Sara Lee Interview

By Rose Gardina

The Boston Girl Guide chats with the legendary bass player for the B-52’s, Indigo Girls, Joan Osborne, Fiona Apple plus many more about her solo album debut.
The album features songs co-written by Ani Difranco & Emily Sailers.

BGG: What inspired you to break out and do “Make it Beautiful”?
Sara: I think what inspired me was a matter of time in a way. I had been playing with other people for so long and I guess it just got to be the time in my career where I felt like, I should try to do this myself, rather than just being a bass player for everybody else. I thought I should just try to do a record myself.
BGG: Excellent choice, I might add.
Sara: Thank you!

BGG: How has your past experiences helped you and what are some of the things that you just didn’t have to deal with before that you have to deal with now?
Sara: I think the past experiences all just build, they give you everything, the way you play, and the way you hear music or what you like, what you don’t like. You sort of develop your feeling for music over the years having played with a lot of different artists. I play to the point where it just felt like I knew exactly the kind of music I wanted to play and I have played a lot of different kinds of music. I think being in the business for a long time and having done records with other people and shows with other people when it came to doing my own record, I knew what was involved. It was sort of an easy transition to make. I wasn’t a newcomer that didn’t know how anything worked. I know what happens exactly at gigs and so and so. All that past experience just helped make everything flow pretty smoothly in that way. At least I know what the business is about and what goes on and what you have to do and what you don’t do to make it run smoothly.

BGG: What is your favorite song on “Make it Beautiful”?
Sara: Impossible to say, I mean when you write music or the songs yourself, you have attachments to them and maybe for different reasons. “Make it Beautiful” itself, I loved because I came up with it when I was driving my car. I actually just left a friend of mine in the hospital; she just had a baby. I saw the baby and her and left and on the half-hour drive home, that song came into my head. It was compounded by the fact that Ani wrote the lyrics which would have been one of the top few people I would have chosen to write lyrics for any of my songs and decided to do it. So when she wrote the lyrics, and the way that song evolved it was just a made in heaven kind of thing. It is hard to say, “Come Out” was written one night really late into the night, I usually don’t stay up late and I’m not a very good rock ‘n’ roller. I actually stayed up all night, maybe until 4 or 5 in the morning writing this song and by the time I had finished it, I thought, “My God, what on earth have I written”. I had to have a friend of mine come over and listen to it the next day to tell me if it was ok or not. I love it, it is a very unusual structure but the fact that Amy Guild who was with “The Gang of Four” was willing to play on it, again just enhanced the feeling of song and what it was about for me. “I’ll Wait For You” really is about my father in a lot of ways, it is in part about my father and in part about regeneration. That means a lot to me too. So there is a lot of different reasons why I am partial to all of it.

BGG: Do you tour with the same people or is it various artists at times?
Sara: I have pretty much a band that I tour with, yeah, the first band that I started out with that you saw me with in Chaser’s the only person that has changed is the keyboard player.
BGG: So is Eric still with you?
Sara: Eric is not with me now, I can’t afford it basically because he is in Los Angeles and when I am here in the Northeast just puttering around the northeast doing shows, I can’t afford to fly him in. If I am ever able to afford to fly him in, I would love to. I think he is great.
BGG: He was really great when I met him, Anne Cline is pretty cool too; they all seem like really decent people.
Sara: Yeah they are. Since I have replaced the keyboard player and I got someone who is a little older with a bit more experience which basically is what was lacking before. This new guy I have is really very good as well.
BGG: Where is your favorite place to play?
Sara: That’s a hard question too. You know when you play a big place, like the Hamistine Ballroom in New York, when I opened for Ani was one of the best gigs I have ever done. It was one of the most exciting. To play in a place like that to maybe 5,000 people and they were all standing. The good thing about that place is that people stand. It is more fun having people standing up than people sitting in rows. That gig was a very exciting gig. To be opening for Ani, who I love dearly and to be in front of a very responsive crowd was definitely a highlight. I also like playing smaller places too where you are very much closer to the audience. It is a different experience and that can even be more nerve wracking than doing a big club.
BGG: They are right in your face?
Sara: There are about 30 people looking at you very close up.

BGG: What is the worst gig you ever played?
Sara: I’ve played very small clubs opening for someone where the sound system was so bad I couldn’t hear what I was singing. Those kinds of places are the worst.
BGG: They weren’t in Boston, right?
Sara: No, no but when you hit your worst gig, that’s the great thing about gigging. You can have a fabulous gig in a tiny small hole in the wall or you can have a horribly rotten gig in front of a huge audience. It all depends on the circumstances of each individual night. I think that’s one of the things that contributes to being a worst gig is if the equipment does not work very well and you can’t hear yourself that makes it the worst gig.

