Featured Blues Interview – Lisa Biales

It is a common story – a child learning to embrace music because of a parent or other relative’s passion for music takes hold in youngster’s soul and never lets go. Music touches them so deeply that they devote much of their life to practicing, writing and performing whatever style of music captures the imagination.

For singer Lisa Biales, the exposure to music started very early. “My father played upright bass in a Dixieland jazz band.  My Mom sang with his band, in Community Theater, and in a big band. She would listen to records by Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.  She was always singing around the house as she was ironing or doing laundry.  We didn’t have air conditioning, so everyone in the neighborhood could hear her. I am sure I heard it when I was in the womb.”

“I started recording after my parents died. I was going through a box of my mother’s things and found a tape recording of my Dad playing music and my Mom sitting in. It was recorded from so far away and she only sang two songs. I wanted to hear more – couldn’t believe that was all I had. So I started recording so that my son would not have that experience. “

About fifteen years after her mother passed, Biales found a 78 rpm record, dated 1947, credited to her mother, Alberta Roberts. Playing it at home on her multi-speed turntable, Biales marveled at hearing “Crying Over You,” a song her mother wrote in the standard style of that era. Getting to hear her mother’s voice again was a moving experience. “At a recent show, I told the story and played the record for people. It really connected with the audience. I still get choked up about it”.

An older brother who played drums provided another boost by teaching his sister basic chords on his time guitar. After learning several songs, her brother handed her his Beatles songbook complete with chord instructions.  Soon Biales was playing the guitar mass at her Catholic Church as well as some weddings. She played in bands throughout high school, running the gamut of dances to the more formal homecoming and prom affairs. She also started writing songs as an outlet for her creative instincts.

“I have always played for my peers. Any time somebody would hear me sing, they would tell me they needed a singer in their band, so I ended up fronting bands as the lead singer. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I started writing in earnest.  I just didn’t want to do the weddings and corporate gigs any more.  It wasn’t satisfying.  So I started writing while doing the singer/songwriter circuit.”

Soon she formed a partnership with Sarah Goslee Reed, naming their duo Prairie Orchid. “We did folk music, singing and some early blues for children in schools throughout Ohio and beyond. We did hour-long programs that had the kids singing right from the start, getting them to say hello in eight different languages. Then we would talk about our instruments. I played guitar, banjo, accordion and bass. Sarah played guitar, violin, and dobro.  After some learning, we became a fine-tuned machine that could really hold their attention during the program. The teachers were always amazed at our ability to reach the kids. We also did songwriting workshops with some of the classes. So while I was honing my own skills, I was teaching songwriting to young people. It was very rewarding.

Their efforts were often funded by arts grants from state and federal agencies. After eighteen years, the well of funding had dried up due to repeated cuts at all levels. When the schedule got down to one program for the year, it was time to move on. “I had still been playing with my own bands on weekends. I would interject my own songs in the sets along with popular music of the time that you needed play on the bar circuit. Nobody booed me, so I kept adding more of my material until eventually we were doing all-original music. My first seven albums are 95% my songs.”

“I was thirteen years old when I got paid for my first singing job. I used to play 150-200 shows a year. I was kicking butt! Now I have no desire to do that. It is hard work. You have to book the gig, coordinate the band, drive to the gig, figure out the load-in. It is stressful just getting to the point where you can actually play live for people. Most of the audience doesn’t grasp what is involved in the process.”

In 2003, Biales married her husband, Mark. She quit her part-time job at Ohio University after twenty years and finished her graduate degree in Theater. As she considered her options for employment, Mark suggested that she didn’t need do anything, which surprised the singer. So she spent two years being an at-home mom while her kids finished high school – and used the time to continue writing songs as well. When the couple moved to the other side of the state, they built a home that included space for house concerts.  They have seating for seventy-five people, a stage, lights, sound system and a red velvet curtain.

In 2011, Biales met EG Kight on one of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues cruises.  “I really liked her. Loved her playing, loved how open she was. We decided we wanted EG to do a house concert with us. We became instant friends. She makes you feel really welcome. When she did the concert, she loved my singing. I played her one of my songs, which she really liked. EG asked if I had recorded it yet and I said no. When I did another that she liked that also was not yet recorded, EG started lobbying me to record them. I had just finished album number seven and had lost some of my enthusiasm. I was tired plus I really didn’t know many musicians in our area.”

So Kight suggested that Biales make a trip to Macon, Georgia to do the recording. After further discussion, Biales asked Kight to produce the project.  “EG knew the musicians and made all the arrangements. She had it all in her head and told me we were going to do a blues album! We took some time to pick out the tunes. I like the early blues styles with finger-picking guitar like Memphis Minnie, Mississippi John Hurt, and Fred McDowell. And Bonnie Raitt – I didn’t know what blues was until I heard her. So I jumped from the folk-Americana scene into the blues world.”

