Blues & Soul Goddess Dana Fuchs (INTERVIEW)

It’s the voice that grabs you first. That big, whiskey-flavored tonsil showdown that can kick your butt one minute and soothe your ills the next. Once she has caught your attention, Dana Fuchs will proceed to give you a piece of her heart with her arsenal of songs that were built from feelings, experiences, some good times, some bad times and a lot of soul searching in a world that can be loving and cruel. Fuchs definitely knows her way around a totem pole of emotions. Raised in Florida but drawn to the energy of New York City, she found her guiding light in a guitar player named Jon Diamond and together they have recorded three studio albums together and one live CD. Last month, they released their second live recording, Songs From The Road, an encapturment of how time, touring and brutally honest songwriting can bring two musicians to unbelievable maturity on all levels; and it just may be the best live CD you will have wrapped your ears around all year.

“Dana is a real powerhouse singer,” Scott Sharrard of the Gregg Allman Band told me recently. “We came up on the same blues/soul scene in NYC in the nineties that was centered around Bleecker Street. At the time, it was like New York’s answer to Beale Street or Bourbon Street, a nasty place at times; in other words, a great place to make some real funky music. Dana’s band was one of the regular acts that would just burn the place down. It was always a blast going to hear her and she always had some of the best cats playing with her: Brian Delaney, Adrian Harpham, Brett Bass, my man Ben Stivers (who is now in The Brickyard band) and many other guys came through her group. She still tears it up and has a great band, one of New York’s best.” Current Whitesnake guitar player Joel Hoekstra, who performed with Fuchs in the musical Love, Janis, agreed: “Dana came in and really brought a fire to the role of Janis.  The musicians felt it and the audience felt it.  It was fantastic working with her.”

Fuchs, recovering from a touch of bronchitis, spoke to Glide last week about her new album and how the steps of her life are showcased from track to track: her childhood as the youngest of six and standing out via her big, bold voice; losing two of those siblings in heartbreaking circumstances; how Diamond showed her the way to the blues beyond the Stones and Zeppelin; how sadness can give way to inspiration; how becoming Janis Joplin every night gave her sass and determination; and how that one right song can connect with so many people.

This is your second live CD. Why do another one, especially since the last one was so good?

Thank you. You know, funny enough, the very first live CD [Live In NYC, 2008], we had recorded a show and then I had the movie coming out, Across The Universe, and I realized I had to have a record come out with it. I had only made one studio CD a few years prior to that, so I went in the studio with a well-known producer and it was completely the wrong direction for me. He was a great guy, the tracks were beautiful, but it was like me on some sort of downer (laughs). Everything was very slow and quiet and I thought, oh my God, I can’t release this. I’ve got this film coming out that shows me doing what I really do. So we had this live show that we had just found and decided to release that. Cut to a few years later, many years later, we sign with Ruf Records and we did two studio CDs with him and he wanted the next one to be a live CD and it was time. I had a lot more material since then and it was fun to do it this time feeling like I had a little more experience and a little more confidence under my belt and a bigger catalog of music to choose from. So we said okay, we’re going to do it in New York and I called in some of my favorite players and some background singers and we went a little bigger this time with the band. So it was just a very different kind of show. You know, the first one was very raw and really when I had just started performing live. And this one is me with a little more experience and a bigger band (laughs).

And along with the CD you get a live DVD with it as well. You get double the bang.

Yeah, you know that was a cool idea. That’s what Ruf Records does. When he’s done a few CDs with each artist, he does this combo of the DVD and CD. And it is nice cause people have the option of listening in their car, watch it at home. It was a good idea.

danalive


You have a lot of songs from Bliss Avenue, your last studio album, on the live CD and that was such a raw record in terms of your songwriting. When you perform songs like this, do you have to turn down those emotions to get through them or do you actually turn them up?

