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HARMONIC CONVERGENCE: Q&A with singer-songwriters Liz Larin and Jill Jack
18 November, 2005
Detroit Free Press - Christopher Walton
For every similarity between Liz Larin and Jill Jack , there's an equally strong distinction.

Unquestionably two of the top draws and hardest working members of Detroit's music scene, both singer-songwriters have won a slew of Detroit Music Awards across multiple genres -- Larin has 15, Jack 12. Both are known for bringing a James Brown-like work ethic to their live performance schedule, typically delivering more than 100 performances each year to their devoted Michigan fan bases.

And in an industry not known for its kindness to performers who are older than 25, Jack and Larin are notable for having achieved some measure of middle-aged success while calling their own artistic shots. That musical prosperity is being underscored by the near-simultaneous release of fine new CDs from each of the women, who appear on back-to-back nights at Memphis Smoke in Royal Oak this weekend.

Last month, Jack delivered "Moon and the Morning After," which has been widely praised by critics as her most accomplished recording, with the potential to push her name beyond Michigan's borders and onto the national scene. This Saturday, Larin will inaugurate her latest effort, "Wake Up, Start Dreaming," at a CD-release party at Memphis Smoke.

But the two have toted their guitars down starkly different paths, and their musical approaches are dramatically different. Larin left her Birmingham home at the age of 16 to sing and play her way around the country, eventually ending up in Los Angeles with a major-label record deal for her edgy pop rock. Jack has lived in Oakland County since childhood and didn't launch her folk-rock career till she was nearly 30, when she walked away from her secure but soul-deadening spot on the corporate treadmill.

Today Larin is single, involved in a number of collaborative writing and producing projects, and describes herself as a "computer geek" who likes to push the musical envelope with digitized drum loops and electronic samples. Jack is a single mother (to 13-year-old Emma) who balances her burgeoning music career with a part-time administrative job. She loathes computers and has to unwind after answering her e-mail by turning off the computer and lighting candles.

The Free Press sat down with both women last week to get their respective takes on the trials and tribulations of making it in the music business. Following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space.

QUESTION: Liz, in the '90s you were living in Los Angeles; you had a record deal with Atlantic. Why'd you come home?

Liz Larin: I just had to ground. I had been living smack-dab in Hollywood for five years. That was a hard, hard time. Atlantic wanted me to do a solo project ... They wanted to package me as a total sex symbol and I'm thinking, OK ... no. If anybody's going to put me in a bustier it's going to be me, not some guy in a suit. We parted mutually. I realized that I wanted to come home, be with family and friends and produce something I could really feel good about and that I could really get behind.

Q: Jill, when did you start your career?

Jill Jack: I started playing guitar when I was 9, but I didn't even think about doing it professionally. I come from a real conservative family -- my dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse -- and their idea was you go to college, grow up, get married and have kids, that's it. I did all that.

But then my husband at the time and my daughter got in a car accident. I wasn't happy in my life as it was and it jarred me into reality, and I realized that I would have regrets if I didn't attempt music to the best of my ability. So I did it. I was in my late 20s, with a child, and I'm telling my parents, "I'm quitting my full-time job that pays me really well and I'm going to sell the huge house." And my dad was like, "Are you crazy?"

Q: In an industry so focused on youth ... um, I'll just ask the question: How old are you?

LL: A lady never tells her age and a gentleman never asks.

JJ: It's a battle to deal with this question, and I'll tell you why... The reason I don't like it is because of the industry. They think I'm supposed to be dead. I'm not supposed to have talent at this point in my life; I'm not supposed to be even working. So part of me wants to embrace my age and say, "This is how old I am and I'm going to keep going -- try to knock me down." I'm 42. How's that? But the bottom line, too, is that I'm not stopping yet.

Q: Do you see any advantages of age?

LL: There are a lot of women -- Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann.

JJ: Lucinda Williams.

LL: ... a lot of women who didn't just fall out of bed, bump their head and write a song. It takes experience and life. To write about life, you need to live a life.

