march 2011

Dana Fuchs: ‘The goal is to aspire to write like a Dylan or a Waits, sing like Otis and Aretha, and have a message on stage.’

Setting It On Fire

From Love, Janis to Across the Universe to her second studio album, Love to Beg, Dana Fuchs has grown and matured as a singer and songwriter. Fronting a powerful live show, she stands on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

By David McGee

“I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll give you my heart and soul, but you have to give yours to me!”

Two songs into a sold-out show at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on April 15 and Dana Fuchs was propositioning her audience. She was preaching to the crowd, though. Not a seat was unoccupied in the venue, and around the table area on the main floor the crowd was three deep. In the balcony, same thing, and if the place had rafters, fans would have been hanging off them. They weren’t there out of curiosity--these were hard-core Dana Fuchs fans. Some, no doubt, had been with her since the late ‘90s, when she, her guitarist (and then boyfriend) Jon Diamond (a young veteran who had already made an impression while touring with Debbie Davies and Joan Osborne) and her band were packing in fans at what was then a thriving blues club scene in lower Manhattan, at fondly remembered joints such as Manny’s Car Wash, Dan Lynch’s, Mondo Cane, Chicago Blues, great places where the blues proved its vitality and its relevance every night of the week. Others, perhaps, discovered her in the early oughts, when she was portraying Janis Joplin the singer (while another actress did the speaking parts of the book) in the hit off-Broadway musical, Love, Janis, based largely on Joplin’s letters home as collected in her sister Laura’s book from which the play took its title. Fuchs was nothing less than sensational in her role: other than being taller (at 6’1”) and thinner than the real Janis, she could emulate the Joplin voice, but she found her own place inside in the music--hers wasn’t an attempt to directly imitate the Joplin timbre or phrasing, and that in part is what made her performance so affecting. She probed for the emotional center of Joplin’s songs, opened herself up to what they were saying, and let her own experience inform her belting and balladry, making of it both an homage to Janis and an incredibly moving personal statement, five shows over four days a week no less. Others still may have been turned on to her by way of her first studio album, 2003’s impressive Lonely For a Lifetime, released on a small indie label that soon folded (as of this writing, two copies were available from Amazon dealers, for $100 each). If so, they surely were transfixed and moved by the smart, impassioned vocal performances, which showcased Fuchs’s unerring instinct for personalizing what sound like bold, frank diary entries from a life lived with a passion, and on the edge, with sympathetic instrumental support from a tight band led by the versatile Diamond (he adds striking accompaniment to blues ballads, to the rockabilly strut of “Bible Baby,” to multiple fiery blues-rock attacks and hard rock juggernauts). Maybe there were more recent converts present who had found Fuchs via director Julie Taymor’s ambitious 2007 musical built around 34 Beatles songs in which Fuchs played the character of Sadie and stole the movie with her sultry, rooftop performance of “Don’t Let Me Down”; a heated, grinding take on “Oh, Darling”; and by giving “Helter Skelter” a Janis-style howl in a memorable, if somewhat jumbled, sequence in which she is backlit, partially in shadow, in multiple exposures, whipping her long blonde tresses around her head and taking possession of the tune as surely as she did the songs in Love, Janis. The soundtrack album went platinum.

So there have been many ways for fans to discover Dana Fuchs over the past decade and a half, and there was something of a returning hometown heroine aspect to the Highline performance. Fuchs seemed to know a lot of the folks seated at the tables near the front of the stage, and from other parts of the room others made their way to the front of the stage during the show to pay their respects, and maybe get a hug..

But that deal she struck at the show’s outset? Let’s say all parties held up their end of the bargain. At the close of a near two-hour set of unrelenting fury, including some impressive forays into southern soul and Memphis R&B along the way, the audience was still keyed up, wanting more, even after being pummeled into a stupor by the closing firestorm of “Helter Skelter” bleeding into Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” during which, on the latter tune, Fuchs unleashed some banshee wails of awesome, Plant-ian magnitude.

Dana Fuchs live, the incendiary big finish with ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ Jon Diamond on guitar.

Certainly in the few cover songs Fuchs gave it her all and then some, but where her heart and soul came through most vividly was in the body of the set, in the original numbers she and Diamond wrote for her new album, Love To Beg, released Stateside on the Germany-based Ruf Records, which has added Fuchs to its formidable roster of contemporary blues artists, especially a younger generation of female artists who are making their collective mark as singers-writers-instrumentalists of unusual power and passion (Ruf artists reviewed and/or interviewed in these pages: Dani Wilde; Shakura S’aida; and our January 2011 cover subject, Joanne Shaw Taylor.) May you never have to hear the Hold Steady again.

