I discovered Lee Lessack at a performance in the late 90’s, upstairs at Eighty Eights, the best-of-its-generation New York piano bar that didn’t live to see the new millennium. I left enamored with his self-titled CD in hand. He is a master of the story-telling song, as evidenced in my favorite track from that disc, Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr. by Tom Brown. A few years later, I decided I wanted to sing the song; but the internet, not being what it is today, turned up no hits on sheet music. I was, however, able to track down a general e-mail address for Lee via his label’s (LML Music) website, a stranger begging for help. He not only sent me the music, he sent me his chart. Turned out, he was as genuine a person as he was an interpreter of song.
Chanteur, a collection of songs from the French (and French Canadian) songbook, is his latest CD. His voice and style are perfectly suited for the simplicity and vulnerability the songs require. I particularly enjoyed his interpretation of Charles Aznavour’s She and Leonard Cohen’s Song of Bernadette. Consistent with his past generosity, Lee even agreed to answer a few of my annoying questions.
RS: Your base of operation is in California. What's the difference from the East Coast in terms of building and maintaining a career? What took you to California?
LL: I think it depends what area of the entertainment business you are focusing on. I migrated West on a whim and never left. I lived in NY for several years prior to moving to LA and I love NY but I much prefer the space and weather on this coast. I could navigate my career from either coast, as long as I'm close to a major airport.
What was your big break moment that allowed you to go from working in music/cabaret to a career in music?
I'm not sure that I had a big break LOL. I think what grounded my career is that I simultaneously founded the LML Music label.
You launched your own label. What drove that decision and what have been the challenges and benefits?
I started LML Music because I needed a label for my first album. I soon discovered that I had a pretty good head for business and got some great national distribution and press on that recording. Soon, other artists were asking me to release their CDs on LML Music. It's now been 17 years and we distribute over 100 vocalists. There have been challenges due to the economy and the explosion of the digital music world, but all in all it's been a great ride.
How does having your own label change how you approach music?
I think I have learned to produce recordings that are more marketable.
Do you see yourself as having a particular musical point of view? Is there a Lee Lessack type of song or a particular style you are drawn to?
I'm very drawn to lyrically driven music. I like to tell a story when I record.
Looking at your discography chronologically, has the progression been deliberate? If so, how?
I think after my first 2 recordings it has been quite deliberate. For instance, I felt for CD #3 that I wanted to do a LIVE recording and so I recorded my Johnny Mercer concert. My biggest production to date was "In Good Company" which I produced to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of LML Music and it features all newly recorded duets. I had the privilege of recording with some amazing artists such as Michael Feinstein, Maureen McGovern, Ann Hampton Callaway, Stephen Schwartz, Susan Werner etc. Half of the artists were names that I felt would help to elevate distribution and the other half were voices that I just felt needed to be heard. In the end the project was a very "full circle" endeavor. For my latest album, "Chanteur", I went back to square one and created a very simple (piano, guitar, bass and voice) sound. It's all about the lyrics and the journey.
A lot of your work has been in collaboration with other artists, why is that so prominent in your body of work?
Well aside from "In Good Company" I have 2 cast recordings. "An Enchanted Evening: The Music of Broadway" a concert that I perform with Joanne O'Brien and have been touring with since 1998, and "3 Men and a Baby...Grand: Salute The Rat Pack" another LIVE recording of a concert that features Brian Lane Green and Johnny Rodgers. I love working with other artists!
Your most recent collaboration is with the legendary, Amanda McBroom (Chansons d'Amour, an evening of songs from your CD, Chanteur, and her recent CD, Chanson). Tell me more about that: how did it come about, is it a full tour, and where can people see you together?
I've been friends with Amanda for several years. She approached me to distribute her Jacques Brel CD, "Chanson" which I was thrilled to do. When I recorded "Chanteur" I sent a copy to an arts presenter in Austin and he asked if Amanda and I would team up for an evening. That was the beginning of "Chansons d'amour". We just play the Ford Amphitheatre here in LA, which was just a magical night. I'm not sure what the future holds but it's always a pleasure to share the stage with Amanda.
What will you be working on next?
Catching up on sleep! I've got several concerts with Linda Purl and 3 Men plus taking Chanteur on the road.
You have a growing wealth of artists recording on your label (available at lmlmusic.com), including such well-known artists as Lea Salonga, David Durnham, and Lee Lessack and Amanda McBroom. Can you tell me about a couple of artists with whom we may not be as familiar that we should check out?
Susan Egan has a new CD coming out next month called "The Secret of Happiness" and it's really gorgeous. I also distribute the entire Nancy LaMott catalogue for Midder Music, which I'm very proud of. Nancy was one of the greatest song interpreters of our time and she passed away much too soon.
I couldn’t agree more about Nancy LaMott, pure, delightful, brutal honesty in her interpretation of song with a voice that was always lyrical, beautiful, and moving. She was a master of the cabaret form, and a phenomenally gifted singer. Everyone should own the full catalog of Nancy’s performances. Listen to My Heart is a great option for getting started, if you having been living under a rock and have never heard Nancy’s music. Thanks,