In the old days, blues artists emerged straight out of the cottonfields or the dirt floors of jukes scattered across the South. In the modern era, however, the road to stardom isn’t as direct. Take the case of Lisa Mann as a good example.
A two-time Blues Music Association bass player of the year, she possesses jaw-dropping vocal chops in addition to her prodigious rhythm section skills. She’s friendly, down-to-earth and easily approachable in meet-and-greets, making herself a fans’ delight. Hardly any of them are aware that she started out as a metalhead rocker.
Based out of Portland, Ore., since her teens, when her mother uprooted the family to distance herself from her abusive father, Mann was one of the busiest road dogs in the blues world prior to the pandemic, but has stuck close to home for the better part of the past two years, wary of bringing COVID-19 into the house she shares with hubby Allen Markel, bassist in Sugaray Rayford, and his elderly mom.
“Slowly and surely, though, things are getting better,” she says optimistically, speaking from the office of her home, which has deep rock roots, too. Known locally as the Van Halen House, its former resident was Noel Monk, the manager of that band and the Sex Pistols, too, and Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth visited often.
The road to the blues has been an interesting trip for Lisa, who was born in Charleston, W.Va., to parents she describes as “not hippies, but hippie adjacent” and raised Jewish, but frequently exposed to gospel music, too, because her temple in her youth had an exchange program with a black church nearby.
“I remember it very vividly,” she says. “They’d come to the synagogue, and we’d go to the church. And, of course, everything at the synagogue is like ‘let’s say a kaddish for the dead’ – very formal…and pretty boring as a child. But we went to this church, people singing were at the top of their lungs, dancing in the aisles, playing a tambourine. They had a band.
“It was a profound experience. It was physical and musical…and I’ve never forgotten it.”
And when combined with Lisa’s parents’ eclectic musical tastes, it provided the perfect initiation for an eventual life in the blues.
“My mom loved singers,” she says, “Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, Melissa Manchester, Yma Sumac (a coloratura soprano from Peru with a four-plus octave range and one of the world’s most famous proponents of exotic music in the ‘50s) and Ronnie James Dio, too. She had an Yma Sumac record that I used to sing along to…something I can’t do anymore because I don’t have the range I used to as a child.”
Her father, meanwhile, had more pedestrian tastes: Steppenwolf, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and more. The bass players on those records and ‘70s AM radio were like Pied Pipers, luring Lisa to the bass even in her youth, when deejays played “Convoy” one minute and a disco tune the next.
Her world changed forever when KISS hit the airwaves in ’77 or ’78, she says, noting: “I gravitated to Gene Simmons and his bass. He was just really cool, man! He could breathe fire and fly. He was like a superhero.
“I decided…that’s it! That’s what I want to do…play bass!
“I started plugging out Deep Purple songs on my mom’s acoustic guitar. The first bass line I ever learned was Roger Glover’s ‘Space Truckin’.’ It was very solid and catchy – probably because, as I know now, it’s blues-influenced. He was my original inspiration.”
John Paul Jones’ work on the bottom for Zeppelin quickly attracted her, too, she says, noting: “I kinda came to the blues through the back door…the English back door (chuckles).”
Mann saved her school lunch money and bought her first bass at age 11. And she started dreaming of becoming a rock star a year later after a friend gave her a copy of Iron Maiden’s Killers album. Almost instantaneously, Lisa says, she became a metalhead and began turning to that band’s founder, bassist Steve Harris, and Bob Daisley, his equal in Ozzy Osbourne’s bands, for inspiration.
The transition was pretty natural, she points out, because the Brits had taken the blues and used it to create heavy metal, then stripped it away and added classical elements to initiate the separate entity that it is today.
“But don’t get me wrong, though,” she insists, “those bands – along with Judas Priest, Manowar, Mercyful Fate and Dio — were part of my youth, and playing along with them taught me how to sing and play. But I’ll never stop loving, singing and playing the blues.”
Lisa joined her first band — the metal/punk group Dead Conspiracy — at age 15. “We played this absolute dive bar,” she remembers fondly. “It was like the CBGB of Portland…really gross bathrooms and all that. We got paid $13, and I had to ask my cousin for four quarters so that we could split the money evenly (laughs). So thank you, Simon, for the quarters!”
