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 cornered him when he was bored at a family party and got him to teach me the basics of open tunings in the next two hours. I practiced like crazy, and that became my sound.
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 and 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 the tourists. 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.
In 2000, Random House released the thirtieth anniversary edition of Living on the Earth. I sold the wedding business and took myself on 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 these songs, 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.
When I returned to Hawaii from the tour, I self-produced Living in Hawaii Style, a CD of original and 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 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.
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, 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 had 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 4th 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 more albums, bringing the total to eight (as of 2021). 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 one of the albums, More Songs From Living on the Earth, included tracks recorded in Spain, with Spanish and British musicians.
In 2021, I am collaborating 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.
Joe Gallivan and I are both eager to begin traveling and performing again – as soon as the danger imposed by the pandemic dies down.