Under the Covers with Lee Aaron

“Songs are like tattoos” – the famous first line of the Joni Mitchell song “Blue” has always resonated deeply with Canadian rocker Lee Aaron. 18 Albums into her career, Lee has written, recorded and produced music achieving gold and multi-platinum sales. Recognized as one of Canada’s top rock vocalists she’s also made forays into jazz, blues, and even opera, receiving numerous awards and accolades and most recently, a 2023 induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame. But the one thing she’s never done is release a full album of covers, a situation that has been remedied with her new record, “Tattoo Me”. 

“It seemed like a really cool and super fun project to tackle at this point”, says Lee over the phone from her South Surrey B.C. residence, slightly jet-lagged after returning from a whirlwind trip to New York with her family.   “We were on the ‘Monsters Of Rock” cruise last year, having dinner and thinking about our next creative project in the fall. Someone floated the idea of doing a full album of covers of artists that were inspiring to all of us and helped shape who we are. It was a little more complex than we thought because you don’t want to take it so far from the original that it upsets fans, but you want to be able to put your own stamp on it.  It’s no secret that I’m working with a wonderful, creative team of guys. I’ve worked with my husband John Cody (drums) and Dave Reimer (bass) for over 20 years and Sean Kelly (guitar) has been in the band for over a decade. At this stage of my career, I’m less concerned about the actual outcome and how well it will sell, as I am about how fun the creative process will be. The journey of making it is the reward.”

Along with the usual sightseeing of the Big Apple, Lee and her husband took their daughter, who is in the Musical Theatre program at Capilano University in North Vancouver, to see three Broadway shows including a reboot of The Who’s “Tommy’.  Due to the short length of her trip, however, she was unable to explore the haunts of a couple of her artistic heroes, Andy Warhol and Patti Smith, whom she paid tribute to in her song “Soho Crawl” from her “Radio On” album. You might have thought that Lee would have included a couple of numbers from renowned New Yorkers like Smith or Lou Reed on her new record, but she took a wider approach and opted for some artists and songs that flew under the radar, including the opening track “Tattoo” by California pseudo-Christian rockers The 77’s.

“About 10 years ago my husband and I were driving somewhere, listening to some music, when the original “Tattoo” came on,” she explains. “It was such a cool song and I was like ‘Who is this?’ We listened to it several times and I just loved the sentiment of the song. The twist in the tune is the guy isn’t getting a tattoo, but he wants the girl to get a tattoo of him as a testament of her love.  Plus the guitar riff was so nasty and Stonesy that I just fell in love with it and thought if I ever do a cover record, I’m going to do that track.”  

Another labour of love for Lee was her cover of “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by Jet. The Australian band was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde on the charts as “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” channels “Lust For Life” Iggy Pop, while their gorgeous follow-up ballad “Look What You’ve Done” echoed The Beatles.  

“There were definitely two sides to the band,” Lee agrees. “Post 90’s, there are very few bands that have hit me over the head in terms of being raw and organic. That was one of the groups that certainly seemed authentic to me. I love the vocal on the original and I recorded most of it here at home. I had recorded a couple of tunes earlier that night and I kind of waited until my voice was a little bit thrashed, so it’s about as close to live off the floor as you can get.”  

Don’t jump to the conclusion that Lee avoided covering classic rock staples on this record, as she trots out sizzling versions of Heart’s “Even It Up”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and the early 70’s Alice Cooper nugget “Is It My Body”.  One track dips back to late 1969, “What Is And What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin, a band that is difficult to cover because the original versions of their songs are so definitive. 

“Zeppelin is not just a bluesy rock band, because they had a very nuanced acoustic side” Lee explains.  “I wanted to cover a song that perfectly captured both of those elements that I loved, and I thought that song accomplished that. You can’t mess with Zeppelin to any great degree, but the fact that there’s a female voice makes it sound a little different. I sang it like Lee Aaron, but then again Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant was probably one of my greatest vocal influences.  Musically, we decided not to take it very far from where it sits originally. We decided that the song’s original guitar solo by Jimmy Page was a very signature-sounding melody, but Sean added a harmony to it which I thought was a great idea.” 

Many classic rock bands have curtailed the release of new records. Both the Rolling Stones and The Who, for example, have only released one album of new original material in the last decade. Lee, on the other hand, has been quite prolific in terms of new studio recordings as she has released six albums, including a Christmas record, since 2016. You can attribute this productivity to two factors, Lee’s business savvy and her loyal fan base.

“I have my own boutique label called ‘Big Sister’, and I license my records to labels. I’m extremely happy with the job that my German label, Metalville, is doing. They’re a very artist-oriented label and they have distribution partners throughout Europe and Japan. I’m on Rough Trade Records in Europe and Ward Music in Japan.  Canada wasn’t Metalville’s strength, so I’m distributed here by Propagande Records out of Montreal.  I always have a label willing to offer me a distribution deal. 

“I just feel inspired to keep creating, “Lee continues. “I’m able to make exactly the albums that I want to make and I have full control over my marketing promotional pictures and videos.  That’s extremely satisfying and rewarding for me. My fans still enjoy buying vinyl and CDs so there’s a market for me to continue to do this, and it’s a win-win situation.” 

Lee pays due respect to the 90s with a stellar cover of “Malibu” by Courtney Love’s band Hole. While the Canadian rocker’s debut album preceded Courtney’s breakout record by about 10 years, Lee still considers her to be an influence. 

“I started in the early 80s as a teenager so by the time the 90s came along I had paid my dues and fought some pretty hard battles,” she says. “It was a very sexist decade and women in rock were kind of treated like a novelty.  The doors were blown wide open for women in the 90s to pick up a guitar and write angry songs. I was influenced by it quite a bit but sadly, if you were associated with 80s hair metal, the media and radio just didn’t want to support you anymore. I thought Courtney Love was an incredible writer and what I loved about that band is that they had quite a few women in the fold without being labeled a girl band.  They were a rock band whereas in the decade before you were a girl band.” 

The album closes with Lee’s cover of “Teenage Kicks” by the much-loved Irish Punk/New Wave band The Undertones. It turns out that the song was a fortuitous last-minute addition to the album.

“We actually had all of the tracks recorded, but I felt we needed one more up-tempo tune, one more banger on the record,” Lee says. “Sean suggested this song by The Undertones and I got chills. It was like the ultimate song about sexual teenage angst. What we were trying to accomplish with this album was to get our teenage kicks out, so we thought it was really fitting for the vibe of the album to do that song from a girl’s perspective.”

Lee started her musical journey in the early 80’s but she didn’t spend a lot of time on that decade on “Tattoo Me”.  For her, the reason is obvious.

“People ask why I didn’t do more 80’s songs on the album. Well, it’s because I lived and breathed the 80s. It was far more interesting to take songs that were not from my decade and reinvent them.  I wanted to make something that was a little more left-of-center, and more interesting.”

Lee certainly succeeds on that front and you can catch her live this spring and summer, doing her left-of-center covers across Canada, commencing with a show at the Classic Bowl in Mississauga on May 24.

Roman Mitz - For Open Spaces

Open Spaces is a monthly column by Roman Mitz, covering the up-and-coming in the country music scene across Canada.

Related posts