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INTERVIEW Lisa Kekaula, The Bellrays – October 2013

| 2 January 2014

INTERVIEW Lisa Kekaula, The Bellrays – October 2013
By Shane Pinnegar

Lisa Kekaula sports big hair and an even bigger voice out front of Californian soul, garage and high octane rock n’ roll outfit The Bellrays, but even though they’re back for their second tour down under of the year, she still doesn’t know whether Australian audiences get her band’s blend of guts and emotion.

The Bellrays 01

“You know… I dunno!” Kekaula laughs for the first of many times during our interview. “I don’t really know who gets what any more. It’s one of those things where I used to be really concerned about if they really understood or whatever, and I dunno if it’s one of those things that you concentrate on what you do have control over in your life, that’s made me just kinda look at it like, ‘if they get it they get it, if they don’t, more power to ’em.’

“Maybe one of these days they may have an ‘ah huh’ moment and say ‘oh yeah – that’s what’s going on there.’ It’s one of those things where I’m not trying to make it hard, but I’m not going to conform to make it easy for people to understand, or justify what it is that’s going on in my heart – you know what I mean? So whatever it is that happens, is what happens!” she says with another throaty laugh.

Not conforming is what comes naturally to Kekaula and husband and bandmate Bob Vennum, and over a 23 year career they have admirably refused to compromise their artistic imperative.

“Well, thankyou…” Kekaula says, before joking about the less than abundant financial rewards that come with being true to yourself. “I mean, [we have] that and two nickels and a drop of coffee!!”

She laughs self deprecatingly before elaborating, “I mean, me or Bob, that’s obviously not why we do what we do. We do it because, if you really have to be in a band you don’t do it ‘cos you want to – you do it ‘cos you MUST do it. You wish you had a pining for something else, something that provided a lot better living – but you don’t!”

Compromise just isn’t a concept that appeals to the couple, as evidenced when I ask outright if they’ve ever toyed with the idea of compromising their art for the sake of having a ‘hit’ just to get a bit of money behind them.

“Not really compromising our art…” starts the daughter of an African American mother and Native Hawaiian father and mother of one, “there’s been times when you get close to… what’s the best way to put this? You have certain songs which are shining through, [so you say] why don’t we just do a small release with just those songs on it, that people might be into. We’ve thought about that, but never ‘oh, let’s write a song like this to make this sound like somebody else’ – that’s NEVER been our focus.

“There’s been times when there’s a bit of hero worship in anybody that does music, where you’re like, if you have somebody that you really dug and you happen to get an idea that’s kind’ve reminiscent of that, and you kind’ve say ‘Ooh this’ll be cool and I can do a reference to this thing’ or whatever, but then, a song really has a life of it’s own so you really can’t choose that. You know what I mean? It’s gonna do what it wants to do…”

The Bellrays 04

In 1994 though, Kekaula did come pretty close to having a hit single on her hands when she collaborated with UK DJ’s Basement Jaxx on the single Good Luck, which went to #12 in the UK and #22 in Australia. Kekaula is amused at the thought that that success may have got the suits thinking ‘ka-ching!’ and applying pressure for more of the same.

“Ahhhh… no…” she attests. “It’s weird in that arena, especially during that time. I love Basement Jaxx – I always dug those guys and they were always not really conforming to what people say they should do with music, but they also happened to be writing something that engaged in commercial viability, especially in the UK. During the time that I was touring there, there was a lot of emphasis on people being teenaged or looking like they were teenaged or behaving like they were teenaged – and I definitely did not fit into that arena!

“And I didn’t have people over there trying to talk me up,” she continues, “there or in The States – I’ve never really done the whole, ‘have people and management talking about you’ [thing], so it’s pretty much one of those things. I hear people talking about ‘If you’re really talented and all that stuff, then somebody’s gonna find you’, and blah blah blah BLAHHH! [laughs] It’s not really like that!

“It doesn’t really matter – you go to The Grammys, and if you don’t have anybody to tell them who you are, then nobody really sees you… it’s just one of those facades where it’s like, ‘ahhh, this is how that shit works!’

“So no, there was no pressure for me to do it, and I’m glad for it ‘cos I have a tendency to just tell people to fuck off as soon as they start doing stuff that I’m not into – and anybody with a boss, that doesn’t bode well!” she laughs.

When I ask if keeping herself creatively challenged and satisfied over 25 years requires constant reinvention, Kekaula riles at the word.

“You know, that term, ‘reinvention’…” she says tensely, “I remember the first time I heard that was about Madonna. And what she would do, she’d come back and she’d be [something different], and it was a means of keeping herself viable. I remember thinking ‘that’s cool’ – I admire people who do that kind of stuff, that’s really awseome. But that’s not me.