BGG: Who has inspired you the most?
Sara: To be honest with you, vocally, Annie Lennox is the probably the most inspiring singer that I have listened to. Whenever I listen to her I am just transported, she is just such an incredible singer. I just admire someone who has that much control over her voice and it sounds so good. That is a real inspiration but I often can be inspired seeing people. I saw Tina Turner last year and she was fabulous to see her just tearing the place down after all these years of doing it, that is inspiring too. On a musical level, I guess my biggest inspiration musically has always been James Brown. I love his music. That is where I feel my core is. It is definitely my favorite kind of music and it is very funky. I love goin to see Mayfield Parker now actually who used to play with James Brown. He played with Ani too. His band is great, just very funky and you just dance all night; the most fun gig to go to.

BGG: What are the top 3 CD’s you’ve been listening to lately?
Sara: I’ve been listening to this Canadian artist, Mary Jane Lamans, have you ever heard of her?
BGG: I don’t believe I have.
Sara: You will have to when she comes down your way. She is based in Nova Scotia, in the Cape Bressen area. She actually sings in Celtic. I first heard her at the Lilith Fair; I think the second year. She has got the most beautiful voice and she sings in Celtic, which of course you can’t understand but it is the most beautiful melting sounding language. She sings in addition to doing all solo voice pieces or maybe with just a guitar or something. The record that I have of her is a lot of sort of dance music behind her voice, very danceable, very pop. It is a beautiful record, Mary Jane Lamans, she is just fabulous. Also, I have been listening to a live concert at Carnagie Hall of Bill Whithers. I think it is from the 70’s, it is so great. I had forgotten, you sometimes you don’t hear an artist for a while? You don’t listen for a while and I just discovered this record and I have been listening to it loads. It is a great record. I have also been listening to this guy called, I’m don’t even know how to pronounce his name actually, Venucia Contarario. He is Brazilian and I think he spends quite a lot of time in New York. Do you know Arthur Lindsay’s work? He has a record on Righteous Babe too actually. He is a guy from New York who works with Venucia off and on. I can’t remember what the name of Arthur’s last record that was on Righteous Babe, well anyway. Venucia Contarario just sings beautifully, it is beautiful Brazilian music.
BGG: Great, now I have 3 great tips for me. I will definitely look them up though.
Sara: Mary Jane Lamens is just wonderful, definitely check her out.

BGG: If you could sit down and have lunch with any person in the world, who would it be and why?
Sara: Oh my goodness… Golly, I have never thought about that.
BGG: Wow, you have been busy.
Sara: Oh, I have been
BGG: I feel your pain, believe me, I work a full time job and writing a magazine at the same time, it is crazy.
Sara: I’m sure, let me think…
BGG: Do you want to go back to that one?
Sara: Yeah, I just can’t seem to think…

BGG: What is your idea of a perfect date?
Sara: A perfect date?
BGG: Yeah, I am getting personal now.
Sara: I have not had much time to think about that either. I would think the perfect date would be going for a hike up a mountain. I love the outdoors and I love nature. I think the perfect date would be going out with somebody and climbing a mountain and enjoying the view from the top and having a packed lunch when we get there.
BGG: As long as there is an elevator to get back down <laughs>. No, that sounds pretty cool.

BGG: How about a word association game?You up for that? I am just going to say something and you just give me a word.

High School: Absolute Fear
London: Great Fun City
B-52’s: Great Fun Band
Joan Osbourne: Fabulous Singer
Fionna Apple: Tremendous Talent
Anne Klein: Dear Friend, Great Guitarist
Gang of Four: I want to experience that again
Boston, Mass: Good walking city

BGG: When you were touring with the Indigo Girls, do you have any funny stories to tell?
Sara: I always remember stories at the wrong time… I can’t remember now. I have more great moments to share. There were times when we did certain shows and people would show up to sing with us; Joan Osbourne, or Jackson Brown or David Crosby. It is something a lot of people ask me and I should know by now that I have to remember funny stories. If you were to ask me that about Ani, I could tell you really funny stories.
BGG: Ok, what about Ani? I can go with that.
Sara: One very fond memory I have of Ani is when we were in Europe. It has to be put into context because for several years, I have worked with bands who have very big budgets, plenty of money and plenty of help. I got the job with Ani and we went to Europe and it was the 3 of us in her band, her and me and Andy Stenchanski and one tour manager and one sound guy. So there were just 2 tour guys. One of the funniest things is remembering how we got around because we would travel by train in Europe. We had several cases of equipment even if it were just drums and bass and guitar. We had a few pieces of large equipment, which we had to smuggle onto the train. We also had to push down the platform and push down underneath those underpasses in Europe that go underneath the rails. We were struggling uphill up this underpass at one point, trying to push these darn cases up the hill and then trying to smuggle them onto the train without the guards seeing. That was one of the funniest things I remember and it was so much fun doing it too. I had not done anything like this in years. It was a lot of fun going on the road with Ani in Europe and trying to cart our own equipment around with us without anybody finding out.

