Q&A with singer/songwriter/musician Denise La Grassa - blending blues, roots and Americana, rock and souls

"Most definitely. People need a release from our war-torn world and division in America. I think the blues can help us release the anxiety and sadness around all the hard times we’re going through in this country and world. It’s a cathartic expression both in the song itself, and the movement that comes from hearing the music."

Denise La Grassa: Sundown Rising

As Denise La Grassa continues her late-blooming music career, it’s easy now to look back on how poem-songs she wrote as a wee child foreshadowed this surprising turn in her life. But those songs were just a warm-up for the spunky 5-year-old, who then went door-to-door in her suburban Chicago neighborhood offering to sing and sell those songs to neighbors – right on their doorstep - for 25 cents apiece. Artist? Check. Entrepreneur? Check. Fast forward a few years and now living in the small Wisconsin town of Baraboo, the audacious 8th grader accepted a challenge from the town’s legendary Circus World Museum to try breaking the world record for muscle grinds on the trapeze. She succeeded, securing for a brief time an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. In her early 20s, Denise landed in Chicago, where she stumbled upon the comedy and improv enterprise The Second City and quickly worked her way into the touring company, honing her chops nightly at venues across the country.

(Denise La Grassa / Photo by Mark Gordon)

She also worked her way into Chicago’s vibrant music scene, performing with her band for decades at venues across the city. A few decades on, Denise La Grassa is more creative than ever, and just as audacious. As she prepares to release Sundown Rising (Release Day: June 28th), the bluesy follow-up to her 2023 album The Flame, La Grassa shows no signs of slackening from her 2022 re-entry into full-time songwriting and performance. Sundown Rising moves La Grassa’s further into what she calls “my take on the blues.” It’s another way of saying the gumbo of blues, roots, rock, and soul inspirations is obvious in her songwriting. But one can also hear her jazz background augmenting a sound unlike anything else in the roots-rock universe today. That vibe and her powerful voice have already captured the attention of Chicagoans at venues including Epiphany Center for the Arts, Hard Rock Café, Montrose Saloon, and Phyllis’ Musical Inn, among others, as well as blues haunts in Milwaukee and downstate Illinois. They too have become believers in this unlikely ‘North of 40’ journey.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I’m often drawn to music that has a message or tells a meaningful story. Songs that uplift the soul or expresses honesty and joy about the human condition are most appealing. You can listen to John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Hound Dog Taylor, and R.L. Burnside, Aretha Franklin, Sister Loretta Tharp, and hear the deep connection to something more painful, or joyful, not unlike a lot of blues songs. Blues artists often present the music in a very approachable way, hitting the emotional center and even something you want to dance to, makes it an attractive hopeful vibe. I’ve always tried to infuse my songs with the same sort of hope. Like ‘here’s the problem, let’s find the solution, and along the way we’re going to stomp our feet and move our bodies.”

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I would call what I do “blues infused soulful, rocking music.” I love my blues but there are so many other kinds of music’s I’m attracted to that it all ends up finding a way into my music and message. Sometimes you‘ll hear a straight up blues, then something  more soulful, or country, or funky sounding. I’m not following any form when writing the music, but rather, blending life experiences or my observations of others struggling or overcoming the many obstacles we all encounter on the journey. Amen to Happiness is one of those types of songs. A blues infused structure with a call to God to send down some Happiness. Sounds bluesy, Americana and the message is there, a call for justice. Sometimes it just comes out of joy or deep sadness, and I have to let the song be what it is. Bottom line though, the blues is at the center and everything else comes from that rockin chair I sit in when writing a song, pouring out my honest emotions.

"Great melodies and great storytelling. My hope is that I can continue to write and perform music, hopefully on a world stage in the future." (Denise La Grassa / Photo by Shoaib Noormohammad)

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions?

You need all of it, and ideally a healthy balance of those two ideas.

What moment changed your music life the most?

Losing my job at Lincoln College, a small, private school in central Illinois. I was running the music program there and had just almost a year prior completed with the Higher Learning Commission the transition from a jazz studies program to a music business and music production curriculum. My program was doing well. But on March thirtieth in 2022, the college decided to close their doors permanently after 157 years. It was so sudden, so very sad for the students, staff, faculty, everyone was in a state of shock. Enrollment was down. Many smaller liberal arts schools were closing after Covid. That and other issues made it impossible for the school to remain open. We had basically two months of notice, and you can imagine how painful and scary it was for everyone. And it was another economic shock to the town, which had already been in decline for the past 30 years. It was then I decided that instead of trying to stay in academia, my husband recommended we take some real time to focus on my music. I was going to move back to Chicago and pursue songwriting and performing full-time. I have been a performer all my life, but I had never devoted 100% of my time to music. So, I guess like a lot of people that went through the pandemic, I took a leap of faith and I’m still at it. It’s been scary, exhilarating, frustrating, and rewarding. And I imagine those emotions will continue.

What are the highlights in your life and career so far?

Well, if we’re talking about childhood to today, I was a spunky little kid. When I was five, I wrote what I call poem-songs at home, then went door to door in my suburban Chicago neighborhood singing and trying to sell them to my neighbors. I even told them I’d write a song right there on their doorstep. I was thinking I could make money to buy presents for my parents for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, or Christmas. Well, the neighbors called my parents to tell them what I was doing, and Mom shut that down quickly.

When I was in 8th grade, I set the world record for muscle grinds on a trapeze and got my name in the Guiness Book of World Records. It was a challenge from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. It’s where I spent my junior and senior high school years.

After moving to Chicago after college I spent time in the 2nd City touring company and acted in musicals and plays around Chicago. I formed my own blues/funk band, sang lead with a blues/funk band. I always blended the theatrical with my bands. For professional acting, I even landed a part in a made for HBO movie with Anthony Edwards and played a couple parts in the TV series Unsolved Mysteries.

Even with all that and a “day job,” I played music all over Chicago as well. Moved from blues/funk into jazz and created my own jazz-theater shows that got me to NYC, Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland.

(Denise La Grassa / Photo by Shoaib Noormohammad)

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

Great melodies and great storytelling. My hope is that I can continue to write and perform music, hopefully on a world stage in the future.

What does it mean to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says?

It can be brutal and at the same time surprisingly welcoming.  The hard knocks always contribute to my songwriting. I don’t literally write about what I’ve gone through or go through as a woman in these songs, but the hard knocks and roadblocks that present themselves because of my gender get weaved into the emotions of the songs I write and perform.

Why is it important to preserve and spread the blues?

The classic blues is ground zero for American music, and for my songwriting. Everything else comes from that. It’s like being influenced by Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones without understanding that they took their inspiration from Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and others we now call blues icons. So even though nobody will confuse my music with blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Albert King or R.L. Burnside, you will hear those old souls in my music, and my songs would not be what they are without these trailblazers.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience along your music path?

Forgive the cliché, but “teamwork makes the dream work.” And that if someone doesn’t fit into your vision, move away from them, you don’t need band mates dragging you down. Also, always keep your patience and courage and flexibility intact, and as John Hiatt once told me when I asked him for advice on songwriting, “just be true to yourself.”

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state?  Or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Most definitely. People need a release from our war-torn world and division in America. I think the blues can help us release the anxiety and sadness around all the hard times we’re going through in this country and world. It’s a cathartic expression both in the song itself, and the movement that comes from hearing the music.

 

Denise La Grassa - Home

(Denise La Grassa / Photo by Shoaib Noormohammad) 

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