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Musician of the Month, November 2020: LISA MANN

One of the best things about being a self-styled music journalist is picking the brains of some truly talented folks. This month, Portland, Oregon vocalist and bassist Lisa Mann shares insights from her long career in blues and her newfound notoriety in the world of underground metal. Enjoy!

I was first introduced to your music through your trad metal project White Crone, but you have spent a lot of time in the blues world as well.  Can you tell our readers (and me!) about your musical background and career?

First, I want to thank you for including me, this is very cool, and I appreciate it!  Well, I started playing bass and singing at a very young age.   I wanted to be a rockstar when I grew up, even when I was 7 years old!   One day a friend introduced me to Iron Maiden, which instantly became my favorite band.  I became an avid metalhead in my teens, and played and sang along with my records- Maiden, Ozzy, Dio, Manowar, Mercyful Fate, Rush, etc. 

When I was 19, I decided I wanted to play for a living, so I got into Top 40, just so I could work.  I played every kind of music possible in nightclubs all over the Pacific NW for many years, including in Seattle in the 90's with a hard rock cover band.  But I moved back to Portland and got into the blues scene in order to work full time in clubs.  That's when I fell in love with blues music!  I played and sang with Paul deLay, Linda Hornbuckle, Sonny Hess, Lloyd Jones & more. 

Eventually I started writing and recording my own music.  I have self-produced many full-length albums, and have received some awards for them, gratefully.  I've also received some awards for my bass playing, including two Blues Music Awards from the prestigious Blues Foundation in Memphis TN.  I'm not a rock star like I wanted when I was a kid!  But I've done well enough for myself, and have only done music for a living for a very long time.

In addition to being a vocalist, you are also an accomplished bass player.  When did you get started on bass?  What got you into playing this instrument?

I was always attracted to the sound of the bass, it was always what my ears gravitated toward.  My mom had an acoustic guitar, and I would pluck out bass lines from my parents record collection like Deep Purple, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.   Plus, I thought Gene Simmons was so cool and I was a huge KISS fanatic!  I wanted to be Gene Simmons when I grew up- fly and breathe fire and play bass and be super cool, ya know.  But I would need a bass guitar, of course. 

When I was 11, I saw a violin shaped bass (like the Beatles) at a pawn shop.  I have since found out it is an Apollo, a Japanese bass.  I put it on layaway with ten dollars.  Then I saved my lunch money all year to buy it, and I walked home to eat lunch, like a can of beans or some toast- I was malnourished!  I finally got the bass when I was 12, when my grandfather paid the remaining money off as a gift.  I played the hell out of that thing, as well as a G&L 4-string, and an 8-string Kramer that I bought later in my teens.  I got into neo-classical music for a while, and ran out of frets, so I ended up buying a 6-string Warwick bass at age 20, and never looked back.  I still play a 6-string, my first-year Gibson era Tobias bass.  It's like another limb of my body at this point.

And speaking of White Crone, what inspired you to start a metal project after many years in the blues genre?

I have always listened to metal, as well as blues and R&B.  The guys in my touring band love metal too, so we listen to it in the van on the road.  I never intended to make a metal album, until a few years ago, when something happened.  I was participating in the Grammy Awards, and I heard Ghost for the first time.  It was the song "Cirice," which went on to deservedly win the Grammy for Best Metal Performance.  I remember walking into the living room and playing the song to my husband, saying "Isn't this weird?" 

I started listening to more Ghost and I was impressed at how daring and "Zero Fucks Given" Tobias Forge's music is.  One day while listening, it occurred to me "Wait a minute, you mean -- you can just do what you WANT?"  It was like a light went off in my head.  Melodies started oozing out of me, when I was driving, showering, taking a walk.  I started recording the bits and pieces on a phone app. 

Soon I started recording whole songs on a home recording program, and I bought e-drums and a 7-string guitar in order to finish the tracks.  I wasn't sure whether to release it (what would my blues people think?), but I simply wanted to record an album I would have bought when I was 16 years old.  Later, I came to realize that there are many others like me who loved metal "back in the day."  It's for those fans that I made The Poisoner a reality.

Your recently released blues EP Old Girl made the Billboard Blues Chart!  Congratulations!  Can you tell us about the writing and recording process of that album?

Thank you very much!  I've gathered a passel of loyal blues fans (and some new ones!) who helped make that happen.  To be honest, The Poisoner took up all of my recording time for a long time, so my fans had to wait to get any new music.  I didn't have enough songs for a full album, but I had four new tunes as well as a Rosetta Tharpe song I'd been performing regularly.  So instead of making them wait, I released the five song EP, Old Girl

Oddly enough, the song "Old Girl" was inspired by my adventure in recording and releasing The Poisoner.  It's a very Americana, almost country, type of song. The first line I wrote in that song was "Feels like I'm starting out brand new, and that isn't an easy thing to do for an Old Girl."  It's about being in an in-between place- not young anymore, but damn sure not ready to be an old lady!

Recording blues and roots music is a very different process than recording metal.  With The Poisoner, I meticulously tracked every part out in pre-production.  I even tracked drum parts (badly) on electronic drums to direct drummer Larry London as to what I wanted.  (He of course improved on those parts immensely.)