Love to Beg is a remarkable achievement on several fronts. Unlike Lonely For a Lifetime, the music here stays rooted in blues and rock--no rockabilly forays in sight--and is played with aggressive punch and unrestrained intensity designed to complement and enhance a group of songs exploring the roiling emotions of obsessive-compulsive love. Then Fuchs’s vocals, impassioned, gritty and nuanced, inject life into those songs. From the opening wail of Diamond’s slide guitar and the thundering drums on the title track, the musicians make sure you know something’s at stake here. Fuchs enters rather casually, but slowly heats up until she explodes in the chorus; she elevates the intensity as the song develops, each verse building on what came before, as she details a conflicted love affair--“I’m never far away from loving you again,” she sings with a wary tremor in her voice at the outset, but in the second verse it’s “I’m a long way from believing you again.” Nothing much good is going to come of this relationship, and she knows it; the tension in the song, as it is in others she’s written, comes in the frank admission of being unable to leave it all behind but refusing to lose her identity in submission to her lover’s (“I can’t swallow all your pride/Cuz I can’t swallow mine”). “Nothing’s What I Cry For,” hard driving and anguished, with Fuchs fairly spitting out the verses and wailing in the choruses, finds the artist castigating herself for investing too much confidence in her own heart (“gotta say if felt good today but tonight I’ll fall apart”) and not being cautious enough in giving it up; at the song’s close, she’s fighting to keep body and soul together, finding her only comfort in slumber and creeping close to nihilism: “Maybe I just get off on all this emptiness/Cuz everything means nothing and nothing’s what I cry for/sleeping’s how I dream and I sleep to dream just to be.”

Jittery, tense, anxious and aggrieved, “Golden Eyes,” with Diamond’s pulsating wah-wah guitar effect establishing a sinister atmosphere, is a howitzer of a missive aimed directly at a “cruel love” Fuchs can’t resist, even as she recognizes the damages being inflicted on her soul--a reality check both chillingly and dramatically expressed at the 3:09 mark, when Fuchs suddenly explodes through the instrumental maelstrom with a ferocious primal scream to the heavens at the point where words are utterly useless in expressing her inward torment--it’s the capper on a performance of Homeric grandeur. If you’re listening to it through headphones, it will stop you dead in your tracks, make you weak in the knees; when you experience it in her live performance, it takes your breath away. “Someday I’ll tell you what it’s about,” she told the Highline audience after she had finished riding roughshod over them with a scorching rendition of the song. Odds are the audience got it anyway, in their own fashion.

After the fireworks of “Golden Eyes,” the bright, delicate, Stephen Stills-flavored acoustic guitar riff opening “Keepsake” provides bracing calm, and the soothing ambiance is further enhanced by Glenn Patscha’s discreet organ embroidery. A thoughtful ballad with a country tinge (check out Diamond’s twangy guitar solo) and a measured Fuchs vocal in which she admits to being a co-conspirator in an ill-fated love affair she knows she can’t quit. In a raspy, wounded voice, she admits her fate: “With every weapon I had I tore at your heart/Every word that I said meant to rip us apart/I remember knowing this wasn’t the end/I remember knowing we’d meet here again.” The shimmering close to “Keepsake” lingers for a split second before the next song, “Set It On Fire,” kicks off with a downbeat and a swirl of rocking organ and guitar and an onrushing rhythmic thrust (credit Whynot Jansveld on bass and Carter McLean on drums here and throughout Love to Beg), before Fuchs enters rather deliberately, by her standards. But phrase by phrase, disquiet gathers around the narrative, and by the chorus Fuchs is leading the charge through this, the album’s showcase number, a bonafide hard rock anthem with a killer singsong chorus supplemented by a background chorus of soul sisters (Jenny Douglas and Vivian Sessoms) seconding Fuchs’s plaintive roar--an instant classic of its kind. Lyrically, she’s admitting, once again, to pulling away from someone even as she draws nearer to him, that old obsessive-compulsive thing strong as ever when she signs off with a swaggering drawl: “Now I’ve been wondering every day back home/If you might be missing me/And even though I told you to leave me alone/I wanna put my heart back on my sleeve.”

Fuchs doesn’t stray from these themes on the second half of the album. In the rolling and tumbling fury of “Faster Than We Can,” she’s trying to will herself not to “throw away everything I have today,” gives the gent his walking papers, but closes with a fevered, “…but don’t leeee-ee-aaave me…no!” The buoyant, bubbly, horn-flecked Al Green-Willie Mitchell groove of “Summertime” is sultry and funky, but it masks a story about a May-September romance that left her bitter, alone and not exactly finding that the lovin’ is easy (“I fell for love again/In the summer sun--but the early/autumn wind/blew you right back again/blowing me away/I never stood a chance”). This is not your George Gershwin kind of summertime. Fuchs plays the lyric just right, doling out equal amounts of hurt and resolve, and along the way proves herself one of the finest contemporary soul singers around. Pressing the point, one could direct the listener to the lone cover here, a version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” true to the original Otis Redding arrangement, with Diamond adding the lyrical Steve Cropper guitar, Glenn Patscha doing the Booker T. Jones honors on organ, and the horns surging plaintively at critical junctures. Fuchs--in lyrics that pretty much summarize the storyline of Love to Beg (“my love is growing stronger/as you become a habit to me/oh, I’ve been loving you a little too long/don’t want to stop now, no…”), digs into it Joplin-style--the only time on the album when she so consciously evokes Janis in her singing--and makes of it a devastating moment of supplication and pleading, at once grand and heartbreaking.

