Karen Lawrence has a voice that is almost beyond description. Her bluesy vocals are a highlight of every record she has graced since her debut with the LA Jets back in the late '70s. The former 1994 singer can purr or she can let it rip with equal ease and the effect is the same --- hypntotized listeners. I spoke with Karen recently and here's what she had to say:
Morley: Well, you've got a great history I want to get into. But I guess first of all, let's talk about what you're doing now, which is Blue By Nature. You played hard rock in the past, as well as sort of New Wave-ish kind of stuff, so I guess it's not a great leap to the blues, but what was it about the blues that made you want to play this kind of music for the last 15 years or so?
Karen: Well, it started out, in the …I don't care about dating myself because I'm really lucky to have been listening and playing music young and in the late '60s and starting in a band in the early '70s and that's really…in fact I just said this to somebody, it's really what was going on then. You know, it was Jimi Hendrix. I mean Led Zeppelin hadn't even come out yet when I was listening to the blues. But that's blues and really all the old guys, when I was in 9th grade, and I got in a band, before I even turned 14…I didn't ask to get in the band, by the way. I was in a music store with a girlfriend of mine, and she was holding up the lyrics to "Mr. Tambourine Man", or "My Green Tambourine", I can't remember which one…yeah, (sings "My Green Tambourine") and I was learning the song so I didn't have to buy it, and some guy came up and asked me if I wanted to be in their band. So I went to their rehearsal that night and that's how I got in a bad. And he, being the guitar player, wanted me to also play guitar and he turned me on to all this stuff. And he was a senior in high school and so we had all these weird cool friends. They looked like these bikers but they were hippies. And these guys would take us in their cool pad, you know, all hippied out, and played blues records, and…God, that was the first time I heard Muddy Waters, "Catfish Blues", and it was just the thing to do. I mean, three chords. It was easy and it had a lot of feeling.
So that is really where I started out in a band, a band that was a blues band, Ezra Brooks Blues band, that's what it was called. (laughs) We changed it. (laughs) So that was the kind of stuff I like. That's the kinds of stuff I started with. In fact I remember, one of our first gigs, by somebody's swimming pool, I did some Jimi Hendrix tunes. That was really tough too. Doing Hendrix was hard. The hardest one though was "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin. That was horrible, because, I mean for me, it wasn't even like blues. It wasn't open enough. It wasn't bluesy enough for me even though I didn't know that. Like a lot of people now say, wow, why don't you do that song? Whatever.
So back then, that band progressed and we got all into other stuff. That band kind of got discovered by our manager, which was like five years later, the manager of 1994 and someone came down and saw us and said well, we want the singer. So I said, okay. Our band is kind of defunct. That first band, the high school band, we weren't getting many jobs and it was kind of defunct. And the leader and I had been boyfriend and girlfriend which we weren't anymore so that was a little awkward. So whatever, I said. Okay. It kind of developed into that. And whatever they did, is what I did. And that was rock. That was L.A Jets. 1994, same thing. L.A. Jets, 1994 were essentially the same thing; same drummer. Same guys. Same manager. Same driving…you know… sort of artistic call, which was the drummer and his sister, the manager. So it was kind of like I was just there. I was not a good songwriter. I had written songs but there were, you know, my god (laughs), some songs I've never played for anybody. (laughs). So I did what they did and it was great. I mean we were signed fast. We got signed FAST. Our manager was really strong. Some of those guys had already been signed in the past. I guess John Desautels and his sister Christine Desautels, they had a record deal before so, it was great. And whatever they did, I'd add whatever I could to it. And I didn't really have that much to (laughs) contribute. It was kind of funny. But who cares. That's what it is. I mean what you can care about that. But anyway, and so it was great. I did what they did, as the singer for the band. And then of course they make me out to be some kind of big hot shot leader. Like whenever they'd want to go get money, especially when it came to 1994, whenever they wanted money you know, for like another drum kit or amps, they'd say, Karen needs something.
Morley: Send the girl in…(laughs).
Karen: Yeah, so I would always have to go into the meetings. (laughs). So anyway, it just kept evolving, you know, I mean, I evolved. You know, I'm not a leader, but I ended up being put further and further in a leader position. And on stage, I would be definitely like the leader anyway. So that band was rock and we had our little bluesy influence and it sort of evolved again with the Please Stand By album. The music started to change.
Morley: You had Rick in for that record, so…
Karen: Well Ricky, Ricky Armand is VERY bluesy. He's VERY, VERY blues. I mean he can't play nothing but bluesy rock. Really. It wasn't Rick's influence that took the band to a more contemporary of the time. You know the rock era was strong, and there were rock hits, and there was FM radio and then it started to turn a little more poppy. There was a strange sound change. We were all loving this sound. It was all this crazy sounds coming out and these beats. And it was just this sort of…I started to really like it. I started really liking new wave music itself. And you know, I suppose the craziest thing when you start, I mean my god I was 20 when we got our first deal. I think that's pretty young, not compared to these days because all these people had all of our examples. Now when you're 20, look at the influences, my god. The influences are not people discovering new things; they're people who are…I don't know how to describe it (laughs). People in the '70s were discovering new sounds and new things and trying all this stuff. They're not doing that now. Anyway. So I started liking new wave music, and so did a couple of the other guys. Bill Rhodes, the bass player, he's a really good guitar player, and he liked it too so we started influencing it that way. We all started bending it towards that kind of sound, and I think that's why Please Stand By has a couple of quirky songs. Please Stand By to begin with, what was really funny, is I went to New York. I mean I went back to New York after that album. And the band was like, you know, booted out or whatever—dropped—and like I said, I don't even remember working it or whatever, so when I got back there I went to this club. And here I am with poodle hair, and my high heeled leather fabulous boots and my jeans and this look, this ROCK look. I'm a rocker you know, ok, this is what I wear, this is what I do. I went to this club called the Ritz in New York. It's this big old ballroom and it was all new wave, punky. It was downtown, and here I had been on tour and I had been in California so I hadn't seen the scene. California doesn't have a very obvious punky rocky scene. There are people here that have sleeveless shirts and they look like they're going to the beach. They have blue hair. They just don't look tough and the part and quirky and dress weird and all that. It's just not the thing here. I'm in California now. So when I went back and saw all these people and I went wow, I felt like a dinosaur. And I went and cut my hair off like the next day. This one girl I knew had super short hair and I went to her girl and had her cut my hair. Take it off, off. So it was really pretty interesting. And that's when the Girls Night Out stuff was happening. I was with Fred then. On the Please Stand By album, says Fred St. John?
Karen: That's Fred Hostetler. We were already together. Fred was 1994's tour manger. And (laughs) he became my great friend and shortly after that he was my boyfriend! (laughs) So we started, you know, writing together and we had pretty cool places…a little basement in downtown in New York. And he just started writing music. It was very musical. I think, that whole period was just really musical. It sounds almost trendy but it wasn't quite like that. It was just stuff that we were learning. I was playing bass because we'd clash if we'd play guitar so I sold my freaking custom Les Paul. In fact it's on a poster that I'm looking at right now. I'm WEARING it. It was such a good guitar that I had customized AGAIN. Anyway, I sold that and bought a bass. We would write that way. And then when we had our basement, we had our set of drums set up there and I went and sat down one day at the drums and all of a sudden I could play drums.
See the link below to read the rest of this interview.