Lisa Burns discusses the 40th anniversary of her MCA debut album, her new album with George Usher, CBGB’s, her new wave band Velveteen, and her inspiration from Jackie DeShannon, Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las and Annie Golden of The Shirts.
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: 40 years ago, in the spring of 1978, my very first published magazine article was my review of your debut album. I was an early and immediate fan and focused on the versatility in your vocal delivery, the album’s production and the cover songs included.
LISA BURNS: I remember it as one of my favorite reviews. In your comparisons, when you wrote that I had “the innocence of Melanie,” you got it. I was innocent in my early music era. I was new to the recording process and was faced with a big label, MCA. I had played in various bands at New York City clubs including CBGB’s, Max’s and Trude Heller’s. In 1977 I went to see The Shirts at CBGB’s and afterwards I shared a cab ride with producer Craig Leon and his lawyer that led to a production deal. I did a demo of a Moon Martin composition, “Victim of Romance,” which I learned from the Michelle Phillips version on her 1977 album, and then we did a showcase for MCA, which led to the album.
GM: I was introduced to your music on the Detroit/Windsor, Ontario station CKLW. They featured songs with Canadian content including Quebec’s Pagliaro. They played your version of “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy,” and I thought it was as powerful as his original, which I loved. I went to Record Theatre, found and bought your album, and was pleased to see another Pagliaro favorite on it, “Some Sing, Some Dance.”
LB: Craig introduced me to those songs and we couldn’t decide on which one to do, so we recorded them both.
GM: The album begins with a song from The Box Tops, that I somehow missed in 1969, “Soul Deep.”
LB: I am not sure I knew this one either. Everyone knows “The Letter” and I loved The Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby.” I like the soulful quality of “Soul Deep” with its pop and soul mix.
GM: Another favorite that I mentioned in my review is the Jackie DeShannon composition “When You Walk in the Room.” Like “Soul Deep,” this is another one that I learned from you, as I didn’t hear the 1964 Searchers version until much later.
LB: I am a fan of Jackie’s recordings but didn’t know what a great songwriter she is. I love her and listened to her version of “When You Walk in the Room” in making the album. Later, I got to meet her and wrote a piece in a magazine about her. Earlier this year I recorded a tribute song about her called “The Girl with the Sunshine Hair.” One of my favorite Jackie DeShannon songs is a 1966 flip side, where she was joined by The Byrds, called “Splendor in the Grass.”
Flip side: Slow Burn
A side: When You Walk in the Room
GM: Speaking of flip sides, as the flip side of your “When You Walk in the Room” single, “Slow Burn” was selected and was a featured song, in the Rolling Stone album review in the late summer of 1978. Ken Tucker wrote that David McLean’s drums sounded like the sharp rap of knuckles on a door and became a hook within the song. He also praised “In the Streets,” comparing it to the sound of The Ronettes.
LB: David’s drum on “Slow Burn” was key in the mix, giving it an attention grabbing edge. “In the Streets” was the album’s first single, before “When You Walk in the Room.” I was going for a “Poor Side of Town” theme on “In the Streets” and the album’s closing number, “Tell Tale Heart,” served as its flip side.
GM: You co-wrote all three of those songs. Along with Moon Martin’s “Victim of Romance,” two more songs that he wrote were the slower ones, “Love Gone Bad” and “Cry When You’re Alone.”
LB: On the three songs that I co-wrote, Craig set up a Brill Building-style writing session with us, Donna Tonery and Helen Wheels, who wrote some Blue Oyster Cult lyrics including “Tattoo Vampire,” the flip side of “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” from their Agents of Fortune Album. “Love Gone Bad” and “Cry When You’re Alone” sit nicely in the middle of both sides of the album. My favorite is “Cry When You’re Alone,” which Moon Martin supposedly wrote specifically for me. It kills me. Promoting the MCA album, we played some shows at The Bottom Line and the band was Sal Maida on bass, Mike Brown from The Beckies, and formerly of The Left Banke and Stories, on keyboards, and, from Sparks, Jim McAllister on guitar and Hilly Michaels on drums.
GM: Now we have discussed all ten songs on your debut album, which was included in early January 1979, in our “Top 10 LP’s of ’78” listing, high in my Top 10. The next recording for you came as an independent release with your single “Love Wanted.”
LB: After working with Sal in my band, we started to write songs together. He and I wrote and produced both sides of the “Love Wanted” single.
GM: “Love Wanted” has a catchy sound that we enjoyed from Blondie at the time and “Cool Boy, Cruel Boy,” seems ahead of its time with a punk-ska sound we would hear in the next decade from No Doubt. In 1983, when Berlin debuted with their seven song album, you and Sal released your album, After Hours, where the two of you wrote all six songs. “Wild Rain” was up-tempo new wave, on par with Missing Persons and “Nothing to Do” is probably my favorite, with its steady beat and Sal’s strong bass line, plus it is great to hear the two of your voices together on the chorus.
LB: “Nothing to Do” is my favorite on the album on Atlantic. It was an interesting time with a battle of new wave versus corporate rock.
GM: In 1990, you and Sal have two compositions on Sarah Brightman’s As I Came of Age CD. There is the catchy rock number “Some Girls” and the title song, reflecting the ‘60s, with the chorus, “Boots were made for walkin’. Winds were blowin’ change. Boys fought in the jungle, as I came of age.” How did Sarah find your work?