But with contemporary blues albums, aside from a few tightly arranged R&B inspired songs, I usually just record a bass and vocal scratch track, then give the musicians some general ideas about what I'm hearing, and they go to work adding their flavor to the mix.  Recording engineer Kevin Hahn and I have worked on many albums together, blues and White Crone, and he is a musician himself.  Sometimes we all get into a creative groove while in the studio, with everyone bandying ideas about like they used to do in the old days.  It's a far more organic process.

CD liner notes reveal that the song "It's the Monkeys or Me" is inspired by a true story -- what on earth???!  What happened with the monkeys??

Yes, that song is based on a true story!  I have a friend named Joanne Broh, she is also a vocalist and recording artist.  I was hanging with her at a show, and I asked her to tell me how she met her long-time sweetheart Robert.  She began telling me this crazy story, and before she was even done telling it, I could hear the song being written in my head.  He had a traveling circus type show, with monkeys and a raccoon and a big painted trailer.  She was crazy about him, but one day a monkey bit her on the ass, and she said, that's it.  We both looked at each other and said "It's the Monkeys or Me" and laughed our asses off.  I told her, "you know I am going to write a song about this, right?"  So I did.  And I also released a very silly video of the song, with Jason Thomas on guitar and Dave Melyan on drums, directed by Cypress Jones.  The real stars of the video are the monkeys, though- stuffed animals who come to life in sometimes creepy ways.  As for the real monkeys, they did end up in some kind of sanctuary.

The song "Everybody's Making Money" is a humorous -- but apt -- story of trying to make it as a professional musician.  Can you tell us about what inspired this song?

That song is about the never-ending expenses involved in being a touring and recording artist.  By the time everybody else gets paid, there's not much left for you!  Sometimes I wonder, who exactly is working for who?  I wrote that when on tour in the UK, where I toured for a few years in a row thanks to a guitarist and booker named Dudley Ross.  I was in a very budget hotel room in Folkestone when I wrote that tune- it had a TV with 3 channels and a buffet breakfast for 5 quid!  I had so much fun on those tours, but after the van, petrol, hotels, meals and of course hiring the stellar sidemen, it was break even for me.  But hey, how often do I get to see random castles and ancient churches and eat Welcome Break pasties, as well as play with some killer musicians?  As the song goes, it's all worth it in the end to me.

How do you manage all those "music-adjacent" expenses like graphic design, booking, recording, etc and make sure there is some left over for yourself?

Credit cards!  It's an ebb and flow.  There comes a point where you let go of what went out and focus on the money that's coming back- the reverse flow.  You go into debt, and then you bang it back down.  Some projects take longer in that cycle than others.  When touring the US, selling merch definitely helps, so now that we had to cancel several tours, that day-of-show sale has vanished.  As for booking fees, I do pretty well playing regionally, as the expenses aren't terribly high.  Summer festivals are usually our bread and butter.  Also, when I tour, I don't go out as much as other bands do.  I am my own booking agent, so I am very judicious in my routing and in what gigs I'll accept.  So far I have never lost money on a tour, and I've never asked my guys to work for free.  It does mean I'm not reaching as many potential audiences as I should, but now that the pandemic has happened, that's a moot point.

How has the pandemic affected you, either personally or professionally?

Within the first few weeks of lockdown in March, I lost almost 90 gigs.  Just one after another.  I kept getting messages saying "I'm so very sorry, but..." and then I would let them know that it was completely expected.  I have done a few COVID-protocol outdoor shows this summer, but now the cold is upon us. 

Luckily, I was able to get some help through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, at least until the Old Girl CD came out and started selling.  It's been very hard on my husband Allen Markel, who plays bass with Grammy Award nominee Sugaray Rayford.  They were about to do a long tour of continental Europe before everything shut down.

One really positive thing, I have been able to re-connect with audiences in the Midwest, east coast, and in the UK, thanks to live streaming.  I try to stream some blues music from my Facebook page, just me and my bass, every Tuesday at 2pm pacific.  That way my UK friends can tune in before bedtime.  

What advice would you give to a person who wants to make a living as a musician in 2020?

I think it is very important that we all focus on what IS working rather than bemoan what ISN'T.  This is a coronavirus, and a vaccine is not coming along any time soon.  No one has ever made a vaccine for any type of coronavirus, ever.  So it doesn't do any good to get worked up about the fact that we can't travel overseas, or play big indoor shows.  Across every industry, we have to take advantage of the technologies at hand and steer our efforts to what is possible in this strange era. 

It is important to learn new skills rather than leaving things to chance, or stomp our feet demanding things open up before they should.  I took a few classes on social media marketing which I found very helpful, for instance.  Also, don't listen to anyone who tells you "learning new skills" means abandoning music as a profession.  People who make their living in the arts have been treated very poorly lately, and told we should just give up.  Maybe we need a side gig at times, or some government or charitable assistance.  But don't let the dream die -- and never grow up!


Visit Lisa Mann's website for music, news, and more!


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