“I’ve never been that kind of a person – I’ve never been looking to shock, or looking to get people to say, ‘ooh, look at that, she’s wearing her hair differently or she’s wearing that’.

“There was one year with Rhianna where they said how many hairstyle changes she’s had in order to be the most Facebooked or Twittered person, I cant remember what it was… but it was one of those things where it was like, ‘man, that’s a lotta fucking work!’ And it would just be one of those things that I wouldn’t ever think about – I’m just not that kind of person!

“We don’t try to reinvent ourselves for someone else to see what we are. It’s kind of the way a blues musician [is] just that. I don’t think of it in terms of rebranding, there are things that you do as an artist where you crack your eye open so you see the world differently than you maybe saw it the year before – maybe events happen or things happen in your life, and all of a sudden your perspective changes a bit and has shifted. But you know, the vessel is still the same, as far as I’m concerned.”

The BellRays

There’s some heady thinking going on here, and that continues when I change tack and ask instead, how Kekaula keeps songwriting fresh and interesting and challenging for herself.

“You let the song lead itself.” She states with confidence and alacrity. “I mean, we don’t sit up there and say ‘lets write a song like this’. I mean, to me, songs are born just like people, and they have a life of their own and as long as you listen to that, you can’t go wrong, ‘cos it’s gonna live the way it’s gonna live.

“And you know, I say that from the point of view that we are not hit songwriters, nobody’s gonna sit up there and say ‘ooh, there’s that song The Bellrays did’ and everybody’s gonna listen to it. We are not that, we’re not trying to be that. We try to honestly write and do what we do. And I have a great degree of satisfaction in knowing that those songs are born the way that they’re born.”

The couple are in Spain when we talk, midway through a tour for their Lisa & The Lips outfit, having finished some European dates with The Bellrays a week before. With both these outfits active, as well as their twosome Bob & Lisa, I seek some clarification about how the three projects differ, musically.

“Well, Bob & Lisa is the way that we’ve always done [it]” Kekaula explains, “even when we didn’t have people – obviously we’ve had quite a few line-up changes in twenty-odd years of having The Bellrays – but the way that we always kept things going was the two of us would go play acoustic shows, so we could keep things going so the two of us could eat, and that was just something that we’ve always done.

“It wasn’t always called Bob & Lisa,” she elaborates, “there were times when THAT was The Bellrays, we’d just go out and play it that way. So that’s the way the Bob & Lisa thing started, and we just try to continue that forward, and now that’s starting to morph into other things as well, you know, just kind’ve what feels good when the songs require it. For the two of us, the most important thing was it was just the two of us.

“And then The Bellrays [is] the electric manifestation of that. And it was always rooted more in rock and a lot heavier handed than, let’s say this thing with Lisa & The Lips is now, which is something [else].

“Our direction is, certain songs have always fallen in with The Bellrays, but this time we tried collaborating with other people as well as just trying to do something else.” There’s a pause as she searches for the words. “Ummm, there’s an element of funk that Bob & I have always been into, but The Bellrays just isn’t a funk band – so we were able to really help push that with the Lisa & The Lips project, but it’s not by any means a funk band – it just is what it is and we’re having a lotta fun doing all three.”

Now that that’s cleared up (sort of), let’s talk about The Bellrays most recent slab of searingly raw garage n’ soul, Black Lightning. Originally released in their native America in 2010, the album has only recently been released locally, prompting this Australian tour. It must be weird promoting an album that’s already a few years old?

“You know, if it was any other time than now, I’d say yeah.” Agrees Kekaula. “But the industry these days – and when I say the industry, I mean getting records out, we’ve been so under the radar for [so long], but it wasn’t always that difficult to get a record out as it is nowadays. Especially when you’re thinking, ‘well, ummm, the last time we did this we had to have a release in every territory and them to promote it in order to make it viable’, and that’s just getting harder and harder and harder to do.”

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Released on Sultan Sounds in this country, Kekaula remembers when their last Australian label, Shock, turned the album down – and not because they didn’t like it!

“I remember trying to talk to the label over there that we were on before. [They] heard the record, and [the label boss] was so, so sad. He said ‘I love this record – but we can’t put it out because we don’t have the resources or money to do it’. I just remember how gutted he sounded. And he said, ‘at this moment I don’t have anyone to suggest to give it to’,” she laughs wryly again at their misfortune, “so it was such a hard time that getting it out at all has been incredible.”

Sharing three bands and a daughter with your partner for over twenty years requires a special kind of loving relationship – the kind that is especially rare in rock n’ roll.