BGG: What was one of your most memorable moments as a musician? You were mentioning a particular tour you did with Ani....
Sara: I think really, playing with Ani is the most memorable time in a way because I love playing with her so much. I felt very compatible with her musically. The touring in Europe that we did was a very special tour, there were several points on that tour that I remember very fondly and certain gigs and certain moments, smuggling ourselves. Oh, this is a funny story, trying to get away with sitting in first class when really we had only economy tickets. But as far as memorable shows, we played a wonderful festival in Switzerland where it was just such a beautiful place and to be playing outdoors at this gorgeous event that also featured an orchestra and a circus from, I think, Russia and they had really fabulous artists, very diverse group of artists playing. It was a 3-day festival I think and it was just a wonderful event.

BGG: Ok, I saw the B-52’s with the Talking Heads at the Berklee Performance center for 7 dollars in 1977. What were you doing that year?
Sara: In 1977, I think that was the year I first got a bass guitar and was playing it. I was probably playing with the first band I ever played with which was called “Sphynx” and it was an all girl band except for the drummer who was a guy but he was also a transvestite.
BGG: Well there you go…
Sara: Yes, there you go. Yeah that was exactly what I was doing in 1977, playing with my first band.
BGG: And how old were you?
Sara: 20

BGG: What do you hope to accomplish this year?
Sara: I would like to keep my band together, which will depend on economics and I just hope I can do a lot of shows and do regular gigs. Also, start writing songs for another album. Primarily, my goal is to be able to keep my band together and to be able to keep doing shows and try to enjoy…. Well, I mean not TRY to enjoy it, I do enjoy it and that is why I am trying to keep it together. It is a very costly thing to do so it depends on finances, really, but that is what I hope.
BGG: Well, I think you will accomplish this, you guys are sounding really great.

BGG: Ok, Sara,back to who you are going to have dinner with?
Sara: Right, I have been thinking. My interest outside of music is learning about distainable energy and all sorts of agriculture. I don’t even know the name of anybody in those fields, but I think I would seek out somebody who would be able to educate me in those areas. Actually, there is an amazing guy in England…
BGG: So you would want to sit down with somebody at lunch to learn.
Sara: Yeah
BGG: Wow!
Sara: Yeah definitely. I am so interested in being self-sustaining. I want to have a small farm and just growing enough food for myself. Not fields of cows and sheep or anything but I want to have enough to make my own food, my own clothes, my own wind power, my own solar power. I want to be self-sustaining. So I would definitely seek out somebody who was very knowledgeable in the area of self-sustainability and have dinner with that person. Who ever that might be.
BGG: I can understand that though, I would just want to have lunch with Angelina Jolie.
Sara: So then, I will have lunch with Juliet Binouche and have dinner with an environmental expert.(laughing)
BGG: There you go.
Sara: I mean a self-sustainable agriculture expert.
BGG: It was a toss up, either Angelina Jolie or Madonna, I wasn’t sure which one.
Sara: Oh, really?
BGG: Yeah, I admire Madonna, I think she is an incredible business person.
Sara: Oh she is amazing.
BGG: There is nobody like her that’s for sure. Have you met her?
Sara: No, never met her, actually I did a gig with her once. I wouldn’t have remembered this unless you said that but I remember doing a benefit for the rainforest in Brooklyn Academy of Music or something in 1999 with the B-52’s and Madonna was there and so was Sandra Bernhart.
BGG: Oh that is when she was doing her thing with Sandra.
Sara: That is pretty wild.
BGG: So you never met her there, she just played there, you didn’t get to talk to her.
Sara: No, we didn’t meet her, I saw her onstage. I remember I was in the wings and I saw her onstage and everybody was milling around backstage. When you do those benefit things, you are usually onstage for a really short time. They are usually doing one song or something. That’s where I remember seeing her.

BGG: What would you like to say to all the women who read the Boston Girl Guide?
Sara: I would just like to say to them, that I thank them for being supportive of my record, and I thank them for coming out to see me as well, when I was playing in Boston. I got some really nice feedback from the Boston shows that I have done. I hope that I will be coming back and playing there again soon.