LB: MCA music publishing sent Sal and me to write and record with the talented Memphis musician, Jack Holder. We arrived in pouring rain, so we stayed in our hotel room and wrote the song “As I Came of Age” that night so we’d have something to show him the next day. I had just watched the film Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and was moved to write the lyrics. The next day we were in the studio with Jack, we played him the song, and began recording it immediately. Jack was working with an artist signed to Peter Asher’s management company so folks involved in the company heard the song. Val Garay fell hard for the song and he happened to be producing Sarah.
GM: In 1998, you and Sal were part of a country rock quartet called The Lovin’ Kind and released the CD Along the Way. “We Just Drive,” reminds me of songs on the Trio album from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. “Contradiction” is bouncy and fun and “This Red Rose” sounds like songs I enjoy these days from Brandy Clark.
LB: I was deep in discovering country music at the time, so we set about experimenting with a rotating group of New York musician friends who were into it. We were inspired by Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album, Gram Parsons and of course all the great ladies who sounded like broken angels. Someone said that The Lovin’ Kind is where Emmylou Harris’ Elite Hotel meets CBGB’s.
GM: On 2004’s Unadorned CD, you sing of “Chocolat” on this up tempo number with a background that sounds like violins. “The Otherside” is slow, alternative and eerie. Is “Purgatory” one of the first or the first song that you wrote with George Usher?
LB: On Unadorned I wanted something raw. I played guitar on all the songs, working with friends Arthur Lamonica of The Shirts and Tom Clark from High Action Boys and of course Sal. “Chocolat” was written with New York poet Holly Anderson and that violin sound you hear is actually James Mastro’s magical guitar overdubs. He is known for his work with Ian Hunter. And yes, “Purgatory” was George and my first collaboration and would lead to our musical partnership.
GM: On your 2009 Channeling Mary CD, there are three songs that you wrote with your and Sal’s son Dylan that are among my favorites, “Pretty Disillusion,” “She Read Rilke” and “Circa ’73.” On that last song, I love how your lyrics capture the glam and glitter era. There was some great FM music in that time. Also, who is Mary that you were channeling?
LB: It was Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, who has an extraordinary voice and presence. The first time I took part in a series called “The Beat Goes On” produced by Edward Rogers and Jeanne Stahlman at The Bottom Line, I was asked to sing “Out in the Streets” by the Shangri-Las. Believe me, it was a challenge. After I performed it, Alan Pepper asked me how I did it and I replied, “I was just channeling Mary”. He suggested I write a song about that, so I did. “She Read Rilke” was written for my sister who passed away, “Circa’73” was my memory of hanging out during the glam era and I dug up my soul roots for “Pretty Disillusion.” My son Dylan was playing some cool keyboards and was willing to work with his mom. I did some of this record on my laptop and put it all together with the mighty Joe Ford at South Brooklyn Sound.
GM: Your 2015 duo CD with George Usher, The Last Day of Winter, has a full band sound. “Lost in Translation” has a wonderful melody. The piano on “My Precious Wisdom” reminds me of Burton Cummings. “The Ferryman’s Name” is so catchy.
LB: I love the piano part you mentioned. It’s joyous. George was going through such a challenging time with his cancer treatments but was also delivering great lyrics to me which I sought to do justice to musically. This record has various layers to uncover and is a very meaningful piece of work to us.
GM: Now the two of you are back with the new album George & Lisa.
LB: George is one my best friends. On the 2015 album, he could not play guitar, as his hand was weak from cancer treatments. George wrote all the lyrics on that 2015 album and I wrote all the melodies. He is doing well today and we both play guitar and keyboards.
GM: The new dozen song album opens with “Wonder Drug” and sets the stage for the performances to follow, hearing your voices and acoustic guitars.
LB: George and I recorded this album in his tiny back room. We wanted to let the songs be carried by our voices and guitars. I think of it as a private musical conversation. On “Wonder Drug,” I sing lead on the verses and George sings lead on the bridges. This first song establishes a pattern that we use pretty much throughout the album in slightly different ways.
GM: I enjoy your vocal harmony on the chorus and bridge for “Love Can Be a Lost Tomorrow.”
LB: There’s a lush, romantic quality to this song that I get swept up in. When I am singing harmony, I am actually listening. It’s that conversational approach again.
GM: You bring a wonderful melodic range, reminiscent of John Denver’s writing, on “I Know You’re There.”
LB: George championed this song and my doing it solo. The melody and lyrics have a simplicity that hopefully achieves a quiet power in the chiming guitar setting.
GM: You take us on a magical maiden voyage, with an eerie mood on “Rise Rise Rise.”
LB: A-ha! I like that image. This song is a crowd pleaser live. There is a lot of sly vocal trading here that the listener may or may not be aware of. I think of it as soulful, rootsy and eerily joyful.
GM: I think the catchiest song on the new album is “Vacant Prince.” George’s relaxed voice reminds me of Kenny Rogers.
LB: I agree that it’s catchy, and to me it’s reminiscent of Neil Young. I could listen to George sing all day. I like that you mentioned relaxed, because that was exactly how we approached the singing, with an easy does it attitude and mostly using our first takes. These are honest performances with no frills.
GM: Thank you for sharing 40 years of music with me and our Goldmine readers.
LB: Thank you for caring. George and I will be performing in the New York area. Also, Sal and our son Dylan, on keyboards, and I are all in Annie Golden’s back-up band. In addition to doing songs from her catalog, Annie performs Burns/Maida songs, which are on her new EP Annie Golden Live at the Cutting Room.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.