Dana Fuchs Band, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ the Etta James song that introduced Dana to her guitarist, Jon Diamond

At the Highline Fuchs introduced her song “Superman,” the album closer, by referring to “the richest country in the world and people are going hungry, people are losing their homes…” but stopped short of a rant. “Superman,” a bit of shambling, dirty blues in a Tom Waits vein, is an occasion for Fuchs to decry all manner of social inequities, disenfranchisement and war, naming no names, simply and artfully making her point in lyrics such as “shut down the sugar plum fairies--nobody’s waking up in Disneyland/burn up the notice from the landlord--a house is on fire in no man’s land.” From the stage of the Highline she mentioned some of her favorite songwriters, and specifically lauded Tom Waits, saying, “Maybe four or five lifetimes from now I’ll be able to write songs as good as his.” In her painted on, low-slung, belly baring blue jeans, frilly, low cut top, and mass of below-the-shoulder blonde curls, Dana Fuchs looks every bit the rock ‘n’ roll girl, sexually alluring and outwardly flirty, but throughout the set she offered tantalizing hints of the sum and substance of a substantial and serious  artist in the making beneath the provocative exterior. There were comments about a dysfunctional family, with an abusive father who rarely had time for his six kids; a brother who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness; a sister, a role model, who committed suicide. Hard times living hand to mouth while she worked her way up the rungs of the New York club scene. Advice to the ladies in the crowd to “choose wisely” when picking a partner. So even as you admire her skill at getting a crowd worked up--she rarely stands still and sings; rather she stalks the stage with panther grace, from side to side (behold, the wonders of wireless mics), repeatedly sings from a spread-legged crouch, or lays flat on her back on the stage, as if she’s so overcome by the moment that her legs have failed her--you sense the Dana Fuchs backstory is richer than she is letting you in on.

Which turns out to be an understatement.


…she rarely stands still and sings; rather she stalks the stage with panther grace, from side to side, repeatedly sings from a spread-legged crouch, or lays flat on her back on the stage, as if she’s so overcome by the moment that her legs have failed her. Photo: Alison Roberto.

New Jersey to Florida to New Jersey to New York, singing all the way…

Dana Fuchs was born in South Plainfield, NJ, on January 10, 1976, the youngest of six children born to Sandy (a New Jersey native) and Don Fuchs (Bronx, NY, born and raised and an ex-Marine). When Dana was two years old, the parents moved their brood to Florida, to the rural town of Wildwood. According to Dana, her father had “this big booming voice; he was often angry, an ex-Marine Bronx guy with a big temper. The kids in the better neighborhood, every day, would say, ‘Wow, your dad was yelling all night last night!’ I just saw growing up a father who wasn’t very nice to my mom and was unfaithful and all of that. So there was a lot of insanity going on.”

Outside of the Fuchs home was yet another world. Wildwood, she recalls, “felt like it was segregated still and it’s a predominately black town. You were either white on one side of the tracks or black on the other side of the tracks. When dad shipped us all down there, six kids, Irish-Catholic, we kind of didn’t fit in on either side. We were living on the supposed right side of the tracks, but completely alienated. It was very strange.”

School was “a haven” where she could escape the wildness at home, but some strangeness persisted because all her fellow students were black. “I had no friends,” Dana says before adding: “But I went through school and I was a good student. I loved it and always loved my teachers. One teacher in particular who took a liking to me is the one who took me to the churches. She would take me to her house after school with her kids, and that’s where I got turned on to Al Green, Donna Summer--the fundamentals--and lemon cake!”

At home, the Fuchs siblings, all into music, formed a family band, both to indulge their growing interest in music and to shield themselves from their dad’s fury. If school was a haven for Dana, the family band was even more so. When she joined in as a second grader, she found her calling; something clicked that told her this was the path she was going to follow wherever it would lead her.

“It really kicked in. I knew it. By second grade I was already making up new names for what my career name would be. I knew it. Also, my brothers and sister and I were so close, we always felt like we were in the trenches together with this father we had, God love him, and music was so much our outlet. There were three bedrooms and two kids in each bedroom. My sister and I shared one, and we would sing across the halls to each other until the last one standing fell asleep. I just remember knowing that this is all I wanted. My oldest brother, my sister and I were the ones who just knew we had to do it.”

And the music they made?

“It varied. A lot of Beatles--it was a Beatles-heavy family. Queen, the Stones, Zeppelin; Elvis, even, because my parents were also Elvis fans. We knew all the Elvis, all the Beatles. We hated the fluff stuff--no one in my family was ever into Leif Garrett and those guys. The cheese meter was pretty discriminating, thank God.”

