Lee Aaron, Canada's Metal Queen, Is Back to Reclaim Her Crown
32 years after making waves as "the female Conan," the ever-evolving Ontario-born singer is back with her first rock album in two decades.
In 1984, Lee Aaron was introduced to the headbanging youth of Canada and Europe as a sword-wielding warrior princess on the cover of her Metal Queen album. Defiant and sexy in teased bangs and a Bronze Age gold-and-fur ensemble, the Ontario-born singer known to her parents as Karen Lynn Greening quickly became a heavy metal icon across the Great White North. The video for the record’s anthemic title track featured the scantily clad singer in chains, tangling with tarantulas and dangerous snakes, and even being set on fire—all while singing her face off with incredible power. The album itself appeared right around the time female-fronted metal bands like Los Angeles’ Bitch, Belgium’s Acid and Germany’s Warlock (featuring famous blonde wailer Doro Pesch) made their full-length debuts, putting Aaron at the forefront of that particular vanguard.
The thing is, none of it was her idea. In fact, Metal Queen wasn’t even Aaron’s first album. In 1982, she released a hard rock record under the name The Lee Aaron Project. That same year, she posed topless for Oui, the Canadian equivalent to Playboy, which was a decision she regretted almost instantly. But the title “Metal Queen” has since become synonymous with Aaron’s name throughout Canada, even though she abandoned the swords and sorcery shtick almost immediately and found far more success with the radio-friendly style of 1989’s Bodyrock, which went nearly triple platinum in Canada. Aaron went through a short-lived grunge phase in the mid-90s, and then ultimately quit making rock records altogether when she started singing jazz.
In March, she’ll unveil Fire and Gasoline, a record that will simultaneously be her first new album in 11 years, her first rock record in 20 years, and her first album ever officially released in the U.S. We recently called Aaron at her home near Vancouver to discuss the ups and downs of her lengthy career.
Noisey: When did you first figure out you could sing?
Lee Aaron: I don’t know how to explain it other than it was always some kind of catharsis for me, even as a child. I was totally ADD when I was a kid, so I was always bouncing off walls. In fact, my grade one teacher told my mum I was un-teachable. But I found singing to be one of the few things I could focus on. When I was 15 years old, I was singing in a production at my high school, and we were kind of renowned in southern Ontario for our performances. A bass player from a local band came out and heard me sing. He came backstage and told me he wanted me to audition for his band. I had only discovered rock'n’roll the year before. So my father drove me to the audition because he wasn’t about to let me go to a basement rehearsal with a bunch of boys all by myself. [Laughs] So I auditioned along with a few other people, and I guess I did the best. At first, half the band didn’t want a female singer, and the other half did. But I ended up getting the gig.
Is that when you started using your stage name?
Well, the band didn’t even have a name when I joined. After landing the best gig of our high school career—at the local band shell in the Toronto suburbs—we decided to put a bunch of names in a hat to figure out our band name. I don’t know where the name came from, but the name “Lee Aaron” got put into that hat. It was supposed to be a name like “Jethro Tull”—a name that meant a band but not an individual. Then a Toronto manager came out to that band shell show and approached us because he saw some potential. It was our last year of high school, so by that September he was booking us and putting us on the road. From there, things changed quite dramatically. He saw marketing potential, and all of a sudden I was the frontperson. [Laughs] But it didn’t start out like that. I also played keyboards and saxophone in the initial incarnation of the band. At first, the guitar player sang half the vocals and I sang half the vocals, but it sort of migrated into me taking over the lead vocals because I had the stronger voice. So that turned into a Lee Aaron solo career later on.
Did any of the guys from your high school band play on The Lee Aaron Project album in 1982?
None of my initial high school players played on that record. However, my guitarist, George Bernhardt, rejoined the band for Metal Queen. George and I were the initial writing team with Lee Aaron, so I co-wrote the majority of Metal Queen with him. I believe he’s actually playing guitar in Rick Springfield’s band now. I really love these questions, by the way. Nobody’s ever really asked me about the beginnings of this. They usually ask, “What was it like for you being a woman in the rock scene?”
I wouldn’t do that to you. But I do have to ask about the fantastic outfit you’re wearing on the cover of Metal Queen. It looks like the same outfit you wore in the video for the title track…
It’s the same one! [Laughs] And yes, it’s fantastic in a timely as opposed to timeless way.
It has a bit of a Conan vibe—those Schwarzenegger flicks were big at the time.
