Marinated from birth in the world 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, mastered the Bumble Bee Boogie by age twelve, and was levitated into learning guitar and writing songs when I saw Bob Dylan play, 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 open tunings. 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 picking was the national music. Between 1969 and 1974 I enjoyed a phenomenal career as a bestselling author, illustrator, book designer and media icon for hipdom and sustainability. My book Living on the Earth was the first paperback book ever on the New York Times Bestseller List, and it’s still in print in English, Japanese and Korean. I wrote, illustrated and designed eight more books, appeared on talk shows, and got written up in lots of magazines.
In 1974, I moved to Maui. There I learned to play slack key guitar and sing Hawaiian songs from some of the most soulful people I’d ever met anywhere. I learned to sing in Hawaiian from recording artist G-girl Keli’iho’omalu’s mother, legendary singer 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 years I studied vocal technique with five teachers, including pop singer/songwriter Pamela Polland. (I STILL take vocal tech lessons!) My lifelong love of jazz (the first LP I bought at age 13 was Local Color by Mose Allison) led me to learn a repertoire of 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 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 went on tour for eight months with an original one-woman show of comedy stories from my life and folk songs I wrote during the time I created the book. I self-produced Music From Living on the Earth, a solo CD of these songs, to sell while on the book tour, and, to my astonishment, it was not only reviewed but selected as an album pick on All Music Guide. Then a psychedelic folk radio show in Belgium started playing it. Then a Japanese record company released it.
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 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 in Japan, and, in July 2002, I was the only woman headlining at the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival. I toured in Hawaii and California to promote this CD with a new one-woman story and music show.
I’ve spent a lot of time around avant-garde improvisational musicians in my life. I lived with Ramon Sender, 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. In the early ‘70’s, we co-authored a book, Being of the Sun, containing information about drones, modes and open tunings. In the late ‘90’s, I began partnering with Joe Gallivan, one of the pillars of the jazz fusion scene in New York and in Europe, who was the first to play a Moog drum in concert, who played in the Gil Evans Orchestra for two years and in a quartet with Larry Young for three years, and about whom an entire section is devoted in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD.
These men have been mentors to me, and, while Ramon’s influence is in my first CD, Joe’s influence is most evident in my newest release, What Living’s All About. Good luck in real estate afforded me the luxury of a great LA recording studio with Scott Fraser (audio engineer and producer for the Kronos Quartet) at the controls and a fabulous line-up of session players, notably avant-garde/rock/jazz 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 F
estival 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 my great players, and they surpassed my expectations.
In Performing Songwriter Magazine’s May 2007 Issue, “What Living’s All About” is one of the Editor’s 12 Top DIY Picks, and in June 2007, the first track, “Floozy Tune,” placed in the Top 20 Finalists in the Jazz Category of the Unisong International Songwriting Contest. Raves reviews of the CD appeared in eJazz News in London (written by John Stevenson, the editor), and in Feminist Review in New York City. The second track, “America The Blues” was a featured download on indieguitarists.com in August 2007.
In the summer of 2006, songs from “What Living’s All About” got airplay in Europe and in the USA, and in October 2006, I did eight concerts in four weeks in Japan. In February 2007 I did three concerts in Phoenix, where the CD has gotten a lot of play on Radio Free Phoenix, and in May and June 2007, I toured Japan again, this time performing 15 concerts, including two festivals, in seven weeks, and appearing as the subject of a TV documentary on Asahi Broadcasting Station. In May 2008 I return to Japan for another tour, including a concert at the opening of a gallery show of my art in Tokyo. I’m currently based in Los Angeles, working on creating an animated children’s television series that features my drawings, stories and music.