Dana Fuchs Band, live at B.B. King’s, NYC, ‘Almost Home’

This accounts for some of what we hear when Fuchs sings. As a child she was also deeply stirred by the blues, a fact she attributes to her being entrenched in the black community and hearing soul and R&B wherever she turned. “That was my favorite music,” she says. “I like the classic rock as I get older, because I had grown up hearing that as well, but I was always drawn to the classic R&B stuff. I hadn’t really heard any of the down-home blues yet. But my parents were really into Billie Holiday and Ray Charles--they had really great taste in music, fortunately, and I remember my dad was watching a re-run of the movie with Diana Ross portraying Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues. I was so young, nine or ten, and I just sat there mesmerized. I probably didn’t understand all the addiction and stuff, but just the singing and those moments when she’s onstage and so consumed by the music. I remember telling my dad I was going to go New York, become a heroin addict and be a blues singer. He sat me down to explain what a heroin addict was. But I wanted that depth. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. There was a point in the commercial break of the show where they were flashing back and showing photos of the real Billie Holiday with that flower in her hair and the expressions on her face when she was singing. So tortured. Every kid has pain; you think yours is the only pain and it’s the deepest pain. So at the time I thought, Oh, my life is so painful--I was very into dark things as a kid--you know, I just knew I wanted to express like that and be a singer like that.”

Enough time has passed between then and now that when Fuchs speaks of her tumultuous home life and the hard times she had in her scuffling days in New York City, she’s not fishing for sympathy votes. In fact, she now laughs, albeit softly, about a lot of what she went through--a survivor’s laugh, perhaps, but a laugh nonetheless. She shrinks from no questions about her past, answers everything thoughtfully and openly, admits her own mistakes and is genuinely grateful for the opportunities she’s had. What she doesn’t say is that when those opportunities arose, she was prepared to take advantage of them. She’s earned everything she’s achieved, having never had anything given to her, neither money, nor a comfortable lifestyle nor favors from well connected friends. Hers is a story of undaunted courage, of a young woman constantly pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, sacrificing the most minimal creature comforts, saving and scrimping in hopes of making a little better life for herself, taking charge of her personal demons and learning how to keep them in check, and working exceedingly hard on her art. Her Highline concert had the feel of someone on the cusp of big things--big things, hard won.

As a 16-year-old, Fuchs was singing with a local bar band otherwise comprised of older men who played an extensive songbook of tunes “from the ‘60s through the ‘90s,” she says. “It was the popular stuff. I did some Fleetwood Mac with them, and some Janis, and a couple of bad Top 40 songs that I begged them to lose. Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive,’ stuff like that--I even did some Madonna! I was like, I gotta get outta here.”

After high school, Fuchs attended a community college, studying music and paying her tuition on money she had saved from her gigs and from a job in a pizza parlor. She told her parents she was majoring in journalism; when her father found out she was in a music program, he cut off the little bit of funds he was contributing for textbooks and incidentals. At that point, Fuchs determined it was time to “go to New York and sing. And I left.”

You can guess by now that Dana Fuchs going from Florida to New York was an adventure unto itself. Everything else in her life had been an adventure; why should this be any different?

Dana: “I had started working at the next town over at a little pizza place to help pay for this community college I was going to. The guy that owned it was from Italy, and he and his wife had moved first to Fort Lee, New Jersey, and then…she was living in Connecticut, they were divorced, and he was living in Florida. I don’t know how he found this tiny town. He opened this pizza place in the mall and I became his regular pizza girl. He had a daughter who would come visit in the summertime. So his daughter was visiting, she was a few years older than I was, and she was kind of mean to me, very bossy. We became friends over the summer, and I told her I wanted to move to New York. She said she and her mom were leaving in September, and I said, ‘Let me catch a ride.’ So I left. She and her mom did not get along; they fought in Italian the entire way, and I sat in the back seat. Her mom was a little bit of a monster, to be honest, so I guess that’s why the daughter was so bossy and mean.”

She told her parents she was leaving (“My mom knew it was the right thing. She knew there was nothing for me in that town.”), folded herself in the cramped back seat and endured. By the end of the trip--they drove straight through from Florida--Fuchs says she could not have been happier to be in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

“Oh, my God, I got out of that car, it was the best moment of my life. It was early autumn and I had never seen the leaves like that--all that gold and burgundy. I called my mom and said, ‘This is it. This is home. I’m going to get to New York.’ I knew I was right over the bridge.”

She didn’t wait long to cross over the Hudson River to Manhattan, but it was a tough go. She took a job at a sub shop, working 10 hours a day, at six dollars an hour, “and I knew that was never going to get me an apartment in New York.”


“I started working at a strip club in New York and taking the bus over. First as a waitress, then they convinced me to dance, and that’s when the intense money started pouring in, and that’s when the only way to cope with the horrible job was to turn to the drugs that were going around.”



Livin’ just enough for the city…

Renting an apartment on the lower east side, which was on its way back as a hipster destination of choice but was then, in the mid-‘90s, a dicey area, crime- and drug-riddled, Fuchs was wandering down an East Village street one evening when she heard an interesting guitar sound coming from “a ratty little club.” It was open mic night at the place--no cover--so Fuchs wandered in. Accompanying a six-foot-four singer-bassist of mixed heritage (black and Cherokee) was the guitar player whose sound had drawn her in from the street, soloing on a song Fuchs had never heard before but impressed her nonetheless: “I just couldn’t believe my ears,” she says. It was Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Fuchs introduced herself to the guitar player, who identified himself as Jon Diamond and encouraged her to get up and sing “Stormy Monday”--“Everybody knows ‘Stormy Monday," he told her, unaware that she was one of the few people on the planet who did not, in fact, know “Stormy Monday.”

