(Way More Than) 12 Questions with Lissy Rosemont of The Junior League Band
The Junior League Band, fronted by Georgia native and current D.C. resident Lissy Rosemont, releases Jelly Roll, their third full-length album, this Friday. The title conjures thoughts of New Orleans, old-time Delta blues, Jelly Roll Morton, sex, and rolling on the kitchen floor with your lover. Sounds like a party!
Jelly Roll is a raucous joyride with a tight and confident band covering blues, jazz, folk, rock, boogie-woogie, bluegrass, country — they’re even confident enough to cover The Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” which they do in amazing fashion, right down to the trippy guitar solos.
The opener, “Don’t Be A Stranger Tonight”, has the most enticing invitation to throw down, a feeling sustained throughout the entire album: “Give me some sugar and hold me tight/The whiskey’s out, don’t be a stranger tonight.”
We recently caught up with the talented, busy, driven and well-connected singer/songwriter Lissy Rosemont.
The words “Junior League” evoke images (for me, at least) of 1950s housewives in pillbox hats attending civic meetings. What’s the background on the band’s name?
Well, I’m glad you asked! My grandmother was the president of the Junior League in Atlanta in the 50’s. A few years back, I stumbled upon an old newspaper clipping of her in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which read, “Frances Howell goes Shopping in NY.” She looked like Jackie O., and I found it humorous that the paper wrote about her social life. But that’s how she got in the paper, and it was the early 50’s, so I thought “the Junior League Band” would be a good name for a band. It could be a kickback to her, but it’s still vague enough for folks. I get a lot of the fellas in the band who think its baseball related, and they’ll go on to tell me about their batting averages from high school. It’s not until you run into certain folks who know what the establishment is. So I’ll get calls from them, “Lissy! Did you know there’s a women’s organization called the Junior League too?” And I think to myself, “All too well!” I hear they do great work! I just loved my grandmother’s old school picture in the newspaper.
Your latest CD, Jelly Roll, has elements of jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, rock, bluegrass and an especially heavy New Orleans sound to it. Is this a reflection of your roots growing up in a musical family?
Absolutely. My brothers and sisters and I spent a majority of our childhood taking turns playing DJ for each other. We’d pile into a car — Mom’s or Dad’s — and crank the volume and introduce each other to all sorts of new music we’d stumbled upon. I remember hearing [Stevie Wonder’s] “Sir Duke” on my sister Hannah’s little old Honda Civic. Every seat in her car was full with a sibling, and we were all just in heaven with this great new music. Alison Krauss, the Fugees, the Beatles, Randy Travis, Leadbelly, Mozart … you name it!
I will say the New Orleans influence is strictly on account of Erik Lawrence, sax player for Levon Helm and many others. I have always loved the sound, but never had much exposure to it other than my dad singing me tons of acoustic Delta Blues tunes. I have never been to New Orleans … still! But once I met Erik, he started bringing me up to the Levon Helm Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, NY (around 2008) where I felt like I was attending the “School of Levon”– for a gal who didn’t go to school for music, I really wanted to learn what the Levon Helm Band was doing. And really, some of the same feel Levon continues on from the Band (grooves like “Don’t Do It” and “Rag Mama Rag”) influence me. He is such a legend, and, frankly, every one of his band members is as well. It’s a fantastic show and sound all around, and now I’m gushing, so I’ll stop. But, I definitely soaked up all the musical leanings Erik would tell me about (his father is the famed sax player, Arnie Lawrence). He took me to the Newport Jazz Fest in 2008.
Also, the album title is wonderful. An ode to Jelly Roll Morton? Charlie Mingus? Van Morrison? Euphemism for sex? All that and more?
Jelly Roll is sex, sweethearts, musicians, making out, drugs…whatever your Jelly Roll of choice may be. I just noticed that a lot of these folks I like to listen to were always singing about their Jelly Roll — from Peg Leg Howell and Dave Van Ronk to Doc Watson and the Grateful Dead. And it seems to have a myriad of different meanings. And it’s got this sort of dirty but sweet association to it. And so I thought I’d set up a scene of two old lovebirds, getting down (holding hands, making out, making love, whatever your imagination desires!) on the kitchen floor. It was somewhat inspired by Levon Helm’s delivery of the Waylon Jennings tune “Got Me a Woman,” … so much sass and soul. In general, it’s more of a noun/verb/term of endearment, and a fun play on the listener’s imagination.
The songs on Jelly Roll are at turns powerful, playful, sultry, and confident. How do you think this album differs from your first two?
I gave myself more time to put Jelly Roll, my third full length album, out. For one, I began a number of these songs with other performers in mind. I wrote “Don’t Be a Stranger Tonight” so I could pitch it to the Old Crow Medicine Show after I heard Willy making a set at Merriwhether last fall, and him saying they needed another upbeat tune like “Wagon Wheel.” I wrote “Jelly Roll” and “Too Far” with Levon Helm in mind. I wrote “The Best is Yet to Come” with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant in mind. And then the songs took on their own life form, and became the Junior League Band’s once we started playing them live … trying out an electric guitar here, have the drums go to halftime there, add horns here, etc. Some of the tunes landed far away from where I originally intended, and that is always a fun process. To watch the players breathe a whole different life into a simple song you wrote. And I hire a variety of players, so I have the luxury of hearing different instrumentalists put their own spin on my songs.
