Q&A with NYC singer Lex Grey - her power and passion blaze a primal fire fusing old school blues and rock

"Music is the answer to all of these problems. Great music addresses these issues by illustrating our emotional makeup as humans. The things that bring us joy, the feelings of pain and isolation, these feelings have no race, no economic status, no gender."

Lex Grey: The Madam of Urban Blues

Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers are a legendary live band and award-winning recording artists. Fusing old school blues and classic rock, the soul of the band is Lex Grey, whose power and passion blaze a primal fire. Lex Grey has mesmerized New York's die-hard music lovers since she thundered on the scene like Mae West on a Harley. Rapidly rising to the status of cult rock diva, her repertoire blends the tortured soul of the blues with bawdy burlesque and Brooklyn attitude. A highlight in New York area clubs and festivals, Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers have cultivated a gritty sophistication uniting unusual instrumentations, traditional blues and hard hitting classic rock. Born of an impromptu acoustic jam in the back of a Williamsburg (Brooklyn) bar, The Urban Pioneers have expanded to include Vic Mix (Guitars), John Holland (Drums), Kaia Updike (Violin, Keys), and Adam Price (Bass).                                              Lex Grey / Photos by Rob Shannon

On stage The Urban Pioneers explode with energy and passion creating a musical and visual patchwork of wild rock concert, bar room blues, vaudeville theater and after-hours jazz jam. Fronted by sultry Lex in her sequined gown, torn fishnet stockings and well-worn motorcycle boots, the band's eclectic earthiness draws in and embraces people of every taste and background. “I'm not conscious of trends- I don't believe you have to fit into a mold." Lex says. "We just stay true to our instincts and influences and it seems people can identify with this honesty. Regardless of culture, regardless of trends, if it comes from the heart, it's both timely and timeless." Lex Grey & The Pioneers released in 2016 their sixth album, "Heal My Soul". Following the success of previous album, The Urban Pioneers 7th original album, "Usual Suspects", will be avail on January 22, 2018.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Rock and roll culture is a mirror of who we are and how we perceive ourselves in society (and how society perceives us...) The blues is more than just a musical style, it is our ancestral energy that drives us. It is a way to rejoice in the face of sadness and negative forces that plague everyone's life.  It is a way to share the common pain of humanity and in sharing that pain we tap into the universal power of understanding and strength. Our new album "Heal My Soul" seeks to embrace the everyday struggle, while offering hope and joy as a musical tonic.

How do you describe Lex Grey sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I would describe our sound as something familiar that you've never heard before. "Heal My Soul" draws from many musical styles because my band and I listen to so many different types of music. We've had 5 previous albums I like to think they are both moody and poetic yet also hard and edgy. We also incorporate theatrical aspects like Vaudeville and Burlesque. The Beatles were initially a great burlesque band, I want to carry on that tradition in rock and roll as well.

What were the reasons that you started the Rockin’ Blues researches? What touched (emotionally) you from Rock n’ Blues circuits?

Ultimately ours is a bluesy package wrapped in a very personal story. Music has always been my salvation, my medicine, my inspiration, I always want to move people the way my favorite artists move me.

"Traditionally Blues has been viewed as strictly an American art form. Modern blues artists today can embrace all cultures, realizing there are more connections than separations. I hope that the world continues to grow as one musical community."

How do you describe USUAL SUSPECTS sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

After the great response to “Heal My Soul”, the band really started to feel inspired. We had our studio already set up, we had our system in place so that nobody hesitated to bring an idea to the table and we just started writing and recording. As the songs took shape it was clear that art was imitating life...our life. Even though the album is rowdy and in your face, there is an air of mystery, a taste of bittersweet and a twist of paranoia. I must admit, we watched a lot of CNN on TV during recording. Our dear friends got married and a dear friend died. A favorite venue was closing its doors. My father came to live with us because he had a stroke that left him with dementia and he was present for a lot of the creative process. My elderly aunt came to visit and never left. There were nurses, a therapy dog, two band dogs, two elders and a rock band living under one roof. What could possibly go wrong?

Are there any memories from USUAL SUSPECTS studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The core of the band is comprised of two couples, myself and guitarist Vic Mix, and bassist, pianist violinist Kaia Updike and drummer John Holland. Vic and I (even though we are native NYC people) spend most of our time lately in rural upstate New York where we can make noise and raise chickens and hike in the woods. John and Kaia spend most of their time in the city. I had an idea for a song, so I went down to the city with a poem to work with Kaia, and drummer John came upstate to work with Vic. Our intent was to put everything together after a day or two. Then the blizzard came. We got the vocals for “Warrior Squaw” and we were so excited that we drove upstate through a giant blizzard as they were closing bridges behind us. We could barely see where we were going but we were determined to get the basic track to the guys so we could replace the synthetic sounds with actual instruments. We didnt have pan pipes so we blew into beer bottles. We had to keep sipping to get different sounds. Then we tried wine bottles. Then whisky bottles. Can you see where this is going? Fortunately, the whole eastern seaboard was shut down due to snow and we had some time to sleep it off.

