Interview with Lawrence Lebo, an artist who is enthralled with and dedicated to Blues & Roots Music

"It seems, I could be wrong, but that the Blues are better appreciated outside of America. If that’s true, I’d like to see that turn around."

Lawrence Lebo: Old School Girl

Daughter of a Sears & Roebuck shoe salesman, Lawrence grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, far away from the entertainment industry. She worked into the business the hard way, by singing in bands in every gritty little dive bar, all the while struggling as a single mother. While her recordings receive airplay internationally, raising a family kept Lawrence’s performance schedule mostly local. She is well known and loved in Los Angeles. In 1985 Lawrence was working in a duo act at a little bar on Venice Blvd in West Los Angeles. On her break she walked down the street to another bar to hear their band and met bassist Denny Croy (Lawrence Lebo, Doug MacLeod, Fiona Boyes, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Moon Martin). A year later they were married and playing music together, with Lebo writing material and fronting the band! Over 30 years later they are still performing and recording together. That is so Old School!

Lawrence has always relied on the strength of her music. In a career that has lasted several decades Lawrence was a successful self-releasing artist long before any artist ever dared consider doing such a thing! In 1989, before everyone had a computer and access to the internet she released her debut EP on her label On The Air Records from the kitchen of her tiny rent-control apartment, using just a typewriter and her Rolodex. All of Lawrence’s body of work contains the element of Old School. Lawrence is a consummate performer and entertainer who takes her audiences along on a magical journey. Ms. Lebo has worked long and hard at developing her craft and expanding her education. In the 1980s, she had attended the vocal program at Grove School of Music in Los Angeles, California. With this educational background, a steady performance schedule and raising family, she returned to traditional academia in 2000, earning an Associate of Arts degree in music at Santa Monica College, and then transferring to UCLA to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2005. She received two of UCLA’s highest honors, including a Regents Scholar and a Gold Shield Alumni Scholar, that covered her entire tuition. She graduated from UCLA with Latin Honors and became the first in her family to graduate from higher education. Periodically she teaches a blues singing techniques workshop at world famous McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, as well as at other venues in conjunction with her concerts. Her sixth new album says it all, Lawrence Lebo is truly an “Old School Girl” (2018). This new album also features her prowess as a songwriter as the seven new tracks delve into soul-blues territory that pay homage to her “Stax Records’” influences.

Interview by Michael Limnios              Promo Photos by Michael Hiller

When was your first desire to become involved in the music?

I can’t ever remember not singing - from a very young age. At age 5, when I went to kindergarten, and the holiday show came around, not only was I the star soloist, but I was also the MC!! There was never a doubt in my young mind that I was a singer - that that would be my profession. If I’d had parents who were savvy about the entertainment business they could have gotten a young career off the ground for me!

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues and Roots music mean to you?

The blues tells the stories of regular folks. I came from regular folks; my father was a shoe salesman. My parents groomed me for young marriage and children - and that’s what I did. Of course, that never works out!! I’ve struggled to raise my children, have a career, and to better myself through education. On a musical level, blues and roots music is the music of America. It’s an important part of American history. It’s important that it be nurtured and preserved. As a songwriter, the blues allows me to tell my stories. I like to write songs about strong women who learn hard lessons and come out okay on the other side. My tune “It’s Not The First Time” is one of these songs.

"I think the status of women in music in 2018 is greatly improved. In the Blues genre I see more and more talented female acts headlining than ever. Having said that, I can’t deny that there is still a long way to go for female equality in any workplace."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN?

When I first started out  at 22 years old, singing in local clubs, I had no idea about being a bandleader. Sure, musicians gave me a hard time, but I learned to direct a band. I went to school and learned music theory. There’s nothing like working in the business, and working along side of good musicians to teach you to be good.

How do you describe Lawrence Lebo sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I’m an artist. I have my influences, but my sound is my own. To me the job of the artist is to create conversation. To inspire.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues?

Of course I approach the blues from the vocalist point of view. If one traces the formation of blues singing style from the earliest folks around recording it, one might listen to Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Dinah Washington, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Ruth Brown. More contemporary examples; Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Etta James ….. This list could get pretty long!!!

How has the Blues, Jazz and Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My journey has been one of a professional musician, entertainer and bandleader! It’s been my greatest blessing to be able to create a profession performing the music that I love most and that is influenced by the artists I most admire. As a vocalist I find a lot of freedom and deep catharsis in singing Blues, Jazz and Soul music.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? What were the reasons that you started the old school researches?

I have no fears!!! Music is a universal and healing language that touches everyone in a unique and personal way. It has always been an important part of humanity and will always be. I am constantly exploring music and I’m always open to where it might take me. This time around it led me towards the soul music emanating out of Memphis Tennessee in the 1960’s. For me the creative process can be very spontaneous.

