Featured Interview – Lisa Mann

One little word can sure make one big difference.

It can turn excellence into also-ran or change superb into merely passable.

Portland blueswoman Lisa Mann and The Really Good Band have been kicking butt and taking names at an alarming rate these past few months, spreading their red-hot brand of blues to bandstands far and wide.

Those that have seen Mann and her crew take the stage by storm are sure to remember the name.

However, before-hand, things can get a bit confused sometimes.

“Well, we had a promoter mess up a sign one time and demote us to ‘The PRETTY Good Band.’ I had to call him up and say, ‘Excuse me … we’re ‘The REALLY Good Band,’” laughed Mann.

Banner snafus aside, things have been REALLY good for Mann and company this fall.

The bass-playing dynamo took home the Sean Costello Rising Star Award at this year’s Blues Blast gala, after she had practically burned down the stage with her performance earlier in the evening at the annual shindig. And even more recently, Mann found her name on the list of nominees for Best Bass Player at the upcoming Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in Memphis.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind and a lot of this has really taken me by surprise. A lot of the guys that were up for the Sean Costello Award have some history and labels and people behind them. And me, I’m an indie artist … but apparently I have more fans and friends than I knew were out there,” she said. “For one thing, (awards and nominations) it means fan recognition. It’s kind of like getting a big round of applause. But it’s also getting recognition from my peers. I was so honored just to get the nomination for the Blues Blast award in the first place, because I know they (nominators for Blues Blast awards) are people who are in the industry and are people who listen to a lot of blues. There’s so much good music out there, for them to choose me was a big honor. That industry recognition is really special. And it’s the same way with the BMA nomination. Just to be put in the company of such great bass players is really an honor. It feels really good and I feel really humbled.”

Mann and The Really Good Band won a Muddy Waters Award – presented by the Cascade Blues Association – for Contemporary Blues Act of the Year this past November, while Mann was also named Bass Player of the Year and her latest album, Move On, took Recording of the Year honors that were handed out by the association.

Even though she doesn’t have some huge corporate marketing machine in her corner, Mann’s latest compact disc has still managed to find a comfortable home on the playlists of most blues DJs since its release. A big part of that is due to an almost grass-roots like effort on the part of a whole host of folks in the blues community.

“For this last CD, I hired Todd Glazer (noted blues and roots music radio promoter) and he did a great job. I have to really give him a lot of credit,” she said. “And over the years, I’ve made a lot of great connections with blues DJs all around the world. There are a lot of really good people out there playing the blues on radio programs and most of them are volunteers who are willing to support independent artists.”

It’s never been uncommon to find a female fronting a blues (or really, any) band, but when you tack on the duties of singing lead and laying down the low-end on bass to fronting duties for a female in a blues band, the list narrows quickly and considerably. That might lead to issues or hurdles to jump for some, but not for Mann.

“I guess the only real issue I’ve run into is the comparison with Danielle Schnebelen (bassist/singer for Trampled Under Foot) and with Esperanza Spalding (Grammy-winning jazz bassist, who also calls Portland home). I just seem to get compared to those two because they’re also female bass players,” Mann said. “When Spalding won the Grammy, I kept getting messages from all these people that were like, ‘Wow! Female singer and bass player wins Grammy!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t sound anything like her and don’t play anything like her.’ So, that’s kind of been some of the comparisons I’ve been getting, although I really am not sure why.”

Mann, who was born in West Virginia, doesn’t spend a lot of time or energy worrying about who she might ultimately be compared with. At the end of the day, Mann is a fantastically gifted bass player who is also a bad-ass vocalist, meaning that she’s more than capable of – and in fact, loves – pulling double-duty when required.

“Really, I’m two people in one, in some respects. I’ve been hired as a side-person on projects many times because I am the bass player that they would otherwise have to hire and I am also the female singer that they would have to otherwise hire. So I’m a two-fer. But being a bass player has been nothing but a plus for me, because I’m the one driving the car. The bass is the heartbeat of the song and the bass player is driving the car,” she said. “If anyone knows how the song goes, it’s the bass player. So I’m able to go into any situation – for example, playing with Andy T’s band at the Blues Blast awards was a piece of cake, because I understand basic music theory and we were able to communicate.”

