Interview with Lisa Biales: Contemporary Folk and Blues Inspired with soul stirring voice and unique guitar

"Blues is alive and well. As long as people are on the planet, we’re gonna get the blues."

Lisa Biales: Heartbeat Roots

Lisa Biales sings with a crystal pure voice and writes music about the simple things in life. She weaves a down home blues vernacular with finger style guitar to create songs that feel like they have been around forever. Lisa Biales is known for her crystal pure voice, percussive guitar and vivid songwriting imagery. This Contemporary Folk and Blues Inspired Songbird has created a signature sound with her soul stirring voice and unique guitar. Lisa Biales sings with a crystal pure voice and writes music about the simple things in life. She weaves a down home blues vernacular with finger style guitar to create songs that feel like they have been around forever. Lisa grew up in a musical family and learned to sing from her mother who was an accomplished singer and actress. Following in her mother’s footsteps, this little ol’ gal from Ohio will grace the silver screen this year (acting and singing) in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “Twixt.”                  Photo by Allana Haradyn

Lisa tours three months of the year with Ronstadt Generations as a special guest. Lisa opens the show, then joins the family band during their set for an unforgettable one-of-a-kind concert experience. Lisa Biales has spent more than 40 years making music. With diverse musical influences, her refusal to be genre specific, and her drive to continue to evolve and explore her voice, she has created a musical statement with her 2014 release. Just Like Honey, produced by EG Kight and Paul Hornsby (released on her own Big Song Music label), showcases the gift Lisa has for writing a great song, the gusto she has for singing someone else’s song and making it her own, and the energy to hold you sway to the very last swell of her voice. Inspired by a found recording of a song her mother wrote, Lisa goes back to her root on her new 9th album "The Beat of My Heart" (2017) this album has all the right stuff!

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music and from whom have you have learned the most secrets about? 

When I was a child, I heard my mother singing around the house as she ironed, washed dishes, cooked and cleaned. She would get a far away look in her eye and not really notice that I was watching. I realized she was singing from a place deep within her self. I learned to sing from listening to my mother, and started singing at a very young age. I sang to soothe my self. Now I realize that singing heals and is comforting, so I sing more for others these days. The secret I learned about singing is . . .(drumroll please) breathing.

How has History of “Women in the Blues” shows influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Learning the back stories of some of the women who have pioneered their way in music has had the biggest impact on my life in music. Sippie Wallace recorded and sang in tent shows. Then she left show business to become a church organist and choir director, then after 30 years she resumed her career. Lucille Bogan had about a 15 year music career, and later in life she managed her son’s Jazz band. Ida Cox started singing at age 14 with a vaudeville troupe, she had a 40 year career and was one of the few female blues singers to write her own songs, she also had a later career and successful comeback. Alberta Hunter had a successful 30 year career in music. She took off 20 years to be a nurse then resumed her career until her death. The inspiration that runs through the stories of these women is their independent spirit, a persistence to break barriers, an ability to manage their own business, and they sang about their own unique and fascinating lives.

What does the BLUES mean to you and what does offer you? 

The Blues offers an outlet for songwriting, playing the guitar, and expressing myself as I strive to figure out the world around me. Blues comes from the soul, and for me, singing comes from the soul. Anyone who has suffered heartache or sadness has an immediate affinity for the blues.

"Inspiration comes from simply being aware of my surroundings."

What do you learn about yourself from the music? How has the blues music changed your life? 

I like the double entendre, fun sexy songs that were popular in the early 1900’s. I especially like learning about the women who were singing these tunes, and wonder what they were doing when they wrote or recorded a certain song. I wrote the song “Peaches” out of respect for women who played the Blues long ago. I wrote it in a Piedmont style to give it an old time feeling. Blues has changed my life because of my relationship with the acoustic guitar. I love playing finger style guitar, I love the sound of an acoustic guitar, the feel of it vibrating against my body, the sound of my voice as it echoes through the guitar. . . everything about it. Blues has changed my life because when I picked up my guitar, I didn’t want to put it down. That re-kindled my love affair with the guitar. Singing and playing the guitar, it’s the best.

How do you describe your philosophy about the music and what characterize Lisa Biales progress?