Their first project together, Just Like Honey, featured several Biales originals in addition to other material that Kight co-wrote plus covers of Raitt’s “Give It Up” and Memphis Minnie’s “Call The Fire Wagon”. The two singers display their skills at harmonizing on a cover of the Delmore Brothers “Blues Stay Away from Me”. With backing by veteran musicians including Tommy Talton on guitar and Paul Hornsby on keyboards, the project was the perfect vehicle to showcase her talents for a new listening audience.

Belle Of The Blues, their second collaboration was nominated for Acoustic Blues Album in the 2014 Blues Blast Music Awards and  shifted the focus to Kight’s original material.  Biales commented,” When we went to record that album, I looked at every one of EG’s songs. I wanted to sing as many of them as I could because they are so wonderful. Seven of the eleven tunes are from her. One we co-wrote and then there is a Bessie Smith tune, one from Memphis Minnie, and one from Dalton Roberts, who wrote the tribute to Bessie Smith called “Black and White Blues”.  That is the first time that song had been recorded.”

In between sessions with Kight, Biales made time to work with her friend, boogie piano master Ricky Nye. “We had Ricky over for a house concert and he did it with a band he works with from Paris. We did some songs together and it all fit really well.  One of the guys said this is so good, we should record together. So the next year they come over, all ready to go. I couldn’t believe that they were serious about doing it. But I made all of the arrangements and I love the album, Singing In My Soul. It is full of the kind of toe-tapping music my Dad used to play. They are fabulous musicians. The drummer, Simon Boyer, can swing, do a shuffle, it is like sitting on a couch singing with him. He is my favorite drummer to sing with. And Thibaut Chopin on the upright bass just rocks it. Anthony Stelmaszack, the guitar player, is a superb blues player. He is the “guy” in Paris. And Rickey works more shows than anybody I know – always upbeat. It was a lot of fun to work with them.”

“I let the guys do their thing and I focused on my singing. My favorite song on that one is “Write Me In Care Of the Blues,” a song that Patsy Cline did. I was involved in a production of a two woman show, Always Patsy Cline, which had me singing twenty-seven great Patsy tunes all night. I read two books about her and watched every YouTube video there is to see how she held her mouth and pronounced her vowels to try to get it right for the show. I learned that Patsy loved the blues but her producers wouldn’t let her sing any because they didn’t want her growling or anything that would wreck her voice.”

Biales considers herself to be fearless when it comes to music. “When I do songwriting workshops, kids will often be unsure of what they are doing. I tell them that it is your song, and whatever you say and however you play it is exactly right because it is yours! Nobody can tell you how to do it. It is perfect because you wrote it”. When it comes to guitar, she is a very good rhythm player. “I could be a better guitar player which would help me be a better songwriter. I play a lot by myself, so I have been working on some licks that will make my solo sets more interesting.  My biggest pitfall is thinking that I am not a good guitar player – that’s not true at all.”

Because her husband does well in business, Biales does not have the pressure of constantly touring in order to pay the bills and maintain her career. “I think music has a bad business model. I don’t know how anybody can make a living at it. Had I not met Mark, I would still be teaching and not even talking with you. I help book a few festivals and a summer music series plus music at a local pub. Everybody wants to be booked. Sometimes I take myself out of the mix. I feel bad people and worry about how they are going to make it.”

So for now, Biales is happy to ride the wave created by Belle Of The Blues. She has been working on learning slide guitar in the Fred McDowell style. In May she has booked a guitar workshop with Guy Davis at the Fur Peace Ranch. “Every year I would do some kind of workshop to see what my peers were up to or get a little shot in the arm. I haven’t done that it so long, so when I saw he was doing one, I made the decision to go. I am rekindling my love affair with the guitar.”

Biales has also teamed up with Kight to form the Peach Pickin’ Mamas, taking the name from one of EG’s songs. The duo doesn’t do many shows as it is hard to fit dates into the already busy schedules the women have. “We did a short tour in Indiana & Ohio last year. The promoter was just flabbergasted. He wanted everyone to hear us. That was a huge compliment.”

When she is home and starts getting bored or antsy, Lisa has been known to go to a club to sit in with friends on electric bass. “I am a closet bass player. I love playing it. That’s why I loved seeing Lisa Mann at the Blues Blast Music Awards show last year. She blew me away – what a bass player! I was blown away several times that night. I loved that whole event – so wonderful!”

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