“Not just in rock n’ roll – in LIFE!” Kekaula exclaims. “I feel very fortunate to be able to say that we are good enough friends and good enough mates to be able to continue to do that kind of thing together. It’s like any kind of muscle, you know – I think the more you work it the better you get at it. I think we’ve definitely come into our own in order to be able to do what we do, together. ‘Cos we do spend a LOT of time together, but you know, he’s my best friend, so there’s not anything weird in that, I guess.”

While we’re being up close n’ personal, I raise the subject of Kekaula being a coloured woman fronting a rock n’ roll band – which some people think is a ‘no, no’ for some strange reason. Additionally, the band play a mix of garage rock and soul which has a lot more in common with the 60’s Nuggets era than anything else these days, and that attracts a lot of questioning and sometimes negative attention. How does Kekaula deal with these prejudices that have dogged her entire career?

“You don’t.” she states firmly. “That’s the other thing – obviously we don’t. I remember being told, as soon as we started getting that level of notice, ‘we really love your band, but we really want you to change everything!’

“Ahhh well, you really don’t love our band and you really don’t get what we’re doing!” Kekaula laughs at the memory. “I mean, I’m fortunate enough, where I never really cared what other people think – I’ve never been that kind of a person. Maybe that’s one of the other reasons why, the whole thing about the question before about reinventing yourself – I’m not desperate for attention.

“If I get it, I’m not gonna run away from it, but it’s not one of those things where I’m saying ‘hey look at me’ or anything like that. At the same time I am a force to be reckoned with on stage and I always love how shocked everybody is when they find out ‘oh wow, black female fronting a rock band and doing this stuff – wow this is mind blowing’ and blah blah blah.

“But there’s been a huge concerted effort,” she says, getting warmed up into her completely justified rant, “to say, ‘tall, skinny white guys play rock music’ – they don’t even like black GUYS playing rock music – ask Fishbone! Ask Living Colour! Ask these people who’ve been able to make really good contributions [while] constantly being told that they can’t do that. Which I think is absolute bullshit, considering how most of it was derived from blues music – which was okay for Led Zeppelin and all these other groups to go and revive that, and do what they wanna do…

“And all that being said, this isn’t a racial war for me! I don’t give a fuck what somebody else says, in the long run. It’s not gonna make me sleep better or worse, you know, because some guy somewhere says I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, or somebody else is arguing that I should. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and feel good doing it, until I don’t feel good doing it, and then I’ll stop!”

The converse side of all this, of course, is that by being so independant and being that force of nature and sticking to their guns, Kekaula is held up as a role model by people who care – a fact the 46 year old is completely comfortable with.

“I feel I earned it!” she laughs, “I feel I deserve it, and I feel as far as [being a] role model goes for doing that, they couldn’t find somebody better – because that’s been the one thing that we can really hold on to, is that we have just always done what we thought we should do.

“I’m not saying it’s for everybody, I’m not saying that everybody doing a band, if you wanna be really DIY you should do it like us – NO! I wouldn’t say that to anybody! But if you wanna see what it’s like to not compromise, and see the effects, you can take a look at what we do. You can see what we’re doing. And I’m not gonna apologise for it. I feel confident in that we are being true to those songs, being true to this band, to looking at it like, ‘well okay, if no one else is gonna write a book about us maybe we should write that book’,” she laughs the sort of laugh reserved for someone who is completely comfortable in their own skin, before finishing up.

“It doesn’t mean we should just go away because we make people uncomfortable!”

Lisa Kekaula is many things: a remarkable singer, artist, wife and mother for starters, she is also, as she says, an ideal role model to anyone who believes that real, uncompromised rock n’ roll – the sort that isn’t watered down and homogenised for radio, for a hit – is worth the effort and sacrifices, as well as to anyone who thinks the rock n’ roll lifestyle shouldn’t preclude a happy, meaningful relationship.

“Which is EXACTLY one of the reasons why it might be hard to sell it!” she laughs at the thought. “Because we’re in a society today that’s totally into selling something and if you don’t have a publicist working to tell the world what’s going on, it’s almost like it doesn’t really happen!

“So, truth is completely underrated any more in the world today. It’s one of those things where people have to search and look for it, and you know, I’m satisfied in living it, so if it helps anybody else along the way because I did it, that’s cool, guy, girl, whatever. If it helps them realise ‘I can listen to my own voice’ and move forward, that’s awesome!”

An edited version of this story was first published in X-Press Magazine’s 20 November issue

 https://www.facebook.com/BellRays

http://www.thebellrays.com

Shane

Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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