The list of bassists that play the blues on a six-string instrument (as opposed to the stand four-string) is also an exclusive club. But for Mann (who is in the Cascade Blues Association’s Hall of Fame), playing a Tobias or Warwick six-string is just the way it’s been for a long time.

“I started out on the four-string, but I purchased my first six-string bass when I was 20 years old and that was a long time ago,” she laughed. “But that’s just what I play. To me, it would be weird to play a four-string bass now. The six-string is just very comfortable for me.”

The Really Good Band (Jeff Knudson, guitars; Michael Ballash, drums; Brian Harris, keyboards) is certainly aptly-titled and is both a clever, and at the same time, simple, moniker. As with most things that are truly genius, the origin of the band’s name is rooted in a humble beginning.

“Back when I had Dave Melyan and Alex Shakeri in the band – they ran off to be in The Insomniacs soon after – we were finishing up a show and we were talking about what to name the band. We were tossing around all these silly names, like Lisa Mann and Her Men … just corny stuff like that,” said Mann. “While we were talking about that, three people in a row came up to us and said, ‘Heyyyy … you guys are really goooood.’ One after another, you know, drunk people at the end of the night, they said that. One of us jokingly said, ‘We should just call it The Really Good Band.’ And we all laughed and said, ‘OK. That’s it then.’”

Of the 12 tracks that are contained within Move On, all but three are authored by Mann herself, although that may not have been the game-plan going into the project.

“I don’t think I intended to put out an album that has mostly original music, but I think what happened was I just come up with songs. I don’t co-write, I just write songs by myself,” she said. “I come up with these songs and they’re like babies that want to be born, you know? There are all kinds of life experiences that inspire me. And not all of them are my experiences; sometimes I write about the experiences of people that I know.”

The title track to the album was born as an almost catharsis or healing process to a very dark period that Mann went through, both personally and professionally, before sessions for Move On had begun.

“It’s a pretty-simple song, but it was inspired by my mother’s passing and a loss of my voice that I experienced. I started writing that song in 2012 and we recorded it at the end of 2013. There was a long period in 2012 when I couldn’t sing, or even speak. I had choked on a piece of food and had injured my throat,” she said. “It took us a long time to figure out what was shutting me down, then we pin-pointed that. But that happened not long after my mother passed away, so it was just a really crappy year. But you’ve heard that saying, ‘When you’re going through Hell, keep going?’ Well, “Move On” was kind of that message … just to keep going.”

Mann summarizes her songs as “character studies” and like any author worth their salt, she’s not afraid to turn her gaze inward from time-to-time, as evidenced by the last tune on the album, “This Bitch.”

“This Bitch” is the most auto-biographical song I’ve ever written,” she laughed. “I’ve been clean and sober for a number of years now, but there was a period of time where I was not the nicest person. So that’s kind of like the old me and I’m coming to terms with the person that I used to be, kind of pointing to myself and laughing at myself. It’s a re-release from a previous CD. When I perform that song live, so many people have come up and asked me where they could get that song. It’s on a record that’s out of print, so I re-released it on Move On.”

Her life-changing moment occurred in the church – just as it did with so many other blues performers – but Mann’s moment of clarity came with a bit of a twist.

“When I was little, I was raised in a Jewish family and we did kind of a cultural exchange with a black church that was near the temple. Folks from the black church would go to the synagogue service and folks from the synagogue would go to service at the black church,” she said. “My parents took me there (to the service at the black church) when I was about 7 years old and we walked in and people were dancing in the aisles, there was a drummer with a drum set, there was this woman singing at the top of her lungs with a tambourine and the skin on the back of my arms just bubbled up. I don’t remember a whole lot from my childhood, but I really remember the impact that that music had on me as a little kid. It was something completely foreign to my experience.”