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?           Lex Grey / Photos by Rob Shannon

A musician's life is a roller coaster. I’m very grateful to have many fantastic moments interspersed with periods of dark despair, feeling like each success might be the last. When I first heard myself on the radio I nearly wrecked my car! I have played for audiences in the thousands and I have played to very few. When I was touring in Italy as an actress in the revival of the musical “HAIR” I was riding the metro in Milan and there was a poster with my picture on it. I was chatting with this handsome Italian guy and I said “that's me on that poster” and he laughed, called me crazy and walked away. It's pretty funny now, however mildly devastating then.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have a pretty funny story that comes to mind. I was invited to perform for Les Paul’s 90th birthday party at Gibson Guitars' showroom in New York City.  After the show we were allowed to check out all the guitars in these little sound proof glass rooms. I selected a very old-style Gibson parlor guitar, sat on the floor in my sequined dress and began playing Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen".  Standing outside the room were these two guys, watching and smiling. I invited them in, they started taking guitars off the walls, so I said wanna play a song? So here I am teaching these two guys an easy blues song, showing them a G7 chord and a D7 chord and we were all strumming away having a jolly old time. I later found out I had just given guitar lessons to Jeff Beck and Stanley Jordan.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Traditionally Blues has been viewed as strictly an American art form. Modern blues artists today can embrace all cultures, realizing there are more connections than separations. I hope that the world continues to grow as one musical community. I fear that listening to music exclusively on small devices and relying on visual support deprives us of the spiritual aspects, Traditional listening may be lost forever.

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

I would like the music industry to be less obsessed with age, gender, looks and Madison Avenue style marketing.

"When you live in a world surrounded by artists, writers, performers and musician’s life is experienced through a unique filter. Or perhaps no filter at all. Ideas and opinions flow freely with no judgments."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I have been fortunate in meeting so many gifted and amazing people. For many years I had all- access to any Allman Brother concert after working with guitar great Warren Haynes during our days at New York's famed Power Station recording studios where my guitarist Vic Mix was a longtime staff engineer. I was given privy to the inner workings of one of America's greatest bands. The Allman's exposed me to practical lessons that changed my approach to the stage forever.

Make an account of the case of the blues in New York. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

My most vivid recollections were from my very early days in the 90's. New York City still had a dark underbelly, an afterhours scene. Musicians would meet up at these illegal basement places after the clubs closed and get high, drink, and of course jam. Blues legend Bill Sims summoned me into the bathroom. He shut the door behind us and sat down on the toilet with his guitar. He asked me if I knew the Etta James song “Rather Go Blind” and announced that I was not going to leave the bathroom until I learned it. I learned it and I still sing it to this day. Sweet Georgia Brown and I staggered out of an afterhours and she handed me the keys to her Cadillac. She insisted I drive her home. I had never driven in my life, but I idolized her and didn’t want to let her down. She lived really far away and once we got there by some miracle I had no idea where I was or how to get home. Those were the days!

What touched (emotionally) you from Ma Rainey? What are the ties that connect the legacy of Blues from Ma to Lex?

Ma Rainey was an original, she was raw and uncensored. Her emotion transcends sex, color, politics and time. A great artist offers you their vision, their emotion, their soul on a plate. All I can hope for is a hungry audience.

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

Being a woman in music comes with a suitcase full of expectations beyond the art itself. It's funny, men are allowed to grow old gracefully and still be successful while women are scorned just for the sin of growing older. Singing, performing and recording are my life's work, the pure essence of who I am. Growing older beats the alternative!

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

When you live in a world surrounded by artists, writers, performers and musician’s life is experienced through a unique filter. Or perhaps no filter at all. Ideas and opinions flow freely with no judgments. Questioning the “normal” is encouraged and exploring the landscape of our emotions is crucial to the creative process. Being part of a creative team in an artistic community almost puts you in a bubble. When you step out of that bubble the outside world can feel cold and disconnected. It is in that outside world where you realize how the counterculture is needed to bring a fresh perspective to something stale, a shaft of light to a dark place, a sense of connectivity and unity when the world feels like its falling apart.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Music is the answer to all of these problems. Great music addresses these issues by illustrating our emotional makeup as humans. The things that bring us joy, the feelings of pain and isolation, these feelings have no race, no economic status, no gender.

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

I want to Be. Here. Now!

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