She faked it as best she could, but Diamond knew. He told her she had a great instrument but didn’t know how to sing the blues. Put her on a crash course of studying the greats, giving her a list every week of the artists she should be listening to, inviting her to call him when she got serious about doing something and promised to help her. After a couple of months of study, she made the call, and she and Diamond started casual rehearsals at his apartment. She still wasn’t ready.

“It was so frustrating because I remember I wanted to do some Aretha Franklin stuff but I just didn’t have the register yet,” Fuchs recalls. “Then I found this great voice coach that a singer Jon worked with went to. It took a while, but I just really practiced, I worked with him and we put something together and got our first gig. It kind of took off from there.”

Playing obscure blues and R&B covers, the band started drawing good crowds to Manny’s Car Wash, where it was the regular Saturday night featured attraction. Tuesday nights they held forth at Mondo Cane. Friday nights, Chicago Blues. As the ‘90s came to a close, their band closed Mondo Cane, closed Dan Lynch’s, and was one of the last acts to play Manny’s Car Wash as the blues scene in the city dried up. But word was out about the Dana Fuchs Band, press notices were starting to pike up, and crowds were packing the clubs when they played. But the demise of the blues rooms was a signal to Fuchs that she needed to evolve, that the band needed to have original songs, but songs reflecting the reality her life.

“Blues is life,” she says, “and I didn’t grow up on Tobacco Road and have to deal with that kind of oppression. I dealt with a different kind of oppression, maybe. I realized that I loved these voices and their expressiveness, but it wasn’t my story. I almost felt like it wasn’t even fair for me to sing some of these songs that I hadn’t lived. So Jon and I started writing our own stuff, and as the blues clubs were all shutting down we moved into the lower east side clubs, the Mercury Lounge, Orleans, and interestingly enough our fans came with us. Our stuff, when we started writing our own songs, leaned a little more towards rock. So it was more bluesy rock. And our die-hard fans stuck with it. I saw fans at the Highline that were at those shows.”

At the same time good things were happening for her professionally, Fuchs was disintegrating personally--“for me, more drugs, but a lot of emotional problems coming from all the things that had affected me growing up.” She confessed her problems to Diamond, with whom she had become romantically involved. Diamond stepped up.

“He really helped me,” Fuchs says. “His wonderful family lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a good Jewish family, and Jon’s a pretty strait-laced guy. Jon and I started dating and he really just took me in. He’s a bit older than I am, and my first mentor. Just kind of saved my life, to be honest.”

Attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and gradually pulling herself back together while working a day job temping at a law firm, Fuchs was on the upswing, clean and straight, when she got the wakeup call of all wakeup calls: her older sister, also a drug addict, had committed suicide. Her sister’s boyfriend called Dana at work with the news.

“All I remember is waking up in my boss’s office on her couch. I guess I had fainted. My sister and I had been in touch and I would go hang out with her on weekends. She was going off the deep end with the drugs and stuff, too. I was more freaked out about it and knew we had to do something. At that point I found this amazing woman therapist that actually I still check in with to this day. I started to build a little support group for myself with the help of Jon and his family, kept trying to pull my sister into the light, but I guess she was just too far gone. I knew that was it; there was no going back to that lifestyle, that there was no more fuckin’ around, the music had to happen. I called Jon--we were on and off at that point because I was a mess and he couldn’t deal--I finally said, ‘I’m serious.’ And we really started getting it going.”

lonelyThey got it going good enough to be offered a deal by the indie Q&W Music label. At the same time she was preparing for and recording what became Lonely For a Lifetime, Fuchs was being approached by some musicians who were playing in the Love, Janis band, encouraging her to try out for the role of the singing Janis. She demurred, thinking the show was going to Canada, feeling like she was just getting her own act together after the tragedy of her sister’s death, recording her first album--lots of stuff on the plate and “I just kept blowing it off.” On a particular Friday afternoon, one of the show’s producers called and asked her to audition for the Janis role. Still uninterested in the part, she said she couldn’t make it in until later in the evening, “seven or eight.”

“Okay, we’ll wait,” came the response from the other end of the line.

Enlisting Diamond’s help on the spur of the moment, she rehearsed “Me and Bobby McGee and some of “Piece of My Heart,” which she didn’t know but learned with Diamond’s help. Of all of Janis’s songs, Fuchs had sung only “Me and Bobby McGee,” back when she was a teenager working with the band of older men in Florida. She walked into the venue to audition, only to find “about a hundred girls” waiting in the lobby to do the same.

“And this very persnickety guy came out and asked, ‘Do you have a resume?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a singer.’ (laughs) And he just looked at me, then the director came out and introduced himself and called me in before all these girls. And I thought, ‘Something weird is going on here. I might actually get this part.’ I kind of knew it. So I sang ‘Piece of My Heart’ and the producer and director were sitting there, and they stopped me after I did the ‘waaahhhhh’ scream and said, ‘Okay, okay, okay.’ They asked me to start in a week. I was overwhelmed. They said, ‘19 songs.’ I didn’t know any of them. I had eight days to learn them. I was terrified.”