Now known for her skill on the six-string bass, Mann has been eschewing four-strings since attempting to play along with songs from Manowar in her mid-teens. “They had a really busy bass player, Joey DeMaio,” she recalls. “He had a six-string and an eight-string bass.”
At 16, she picked up an eight-string, then turned to the six-string she uses today because “I was working on Paganini’s ‘Caprice No. 24’ — and I ran out of frets!”
The extra strings provide access to low B, something that comes in really handy when playing in the keys of C and D, Lisa says, stressing that blues lovers shouldn’t freak out, though: “I’m not going to be playing Paganini in the middle of a blues song. I know where the money frets are – don’t worry about it!”
Mann started playing in Top 40 bands in her late teens and moved to Seattle for a few years at age 23 after she married ex-husband Dave Melyan, the drummer she still works with on a regular basis today. “We were best buddies,” she insists, “and we’re still great buddies.”
In that era, most Top 40 groups were fronted by a cute chick who handled vocals – and that wasn’t Lisa, who was still holding down the bottom and provided occasional backing. That began to change when she eventually joined another ensemble fronted by the male guitarist and she started delivering the tunes with original female leads. It was a natural transition because she’d frequently attended karaoke with her mom in her youth, where she’d perform the Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight tunes she’d heard on radio.
After five years in the Emerald City, Mann moved back to Portland in 1998 and began taking whatever gigs she could. “I ended up in an Irish band with a brilliant guitar player named Dale Morris,” she says, “and we’d play gutter Irish songs – ‘Whiskey, You’re the Devil’ and stuff like that. I also subbed with a reggae band and took all kinds of others, too.”
Her move toward the blues began at jams – especially at the Candlelight, a club known locally as the “Scandalight” because it was a notorious go-to place for romantic hookups. But it was also a great locale for musicians to network, too, because Linda Hornbuckle — an Oregon Music Hall of Fame vocalist with a major pedigree in both the blues and gospel worlds – ran the show.
Lisa still brims with gratitude because Hornbuckle took her under her wing.
“Her soulful voice, her stage presence, her sophisticated phrasing…there was really something about being in the room with Linda,” Lisa says fondly. “And hearing her voice right in front of you…not through the P.A…there’s something visceral about that experience that reminds me of being at that black church when I was a child.
“I learned a lot just listening to her.”
Lisa’s entry to the blues world began after Hornbuckle introduced her to guitarist Sonny Hess, a longtime fixture on the local scene, who founded Northwest Women of Rhythm and Blues, an ensemble that performs female showcases, Christmas charity shows and other events throughout the year. Sonny recruited Mann to be the group’s bassist – a position she still maintains along with being its musical director today.
“I didn’t know squat about the blues – or thought I didn’t,” Mann insists. “But all those John Paul Jones and Roger Glover licks were still in the back of my brain from all those years ago.”
It didn’t take long before Lisa’s ability to double on bass and vocals made her an in-demand talent herself, leading to work with established veteran blues keyboard player David Vest as well as blues harp giant Paul deLay when his regular bassist, Dave Kahl, wasn’t available.
“When I finally started playing real blues,” she says, “I was able to rely on that rock knowledge – and the Zen-like repetitive bass lines — to at least fake my way through it. But I really wasn’t very good at it (chuckles) – and Paul would let me know!”
Drawn to Etta James, Koko Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Little Milton, she’s been hooked on the blues ever since.
“Some players complain about playing it,” she notes. “They say it’s boring because you are going to repeat the same box pattern or walking pattern over and over and over again – and that’s your job.
But I find it really grounding. And there’s a way to be creative with a limited pallet that you can’t with unlimited rock arrangements. It’s like if you give a child a box of Crayons with 100 different colors, he might just sit there and stare at it — but if you just give him five, he might start drawing immediately.”
Embarking on a solo career at age 36 in 2006 with the release of the CD, Self Material, Lisa admits that it took a while for her to establish herself in her hometown, she says, because — even though she’d lived there for a large portion of her life — she was basically “the new girl” without any roots in the local blues community.
But, man, did she ever establish herself! Now a member of the Oregon and regional Cascade Blues Association halls of fame, she’s won more of that group’s Muddy Awards than you can count – most recently the top prize for 2020-21 live-stream performance in early November.
Two more self-produced albums – Chop Water in 2008 and Lisa Mann in 2010 – followed before her career took off. She and her Really Good Band represented the group at the 2011 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, making it to the semi-finals, but her instrument was already earning her major attention within the international bass community with articles about her appearing in major trade publications.