You know, they sort of just turn themselves whichever way they’re going to go on a particular night. It’s usually a little up when you’re charged in front of an audience, especially if I’ve told the story about what the song is about. I’ve had to watch that a little bit cause sometimes I just had to choke through a song and I’m up there crying but the audience, they want the authenticity. I’ve never been the type of performer that is ever comfortable just showing up, saying, “Okay, listen to me, this is about me, watch me.” I feel like it’s so important for me to really connect to the audience and invite them to sort of share the experiences they’ve had. So many people have lost someone that they love or going through a particular problem. We all share these experiences so it’s so important to me to connect with that; so that does charge up the emotion of the song, but in a different way where it’s not so personally about me anymore. It’s more universal. I’m connecting with these other people who have gone through it. One night, I dedicated this song to my late brother and I told people, “If you’ve lost someone you love, bring them here tonight and let’s celebrate their life.” And each person in the audience started calling out a name of a loved one. It was so powerful. That’s never happened again. It happened one time and I was blown away.

You sing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” near the end of your set and you captured those emotions so well. What attracted you to that song in the first place?

When I first moved to New York and I met my guitarist and songwriting partner Jon Diamond, I didn’t really know a lot of the older blues/R&B artists. I mean, I knew who Otis Redding was, of course, Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.” But I didn’t really know the breadth of Otis Redding’s music and Jon showed me this live video from Live At Monterey Pop and it’s Otis doing that song. And I remember I just sat there weeping, my jaw dropped, and I was thinking I had never seen a performance like that with that kind of emotion and raw vocal. And this was years ago, when I first met Jon. I said, “Someday I want to be able to sing that song.” When we first started playing shows around New York City, I was really new at doing that bluesier stuff and I didn’t feel confident enough to do it yet. So when we made our CD, Love To Beg, we were looking for a cool cover to do and I said I really want to pay homage to my idols, the people that made me want to sing and made me want to pursue a career in music. And Otis Redding was at the top, my all-time favorite. So I said, “I’m going to try this song again,” and the band just started playing it, and I had such great musicians in the studio, and I was in the vocal booth and I was just weeping through it (laughs). And I said, “Okay, we’re going to keep it.” And I still didn’t brave it live except for maybe a couple shows. So this was actually the first show in a while that I braved that song live.

I thought it was a regular part of your set.

No, I kept chickening out (laughs). We kept intending for it to be and I did it a couple of times but I was insecure and I thought, oh, you need all the horns and you need all the parts, and then we were in rehearsals for the live DVD and my bass player said, “No you don’t, you just need to sing it.” (laughs)

danalivestage3You open the CD with “Bliss Avenue” and that’s such a ballsy, in-your-face song. Is that how you start off your shows, with this attention-getter?

For a while it’s been “Bliss,” yeah. At first I was a little bit like, “Can I just come out and slam people over the head with this song?” (laughs) But I figure it sort of sets up what the show is going to be, just this raw emotion and we’re all going to spill our guts tonight.

But the lyrics are not all happy-go-lucky. It’s got some serious stuff going on.

It’s a dark tune and it was about going through that painful experience of seeing someone just really destroying themselves with addiction and loving them so much but getting to the point where you just snap and you can’t keep picking them up off the floor. And it’s funny because I had that experience going on and knew that someday I needed to write about it. Then one day when Jon and I were getting together to write for the album, we had no idea what songs were going to be on it. We were like, oh shit, we better hurry and write some music. And Jon just started doing that bam-bam-bam on guitar and started mumbling, he wasn’t even saying words, and I literally sat down and started singing, “I got nobody.” And when it happened, I said this was going on the record and this was going to be the name of the record. We just knew in that moment and we really hadn’t written any other songs yet for the record.

When you were just a little kid running around singing, is this what came out – that husky, whiskey-drenched voice or were you all sweet and pretty?

Oh never sweet (laughs). I sounded like a whiskey drinking, cigarette smoking forty year old when I was five (laughs). I always had this very deep, scratchy voice and I would always try to pitch it up at school when they would do roll call and I’d say, “Here.” I remember the teacher once saying, “Dana, don’t ever do that. Go with that beautiful low voice.” And I was so appreciative of that cause kids would pick on me for it.