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

That all the incredible and deserving musical talent in the world be recognized and compensated!!!

How do you describe "Old School Girl" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

Old School Girl Is deeply influenced by the early Stax records songbook! All those great songs that grew from the incredible Stax house band and its solid, driving rhythm section. That great soul/blues sound from Carla Thomas’s vocals. The tight, hooky songwriting from Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

"I’m an artist. I have my influences, but my sound is my own. To me the job of the artist is to create conversation. To inspire."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of 30s – 40s?

Swing feel, innocence and pure romance!!.

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

Well, I’d like to think that the best moment of my career is yet to come, but I’d have to say that the first time I heard myself being played on the radio was pretty exciting stuff!!!

The first time I got stiffed at the end of the night was pretty horrible.  I had to pay my band out of my pocket. That set me back a bit.

What is the best advice ever gave you and what advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

This simple advise was given to me - and I’d give it freely; “DON’T GIVE UP”!!

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

The blues is at the heart of all American music styles. It’s the parent of rock’n’roll.  And of jazz.

Give one wish for the BLUES

It seems, I could be wrong, but that the Blues are better appreciated outside of America. If that’s true, I’d like to see that turn around.

Are there any memories from recording time which you’d like to share with us?

My first release was recorded “live” to 2 track tape. Eight musicians all in a room together, playing and me singing at the same time. I’ve always preferred to record “live”. It’s magic!!!

Which memory from workshops and teachings projects makes you smile?

I teach a blues singing workshop. It’s always great to hear your students say, “Oh yeah, I get it! That’s what makes that sound ‘the blues!’ ”.

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

When I was in my 20’s, I opened for Jerry Lee Lewis. I got to sit in his trailer across the table from him. He had a glass in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other, and he was drinking from both!!! More recently I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the bill with Doug MacLeod. I’m a huge fan of his, so it was quite an honor!

"Music is a universal and healing language that touches everyone in a unique and personal way. It has always been an important part of humanity and will always be. I am constantly exploring music and I’m always open to where it might take me. This time around it led me towards the soul music emanating out of Memphis Tennessee in the 1960’s. For me the creative process can be very spontaneous."

Which meetings have been the biggest experiences for you? Are there any memories from Kenny Burrell?

While I was a student at UCLA I had the extreme pleasure of studying about Duke Ellington under the legendary jazz guitarist and my professor, Kenny Burrell. Through Kenny, and through Ellington, I was inspired to hang in during one of the hardest periods in my career. You see, Ellington was a marvelously creative entrepreneur! For example; he was one of the first musicians to advertise his services in the yellow pages! He hired a well dressed man to walk into a club ahead of him and loudly announce “Here comes the Duke!“!! And during those times when he and his band were not allowed to stay in the hotels in the towns where they were playing, he purchased a passenger train car for them to travel and to sleep in. Now, this was how the President traveled!! This made Ellington seem presidential!! With all this inspiration, I wound up releasing my second CD, DON’T CALL HER LARRY, VOLUME 2, during my senior year.

When we talk about Jazz Blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real Jazz Blues nowadays?

I think you are talking about a feeling of nostalgia.  I think one could say that I am the very proof of the existence of Jazz Blues nowadays!!

What is the line that connects the legacy of Jazz and Western Swing with Blues, Rock, Soul and beyond?

Well, it is the blues itself! Blues is the root music in all these forms.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

If there is, I don’t know about it. I am blissfully ignorant of such things!!!!!

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

Oh My!!! I really don’t take myself all that serious!!!!!!!!

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? Happiness is…

I play several (plucked) string instruments, but I prefer to just sing when I’m on stage. The voice is my first and best instrument, and I prefer not to be standing behind an instrument. I don’t want anything between myself and my audience. I look to have an intimate exchange with my audience. I am baring my soul. I am trusting them with my secrets! … And when it all comes together … Happiness!!!

"Blues is the music of the people. It was born out of a need to express and to vent. A need to connect, communicate and to experience belonging. In that way it transcends all that other “stuff” and touches a much deeper core that unites all people. The Blues speaks to the humanity in us all."

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

I think the status of women in music in 2018 is greatly improved. In the Blues genre I see more and more talented female acts headlining than ever. Having said that, I can’t deny that there is still a long way to go for female equality in any workplace.

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

Blues is the music of the people. It was born out of a need to express and to vent. A need to connect, communicate and to experience belonging. In that way it transcends all that other “stuff” and touches a much deeper core that unites all people. The Blues speaks to the humanity in us all.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

For me the best thing about playing music is connecting with my audience in that intimate and personal way…. and getting to know the folks who love the music! It’s all about the fans.  The people who come out to hear live music, who seek out and buy new music, they are the ones who make it all go around.

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 jump about a hundred years into the future and see if anyone is still listening to the music of this Old School Girl!!!

Lawrence Lebo - Official website

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