By Roman Mitz
Lee Aaron has a new album called “Elevate,” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary says that verb means “To raise in rank or status” or “To raise the spirits of.” Well, her new album certainly succeeds on both counts. The award-winning songwriter, producer and Canadian vocalist blazed back onto the rock scene in 2016 (after a ten-year hiatus to raise her family), producing six new releases, with “Elevate” being the latest and possibly coolest addition to this renewed chapter in her illustrious career. To raise one’s spirits, you need only listen to the opening guitar lick of “Rock Bottom Revolution” or the Rolling Stones-like riff in “Freak Show” to get the blood pumping. Before we do a deep dive into the new record, Lee brings me up to speed on local weather, her family, her new home in Vancouver and the 200,000 vinyl and CD record collection owned by her husband John Cody, who is also the band’s drummer and musical guru.
“We just had a snowfall, and my kids are really enjoying it,” she enthuses over the line from South Surrey. “It’s not a regular thing that we’ve grown up with, so when we get snow, it’s quite special. We recently moved to a lovely new home here on three-quarters of an acre. My son attends a local high school, and my daughter is enrolled in a musical theatre program at Capilano University. The only thing missing right now is a space for my husband’s record collection. We have a three-car garage, and right now, one-and-a-half garage stalls are taken up by 12” x 12” boxes of records that go from floor to ceiling. We have two shipping containers in our driveway, and we are just waiting for our building permit to construct the room where the library can go.”
Lee must have listened to a good portion of her husband’s eclectic collection as “Elevate” offers a potpourri of musical ideas. The opening track and first single, “Rock Bottom Revolution,” sets you up with its solid backbeat. Still, the lyrics deliver the knockout blow as the singer lashes out about the negativity associated with the information superhighway. She references explicitly the state of affairs south of the border, describing the situation as “Truth gone bad in a sea of lies.” One might not have thought Lee to be such a political animal.
“I have on occasion written songs that definitely lean in a political direction, but obviously not to the degree that some punk bands do,” she says. “Even a song like “Peace On Earth” from my “Some Girls Do” album was inspired by that incident in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the early ’90s. There are some songs in my back catalogue that lean in that direction. It was kind of impossible to not have some of those themes creep into the new music because the world has just turned into crazy town. Since Covid, everyone focused all of their energies online. Suddenly, the internet turned into a place where it could be mobilized for good, but it was also used in a very toxic way. I guess a lot of my thoughts and feelings were swirling in the ether for me so it ended up getting directed into a sort of subversive anthem about how crazy the world is.“
Due to the pandemic, Lee and her band could not properly tour behind their last album, “Radio On!” The downtime seemed like it would never end, but rather than allowing that isolation to push them into a negative place, Lee booked a studio session for the fall of 2021. If the record has a live-off-the-floor feel, it’s due to the fact that they decided to book studio time before the songs for the new album were finalized.
“We were very grateful that we were able to be in a room together,” Lee explains. “One of the things for me as a producer is I feel that being over-rehearsed and going into the studio is a big mistake because it lacks spontaneity. We had written all of these songs by sending files back and forth and bouncing them between our home studios. When we narrowed down the song selection, I sent the guys all the files and said learn these and then we’re going to get together for one night. In that one night we rehearsed 14 songs that we’d never played together, and I think the fact we were under-rehearsed was a good thing. We ended up working out some parts and arrangements in the studio, and most of those songs are probably second or third takes. I think in that way, we captured a live vibe.”
Helping shape the sound of the album was Mike Fraser, who has done the same for AC/DC and Aerosmith, among others. Mike mixed Lee’s last album, but this time he was on board from the beginning as the recording engineer, lending his patented thump to the record. “Mike was the guy that was able to finesse the audio and get it to where we wanted.” One song with a particularly great thump is the bad girl ballad “Trouble Maker,” which served as the album’s second single. Lee writes from the perspective of a girl recently spurned, who hitches a ride with a hombre in an El Camino, headed for a cheap hotel in Reno. The locale is quite removed from the domesticity of South Surrey.
“It’s like a storytelling song,” Lee laughs. “It’s not a true story. One of the things that has been a consistent theme through some of the songs I write is empowerment and about being able to rise up from negative situations and move forward in your life. I just sort of created a dreamscape for that song because that’s where the riff took me in terms of my imagination. It was kind of a lazy, laid-back, southern kind of feel. I don’t want to read too much into it or tell you too much about it because sometimes it just comes out on paper, and then a year later I look back at the song and go ‘Oh yeah, that’s what it’s about’. I really didn’t know that when I was writing it.”
