By Christine Shuster for The Salisbury Post
It's a Saturday afternoon in November, and I find myself in the luxurious Cloninger Guest House at Catawba College, listening to a woman sing and play piano.
This isn't just any woman; and this isn't just any song. This is Lisa Lowell, playing one of her original songs for me.
Lowell is a professional background singer who has performed with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, B.B. King, Sheryl Crowe, Stevie Wonder and many others. She came to visit Catawba College recently to speak to students and to perform with The Vernaculars popular music ensemble.
The Vernaculars performed The Beatles' "Abbey Road" in its entirety, in celebration of the album's 40-year anniversary. Lowell joined sophomore music business student Dusti Kempf and sophomore musical theatre student Autumn Hamilton in singing "Oh Darlin'" to the overflowing Hedrick Theatre.
Lisa's journeyman drummer father was a jazz and orchestral player. He joined the Navy so he could be a member of the Naval Band, and after fighting in the South Pacific, he returned to 42nd street in New York City to play in bebop bands with musicians such as Artie Shaw, Ray Anthony and Benny Goodman.
Lowell's mother was a gifted singer who chose to stay in the Jersey shore, performing in bars with local and national jazz musicians.
Following in her parents' musical footsteps, Lowell first took classes at the University of Massachusetts, then moved on to the New England Conservatory of Music. Upon moving back to New Jersey, she formed jazz bands and joined an R&B band on the side. While performing in Mikell's Bar, she met the band Sneaky Cookin'. Founded by the late Howie Wyeth (drummer for Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review) the band was fronted by four girls doing harmony, which Lisa fell in love with. At their encouragement, she decided to become a background singer herself.
At age 24, she moved to New York, began waitressing on the side and sang in the streets with other aspiring professional background singers. Within four months, she was flown out to Hollywood with the "Bondinis" by Norman Lear, to be on Martin Mull's "America Tonight" show. She then sang in the original movie "Fame" by director Alan Parker.
One of Lowell's greatest experiences thus far has been touring with Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Band during 2006 in Italy. For a few shows in front of 30,000 people, Lowell sang the lead on a verse and a chorus in "When the Saints Go Marching In," on Springsteen's s microphone. It was a new level of attention and respect, and she was able to stay calm and focused, enjoying the experience.
Lowell has recently recorded background vocals with a few local New York artists, performed at a singer-songwriter night in New Jersey with keyboardist Joel Diamond for a Springsteen tribute, performed at Banjo Jim's in the East Village of New York, and is currently recording her first solo record.
After a lot of searching, Lowell decided to go with producer Lincoln Schleifer for her first solo record. "It's going stellar!" says Lowell. Schleifer has a home studio, with both standard and vintage equipment, in his basement in the Bronx, N.Y. Guitarist Hugh McCracken, who has been on John Lennon and Paul McCartney albums, will be on Lowell's record. Bruce Springsteen will also have a guitar track on the project.
The record will be a combination of roots influences in R&B, soul, rock and pop, with a few jazz chords thrown into the mix.
Lowell described the record as "all things I've known and loved, adapted to my voice and the mood the lyrics indicate."
It is good to have a broad musical understanding when entering the music industry as a background singer, Lowell says. One challenge is being able to walk into any musical situation and know enough about the genre. These experiences help you to learn and adapt in other musical situations. To enter the music industry in any area, not just as a background vocalist, Lowell says, it's best to figure out what you're best at and just focus on that for a while — try to make a living out of it. Get involved with the most talented people you can find and "gravitate toward musical kindred spirits." Be sure to learn from others, she said. Try to understand the business and how it works best for you, and in the end, keep the passion. Just never lose the passion.
Christine Shuster is a senior music business major at Catawba College.
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PHOTOS: The Vernaculars Abbey Road and Lisa Lowell