[Laughs] I prefer to think of it as Barbarella or that one with Raquel Welch in the fur bikini—One Million Years B.C. I mean, I have to look back on it now with humor because it was very kitschy and timely, and—above all—not my idea. I never wore stuff like that onstage! I walked into the shoot, and they’d created this set, and there was a costume guy. You have to remember, this was the era of huge money and everyone had a role. There was an art director, so this part of the art was handed over to someone else. You’re just the person who wrote all the songs and created the whole thing, you know? [Laughs] So they basically told me what to wear and said, “We wanna make you like a female Conan.” I believe those words were actually said. I was 21 years old and I was totally intimidated by all these industry guys. But their goal was to create an iconic image, and they succeeded.
Absolutely. It became the image you seem to be most associated with.
Well, you’re also from the States. I have very limited exposure down there. If you were from Canada, I don’t know that you’d attach me to that as much. People in my own country will refer to me by that moniker—the Metal Queen—but it’s not really attached to that image. It’s more like a title, like being knighted or something. [Laughs]
Are you comfortable with that? I ask because I understand you have an uneasy relationship with that particular image.
I can describe it like this: Everyone knows that Alice Cooper is a golfer, but he’s also spiritual and he’s an intelligent man. The whole Alice Cooper thing is a role he plays—it’s theater. That’s what it was like for me. I came from theater, so this became a new role for me. My greatest influences weren’t heavy metal at all. I can tell you the albums that formed the landscape of my youth, and I think probably Heart and the Runaways were as heavy as it got. So becoming an icon in the metal world was never my goal.
I’m not saying that to disappoint fans, but for me there was more art to it. So I admit that I had a mixed relationship with it for years because I wanted to be able to grow artistically. I love rock and I love big guitars and my music, for the most part, has always embodied that. But there’s a fine line you walk when you’re embraced by a metal audience. Write one hook too many, and you’ve “sold out.” [Laughs] It’s like, “Oh, darn it—I shouldn’t have written that catchy chorus!”
In the “Metal Queen” video, you’re wearing this skimpy outfit, you’re tied up in chains and they even set your arm on fire at one point. Plus, you’re handling tarantulas and huge snakes. The whole thing just seems exhausting and dangerous. Did it feel that way to you?
Yeah, it definitely wasn’t what I signed up for. [Laughs] But I am relatively fearless, so I was like, “Where’s the snake handler guy?” We had a team of snake handlers just out of the camera shot in case the snake started to coil. With the fire, it was all professionally done in terms of fire safety. They had this solution on my armband that was fast-burning and only burned the surface, not underneath. You should’ve seen my laundry after we shot that video.
You dropped the warrior princess image even before your next album, Call Of The Wild, came out.
Yeah, but the music was still rock. You know, as much as I respect and admire someone like Thor, I knew that kind of persona wasn’t going to work for me for the rest of my career. So I’ve made some unusual choices throughout the course of my career because being hugely commercial successful and rich was never my goal.
A couple of years before Metal Queen came out, you posed topless for Oui magazine. Was that another example of being pressured into doing something to advance your career?
You know, I don’t talk about this very much but I’m happy to answer you truthfully. That’s a difficult one because I was young. I was 19 years old when we did the shoot, but it didn’t actually come out until two years later. Did I feel pressure? Yes. Was I assured that it would be something that it wasn’t? Yes. I was told it was going to be sort of like Nastassja Kinksi’s shoot with Richard Avedon. But did I make the decision to do it? Yes, I made that decision based on the information that I was being fed at that time. Do I regret it and feel it was a mistake? Absolutely. I would never do it again and I would never recommend that any young girl do it. I felt like I fought for musical credibility for years after that because [the pictorial] had nothing to do with music. It was just a publicity stunt, and it was a huge mistake.
In 1989, you released Bodyrock, which went double platinum in Canada. How did that record change things for you?
It actually almost went triple platinum. It was pretty successful in Europe, too, because we toured over there, and in Japan as well. How did it change things for me? Well, sales mean respectability. All of a sudden I was on the cover of magazines that I’d never been on the cover of before, because I was the It Girl for a little while. We ended up touring for almost 14 months straight. It was nonstop live shows and nonstop promotion. But the bigger you become, the bigger the team of people around you becomes. Sometimes you’re more successful but you’re not really financially more successful, you know? From a musical perspective, we weren’t really doing anything differently than we had been. For some reason, it clicked that time, or was just marketed right.