Was music always a part of your household?

Oh totally. I was the youngest of six so music was always playing, back then it was the vinyl on the record player, and then my older brother and sister, my oldest brother who passed and my sister who passed, they had a band they started very young so they were always playing and my dad turned part of our living room into a music room for them. They were doing cover songs and playing around the area and I was about nine and my job was to listen to the records of the songs and write the lyrics out for them. So I was always singing around the house. Then I would get to go sometimes to shows. They started playing later on in lounges and I’d sometimes get to go with my parents and get to get up onstage and sing with them. I was the little kid with the very loud voice.

You said you had five older siblings. How did you stand out? How did you get attention?

I was the loudest and the tallest. I’m six feet tall and I somehow got the lungs of my father, who had a big barreling, booming voice.

What sparked you to start writing songs?

When I first started performing in New York and got really into that whole blues scene and was just so taken away by that music and those voices, I was doing obscure R&B/bluesy covers, all the bands that influenced the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, who were my favorites, Jon had said, “No, you got to listen to who they listened to.” So we started doing that music and then I realized, you know, this is great but I don’t have these stories, I didn’t grow up on Tobacco Road, I wasn’t a slave, I don’t have that history of oppression. So I realized I’ve got my own sort of blues and it’s time to tell my own stories, because when you want to get charged every night to perform, especially then we were performing a lot, you know, after a while of singing someone else’s stories, it just doesn’t charge you as much. So I was like, alright, I got to write my own music, and that’s when sort of the rock & roll aspect came in my music cause I was such a little rock & roll girl.

I’ve heard you used to put on these little talent shows during recess at school. What were you doing?

Oh just anything. I would write little plays. My sister had all these albums by The Beatles and Queen and I would make little rock operas up and then I’d cast different people at recess. Of course, I was always the lead and we would put on these little shows all the time (laughs).

You also did plays in school. Were they musicals or just skits?

No, it was just skits and acting, unless it was the ones I wrote, which were musicals (laughs). I did a lot of plays in school starting in like third grade. I remember the first audition was to play the lead witch and all the girls went up there and did the lines really flat; they just memorized them and said them with no emotion. And the teacher said, “I want somebody to come up here and if the words are ‘boo hoo hoo, what shall I do?’ and she’s crying, come up here.” I remember thinking, this is either going to be the most embarrassing day of my life or I’m going to get this part. So I did. I went up there and acted it all out and after that I got cast in the lead in every play. And I realized at a young age that trying to be cool and being self-conscious on a stage will get you nowhere.

And you’ve never been shy about being onstage?

You know, I get nervous, certainly sometimes, but definitely not shy. I’m more comfortable actually on a stage. I’m more shy in a social one-on-one, funny enough. I would be nervous doing what you do (laughs).

Why did you choose to go to New York and not LA or Nashville?

You know, I’ve just always thought I had a connection to New York. My dad was from the Bronx, my mom was from New Jersey. And I love the season changes. When I was a little girl in Florida, my grandmother, who was from New York, when she’d come to visit I would hear about the turning leaves and I was such a little book worm and I would read stories about the leaves on the ground. And I’m in Florida mind you, in eighty/ninety degree weather in October, and I would put on a sweater and ask neighbors if I could rake their leaves and ask my mom to make me hot chocolate. I was just obsessed with it and I like cold weather and I just knew that this is where I belonged. Soon as I got here, it was in the fall and I walked out and I called my mom weeping, “This is it, I’m home.” And I never looked back. I never had a draw to LA and I’ve actually never even been to Nashville. But I’m a four seasons girl and I just like the grime and the culture of New York. I just think there’s such reality here. You see it all.

dana00Do you have a favorite part of New York City?

Now, it’s where I am actually living, Harlem. I love it here.

When you first came to New York, your life wasn’t really easy. What kept you there, what kept you going?