Just to do the best I can at any given moment. I recorded “Just Like Honey” with producer EG Kight and Paul Hornsby engineering, mixing and mastering the project. I was blessed to work with some fantastic musicians in Tommy Talton, Bill Stewart and Marshall Coats. We recorded over a two-week period. When it came time for mixing, I refused to use pitch correction on my vocals. My philosophy is: That is what I sounded like on that particular day. Progress is recording my music so my kinds will get to hear my voice long after I am gone.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?

Being fearless about singing the songs I have written. Not listening to negative comments about the songs I have written.  Surrounding myself with the best musicians and playing with people who are always encouraging.

"The Blues offers an outlet for songwriting, playing the guitar, and expressing myself as I strive to figure out the world around me."

How do you get inspirations and what do you think is the main characteristic of personality that made you a songwriter? 

I like to tell stories with my songs. Inspiration comes from simply being aware of my surroundings. I was sitting out on my prairie when a bee landed on my arm. It was loaded with pollen and it wiggled and waggled as it tasted the sweat on my arm before flying off. I wrote the tune “Buzzie” about that experience and gave it an early Blues feel with lots of double entendre. I like spending time alone, I think that characteristic has made me the songwriter I am today. Also staying young at heart and finding joy in the everyday living.

How do you describe “The Beat Of My Heart” sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

The Beat of My Heart is an energetically joyful collection of Blues, Jazz, Roots, and Gospel music. The album’s philosophy comes from the perspective of a woman who has learned from life by living it fully.  She loves deeply, she will put you in your place if you don’t treat her right, she is loyal, she will lift you up in times of need, she is a spiritual being who is optimistic about the future of humanity.

Are there any memories from “The Beat Of My Heart” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Watching Tony Braunagel, who produced the album with pure happiness, as he’d easily navigate his way through the sessions with so many different musicians (Larry Fulcher, Jim Pugh, Darrell Leonard, Joe Sublett, Larry Taylor, Paul Brown) and witnessing the camaraderie they had with each other. It was surrealistic in many ways because I had admired these artists for so many years. Johnny Lee Schell recorded us at his Ultra tone Studio and I was thinking, wait a minute, I’ve seen Johnny Lee sing with Bonnie Raitt and now he’s here singing and playing with me on my album. Then on day four in walks bassist Chuck Berghofer who has played with Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Barbara Streisand, Seth MacFarlane, and Nancy Sinatra and we’ve all heard that opening bass line to These Boots Are Made For Walking which he penned. I got a little anxious before the sessions started, then I remembered, all I have to do is show up and sing. That’s what I’ve been doing my entire life from my earliest paying gig at age thirteen.

"My philosophy is: That is what I sounded like on that particular day. Progress is recording my music so my kinds will get to hear my voice long after I am gone."

What do you miss most nowadays from the 78 rpm era? What touched (emotionally) you from the 78 rpm sound?

I miss the tactile be-here-now experience of vinyl. Choosing an album, dropping the needle on the disc and hearing the first scratches before the music begins makes me happy and puts me in the mood for active listening. When I discovered my mom’s 78 rpm it was 15 years after her passing. On it she was singing an acapella version of a song she wrote called Crying Over You which was dated 2-20-1947. I couldn’t get over what great shape it was in and when I heard her voice on the record, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was the voice of a 24 year old woman with all of her musical dreams still intact. It is the voice I hear in my head when I sing certain songs. When I talked to Tony about producing this album I only had this one song in mind. So, we put my mother on the record singing the first verse of her song Crying Over You, then I come in and finish what she started, picking up the torch and running with it. When I started to sing, I felt her spirit and heard her voice come through me. It was the same spiritual experience I’d had as a little girl listening to her sing her heart out while doing the dishes. I was transported for a moment back in time and I have come to understand my mother in ways I never could before.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