“Spitfire Woman” is another of Lee’s storytelling songs, but this one has a menacing rhythm, and the lyrics are downright scary. The female character in this song makes the one in The Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” seem like Mary Poppins.
“Years ago, I was in Nashville, and I was writing with Todd Cerney, who was an 80s hits guy. The record company used to fly us around to write with a lot of different people back then. (Long-time guitarist) John Albani and I were in the studio with him, and Todd talked about this real Nashville story about a woman who found out that her husband was cheating and she went insane in a rage of passion. They were arguing in the kitchen, and she took this frying pan, hit him, and ended up killing him. It was not an intentional murder, but it was a horrible story. I was in my 20s, and I couldn’t really relate to it, but it was always percolating in the back of my mind that someday it was going to be a song. I had been listening to the most recent Lucinda Williams studio record, which explores some pretty dark themes. There‘s a song called “Down Past The Bottom,” and it was just the coolest tune. I sent it to the guys in the band (guitarist Sean Kelly and bassist Dave Reimer) for inspiration, and they each sent me a riff within half an hour. The riffs worked perfectly together, one for a verse and one for a chorus, so I dropped them into my logic, pieced them together and took the opportunity to write this song. That’s how it came together.”
Lee has already released videos for the first two singles, and she’s currently working on a third for “Elevate.” “Spitfire Woman” would seem to be another logical candidate for a four-minute film. Breaking out during the MTV and MuchMusic era, videos were always an essential part of Lee’s toolkit, particularly since the camera loved her and “Metal Queen,” “Watcha Do To My Body,” and “Hands On” seemed to be on endless loops. She still lights up a screen and knows enough to keep a good thing going.
“Video isn’t as important as it was back in the 80s and 90s,” she admits. “But I still enjoy doing them because it’s another creative medium. For my uber-fans out there, I think they still love seeing visuals. The good news is it’s not nearly as expensive as it used to be. A cheap music video years ago was $60,000, and that’s not the case anymore. I’m my own little indie-creation machine here. I make all the creative things on my own and then license them to a label. As long as I’m financially able to do it I plan to continue doing visuals for my records.”
The album’s title track covers some common ground with “Rock Bottom Revolution,” but in this song, Lee offers some advice on how to rise above the pitfalls of cyberspace. “I think it’s a shame how social media can divide good people. Analytics guarantee everyone has their own special ‘feed’ and you’re never hearing a different perspective – it polarizes people. “Elevate” is about not buying into that trap; it’s about choosing to lift each other up.”
The logical bookend to “Elevate” is “Heaven’s Where We Are,” in which the singer realizes that the world is a “beautiful mess” and that we can make the best of it if we view things from the proper perspective.
“Well, none of us are getting any younger,” she chuckles, “And the fact that we can still be out there making music and doing this every day is such a blessing. It’s very sad that we’ve lost some of the world’s biggest rock stars and a lot of our local Canadian heroes. It feels like every time you open up one of your socials, someone else has passed away. The only thing we can do is just realize we need to live in the present. We need to be grateful and we need to appreciate the here and now and live life to the fullest, and that’s what that song is all about.”
In her effort to live life to the fullest, Lee has a lot of irons in the fire. She recorded her recent dynamite show at Toronto’s El Mocambo, and it’s sitting in a hard drive in her studio awaiting future release.
“That was really special to be able to go back there and play a room that has such a wonderful legacy. It was a real honour to do it.”
She’s also writing her memoir, which one suspects could be pretty steamy. Is a G-rated version an option, given the fact that her kids will likely check it out?
“I don’t know if mine is going to kiss and tell. Lita Ford already did that. I probably have 25,000 words written, and I’m planning on delving further into it this coming year.”
Finally, while she already has some ideas for songs for a new album, the idea that’s been most recently tossed about amongst the band is to do a covers album. You can probably think of five or six songs off the top of your head that you could imagine Lee wrapping her pipes around, but she’s not letting the cat out of the bag.
“We’re looking at songs that were either influential or meaningful to all of us in the 70s or 80s, where we all kind of grew up,” she says. “Things that were impactful to us when we were teenagers. We’ve been trying to curate the ultimate song list. I guess you’ll just have to wait until next year to see what happens.”
So far, Lee has a handful of dates booked for 2023, including her next show at Casino Rama in Orillia on January 28. https://www.leeaaron.com/tour/