Dana Fuchs with Gov’t Mule, ‘Piece of My Heart’

Working with the show band’s keyboard player, she rehearsed the repertoire every day, listened constantly to Janis on her iPod and “just lived with the songs.” The more she listened, the more mesmerized she became. She undertook her own Joplin research project, delving into the singer’s life story and her entire catalogue, trying to get to know her as best she could.

“So I started reading about who she was influenced by, and that was remarkable because it was all the same people I had been listening to. I didn’t want to watch her moves too much because I didn’t want to copy the way she moved. The director seconded that, saying ‘Don’t go watching a bunch of Janis videos, don’t mimic her. Move the way you move and chances are you’ll end up moving similarly enough because it’ll be real.’ So I didn’t study that but I did read a lot about her life. I mean I was blown away, and then I bought any recording she was ever on. I couldn’t believe that all the music I had listened to, she was one singer I had missed out on. I think it was because my dad was not a Janis Joplin fan. My dad’s not a fan of powerful women vocalists. I remember when I was doing the role he would say, ‘Ugh, Janis. That’s all just screaming!’ How wrong he was.”

Lonely For a Lifetime was released as Fuchs was finishing her run in Love, Janis, and shortly after that the label went out of business. Back in the clubs, Fuchs and Diamond would do the occasional duo acoustic set. In the audience at one such show was director Julie Taymor. Now best known for the multi-million dollar mess that is the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Taymor, at that time, had earned acclaim for her innovative theatrical productions (for which she had been award a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius” grant) and in opera; she had ventured into film and had won two Oscars for her 2002 biopic, Frida, about the life of surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Then in the planning stages of a film set in the ‘60s and using the songs of the Beatles to animate its central love story and the decade’s cultural and political milestones as depicted in the screenplay titled Across the Universe, Taymor found her Sexy Sadie character when she heard Fuchs sing. She didn’t have to twist Fuchs’s arms to get her to agree to play the part.

Dana Fuchs and Jon Diamond, live acoustic, ‘Strung Out,’ from the album Lonely For a Lifetime.

Nevertheless, an off-Broadway musical and a big-budget Hollywood musical are different worlds. Once she was in the Across the Universe fold, “everybody started coming out of the woodwork,” Fuchs says. It was a disorienting experience.

“The Hollywood agents, the L.A. agents, blah-blah-blah. It was kind of stressful. Then my manager at the time said, ‘You have to play for every single label,’ meanwhile I’m trying to prepare for this role, rehearsing and recording the soundtrack, and shooting the film--a year of non-stop long days. And I just remember thinking, Everybody just leave me alone, let me get into this movie, let me see where it takes me. And at the same time I want this to be the opportunity to introduce Dana to the world. It’s a shame the movie didn’t do what it deserved to do because of the way it was promoted, or not promoted. But on a career level it definitely opened some doors.

The ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ scene from Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007), with musical performances by Jim Sturgess and Dana Fuchs.

“It was a very confusing time, to be honest. I thought the idea was brilliant, I thought the movie came out great. It wasn’t perfect but it was the most exciting time of my life, and I remember a friend saying, ‘This could be the beginning of your career or the end.’ It was the beginning, not as big of a jump as I would like to have gotten out of it. You know, everyone in the cast got called by Jimmy Iovine [note: now chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M], especially after we did Oprah. He wanted to meet with me, then he got sick. We never had the meeting. Then his A&R guy said, ‘The music’s too old-fashioned.’ (laughs) Yeah, it was hard, But now I see the steady build it has had for me, and I’m more than appreciative. I had a platinum album awarded to me for the soundtrack album.”



Love To Beg: The Heart Wants What It Wants

A conversation with Dana Fuchs

From what I gather, the songs on Love to Beg were a combination of new things you wrote specifically with this project in mind and some other, older things you developed further for the new album. Is that the case?

Dana Fuchs: It is. “Drive” is an older song. We had never recorded it, played it live a few times. Then it was always such a fan favorite live, and it was a jammy song, so we thought we should shape it and put it on the CD. We actually recorded sixteen songs and picked our favorite twelve. After that we wanted to do a cover, and that’s how the Otis song got on there, which made it thirteen. “Superman” was also one I had written during the Bush administration (laughs).

You alluded to that on stage at the Highline.

 (laughs) Yeah. I kind of lost my temper on stage, then I was thinking, Oh, I hope I didn’t freak everybody out just now. (laughs). I just watched that documentary Inside Job and I’m so mad! It’s unbelievable.

You talk a lot about love on stage; you advise the women in the audience to “choose wisely”; Love to Beg and Lonely for a Lifetime both deal with love, primarily, but there’s a lot of tension, aggression and upheaval in the songs, a real fierce kind of commitment either to the concept of a relationship or being in love, or to not losing your own identity in it, all of which adds up to an acknowledgment that love is not easy and is in fact fraught with all sorts of pitfalls if you’re not on your game. Is that how you’ve experienced it and view it? How much of your own experience with matters of the heart is written into your songs?