You know, again, I just knew this was the only chance I really had to kind of open my world. Growing up in a very small town, and at that point before I left for New York, I was singing in these local little Holiday Inn clubs. It was quite depressing. So I knew I needed to be in a bigger city and New York was the only city I had ever really just fantasized my whole life about moving to. It definitely kicked my ass the first few years but something just told me that this was it. You know, New York is a city that can really beat you down but it can also offer you the world. So I always kind of knew, there’s still that light at the end of the tunnel and it’s here in New York for me. I soon met Jon Diamond and he was such a stable guy that became such a dear friend and his family sort of took me in and I had a lot of support to sort of turn it around, so to speak. There’s just a lot of help in New York. I remember finding this therapist. She was thirty dollars and at first she didn’t even charge me, I was so broke, and she’s still a good friend. I’m still in touch with her, it’s amazing. So there is just so much opportunity here to really grow as a human being, not just as an artist or entrepreneur, but to really grow as a human.

How did you get involved with the Love, Janis production?

I was playing around town and the musical director of it, this guy named Rob Clores, we were playing around the same clubs. He was the keyboard player in the band and he kept saying, “We need singers, we need singers.” I guess the singers were just dropping like flies in the show. It was not an easy show to do. And he kept asking me if I’d audition and at the time I wasn’t interested. We were signing with a small label, we had just made our CD, Lonely For A Lifetime, and I just wanted to tour and not be stuck in New York anymore just playing on the circuit. And he was like, “Just come see the show.” So I saw the show and it was amazing and then I finally agreed to do an audition. It was really funny, they called me and I said, “I can’t come down today.” And they said, “We’ll wait for you. Come tonight.” I got there and I thought, these people must be desperate but there was like twenty-five or thirty young girls sitting in the lobby with their resumes and I thought, well, none of these chicks look like they could really pull this off, cause you really sort of had to have lived a little bit of that life of singing every night. At that point, I had been doing three hour shows at night at these bars several times a week and I think that was an important criteria to have to do that show, because you’ve got to really understand where she was coming from, where the music’s coming from, and then have that vocal power to be able to do it. So I went in and I didn’t really know Janis’ music that well and Jon helped me and we did “Piece Of My Heart” and they said, “Can you start next week?” Oh shit (laughs). I had eight days to learn all the dialogue and nineteen Janis Joplin songs. It was insane but it was so amazing.

Which one of her songs took you the longest to grasp?

“Summertime” was a huge challenge for me. It’s very Jazzy and you know she starts it with that (singing) “ahhhh” and I didn’t know quite how to do that yet in a subtle way (laughs). I would work with the MD and he was, “You can’t belt that.” You know, she had a lot of subtly. Everybody thinks she was just a screamer and a belter but oh my God, I didn’t realize that until I had to learn these songs and I had her in my headphones day and night. I lived, ate, breathed Janis Joplin and I was so blown away by the level of talent of someone that young. It was crazy. So “Summertime” was a challenge and it was the one I was always scared about singing at the show. It was just such a Jazzy song and it had a lot of subtly and nuance. And it turned out to become one of my favorites.

Being her every night, what about her has stayed with you since then?

I say this to young people – sometimes I’m asked to do clinics when I’m on tour, young kids who want to be onstage and some of them have all the schooling for the instrument or the voice but they’re scared to death to perform – and I really learned that as soon as you try to be cool, you’re not and it’s awkward and uncomfortable. You know, Janis obviously had a lot of demons and couldn’t embrace herself when she wasn’t onstage and I think that was what led her to the drugs and her downfall, but it’s about embracing yourself period, on and off stage, and I really took that with me, because I had had an experience with drug addiction and I was clean by the time, of course, I did this show. It was really remarkable to see how those demons can get you, especially when you’re a performer and you’ve got to be on all the time and the balance of life that you have to maintain. So it’s that balance in life and embracing who you are, not caring if you screw up in front of an audience. And I took that back to my own music after I finished the shows. If spit flies out of my mouth in the middle of the show, so be it; if I fall onstage, so be it (laughs). It was an amazing experience and it was a big turning point for me.

Do you write all of your songs with Jon?

