Alicia Bay Laurel’s Music Bio

I sing at the opening party of “Dancing with Nature,” my multi-decade retrospective solo art exhibition at Sison Gallery in Shibuya, Tokyo on September 1, 2018. The event was filmed as part of a television documentary about my life and work for Asahi Television.

I am wearing a wool jersey dress printed with the pages of my book, Living on the Earth. Both the dress and the fabric were designed in 2007 by fashion designer Aya Noguchi, the owner of Sison Gallery

Marinated from birth in the world music, political folk music, classical music, jazz and Broadway tunes my parents played on the hi-fi, I succeeded (after two years of begging) in starting piano lessons at age seven, played a credible version of the Bumble Bee Boogie by age twelve, and was levitated into learning folk guitar and writing songs after seeing Bob Dylan play his powerful protest songs, shortly before I turned fourteen. A couple of years later, my cousin Jan Lebow married John Fahey, and one day I approached him when he was bored at a family party and persuaded him to teach me the basics of open tunings in the next two hours.  I practiced like crazy, and that became my sound.

Most of my musician friends played rock and roll, so I was overjoyed when I first visited Hawaii in 1969 and discovered that open-tuned guitar finger-picking was part of the national music.

In 1974, I moved to Maui. There I learned to play slack key guitar and sing Hawaiian songs in Hawaiian from the family of recording artist G-girl Keli’iho’omalu, especially her mother, legendary singer, hula teacher and choreographer, Auntie Clara Kalalau Tolentino. I learned slack key guitar from Clara’s son-in-law Jerome Smith in Hana, and from Uncle Sol Kawaihoa in Wailuku.

In the early ‘80’s, I began playing in restaurants and bars for tourists in Hawaii and in northern California. Over a period of twenty-eight years I studied vocal technique with seven teachers, including pop singer/songwriter Pamela Polland.  I also took lessons, at least one, and sometimes many, from an uncountable number of guitarists – including a couple of years of weekly lessons from renowned Hawaiian jazz singer/guitarist Sam Ahia.

My lifelong love of slightly sardonic vocal jazz (the first LP I bought at age 13 was “Local Color” by Mose Allison) led me to learn a repertoire of jazz standards and the jazz chords I needed to accompany myself. In the late ‘80’s I started playing at weddings and learned love songs of many genres. From 1988 to 1999 I owned a wedding business on Maui that put on 3000 weddings, and I sang at hundreds of them, sometimes accompanying a troop of hula dancers.

Pamela Smit DePalma's Maui wedding in the 1990s, with ABL serenading

In 2000, Random House released the thirtieth anniversary edition of Living on the Earth. I sold the wedding business and created for myself a national book tour: a twice-cross-country road tour for eight months, delivering 75 performances of Living on the Earth: The Musical, an original one-woman, two-act show of quirky, edgy stories about the birth and aftermath of my book, and some of the songs I wrote during these times.  I self-produced Music From Living on the Earth, a solo CD of the spiritual and nature-inspired songs I wrote while creating the book, to sell from the bandstand, and, to my astonishment, it was not only reviewed but selected as an album pick on All Music Guide. Then Gerald van Waes’ psychedelic folk radio show in Antwerp, Belgium, “Psyche Van Het Folk,” started playing it. Then EM Record in Osaka, Japan released it, as a CD in 2005 and as a vinyl LP in 2015.

06-20-CA-Sebastopol-Copperfield's-Alicia seated-smiling

When I returned to Hawaii from the tour, I self-produced Living in Hawaii Style, a CD of half original Hawaiian-style songs and half historic Hawaiian songs, mostly slack key guitar and tropical jazz. The CD features my former teacher, Sam Ahia, arguably the best jazz guitarist/vocalist in the islands, and Lei’ohu Ryder, a reknowned spiritualist and chanter with a string of fantastic CDs of her own. This CD got airplay both in Hawaii and on the legendary Ports of Paradise radio show in California, was re-released by EM Records in Japan, and, in July 2002, I was the only woman headlining at the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival in Hilo, Hawaii.

