An interview with
Peggy Lee (2014)

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 30, 2014

As I argued at length in my review, Beast To Bone - an album released under the collective moniker The Sands - proved to be a very fine surprise, for many reasons: an album of songs whose beauty goes hand-in-hand with a surprising accessibility; very well-recorded, in spite of being self-released - hence, I assume, without the aid of a giant budget; sporting fine arrangements; with appropriate production work by Jesse Zubot; fine, changing vocal textures, with lead vocals by Julie McGeer - who also penned the lyrics - appropriately to the fore; featuring fine compositions - rich with invention and a colourful instrumental palette - by Peggy Lee, here - surprise! - sitting at the piano, besides her usual cello.

Well, I really had to get in touch with Peggy Lee asking for an (e-mail) interview, right? Done.

It's been a long time since we last talked... In fact, almost six years have passed! In the meantime, you've managed to release another fine album by the Peggy Lee Band, Invitation, which I enjoyed tremendously. And I bet there are other releases and tours I know nothing about. But as you can guess, I was very surprised to know about an album of songs coming out. On your previous albums you've featured instrumental versions of songs by other composers, but of course this is a totally different proposition. Would you mind talking about the seeds for this project?

Well I love songs and great vocal performances but I've never been a storyteller myself in that way. This collaboration with Julie McGeer came about because I was asked to write a song for Robin Holcomb to sing on a record that a Vancouver band, Talking Pictures, was doing with Robin and Wayne Horvitz. The idea was to get some more Canadian content into the project in order to fulfill the terms of a grant we had received...

Anyway, I wrote some music and asked my friend Julie to write the words. And the song was Against the Drift. After that, Julie and I got on a bit of a roll and wrote a bunch of songs in a very short period. But it took us a while to figure what to do with the material. Eventually we took it to Jesse Zubot and asked him to produce a recording.

Having a look at the names of those who play on the album, I noticed that, on trombone, Jeremy Berkman is the only musician from your octet to appear on the album, though texturally the music on Beast To Bone reminds me quite a bit of your "signature", for instance the "solo trumpet" that appears throughout, and those winds/strings pairings. How did you get to choose those particular musicians who appear on the album?

Well I'm quite partial to horns and had always heard J.P. Carter's unique trumpet sound on this music but for the most part Jesse put the band together and we just trusted him with that. I had not met Paul Rigby or Darren Parris before although I had heard Paul's work with Neko Case. Barry Mirochnik is someone who I had played with on Veda Hille's music and always loved his drumming but had never worked with him on a project of my music. Cole Schmidt is a great young musician who has been really instrumental in re-vitalizing the creative music scene here in the last little while. He leads a couple of groups, Pugs and Crows and more recently Sick Boss, which I play in. Anyway, it couldn't have worked out better. These guys are all superb musicians and brought great energy and generosity to the project.

A few years ago, it was you who first told me about Jesse Zubot, as a violin player and as a record company owner, your last couple of albums having been released on his Drip Audio label. Of course, the producer's chair plays a very important role in the making of an album. Could you please describe the process that led you to this decision?

Jesse works in many different situations as a player, composer and producer and he knows my music really well but he also knows and understands how a record of songs like this needs to sound and so he was the perfect person to produce. Easy choice, no "process" to that decision... plus, he's a great person!

In my review of Invitation, I spoke in positive terms about the recorded sound, by Eric Mosher at The Warehouse Studios in Vancouver, and I see that on the new album he was involved again. Would you mind talking about this?

Yes, we've had a very nice relationship with Eric and the Warehouse for the last couple of years. It's a beautiful studio and he has worked there a lot so he knows it really well. It is largely occupied by big budget rock groups that use it for weeks at a time but we've been lucky to have some access to it from time to time.

Of course, I'm especially curious about Julie McGeer, who wrote the lyrics and sang lead.

Julie and I have been great friends for many years and we first met through music but we hadn't played together for ages and we'd never done any co-writing like this before. But once we got going, the process was so smooth and easy.

For the most part, I wrote the music and she fit her words to that. The only song that differed was Devil where she wrote the words first. She’s also a painter, photographer and writes her own music too. A very creative person all around!

I'd like to know about the inclusion of the John Lennon classic, Jealous Guy.

Well that was an idea that I came up with a long time ago. I wrote a piece for my band called Distance which is on our second album and while I was writing that piece, I was hearing the song Jealous Guy over one section of it. We actually tried to work it into a John Lennon tribute night back then but it didn't develop fully until we did this session.

The album sounds like a million bucks - but I see it's self-released, i.e., self-financed. How did you manage the get such a gorgeous sound? And: Are you still in the red?

Well I'm glad you like the sound. That's a tribute to Jesse because he worked really hard on the mixing and mastering. But the actual recording was done in three consecutive days. Pretty quick and focused. And then we had a few days of string, horn and vocal overdubs.

In terms of the financing, that's a question for Julie. In fact, these are all questions for Julie as co-leader and the voice of the band!

I notice that, besides Julie McGeer, Barry Mirochnik and Debra-Jean Creelman are featured on vocals. Who did you have in mind - as an inspiration - when creating the vocal textures?

I actually stayed away from the vocal sessions. Jesse and Julie both had ideas and I felt it would be best if I kept out of it. And I'm really happy that I did because things happened that I wouldn't have imagined, taking the music to a new place.

That's really been the thing that I've enjoyed most about this project - letting go of my original intent and ideas and giving the music over to Jesse and the others.

I was pleasantly surprised to see your piano playing featured on the album, especially on such tracks as Against The Drift and Trail Of Tangles. If I'm not mistaken, there was no piano on your previous albums. Will we hear more of your piano playing on your future releases?

No, I really don't play piano except to write music and I wasn't necessarily even going to play on this album but it ended up feeling right to do so. It was cool to try something new and I'm happy to have done it but I don't envision myself working piano into any of my other projects at the moment.

The music on Beast To Bone is quite accessible, and I think that in a perfect world it would chart! What chances are there for this music to be brought on stage? I mean, tours, etc.?

Time will tell. As you may have noticed with my various bands, getting multiple performances happening isn't my strong suit but it would be interesting to see how the music could develop in a live setting.

Anything else to add?

Just that this record was really a collaborative effort with Julie, with Jesse and with all the musicians involved and I hope that this is understood.

© Beppe Colli 2014 | Nov. 30, 2014