JJ: I came from a very happy, easygoing existence ... it was a lay-in-the-pool, "Oh my god, we've gotta rake leaves today?" existence. What was I going to write about? Also, I love being 40 because you get to a point where you don't care what anyone else thinks.

Q: What do you think of when you think of playing live?

LL: (Laughing) Losing weight.

JJ: (Laughing) It's like sex. LL: It is like sex.

JJ: You get lost. If it's a good night, you totally get lost in it. You can abandon yourself. It really is like ... (both laughing).

Q: Is performing live your favorite part of your career?

JJ: Definitely.

LL: I love performing, but I love the studio, too, because you can be so creative. I really like the creative aspect ... I'm actually moving into producing. There are not a lot of women who produce, but I so love it. You don't just show up in a studio. I need to show up with absolute ideas, with a structure. I tell people where to play their part, how to play, and I edit the hell out of it. I love editing.

JJ: For me, being in the studio feels like a gynecologist's appointment. I don't like it at all. It's sterile. It's so planned. You have to have a plan or you're going to waste a lot of money on studio time. But I could never reach that (laughing again) orgasmic feeling in the studio that you get playing live.

Q: How do you define success?

LL: Being able to get up every day and write and create music with people you admire. Like right now, I'm writing with the Bass Brothers, Eminem's guys, and it's great because it's stretching me. I'm also writing with Scott Spock, who's with the Matrix production team in L.A. It's nice that I put out quality stuff and people call me and ask me to help write or produce.

JJ: For me, you can't be a musician and say you don't want to get to the masses. It would be nice to meet a really lovely music company that, like in the '60s, would take work with the artist, build the artist, create with the artist. Instead they want the one hit. If they get one hit out of you now they're happy, then buh-bye. I don't know what the answer is. I am going to be taking this album to Nashville, because some people there have said, "We really like it, when are you coming down?"

On the other hand, you don't want to get too excited because they could say, "Well, she's got a gap between her teeth, we just don't think it's gonna work."

So part of me has to stay really focused and have tunnel vision as far as what I have to do on my own, how I can continually create my art so it's good for me, too.

Q: What do you think of Detroit music audiences?

JJ: Loyal. I've had fans from day one that are still with me.

LL: They're wonderful. I love coming back here because people will tell you what they think. They're tough, but honest. And they're going to be honest about the music versus what you're wearing or what haircut you have.

Q: What do you say to younger female fans who look to you as role models?

JJ: Girls and women have asked me, "I play guitar and sing, do you have any advice?" I tell them there are going to be so many people in your life that tell you you can't do it. And they're not saying it because you're not talented; it's because of their fear for you that you're going to fail and that you'll get hurt. You need to develop a thick skin, but not so thick that it covers your inner soul.

LL: Because we've shown that women can go out and do a great job entertaining audiences, running our own businesses, putting out really, really quality music that touches people, it's going to be easier for the next generation of women or girls who want to choose this as an occupation. They won't be forced to deal with, "Sorry, we're only doing women who crawl across the floor." That's what we women have had to stand up and say "No" to.

Q: Anything you'd like to say about this point in your life?

LL: I am astoundingly amazed that at this point in my life I could have it the way I want. Which is to be involved with family and friends, be in Detroit and have a career that's working on a national level. I'm absolutely excited about that. And lots of travel. And I get to wear funky clothes.

JJ: I think I'm finding balance. The lyrics on my new song, "Find My Way Home," are about the simple life versus fame. I'm constantly battling that. There's something about the industry that makes me feel dirty, gross, that makes me feel not me. So if you try to improve yourself and you want to get to the masses, because that's what I want to do, you have to deal with stuff I don't like to deal with.

I wish there was a magic wand that was able to put me in front of a lot of people without having to go through all the stuff that you have to go through -- the booking agents, the people who you don't know if you can trust, the people who say things and tear you down. "Find My Way Home" is about going home after a really hard gig and my daughter coming up to me, sitting down and putting her head on my lap. That's home. You can't bottle that, you can't buy it. That's what I don't ever want to lose.

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