Yeah, but there’s been a couple I’ve worked on with others. Like “Almost Home,” I started with this other guy and then Jon and I finished it. On the new CD, “Rodents In The Attic,” that’s not with Jon at all. That’s with Kevin Mackall, someone very close to me who actually produced the live CD. He’s also a great bass player. We wrote that together with another friend of ours, the wife of the guy who engineers, you see him on all my CDs, Tim Hatfield. He’s our mixer/engineer and he co-produced Bliss Avenue. His wife is an incredible guitar player, so the three of us wrote “Rodents In The Attic.”

That is a great song that you brought such vivid life to live.

It’s really just about mental illness, like our mind torturing us. I think to some degree, all of us are mentally ill. I say it onstage, “We’re all kind of fucking crazy,” and it’s embracing that and embracing that many of our loved ones are a little crazy. But how our minds can torture us so much, how we worry and all the anxiety and people are on anti-depressants and it’s just because we let our mind torture us and it’s so unnecessary.

How hard was it to write the song about your brother?

I wrote it a year after he passed away, and you know, that was another one like “Bliss Avenue” that just poured out. I was at Jon’s and we were working on tunes for the new CD and he just started noodling and playing this beautiful melody and I got goosebumps; I’m getting goosebumps telling you this story now. But I sat down and said, “Wait a minute” and I opened my laptop and said, “This is going to be a song about my brother, I know it.” And I literally wrote those lyrics almost all in one take, just one fell swoop, while Jon just played this loop. I said, “Just keep playing that, don’t stop.” And I just sat there typing and humming and typing and humming and he kept playing that loop over and over. We recorded it right there on the spot, just him and me, acoustic and voice, and we were like done and that was it. I was weeping and it was like so cathartic.

I don’t know how you do that and then get up there and sing it to the world.

(laughs) I’ve been a mess sometimes doing that one.

danamagHave you ever written a song that was so personal that you haven’t released it yet?

No (laughs). You know, the more personal it is the more compelled I am to do it. I mean, there are songs that I’ve written about stuff that is so personal and could be damaging to others to tell the story, whether it was incest involved and stuff like that, that I won’t tell that story onstage but I’ll do the song.

What is the most unique thing that has inspired you to write a song?

Good question. There’s been a few tragically unique, certainly the suicide of my sister. Before my sister’s suicide, I always thought, is it cowardly for people to take their lives? You know, there was that judgment about suicide and once it was so close to home and knowing my sister the way I knew her, I thought it was quite brave what she did, and tragically so cause I know she saw no way out and I don’t know if she could have bounced back. She was so damaged.

Did you realize that at the time when it first happened? Or did it take a while for you to get over the anger?

I was never angry. I was angry at myself and my family. I was never angry at my sister. I was so angry at all of us who just didn’t take heed to the many warnings that proceeded it, that were subtle, you know. I had only gotten to know her again, cause she was considerably older and she left home when I was very young and came to New York to pursue the same dream. By the time I moved up here, she was pretty far gone and I would call my parents and say, “No, no, no, she needs help.” And it was, “Oh, she’s a drama queen.” I was young and a bit of a mess myself, trying to get my own life on track, and trying to connect with her. Then I started to clean up my act from the drugs and tried to get her to come see this therapist with me and all of that and she was very offended by that. She was just very far gone mentally at that point. So her suicide was not a surprise; it was a shock but not really a surprise, certainly in retrospect. But no, I was never ever angry at her. I was just so sad for her and how tragic her life was.

I think we’ve all known someone who has been through that.

Yes, so many of us know somebody. It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it. Sure, we all get down and I remember in the height of my drug use in my late teens/early twenties, there would be those times when you’re coming down and I would say, this is it, how am I going to ever put my life on track? But something bigger than me was able to say how you can get out of this. My sister, she didn’t have that and I think many people that go through with it, clearly don’t have that. Look at Robin Williams, he had all this wealth, fame and support in the world and he couldn’t see a way out. There’s something mental, a mental illness that is beyond any of our comprehension.