“I was walking Beale Street, checking out the other bands to see who’s kickin’ ass and who’s the competition, when we weren’t playing,” Lisa recalls. “I saw this dude playing a fiddle, and remember coming back to my band and saying: ‘This guy and his band is so good that he’s gonna win – and if he doesn’t, it’ll be a travesty.’
“It was Lionel Young. And when we moved on to the semis, we were in the same room. I had to tell my guys that we were toast — and I was right. He beat us…by this much and then went on to win it all.”
Looking back, she says, it just wasn’t her time, adding: “I wasn’t fully formed. Video of me playing that competition looks weird to me today – like I was trying too hard…I dunno!”
For Mann, the best was yet to come.
Possessing pipes that move fluidly between blues, country, soul and rock, she’s a gifted songwriter whose material is most often imbued with gritty observations about life – something established with the release of her first mainstream blues album, Satisfied, in 2012.
Lisa was in the middle of writing and recording that one when she lost her mother after a long illness. Her original, “Surrender to the Blues,” dealt with the grief she experienced during the ordeal – something that hit home full force a short while later when she lost her voice for several months because of stress combined with an injury.
“I went through some tough times,” she says. “But you just have to keep going forward. You can’t let it stop you” – a theme she expressed in detail on the 2013 follow-up, Move On, which took her emotions about the subject – and her career — to an entirely different level thanks to her own perseverance.
“It started with Satisfied getting some airplay,” she says. “But even back when I released Lisa Mann in 2010, which is kinda a compilation of some underground albums I put out, I spent hours every day creating a blues-radio database. I Googled ‘blues radio’ for every state, every major city. Then I searched out who all the blues deejays were, and I messaged them, acting as if I was my own p.r. agent, and started sending them CDs. The thing is…if people like the music, they like it,” she says. “If they don’t, they don’t. I can’t make ‘em like it, but I can get them to hear it!
“By the time Move On came out, they were starting to get familiar with what I was doing. Finally, after two rounds of painfully trying to self-promote (something she now leaves to others), it started happening for me.”
That album hit the Top 25 on Living Blues charts and the Top 20 on Roots Music Report, laid the groundwork for the fruits that were to come, beginning with Blues Blast presenting her with its 2014 Sean Costello Rising Star Award, a prize that honors the memory of the world-class talent who died suddenly at age 28.
Always a person with a deep social conscience, Mann received her trophy from Costello’s father that night and was so moved by the ensuing discussion that she’s been a steady supporter of the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research ever since. Whether it’s a medical issue or social problem, she often lends a hand.
“It’s usually something that presents itself…like when my friend Sonny got cancer,” Lisa says. “She just celebrated her 17th anniversary of being cancer-free, but had to get chemo, saw children there, and it just broke her heart. She said: ‘I have to do something to help these kids. And I said: ‘Yeah, count me in. Let’s do this!’
“That’s when we switched our Christmas events to a group called Candlelighters, which helps children with cancer. They actually helped my little cousin who passed away to pediatric cancer several years ago. And now our blues society president has cancer and has had a stroke, and he and his wife are in dire need. So all the local musicians are pitching in on that right now.”
While Lisa wasn’t the first woman to capture bass player of the year honors from the BMAs – Danielle Nicole cracked that glass ceiling after 35 years of male dominance in 2014 – she’s completely blown away by the fact she took home back-to-back trophies in ’15 and ’16 – a major accomplishment in fields that included Bob Stroger, Bill Stuve, Larry Taylor, Patrick Rynn, Charlie Wooten, Willie J. Campbell and Michael “Mudcat” Ward.
As a recording artist, the momentum she established with Move On picked up speed with the release of Hard Times, Bad Decisions, an album that demonstrated the depth of her songwriting ability, the same month she won her second BMA.
“I like to tell stories,” Lisa says, “real-life stories. The title song is semi-autobiographical…just because you’ve had hard times, it’s not an excuse for the bad decisions that you’re making. You can’t say ‘I had an abusive childhood. Therefore, I’m gonna drink myself to death.’ You’re a grownup now. You have to parent yourself – and put the plug in the jug.
“And the song ‘Two Halves of One Broken Heart’ – the duet I did with Andy Stokes – is based on friends who almost got divorced. It’s such a romantic story: One day, he was playing guitar and she came downstairs and fell in love with him all over again. I had to write a song about it.”
