Q&A: AJ Lee on the state of California bluegrass

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AJ Lee, Aissa Lee, A.J. Lee, Aissa "AJ" Lee

Courtesy: Tammi Coombs

A new wave bluegrass musicians is making the genre popular again in California, and it’s not your grandfather’s style of high-pitched, male-centered music. Exhibit A is the presence of the California Bluegrass Association at San Francisco’s Pride Parade next month; a first for any organized bluegrass group nationwide.

Not everyone within the CBA, which has roughly 3,000 paying members, many in the state’s red counties, agrees with the decision. But it’s final; a bluegrass band will perform on a flatbed truck.

“The joke is that six people left, but we gained 100 people in the process,” 19-year-old Santa Cruz singer and musician AissaAJ” Lee said. “A lot of people will be really supportive.”

Lee is one of the state’s rising bluegrass and Americana stars, and she has been since she started making a name for herself at the age of 8. Supported by her family (her mother’s side has a musical background), the Tracy native been singing publicly since performing at an open mic when she was 4. Lee joined a youth program with the bluegrass association, where she met some of her best friends, also musicians.

In 2011, when she was 13, Mother Jones wrote an article posing the question of whether Lee’s career would parallel Alison Krauss. She’s fluent on the guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and has seven times been named the Northern California Bluegrass Society’s best female vocalist. As a testament to her popularity, Lee has more than 3 million YouTube views.

This month, Lee released her second EP, a self-titled six-song collection of covers by the likes of Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Herb Pederson, Gillian Welch and Bob Dylan.

Lee partnered with Berkeley producer Jon Abrams (who in the ‘80s founded ska band The Square Roots). Abrams brought in his friends, The Shady Mountain Band, to contribute. The band included pedal steel and dobro player Dave Zirbel (Phil Lesh) organist Marc Doten (Shelby Lynne) and brothers Paul (guitarist) and Anthony (drummer) Lacques. Lee also got three of her friends from the CBA to help her sing on the record, including  Angelica Grim Doerfel, Jesse Fichman and Molly Tuttle, of family band The Tuttles, who’s also releasing a solo debut soon.

RIFF chatted with Lee a day following the release of her new record about perceptions of bluegrass and the genre’s growth.

RIFF: You have been performing since you were 8, and you’re 19 now. What are the biggest differences between being a child musician and coming into your own right now?

AJ Lee: When I was young, I had the cute appeal because I was small. As I got older, I started realizing I still wanted to do music. It’s harder keeping that appeal because I’m 19 now; I’m not a cute little girl. People still love hearing me sing and hearing my music, but … I’m a small fish in a bigger pond now that I’ve come of age.

You play mandolin, fiddle and guitar; what instrument do you write on?

Guitar. It’s always been like that just because it’s easier to hear more of the melodies. [There’s] a fuller sound. The mandolin has eight strings, but it pretty much as four strings because they come in pairs. You can’t really get too much of a full sound out of that one.

What’s your songwriting process?

I teach songwriting at summer camps, and one of the most common questions I get is “Do you come up with the melody first, or do you come up with the words first?” It all depends where your inspiration comes from. Sometimes I’ll wake up with a melody in my head. Sometimes I wake up with lyrics. It all just depends what hits me first.

How did you go about selecting the songs you did for this record? There’s Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio,” Herb Pederson’s “Wait A Minute,” Merle Haggard’s “California Cotton Fields,” and Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” stands out the most. It’s a Motown tune.

[Jon Abrams] helped me pick them. At least with “Hickory Wind” and “Miss Ohio,” a lot of the song selection went into what people previously liked to hear. “Hickory Wind” was a tune that I’d sung for a couple years. People always requested it at every show. With other songs, like “Just One Look,” we were experimenting.

You had some guest vocal appearances on the record. Friends of yours?

Molly and I go back several years. I was in The Tuttles with AJ Lee for a few years. I played with Molly all the time. [Bandleader] Jack Tuttle was actually the one who suggested “Hickory Wind,” a while ago. Molly and I have been great friends. We were music instructors at a camp in San Diego a couple of weeks ago. … Angelica, who also sang on that song, used to really be involved in the CBA when she was younger. Her and I would sing all the time. She was like a sister to me. All my best friends I have now are kids who came out of the CBA.

You also play in a few other bands, like The Tuttles with AJ Lee, and Blue Summit. Is your solo work your priority right now?

Right now, my solo project is important. I really liked working with Jon and doing that whole album, and having all those great artists play on it. I really want to start working on my songwriting. I wouldn’t really classify myself as a great songwriter  … but I want to keep improving and hopefully produce an original album soon.

Who are your influences these days?

My influences… I would say not too many bluegrass artists these days. I’m kind of in a transitional phase. I’m focusing more on Americana, roots. My housemates and I listen to a lot of Brandi Carlile; we’ve been getting into John Prine, Jake Bugg … definitely still some Johnny Cash, Ray Charles; old blues. Allen Stone, though, is a newer artist that I’m really into.  Down in L.A., I’m into the Nick Valentini Collective; they’re jazz. Snarky Puppy, which is also jazz. I listen to a large range of all music that can give me any sort of inspiration.

Have you written songs in other styles?

I have. In one point of my songwriting practice, I tried writing a song in different genres. “Today, I’m going to try writing a jazz song, or a blues song.” I think I have a swing tune. It still sounds like Americana, but I’m trying to branch out.

You were introduced to bluegrass at 4 years old; are you still just as crazy about it?

Of course! Bluegrass is always going to be in my life. … Regardless of your music preference, I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like playing bluegrass. It’s always fun to play, and it’s always fun to learn new songs with other people. I’m always going to be just as passionate about it.

Some people picture bluegrass as not a very progressive genre.

Bluegrass, traditionally, was all white males. … There’s the lead tenor and the baritone. In classical music, the tenor and baritone are actual vocal parts. In bluegrass, the tenor is always the part above the lead, and baritone is always the part below. … The music came from the Appalachian Mountains; all that wonderful countryside. A lot of people may have a negative stigma toward bluegrass, especially because it’s mostly all conservative white males. When you get in South Carolina or as you get into the Deep South, it definitely shows its colors that way. But in California, we’re a lot more open, and we have a lot of ethnic backgrounds.

Why do you think bluegrass has become so popular in California?

I want to say it’s because of a push from the CBA and the NCBS—the Northern California Bluegrass Society. They really wanted to focus on getting youths involved and to keep the music alive. A lot of the youths coming in are more progressive  … and our views are changing. It’s spreading and becoming more popular because it’s more open.

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