To paraphrase an old expression, no artist is an island - and New York City Rocker L.P. is no exception. Her full-throttle vocals are backed by the hardest-working band a singer could wish for. Her performances have been touted by luminaries including Howard Stern, producer Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Paul Simon), and New York Times critic Ann Powers. She has collaborated with seasoned industry vets like Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes, Pink) and David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker). But none of this was just handed to L.P. In a musical universe cluttered with hurried knockoffs of the Next Big Thing, carving out her unique place has been hard work. Fortunately, it's a job she loves.
Last year, L.P. (just L.P., please, and yes, those are her real initials) decided to hit the road and play out as much as possible. Her 2001 debut, Heart-Shaped Scar, had garnered favorable notices but music-industry wrangling had kept her temporarily sidelined. Finally freed from her old label and armed with a clutch of strong new material, she set out to recruit a band that shared her determination. "I needed a bunch of guys willing to work for twenty dollars and a pat on the ass." She soon found them: guitarists Tony Finn and Josh Flagg, bassist Scott Kelliher, and drummer Scott Campbell. "There's an enthusiasm in this band," she insists. "Everybody is doing it for the love."
Which is good. Because when you play up to twenty shows a month, holding down a steady job is not an option. ("Somebody in this band is always getting their phone shut off," the singer admits.) But L.P. and her colleagues are not daunted by life on the road - they thrive on its challenges. "You go to places you've never been, and it's like 'Good luck.' You're just trying to get the folks who showed up to see the other band to stay, or to turn on the promoter, sound guy, or bartender, who could help you get a better booking next time." More often than not, L.P. pulls it off. And world of her captivating talent is spreading, snowballing. "We just did two gigs in a row in New Orleans, and all the people that were there the first night came back with friends in tow the second."
What's all the fuss about? For starters, there is her music, which L.P. half-jokingly refers to as "Southern music for Yankees." On originals like "Perfect" and "Wasted", L.P. distills the pure emotion and swagger that distinguished classic acts like Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones into her own intoxicating strain of modern rock, one where the ratio of ferocity and sensitivity is perfectly calibrated. While much of her recent material was composed while she was stuck in music industry limbo, you don't have to be in show business to feel it's emotional pull. "A lot of the time, I write songs to keep myself going," she explains. "They're don't-give-up songs, and that sentiment translates to other people, too, because everybody experiences those same sort of feelings."
Foremost, there is that voice. For the last eight years, L.P. has studied extensively with both opera coaches and rock specialists. "I work on my voice a lot," she emphasizes. "That's something that will never change." That dedication has paid off. Where other singers rely on sheer firepower or uvular acrobatics to dazzle audiences, L.P. has learned to walk - or strut, as the occasion dictates - the fine line between controlled precision and unfettered passion. "The other night, someone came up to me after a show in Delaware and said 'You don't smoke, do you?' I take that as a compliment, " she chuckles. "I've learned how to make it sound like I'm going nuts, just ripping my throat out . . . but I'm not."
Genetics may have played a small part in shaping L.P.'s instrument. Her mother was an opera singer who sang at Carnegie Hall before dedicating her life to raising her family. (L.P. immortalizes her mother in the stirring original "All I Have".) Yet when she was growing up in upstate New York, nobody pushed L.P. to perform; by her won accord, she was a late bloomer. "We used to listen to the radio in the car, and I would sing along. One day, my mom turned down the radio and said, "Is that you? That sounds really good!' That made me want to start singing."
L.P. cut her teeth doing backing vocals for older friends' cover bands, and by her senior year in high school, she was cleaning up at local talent shows. "It's funny when kids who normally won't even talk to you suddenly go 'Hey, you sing great!'" Encouraged, she moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side and soon started garnering notice as the frontperson of the downtown ensemble Lionfish, which released two albums during their three-year run. It was via Lionfish that L.P. caught the attention of David Lowery, who was so taken by her talents he invited the then-relatively unknown artist to perform on Cracker's 1998 release Gentlemen's Blues. Her spotlight turn, singing lead on the album's closing track, "My Cinderella," earned her praise from the band's fans, and she toured with Cracker as a guest vocalist and featured performer. Subsequently, L.P. turned to Lowery to produce and co-write her solo debut, Heart-Shaped Scar, which was released in 2001 on Koch Records.
But that was then and this is now. And all L.P. wants from the future is what she already has: to continue writing great songs, pushing herself as a singer, and winning over new acolytes, one town at a time. "I just want to keep touring and building the fan base to the point where we can't be ignored and you've got to pay attention."
"Often, when we play someplace new, I feel like people are going "Where the hell did this come from?'" she concludes. "I love seeing that look of surprise on the audience's faces. Or having people come up and say, 'I can't believe you guys aren't huge!' I'll never get tired of hearing that."