When I met EG Kight in 2010 she said to me, “you need to make a blues record, stop messin’ around, come down to Macon, Georgia and record at my friend Paul Hornsby’s Muscadine Studio.” So I took took a leap of faith and had EG and Paul produce my first “sho nuff “blues album (that’s what EG calls it) in 2012 entitled “Just Like Honey.”  They also produced Belle of the Blues in 2014.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The worst period in my career was when I was feeling like I had nothing to offer and my energy for the business was at an all time low. I thought I couldn’t write, sing or play the guitar. I didn’t believe that anyone would want to hear me sing or come to a show. I was at the bottom, worn out, ready to give it all up and feeling overwhelmed with doing it all. . .manager, booking agent, marketing, publicity, writer, singer, guitarist, and band leader, it had all just gotten the best of me. I was ready to quit. Then I met EG Kight and that was the best moment of my career. Soul Sister is the best way to describe her. She took me under her wing and said, “come on down to Georgia, we’re gonna make you an album.” She helped me get out of the funk I was wallowing in, and helped me see the light of day. She steered me toward some important people who could help me with my career. EG is the most honest, generous and kind person on the planet. She has a way of making everyone feel welcome and she’s the best friend a gal could have.

Which memory from Paul Hornsby's Studio, with Paul, Tommy Talton and E.G. Kight makes you smile? 

I smile when I think about the camaraderie that developed between all of us working toward the same goal, and the professionalism that each person brought to the room was beyond compare. I remember we were getting ready to record EG’s tune “Through The Eyes of A Child” and I picked up my little guitar and played the intro lick for Tommy, then I said “but you know, only better” he got a big grin on his face and I handed him my guitar. He played it so beautifully, just as I had heard it in my head, I remember EG looking over at me with big eyes and a big smile. . .we were both smiling and laughing. “That’s it, EG said, let’s do it!” We ran into the recording room and cut the tune. I loved working with Paul Hornsby. Muscadine Recording Studio with all of Paul’s Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Gold and Platinum records hanging on the walls is historical and magical. As I was looking around at all the Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels albums Paul produced, EG said "Just let Paul do his thing and we'll have a great record. He's forgot more than most producers know." We did have a belly laugh when some things went kaflooey in the studio and Paul had a hissy fit. We doubled over with laughter, and that made him laugh with us.

Are there any memories from Francis Ford Coppola's movie, "TWIXT ", which you’d like to share with us? 

We were on location in Northern California in preparation for the first day of filming. Coppola got us (Val Kilmer, Don Novello, Ben Chaplin, the make-up, wardrobe, sound and lighting crews) all together to discuss the first scene and see what questions or concerns we might have. The meeting was light hearted and fun as we were all excited about starting this project. Then, Coppola asked me to sing the song that I was to perform in the movie, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” He chose that tune because it had a pleasant personal meaning for him from his childhood, and he wanted everyone to hear the song. When I finished he said, “Okay, if you don’t mind me putting you on the spot, would you sing WHILE ME GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS for everyone?”  I was in shock, wondering how in the world did he know that song was in my repertoire, then realized that he must have done his homework and checked out my website. I’m sure my face was red with embarrassment as all this was running through my mind. Of course, I sang the song for everyone and they loved it. I got the royal treatment for the entire time I was on the set. It was a surrealist experience to say the least. And yes, I would do it all again.

"Learning the back stories of some of the women who have pioneered their way in music has had the biggest impact on my life in music."

What do you miss most nowadays from Odetta, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie’s era and music?

I miss the raw edgy sound of Odetta recordings and how she sang as if speaking directly to someone. The blues is sad, and you can hear the sadness coming through a voice. I also miss the feelings that the Ma Rainey recordings conjured up for me of everyone playing together at one time, in the same room, with no overdubs or fancy footwork. The Dixieland Jazz music she played is what I grew up listening to. My dad played upright bass in a Dixieland Band for over 40 years in and around our hometown. I sat in with his band when I was sixteen, but my first job had come three years earlier when I played my original songs and a few popular tunes on one of his band breaks at an outdoor gig. I miss Memphis Minnie’s guitar playing. I wish I could play like that. I admire strong independent women, comfortable in their femininity and strength as performers, playing and singing the Blues on their own terms.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.

Blues originated in communities and was inspired by day-to-day living. Blues will always be with us because it has inspired so many other styles of music including spirituals, gospel, rhythm & blues, country and rock & roll. My wish for the blues. . .more recognition, increased pay, and respect for the blues artists that are out there working their buns off to make a living.

What the difference and similarity between the Blues, Roots, Early Jazz, and Americana feeling?

As I have traced back this musical lineage, I only see similarities. It all began with Blues.