You recently appeared in a video with an amazing fiddle player (Faye Petree) in Harvey Robinson’s kitchen. How did this come about?
My manager extraordinaire, Ashlee Jean Trott, has been an avid follower of the Monkeywhale Music Blog, and started banging down Harvey and Carolyn’s door pretty early on to see about having me into the kitchen. Harvey and Carolyn are two talented North Carolinians, that’s for sure! Jewels. I suppose the timing just worked out when I was heading to Union Grove for the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention (my family’s fiddler’s festival where I was performing) and Harvey was available. It was delightful. My favorite was talking music business and life with Harvey, Faye, and my fiance after the recording. We’ve all been exposed to enough of this music life to enjoy having a moment with each other, some youngins who are trying to get their footing, but weathering the storm that is this music business. He and Carolyn are overall kindred souls, as are many of the musicians you meet along the way, who you can’t wait to run into again.
How did you get Levon Helm’s horn section to play on the album?
I dragged the fellas out to play in the parking lot at Merlefest in 2007, for exposure, but it was storming so we bought tickets to enjoy the show. Inside I met up with a dear friend of mine, Saira Anderson (aka Asheville’s biggest music supporter) and she briefly introduced me to Erik Lawrence, Levon’s sax player and a friend of hers. I came prepared with tons of demos, so I hit the crowds to distribute my new debut tunes, and a kind couple gave me backstage passes in return. Backstage, I ran into Erik and Saira again, and we quickly dove into all sorts of music talk — Saira telling Erik about my band, and my dad (an Atlanta Delta Blues player) and my family’s nearby fiddler’s festival. At the time I was unfamiliar with what Levon Helm was doing musically, but a few hours later after I saw the whole show and, needless to say, I was sold. I was inspired.
Erik took me under his wing in a way. He is also a teacher at Williams College, and one of his finer qualities is his patience in explaining some musicalities to folks like me who write songs but don’t read music or know how to arrange beyond simple structures. When my schedule and money permitted, I’d go to Woodstock and hang out with Erik and his bandmates and when they hit the stage, I’d watch the band and take notes, soak it all up. What the Levon Helm Band is doing in Woodstock with the Midnight Rambles is a really admirable and refreshing part of our music culture. It’s just good music you want to put hear again and again. And I’ve enjoyed literally being along for the ride here and there.
Jim Avett is joining you for part of this tour. How did you two meet? (He said some very nice things about you when I spoke with him last month.)
Again, my manager, Ashlee Jean Trott, set it up so the three of us would meet when the timing worked on one of our many drives up and down I-85 (Atlanta — my hometown — to D.C.). We stopped off and got BBQ at Lexington BBQ, and Jim noticed I was being protective of the case in my backseat — I’d recently acquired my dad’s old Martin D-35 from the 1960’s. Little did I know I was talking to a man who had at least 70 vintage guitars just down the street, and probably more stashed under his bed! Ashlee Jean’s sister, Mandi Rae Trott, is one hell of a singer/songwriter and used to play with the Avett Brothers a few years ago. So Jim and Ashlee Jean met and remained friends over the years.
I love playing music with Jim. The man has a lot to tell you about all these old treasures of songs. From what I gather, we both are over the moon about a good song and a good honky or pretty delivery. When I first got into Jim’s car and he fast forwarded into the belly of a song just to play me one specific lyric delivered one specific way followed by a perfectly chosen and performed honky guitar riff, I knew we’d be pals for a long, long time. Ashlee Jean was doing her job well! He’s got a catalog of gems, old country B-sides, and it seems he is on a mission to make sure they live on. Turns out, he stumbled upon a Georgia girl whose dad used to wake her up so she’d sing to his friends the old country B-sides that he taught her from 5 years old on! Jim’s one of those reasons you enjoy the music ride. He’s part of the larger “road family” from what I gather, and is one hell of a songwriter and vocalist in his own right. He crafts country ballads and he has a vision for them. As well, he’s a character without the spotlight, and a force on stage. I can’t wait to hit the stage, living room, porch, Lexington BBQ parking lot (whatever!) with him again.
What’s the deal with your song “Gin” and Jay-Z’s lawyer?
I suppose he likes it. To be honest, I am not sure. He is a cool fella, and when my fiance and I went to meet him after some phone meetings, we had a nice hangout in his office. He seems to really like my song and video “Gin”, which is off the EP The Potomac Two Step. I’m not quite sure what that, or the meetings in NYC, mean. But I guess we are considering how we could work together, if we want to work together. He started off with the Rolling Stones, and had some fun stories to tell: Madonna before she was Madonna and doing this quirky Lower East Side look. Again, I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I showed up and we continue to keep up. He just took Jelly Roll with him on his July 4th vacation, so perhaps he’ll like it.
The opening song on Jelly Roll, “Don’t Be A Stranger Tonight”, is the most enticing invitation to party down and “howl at the moon.” Was this album as much fun to make as it sounds?