Pretty much all of it. It’s not just my experience with my own relationships, but seeing my parents, seeing people around me, I just take it all in, and certainly it strikes a chord, because I’ve had those experiences and never trusted it. Growing up I saw a father who wasn’t very nice to my mom and was unfaithful and all of that. I guess for me it sort of shaped my view of men not so well early on. I picked some winners along the way myself (laughs). And now I’ve learned that you can find a good person, a soulmate, love, but it’s not just this wonderful infatuation. The first year the sex is great--that’s what I said on stage. I remember reading this book when I was in a relationship with Jon and we knew we were breaking up. We couldn’t get along and it was because we had this child together called music. It was so hard, we were both fighting for that so much it just consumed us. So we knew we were better off as friends. It was a painful breakup. We did it pretty beautifully. We saw a counselor who helped us do it together, because he was like family to me at this point, you know. And I remember getting into all of these books about love and what it all really means. It doesn’t mean unconditional where I can just shit all over you and you’ll stick with me. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I think people have the wrong idea about love, even amongst each other. “Oh, I want the world to be happy, dah-dah-da, someone stole my parking place and I’m gonna kill them!” We forget those simple things and get so mad and so offended and so worked up over them. Ultimately, it takes our peace away and has a domino effect on the world around us. So that’s part of the message of this record too.

Dana Fuchs and Jon Diamond, an acoustic version of ‘Drive,’ from the Love to Beg album

Do you write on a set schedule? How do your songs start taking shape?

You know, Jon and I will get so busy touring and then when we’re not touring we’re home routing the next tour, the flights. We do a lot of that ourselves, especially for Europe because you really have to tour smartly over there and in order to make a living at it it takes a lot of work to figure out when you’re flying this person and that person. That consumes us when we’re not on the road, and then we get to a point where it’s time to write and we carve out some time to get together.  Sometimes you just sit there and get frustrated and nothing comes, other times something happens. But in between all of that Jon will call me and say, “Listen to this song,” or he’ll leave a voicemail playing an idea, a melody idea and a chord structure and I’ll get inspired to write something. So it happens that way, too, kind of spontaneously.

Dana Fuchs Band, ‘Hiding From Your Live,’ live at B.B. King’s, New York City. From the album Lonely For a Lifetime.

Both of your albums have been produced by Jon teaming with Kenny Aaronson. What do each of them bring to the studio work that helps you realize your vision for your music?

On this CD--we couldn’t afford him for the whole thing--Kenny helped us with the basic tracks. He’s such a great bassist and such a great musician and he knows good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, so he was really helpful at saying, “No, this tempo should be…” For instance, “Set It On Fire” was a much more mellow, kind of loping, sad song, and we recorded it with the guy we had been doing all the tracks with on bass, who’s on most of the songs. It was about midnight and we just couldn’t get the song to where we liked it and they wanted to throw it away and I said, “No, this is one of my favorite songs”--the story was very personal to me for “Set It On Fire”--we listened and Kenny said, “It’s just boring!” And I couldn’t argue with him. I said, “You’re right. What can we do?” Our drummer was packing up, it’s going on one in the morning, our engineer’s exhausted and he said, “No, we’re gonna get back in there and we’re gonna rock this!” So he plugged in his bass, did his Elvis stance, and kicked our drummer’s ass. I went in the studio and Jon plugged in and that was the take, vocally, everything. So Kenny’s just got such a great sense of feel. And Jon, of course, since we write all the songs together, Jon’s coming from so many different musical influences, and I love that about him because it’s not going to be stock. There’s a quirkiness; I never know what Jon’s going to do in the middle of a song. For instance,  “Love to Beg,” he and I were producing the guitar parts at his apartment, which the neighbors were not thrilled about--he almost got evicted. They were signing papers against him. But “Love to Beg” was another one where we did the basic tracks and they were bouncy but a little on the sweeter side. We were trying to figure out where we wanted the guitar to go on that. Jon just got this beat-up old acoustic that he had bought off the street a few years back, pulled out a slide and started doing it. I was actually in his bathroom and I came out and said, “What is that? What is that? That’s it!” I just knew. It was really fun to do it that way because we didn’t have anyone breathing down our necks. Two great musicians with such a sense of feel.

Was there a learning curve for you in becoming comfortable singing in a studio as opposed to live on stage? Is it a different approach for you?