"I love the amalgamation of traditional folk blues and vaudeville music. My music dream. . .I keep getting better, I write hit songs, and, my hands don’t hurt when I play the guitar.  Happiness is. . .a t-shirt, and jeans on a bare foot 79-degree sun shiney day."

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I played bass guitar with Bad Men On A Mission, a band that plays raw edgy blues. I didn’t want the night to end, because I love playing bass. Also, in Ireland, I sat in with a traditional Irish band at Kate Kearney’s Cottage. I taught them an EG Kight tune called “Peach Pickin’ Mama” that was fun!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That music is revered as a basic need of our educational system and children are given the opportunity to study music and play a variety of instruments.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

Women have a very unique and important place in the creation of music. Being a woman in this mostly male dominated field, I feel strongly my role to express myself authentically. The female perspective is a compelling balance to our male counterparts. Women are an ever growing presence in the blues and I love seeing this surge of young women who are picking up guitars and ukuleles to write their own songs. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Women have one advantage over men. Throughout history they have been forced to make adjustments. They have adapted their own personal wishes and ambitions and hopes to those of their husbands, their children, and the requirements of their homes.” If that is true, then it is much easier for women to navigate the ever changing landscape of the music industry and to forge ahead in the world of Blues.

"Blues comes from the soul, and for me, singing comes from the soul." (Photo by Allana Haradyn)

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?

No differences, only similarities. I heard BB King tell a reporter that his favorite slide player was Bonnie Raitt. I find it interesting the songs a man or woman chooses to cover. I have witnessed blueswomen and bluesmen who play the guitar like Stevie Ray or Hendrix or Howlin Wolf, but don’t change the key of the tune to fit their voice. The best thing I ever learned was how to do was transpose.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? What is your music DREAM? Happiness is…

Meeting Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie when I first pick up the guitar at age 11. I love the amalgamation of traditional folk blues and vaudeville music. My music dream. . .I keep getting better, I write hit songs, and, my hands don’t hurt when I play the guitar.  Happiness is. . .a t-shirt, and jeans on a bare foot 79-degree sun shiney day.

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Music is a healer, it brings people together, it crosses all boundaries and is the great equalizer.

You have pretty interesting project duo and trio with Cello and Violin. Where did you get that idea?

My trio with Doug Hamilton on violin and Michael G. Ronstadt has been an interesting experience. Two of the finest classically trained musicians who can improvise and who enjoy playing together. I met Doug back in 2005, he had lived in Nashville and been on the road with Aaron Tippin, Barbara Mandrell, and Trisha Yearwood. He was tired of all the traveling and wanted to settle down to raise his family, he chose Oxford, Ohio. When Doug showed up at one of my shows with his fiddle in hand, I invited him to join me and that was it! We play as a duo quite often, it’s been one of my most enjoyable music experiences, we are simply on the same wavelength. We met Michael in 2008 just after he graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, with a master’s in cello performance. A mutual friend kept insisting I meet Michael, so I invited him to open up a concert for us. Backstage, we all sat around and jammed and I asked Michael to join us on stage for a couple of tunes. It was magic and wonderful to say the least.  It was one of those “match made in heaven” kind of experiences. I decided to record a CD “Closet Hippie” with the trio, and when Michael’s father Michael J. Ronstadt and brother Petie Ronstadt were in town, I invited them to record the Hendrix tune Little Wing with us, the result has been lots of airplay with that one. Yes, Michael J. is Linda Ronstadt’s brother, and Michael G. and Petie are nephews of the Grammy award-winning artist, who I have been a fan of, and admired since the 1970 release of Silk Purse.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

The dream I had about a magic carpet ride with Buddha, Jesus and Mother Theresa.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes, blues is alive and well. As long as people are on the planet, we’re gonna get the blues.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Do one thing every day to advance your career in music.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

From audiences over and over I’ve heard, “Don’t stop singing.”

"Women have a very unique and important place in the creation of music."

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of Blues, Roots, and Jazz?

I think people get confused about naming a style of music. I am constantly asked, “What kind of music do you play?” My usual answer goes something like this: I sing and play the acoustic guitar, I write tunes and I love the blues.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?

I’d like to sit next to Siddhartha Gautama under that beautiful heart shaped leaf Bodhi tree when he stirs from his meditation and says, “Aha!”

Lisa Biales - Official website

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