Soon after that experience in church, Mann started to fall head-over-heels in love with the bass guitar. So much so that it almost became an obsession for her to acquire one, which she did by sacrificing something mighty important to a person’s daily routine.

“When I was 11 years old, I was in seventh grade and I walked home from school every day. I saved up my lunch money and bought my first bass guitar with that lunch money. I was probably mal-nourished. I would get home and eat some bread or maybe a can of beans – we didn’t have much money, but I just had to get one and I had to play the bass.”

That acquisition of a bass guitar quickly led to visions of world dominance dancing through little Lisa Mann’s head.

“Oh, yeah. I thought I was going to be a rock star. People would ask me at 12 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say, ‘I’m gonna’ be a rock star.’ I would insist on that. And hey, I’m not a rock star, but I am a full-time, working musician and I have a career and I’m writing songs … so if you dream it and believe it, you can do it.”

While she may not have ‘Rock Star’ scribbled on her resume these days, Mann’s path to the blues did begin with a wade through the world of British rock-n-roll.

“Growing up, I listened to a lot of the British bands like Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, stuff like that, the very blues-oriented stuff. I played hard rock and heavy metal and was in pop bands … I would take any kind of gig I could get, because I was a working musician at the age of 19,” she said. “When I moved back to Portland in the late ‘90s, after living up in Seattle and playing in the rock scene there, I fell into the blues scene. And when I started playing with blues musicians and learning those songs and that vocabulary, it was like a little light went off. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know this because I know Jack Bruce. I know this because I know Led Zeppelin.’ So I kind of came into the blues through the back door of the British rock acts that were influenced by the blues. I really think the British saved the blues form oblivion.”

It may be next-to-impossible to decipher by listening to Mann belt out the blues, but her vocal influences run the gamut from show tunes to pop music to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

“They’re all over the map, really. I sang along with my mom’s Yma Sumac record and her Barbara Streisand records and my dad’s Deep Purple records. And when I was a teenager, I was a metal-head and fell in love with Ronnie James Dio and Paul Rodgers and Bruce Dickinson … most of the singers I listened to and modeled myself after were male singers.”

Another major inspiration on Mann’s vocals came from a source that may not have been universally heralded very far outside of the City of Roses.

“When I joined up with the blues scene in Portland, I became really influenced by a local singer named Linda Hornbuckle, who just recently passed away. She was a big influence on how I sing. I would go and see her at this little dive bar in Portland called the Candlelight and I would hear this voice coming right at me. Sometimes I would sit in with her and the voice that I heard was not coming over the PA, it was coming from right next to me. It made a big impression on my vocals. And Paul deLay (late, great harpist and singer), I performed with him here in Portland and he had this real gruff way of singing and his phrasing was so sophisticated, too.”

The soulful side of Mann’s singing style has roots in some of the all-time greats.

“I love Aretha Franklin and Etta James (Editor’s note: Mann does a scorching version of James’ “At Last”) and Little Milton (Campbell) are some of my favorites, along with oddly enough, Jimmy Reed,” she said. “So I’m really all over the map … I’m like a sponge. I mean, I’m taking Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Koko Taylor and Ronnie James Dio and throwing them all in the pot, mixing them up and spittin’ ‘em back out.”

The recent flurry of glowing accolades that Mann and her band have garnered has certainly got their names out there in front of the blues-loving masses. Now, the next logical step is for Mann to make sure her name stays on the tongues of those blues fans.

“I’m kind of just going to keep doing what I’m doing, which is try to play the best music that I can and try to produce the best CDs that I can and to kind of wave my arms and jump up and down and say, ‘Notice me!’ I’m just going to keep on plugging away and whatever opportunities open up, I’m going to walk through those doors as they open,” she said. “What I’ve learned since joining up with the blues scene 15 or 16 years ago, is that the blues is a family. There are far more people that support the blues and volunteer their time to keep it alive than there are musicians that are playing it. It’s really special to be a part of that scene and I’m very grateful.”

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