That disc received recording-of-the-year honors from the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Her growing trophy case also includes a 2018 European Blues Award for best live performance, and her song It’s the Monkeys or Me,” which appears on her 2020 EP, Old Girl, took home first place in the blues category in the recent Unsigned Only Music Competition after hitting the Billboard blues chart, too.
“That was very cool,” she says. “I did a Bandcamp pre-sale and spread it out to everybody, telling ‘em to buy one for themselves and one for their friends. People were sharing it like mad on social media, selling enough copies to land in Billboard’s Top 10!”
As a blues artist, Mann frequently works with several other top acts from the Pacific Northwest, including Karen Lovely, Ben Rice, Lloyd Jones, Kevin Selfe and others. But she’s also involved in other projects, too. She’s also been a key component of Cry for Eden, a symphonic rock project that delivers positively uplifting music about life in modern times, and — just prior to COVID-19 — she signed on for lead-vocal duties in Splintered Throne, a hard-rock group that’s currently working on a new album.
Since the shutdown, Lisa’s finally been able to fulfill her childhood dream, too.
Billing herself as White Crone, she’s released of The Poisoner, a full-length CD that mixes prog- and proto-rock and features balls-to-the-walls dual guitar solos and iron-fisted basslines – something that’s earned her international acclaim as a metalhead rocker. She came up with the concept while voting in the Grammys, but it took her four years, working in her spare time, to put it together.
She tracked all of the parts herself, including percussion on a Roland V drum kit and seven-string Schecter guitar – which she learned how to play via YouTube videos, with guest appearances from guitarist Mehdi Farjami of the band Glacier and Hall of Heavy Metal inductee Vinny Appice, the percussionist best known for his work with Dio, Black Sabbath and Heaven & Hell.
The idea came to her in 2016 when she was screening submissions for best metal performance. “There was this band from Sweden called Ghost that wears makeup and plays really schlocky horror-rock stuff. I heard this song, ‘Cirice,’ that was so different, creative and very ‘70s retro sounding. It was so inspiring that I started listening to their music.
“All of a sudden, I started hearing heavy-metal melodies in my head that reminded me of the stuff that I used to listen to. So I started singing them and playing ‘em on my bass and recording them with my phone app. I collected dozens and dozens of these little melodies and thought: ‘I should do something with this.’ So I started stitching them together using Samplitude that my husband Allen turned me on to — a digital platform similar to Pro Tools.
“I was hearing drums in my head, and I couldn’t just bang ‘em out on the table, so I got an electronic drumkit, taught myself how to play guitar – and it just happened…it just started coming out!
“At first, I thought it was gonna be fun and just for me. But then I thought: ‘These songs are quality enough that other people are gonna want to hear it.’”
And she was right. The response has been so great that she recently did a song with blues-rock guitarist Alastair Greene for a White Crone cover of the Dio/Rainbow tune “Stargazer” as a follow-up.
But fear not, blues fans! Lisa has no intention of turning her back on the music we love. As she states succinctly on her White Crone website: “Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE blues music and will never stop playing and singing the blues! Coming to blues felt like coming home.
“But playing metal feels like running away from home!
‘That don’t mean I’m walking away from blues… Hope y’all don’t mind me having a little rowdy fun. I know a lot of you are secret headbangers anyway!”
As this interview was taking place, in fact, Mann was getting ready to hit the road and get the blues ball rolling again. She was all geared up for a Ladies of Blues Rock showcase at Riverside Casino in Iowa on Thanksgiving eve in a lineup that includes Gaye Adegbalola, Eliza Neals, Terrie Odabi, Lara Price and Jeni Grouws, lead vocalist in the host Avey Grouws Band.
Like almost all artists the past two years, it’s been virtually impossible for Lisa to do much planning with gigs scheduled, cancelled, rebooked and then cancelled again. If you’re in Oregon and Washington, she’ll be working there through the end of the year, and she’s already booked for next year’s Flagstaff (Ariz.) Blues Festival with more dates to come.
“I’ve got the pandemic blues, man,” she says. “But I want to express my gratitude to all of the fans out there. I did a lot of live-streaming last year and earlier this year, and people from all over the world tuned in and stayed in touch. You supported us when we couldn’t come to you. And, hopefully, we’ll be back with you before you know it!”