With as many people that adored him and loved him but sometimes that’s not enough, that’s not what they are needing.

Exactly. What they are needing is just something they can only give themselves and that’s a very hard thing to do. The outward attention and love is like drinking seawater: it’s never going to quench that thirst. It was pretty sad and shocking and it was a really great point about mental illness, because he wasn’t on drugs when he did it. He had no drugs in his system, nothing.

I saw that Marianne Faithfull was on your list of credits.

I did a double bill with her a few years ago, quite a few years ago at this point, six or seven years ago, at a club called the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. It was a great room, a very, very small club and you could see these intimate shows. We had gotten our first gig there. We were the late night band and then they started letting us play with some of the bigger acts so it was great. But we hung out backstage. Kate Moss was sitting on her lap, it was quite a scene (laughs). They were smoking a lot of pot but she was a very, very sweet woman and still so beautiful.

danalivesh55Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

He would never remember it but it was Sting. I was young, I forget how old I was, and had went to a concert, my parents finally let us go, and I had never been to a real live rock concert before and it was a stadium outside and it was in Florida, humid and thousands and thousands of people. And we were standing in the front and the crowd started getting rowdy and people were falling and I started to pass out so they picked me up and took me backstage and I saw Sting walking and I was like, “Sting!” (laughs) It was a Police concert and he came over and Martha Quinn from MTV was there and she said, “They’re passing out it’s so hot.” And he looked at me and said, “You going to be okay?” And I’m like, “Yes.” (laughs) Then I got escorted back out to the show.

So you’re one of those people we see fainting on TV.

(laughs) Exactly but it was from the heat. I literally couldn’t breathe.

What was your most nerve-wracking experience onstage?

Oh man, once when I was at a big, big festival a few years ago and I was just getting over from being sick. I had my voice but it was very hard and my lungs were on fire. I had chronic bronchitis. And the monitors went out and I couldn’t hear a word I was singing and I knew I had to keep singing and I couldn’t tell if I was in key or anything and I knew press was out there. It was pretty awful and I had to do the rest of the show literally not hearing a word I was singing.

What has been the greatest lesson that you have learned on your own about being a professional musician?

That you can’t get hung up about the end result of how famous you might end up being. You know, once you’re in it, you really have to show up and treat it like a job. If you’re sick, you got to get onstage. The show really must go on and it‘s about the fans and the audience and that’s who gets serviced first. If you get discouraged because you’re not where you think you should be and you think you should be further along, cause I’ve been down that road, that just takes away from the magic of it. You’ve just got to do what you do and enjoy what you do and of course you keep on truckin’ to expand the audience. But if you don’t get that million dollar label deal behind you to give you the instant giant exposure, you can go get it yourself. You’ve just got to stick with it.

Since it’s Christmastime, what was the best gift you ever found under your tree?

My kitty cats

Was that when you were a little kid or now?

Oh that was a few years ago (laughs). My brother took in a stray who had seven kittens during a winter freeze in Florida in early December or late November, and I came home from tour and there were two kitty cats there for Christmas presents.

Do you still have them?

Oh my God, yes. They are my daughters (laughs)

What are your plans coming up for 2015?

More United States touring. We’ll start mid-January. We’ve got shows on the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth, and that’s Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and then the eighteenth is a big show in New York at the Brooklyn Bowl. It will be our first time there so I hope people will come out to that room. It’s a fun, funky room that a lot of great artists have played. Robert Plant just played there. January, February and early March, we’ll be doing a lot of northeast stuff and then towards the end of March, we’re going to do the Pacific northwest and the west coast, all through California. I’m really excited. That will be my first time in California, really, except I played LA once. But just really hitting the States more and of course once April hits, we’ll go to Europe and be bouncing back and forth. Then it’s time to put new music together for the next studio CD, so I’ve got a pretty full year ahead of me.

Have you started writing?

Yeah, we started writing a little bit on the road but we’ll write more and more in the new year on the road, and when we’re off the road for the holidays we try to get together. But we know we won’t go into the studio until touring ends at the end of November.

 

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