When we went into writing an album after having a baby, I felt a bit more of an intentional idea to write a Blues-flavoured Rock record because I always wanted to cover two songs. I always wanted to cover “I’m a Woman” by Koko Taylor, originally BB King, and I always wanted to cover “You’re no Good” by Linda Ronstadt. Not the original, but I always loved that version when I was a kid. And they definitely have a Blues Rock kind of vibe. That became the template for the album.
– With which artists have you enjoyed the most sharing the stage and why? I would like you to tell us some anecdote from when on tour.
A funny story from tour?
OK… Boy, I’ve toured with so many people. I’ve shared the stage with so many people. A couple of things that come to mind you know, in 2006 I got to finally do a show with my idols: Heart. I’d never played with them before and I got to hang out backstage with Ann and Nancy Wilson and it was just really beautiful because we were probably talking more about motherhood than anything else. About balancing being a rockstar and your personal life. What are the tricks for doing that. And she said “you know what you have to do? It’s to become a weekend warrior”. A weekend warrior! “Like cooking the meals, driving your kids to soccer practice, making the lunches, taking them to school and on the weekend you go out and do like one or two shows and then you come back and you do it all again”. She said that’s how she was balancing. She was going all rockstar on the weekends. And maybe two weekends a month. That actually gives you a lot of weekends in the year you can work. Maybe like 26 weekends of the year. I actually started doing that. In the mid 2000’s I started doing that when my kids were little. Because it was something that was doable.
And another great memory for me… I love the guys in Iron Maiden. We played with them occasionally in the past when they were recording the “Powerslave” album in New York in, I don’t know, 1984 or 1983. 1984? They heard that we were playing a big show in L’Amour in Brooklyn and they made a point to come out to the recording sessions to see us perform, and they were like “why not coming on stage and jam with you?” So yeah, Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson got up and jammed with us on stage and we were hanging out with them for hours and hours after. And all I can tell you is that I think they’re some of the nicest guys in Hard Rock that I have ever met.
And another time with Mötley Crüe… I give you three stories now. We played with Mötley Crüe in Québec and at the time we opened up for them. We were just beginning our career and they were of course already very famous. We had no money. We were totally broke. So my drummer shows up, right? My drummer back then was a guy called Randy Infuso. And his kit was such a piece of trash; it was falling apart, it had all the drumheads… And Tommy Lee is like “man, dude, you need some help there”. So Tommy opened his case and said “I’ve a sponsorship from…”, I can’t remember the name of the head company, but he gave my drummer all new heads for his drum kit, helped him tune up his kit and make it sound good. So we ended with a nice sounding kit that night because of Tomy Lee. It was a really generous and kind thing for him to do.
-Yes, indeed. Well, after having had the pleasure of listening to your next album, “Radio On!” I can say that it seems like a return to your golden years. What can you tell us about its songs?
Well, thank you! What can I tell about these songs? I like to think that the material even though it’s Rock ‘n’ Roll… We tried to touch on some more mature subjects. One of the things that I hate, and I can tell you this, it’s when an artist gets to be more mature and they’re still writing about trying to pick up girls and partying (laughs). For me as a woman it doesn’t feel appropriate anymore, if that makes any sense (laughs).
-That does make sense, yeah (laughs).
I’d feel so silly singing about that stuff (laughs). So the subject matter is more mature. There’s this very Zeppelin-esque tune called “Wasted” that starts out… Do you know what Zeppelin used to do…? The inspiration behind that song… I said to the guys “it’d be really cool to write a song like “Over the Hills and Far Away”, that it starts with a beautiful acoustic and then it goes really, really heavy”. And that is the song “Wasted”. That’s kind the idea behind it. Possibly we were trying to get that lousy bluesy kind of 70’s Rock ‘n’ Roll sound where you’re not playing to a click-track. It sounds like a real band. Living. Breathing. Looking at each other. So that was one of the ideas behind that but yeah. The song “Wasted” is about addiction in your family and how that affects people.
Musically in my band everybody brings something really unique to the table when we get to write together. And there’s something very magical that happens when we all get together and we bring our best ideas. Everybody in my band is a great writer and arranger so I said to them…. My guitar player is from Toronto and then the rest are from the West Coast and we don’t live in the same city, in the same place, so getting in a room together is sort of challenging. But I flew to Toronto so we could rock ourselves in the rehearsal room for the weekend and bring our best song ideas and we would write and just see what happens. So we were like a teenage band for the weekend (laughs). It was really funny. We were just throwing out ideas. But all I can say is that something really magical happens when we get in a room together.
And that’s how “Radio on!” happened. We weren’t really expecting to write a whole album, but we did!
-It’s like a mix of energies.
Totally, totally! You got it. Pretty much the whole album was formed after that weekend. Almost every idea that I brought to the table or that the guys brought to the table… I had a lyric idea, because I’m constantly writing down ideas. I have tons of titles, tons of verses… They’re poetry-style stuff. Yeah, pretty much everything had a matching idea in my book, so all of the song ideas and all of the choruses were pretty much done in that weekend, and then I went away and completed the rest of the lyrical content after that. And yeah, it happened!
-I think it’s a great record.
Thank you! We were really excited about it. Super stoked.
-Well, the last question is that in the same month when the album is going to be released, the vocalist from Crystal Viper, Marta Gabriel, will release an album consisting on covers of female metal singers. It will be entitled “Metal Queens”, in honour of your legendary song, which she will also cover. I would like you to recommend current female artists that you think deserve more media coverage.
Oh boy, you’re putting me on the spot here. JJ Wilde I would say, you should go look her up. She’s Canadian and I think she’s really, really great. Oh boy… She’s the only one I can think of on top of my head that are not getting the coverage. You know, one of the things is as you know, I have a very varied musical taste, so I’m not sitting to listen to female Metal every day of my life. So sometimes I’m discovering new artists. In fact the artist you’re speaking of who is doing the female Metal covers, I’ve never heard of her before (laughs). I know it’s crazy, like someone sent me this yesterday, sent me a link and said she’s also covering “Metal Queen” and I was like “what?!” and then like “wow! Good cover! That’s awesome!” Yeah, I really wish that she gets more coverage as well.
-And aside from the Metal community, can you recommend any other female artists?
Well there’s an artist I’m really obsessed with but she’s certainly not Metal. Courtney Barnett, have you heard of her?
-No, I haven’t.
She’s kind of like… Folk? Punk? She’s really edgy and her lyrics are amazing and she’s really great. So yeah, I would say Courtney Barnett. She’s the one I love.
-Okay. Well, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you better and thank you for your answers.
Hey, it was great talking to you! Thank you for having me.