07-21-02-HI-Hilo-Slack Key Fest-Alicia and Bobo onstage2

Two of my music mentors are avant-garde improvisational musicians. Ramón Sender Barayón, one of the founding composers of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early ‘60’s, and co-designer of the Buchla Box, the first synthesizer built on the west coast, who I met, during the time I was writing Living on the Earth, at Wheeler Ranch commune, co-authored a book with me, Being of the Sun, containing his wealth of knowledge about drones, modes and tunings, plus songs and chants we composed together and separately, celebrating the cycles of nature.  In 2013, I arranged to have the 1973 reel-to-reel recording Ramón had made of us performing music from our book digitized and remastered, and released it as a CD, Songs from Being of the Sun.

In the late ‘90’s, I began partnering with Joe Gallivan, a stalwart of the free-jazz world in New York and in Europe.  He developed a sound vocabulary for the MiniMoog synthesizer, worked with Robert Moog as the test driver of the Moog drum, and was among the first to play these instruments in a jazz setting, including in the Gil Evans Orchestra for two years and in a trio with legendary organist Larry Young for three years. Joe lead bands full of extraordinary players throughout his adult life.  An entire section was devoted to him in the 4th edition (1998) of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD.

While my first CD, Music from Living on the Earth, contains a choral arrangement of my song “In the Morning” by Ramón, and my sixth CD, Songs from Being of the Sun, is entirely a collaboration with him,  Joe’s influence is most evident in my 3rd release, What Living’s All About, recorded by Scott Fraser (audio engineer and producer for the Kronos Quartet) and a fabulous line-up of session players, notably avant-garde guitar legend Nels Cline (best known as the guitarist with Wilco, and who I met when his band opened for Joe Gallivan’s band at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City in June 2000), and John B. Williams, bassist for Nancy Wilson, the Manhattan Transfer, the Tonight Show Big Band and the Arsenio Hall Show Band. I co-produced the CD with Ron Grant, an Academy Award winning film composer, who arranged and conducted some of the material, but I also relied heavily upon the improvisational skills of these great players, and they surpassed my expectations.


From 2006 through 2019, I performed twelve concert tours in Japan, and produced/recorded/toured five more albums, bringing the total to eight (as of 2023).   Two of the albums, Beyond Living and Alicia Bay Laurel – Live in Japan, included tracks recorded in Japan with Japanese musicians and recording engineers.  Joe and I began living part time in Spain, and the 7th album, More Songs From Living on the Earth, included tracks recorded in Spain, with Spanish and British musicians.   Like my first album, Music from Living on the Earth, the songs were composed around the time I made the book Living on the Earth, but this recording is richly collaborative instead of solo, and the songs, more romantic and passionate. 

I also recorded by 5th album, Living Through Young Eyes, a solo instrumental guitar CD of songs I loved and learned during my first 25 years, as a memoir of my youth.  It includes four medleys of folk songs I sang during my childhood, one medley of early ’60s rhythm and blues tunes, one medley of hippie anthems, one medley of protest songs, and one medley of historic Hawaiian melodies. 

In 2021, I collaborated with Spanish filmmaker Luis Olano on the movie version of Living on the Earth: The Musical, which he filmed in November 2016 while gathering material for Sender Barayón: Viaje Hacia la Luz his documentary about the life and work of Ramón Sender Barayón, who makes a guest appearance in my show, singing with me for the first time in 43 years. 

In addition to the two songs Luis Olano licensed for his movie Sender Barayón (1966 and Surviving in Style), some others that I wrote have been licensed for movie soundtracks, including New Years’ Eve Party (aka Goodbye 1974) for S.J. Chiro’s dramatic film Lane 1974, and Sometimes it Takes a Long Time for Shinji Tsuji’s 2014 documentary Embracing the Seed of Life, about the life and work of environmental activist Vandana Shiva.