Then grunge came along and changed a lot of things for a lot of people—including you.
Oh yeah. If you had anything to do with classic rock or commercial rock, you couldn’t get arrested after 1992. It changed things for everybody. But I didn’t fight against the tide because, truthfully, I loved grunge! I loved Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana. So I fully embraced it and did a Lee Aaron record that sounded a little grungy. I hired Reeves Gabrels from David Bowie’s Tin Machine and Knox Chandler from the Psychedelic Furs and we did Emotional Rain in 1994. I’m still really proud of that record—I think it’s one of my best albums—but perception is everything. And because the Lee Aaron name had been attached to classic rock, I couldn’t get arrested.
Which is why you decided to use your real name on your next record.
Yeah. I hooked up with an alternative rock band called Sons of Freedom here in Canada, and we wrote a whole album together. The Lee Aaron name was a detriment at the time, so we put it out under the nom de plume 2preciious. And I thought that was a great record too, but unfortunately it was like being a brand new band again, so it was difficult for the album to get any wind under its sails. I think the ’90s were a write-off for a lot of us, even though I feel like artistically I did some of my best work.
Meanwhile, you could never get your records released in the States.
There were a bunch of political and contractual reasons why a Lee Aaron record never came out in the States. I don’t want to say anything negative about anyone, but that’s sometimes the curse of signing the big Canadian contract: You never get an opportunity in the States. But I got off of Attic Records in ’92, and between my lawyer and my manager and myself, we created a new label. We put out Emotional Rain and the 2preciious album, but then grunge came along and I got left holding the financial weight of close to half a million dollars. Basically, my manager just stopped taking my calls, so I had to go bankrupt in 1996.
Yeah, I was clinically depressed. My doctor put me on Prozac and I think I ended up trying about four or five different antidepressants, but unfortunately I’m one of the rare people that can’t take antidepressants because they make me manic. So that was a bad little period for me. But I had a couple of choices: Spend the next 20 years of my life trying to pay off the money, or go bankrupt. So I went bankrupt. But it was the best thing I could’ve done for myself, and I ended up quitting music for about a year. I felt like my heart had been put into the pop culture meat grinder and ground up.
How did you bounce back from that period?
I sat in a dark room and listened to a lot of jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday. Finally a friend of mine said, “You should sing that stuff. You’d be good at it.” So what started as me and a piano player in a few lounges here in Vancouver turned into a jazz band, and then all the local papers came out and reviewed it—and then suddenly I was booked almost every night of the week. It just blossomed to the point where I felt I should do a jazz record, which I did in 2000, and that led to a bunch of jazz festivals.
When you first entered the jazz world, were you constantly being compared to the hard rock Lee Aaron?
A few times I’d have these guys in leather jackets showing up to the jazz festivals going, “Metal Queen!” And then they’d leave. [Laughs] I mean, what were they thinking they were gonna get when they bought a ticket to a jazz festival? But for the most part, the reception I got was just fantastic. Plus, it got me back on a stage again, and proved to people that I was much more than the one-dimensional Metal Queen.
You’re about to release your first studio record in 11 years. Why such a long time between albums?
I got married and had children. My children are nine and eleven. I had this crazy idea when I first got pregnant with my daughter that I’d just have a baby and keep making music and traveling around the world. And then I ended up with a baby that screamed when you put her in her car seat to go to Walgreens. [Laughs] Then you realize you’re gonna change your life completely for these little people. It takes a tremendous amount of creative energy to raise children, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 11 years. But I love it, and I can’t imagine my life without them. And now being a parent, I feel like I have so much more wisdom and experience to pour into my music.
Fire and Gasoline is a rock record. What prompted the return to your roots?
Well, I always sort of kept my foot in the rock scene because I get offers to do a handful of rock shows up here every year, and they’re always fun. So it’s not like I completely abandoned rock'n’roll. But my kids started listening to stuff like Bruno Mars and Katy Perry, so I found myself pulling out all the records that I listened to when I was their age, like Heart’s Dreamboat Annie or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. I actually just made a Facebook post about that because I was crying when David Bowie died. But listening to those old records got me excited about that kind of music and got me thinking I should do another rock record. I always knew I’d do another one—I just didn’t know when. And it’ll be my first record that actually makes it into stores in the US. Better late than never!
J. Bennett has always wondered if he can become an honorary Canadian somehow.