The music is just the best. Writing these songs, while grueling at times, is now rewarding, and I am more than proud of the outcome. These players are hands-down some of the best folks I’ve ever recorded with.
Honestly, I am really tired. I feel like I’m at the end of a well-run marathon, with a few more miles to go. I work two day jobs so I know I can pay my players in case the venues don’t pay, like this past weekend in Norfolk and Wilmington.
And with a good hard-earned tired comes a good hard-earned throw-down. We are going to have a good time in D.C. this Friday for the show [Jelly Roll CD release party]. I’m ready to throw down. Everything is done! TIme to celebrate.
The lineup seems to change with each album. Who’s playing on this album (they’re all fantastic), and will they be on the tour?
I pull from a small pool of some pretty talented players. The album features Brandon Kalber on bass, John Lee on guitar, Ian Thompson on drums, Sadie Dingfelder on fiddle, and Will Waikart on percussion. The Junior League Band tours feature these players if they can make it; if not, I hire my next in line. They are usually all referred from the previous players or, like (fiddler) Faye Petree, they are fantastic players I have met along the way. But everyone realizes they are tag-teaming and an overall part of the JLB family. I’ve found it removes a lot of the pressure and makes the “band family” a little more enjoyable. Since they are such talented players and it is a more clear business relationship, I find the musicianship is on point and the attitudes are professional, so I am free to enjoy performing for the crowd. But that’s just me. I’ve found that I perform best with talented, prepared players who I am not bound with in a “death do us part” band.
Without giving too much away, what can audiences expect from your live show?
Upbeat, soulful rock with old time charms along the ride. You’ll dance, you’ll daydream. We try to captivate and move folks. And we try to let lose ourselves on stage, feel the beat, the energy each player, the harmonies, the kick drum — I’ve noticed that’s contagious.
And now: ATF’s 12 Questions With Lissy Rosemont of Junior League Band:
1) What’s for supper?
Avocado, garlic, lime bruschetta concotion I try to drum up. Ice red wine. It’s summertime. I’m not that hungry.
2) List five items currently in your refrigerator (or if you’re on the road: cooler, glove compartment, backpack, suitcase).
Mango, celery, sliced turkey, red wine, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce.
3) Buck Owens or Roy Clark?
Umm … Jim [Avett] would kill me because I cant say, so, Leadbelly.
4) What are you listening to these days?
Dewey Balfa (old Cajun fiddler on Smithsonian Folkways), “Baby’s in Black” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” by the Beatles, Joe Diffy,
5) What was your first paying job?
Babysitting, 11 years old. The kid was 10 and pulled out his BB gun and shot Sprite cans in the backyard. Out of control.
6) What was your first paying music gig?
The Warehouse Theater in D.C., February 2006 with the Rosemont Family Reunion — we sold it out. I sang harmony with Dad as a kid on some of his paid gigs, but I never got paid.
7) Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? (John Prine was a mailman, you know.)
No. I was going to medical school. I have my Master’s in Physiology and Biophysics from Georgetown University and did Breast Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute. I quit in November 2006 to start the Junior League Band, pick up flexible day jobs.
8 ) What record or artist changed your life when you first heard it (him or her)?
“The Baby Now That I Found You Collection” by Alison Krauss. I think I’ve listened to that album front to back more than a couple thousand times (ask my sisters!). I guess I didn’t know it til I heard it, but I suddenly had a hero! (or heroine). I was so impressed with her style of singing, her song choice, and I couldn’t believe I had never heard her on the radio. I think it opened up my mind to the possibilities and options for women in music, as well as it was startling to discover there was such life-changing music that I was not hearing on the radio in Atlanta. I’ve been hooked on her ever since. Singing along to all her albums, each little trill — a million times — over the last 18 years, were my vocal lessons.
9) For you, which comes first, the lyric or the melody?
Sometimes it’s the lyric, sometimes it’s the melody. Sometimes it’s a chorus, sometimes a bridge. I record it onto my phone and it saves it on my computer as an mp3. And I do my homework later sifting through the melodies, and finding out the feel of the melody (is this a murder ballad, or a pop song feel?). If I don’t have a clear lyric or phrase I want to use in my head, I go to my book of words I keep. I collect sayings, phrases, “southernisms”. I usually don’t get too many pages in before I’ve found something I like, and that phrase generally triggers another phrase in my head. Also, I heard recently on “Fresh Air” that playwright/songwriter Stephen Sondheim uses a rhyming dictionary. I’d never heard of such a thing, so I came home and, lo and behold, my fiance has one. I definitely used that for some final touches I was looking for as I did my final edits of the lyrics to this album.
10) What does Nashville mean to you?
Honky tonkin! High hopes. Big Sea.
11) If you were voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (or Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame) tomorrow, what would be the opening sentence in your acceptance speech?
Thanks to my music-loving family for being so patient along the ride and hearing all my demos, from day one!
12) What’s next for Lissy Rosemont?
Release the album and tour the new tunes hard this summer and fall. Marry my red-headed reporter fella. Rest. And do the day all over again.