Oh, God, yes. It was much harder even on Lonely to not overdo and yet not underdo it. Before we did Love to Beg I had gone into the studio just around the time of making Across the Universe. I was introduced to a well-known producer who wanted to produce me. We had the songs--a lot of the songs we re-recorded when we went in and he would say, “No, I don’t want Jon to play on this,” “I’m taking you a different direction." He took me in a Norah Jones-esque direction and he didn’t want me to ever get vocally big. He’s a great guy, great producer, but he had never really worked with a singer like me, so he didn’t know how to work with me. I didn’t know how to produce myself, and that was incredibly frustrating. The end result was a very expensive recording that no one is likely to hear. I think, Who is this girl singing? It’s all very soft, breathy and trying so hard to underdo it, so contrived. But I understood what this guy was saying--you can’t blow out every song. The big learning curve was finding a way in the studio to maintain some energy and tension in the voice and the delivery, keeping that sort of live thing going but also really making it something that’s warm and inviting to people when they’re listening to a CD, so you’re not just screaming at them. And it was hard. I had my little ritual of closing my eyes and having some candles in the vocal booth, or just pretending an audience was in front of me. Getting more and more inside the song. I would go home when we were doing the basic tracks, and a lot of the rough, scratch vocals we did keep, but I’d go home and think about what the songs meant and analyze the lyrics over and over again, listen to the scratch vocals and go, I want to give that another take; that’s not the emotion I want there. Eventually I end up a lot of times going back to the first take anyway. It’s funny.

Dana Fuchs Band, ‘Bleed More,’ live at B.B. King’s, available on the band’s Live in NYC album.

It’s a matter of degrees, I guess, but on Love to Beg you sound like you’re singing with more confidence than on Lonely. You sound more present and more confident of what you can do vocally.

I absolutely am, was. The years between the two, the touring sense and even though it’s only our second studio record I had gone through that other experience a year prior, which really, even though it was expensive and I drained a lot of my savings, I came out of it with no regrets going, Okay, now I have permission to be Dana. Never again will I let someone tell me not to be me. That experience alone gave me so much confidence. And touring pretty much all over Europe and the U.S. for a year and a half gives you a certain amount of confidence. Also I find ways to use my voice to express in a tiny room or at a big festival, and all of that was very helpful in the studio when I want to keep intensity but I don’t want to belt. When it’s time to really belt in a certain part of the song, you know, you bring in what you learn playing a festival to reach the people way in the back in a crowd of 10,000. All of that shaped me. When we did Lonely For a Lifetime, I’d only done a few gigs in New York at that point. Of course I had been doing the Janis thing, but we were recording that around the same time, we just didn’t release it until after. So I was still learning who I was then.

Was there a eureka moment for you in recording this album where all the pieces fell into place and you knew you had what you wanted as a statement of who you are?

Yes. It was listening back. We had finished the rough, I had just gone in and punched in a few different lines. In the studio that day we finished “Nothing’s What I Cry For” and “Love to Beg,” and we were listening to them back and dancing, and I was so happy. I said, “Even if we just get these two songs out of it…” I was so happy! That’s when I knew we were on the right track, that we were making the record we wanted to make, that our existing fans will at least like. And that’s all that mattered. It wasn’t about labels and radio or any of that, and that was so freeing. Making Lonely, we were still hoping to try to get a record deal, and the indie label was interested but if they didn’t work out would the majors like it? There was so much stress about that. “Oh, the song can’t be more than four minutes!” I said “Screw that! Some of the best songs in the world are about ten minutes long!” Crosby, Stills and Nash!

Every song on Love to Beg, if you go through the lyrics, sounds like there’s something at stake in the stories. You’re a bit of a preacher, a bit of a philosopher, a bit of a soothsayer, depending on the situation. But in whatever role you’re not going for the easy way out or a clichéd sentiment--maybe a great hook, but not a simplistic idea. There’s a real sense of you trying to connect with the listener on a fundamental, real-life level in these songs. Is songwriting then a very personal endeavor for you that helps you understand your own feelings better?

Absolutely. When I write a song I really look for anything that stands out as trite. I’m sure I’ve had some lyrics that could have been deeper but I really scour through them because I want to get to the bottom of something. It’s almost like a therapy session when I write a song. When I write I imagine if it wasn’t me and I bought a CD and had the lyrics printed and didn’t listen to the CD but just looked at the lyrics, would it turn me off or would it make me want to hear the song? So I always gauge it like that. I want it to be poetic but not clichéd or trite. When you talk about love so much, and you have a record with the title Love in it, that so quickly reeks of, well, I always think of Wings, “Silly Love Songs.” But hopefully people will have that response that you had. Because I am trying to keep it very real and go a little deeper.

You also mentioned from the stage about how much you admire Tom Waits’ songs, and that you figure you’re “four or five lifetimes away” from being able to write like that. What that tells me is that you have a vision of where you want to go, and it’s a long-range vision. You may live for today, I don’t know, but you’re thinking about the future and the artist you want to be in the years to come. Is there in a fact a blueprint you’ve mapped out for your future?

Blueprint? I wouldn’t say blueprint, but the goal is to aspire to write like a Dylan or a Waits, sing like an Otis and Aretha, and just have a message on stage. I remember watching the Dylan documentary No Direction Home--I’m a big Dylan fan too--one of the guys they interview from that era, he said in that day and age you went to hear somebody live because they had something to say. That struck me, and I thought, I don’t ever want to have nothing to say. So I have to keep evolving as a writer, keep evolving as a singer, keep evolving as a performer. I can’t do the “love” thing every year on tour or on every record. It has to change, has to evolve, and hopefully break new ground. But I guess the blueprint for me would be to really be able to make my living going out there and having something to say and have it continually evolve vocally, musically, lyrically--all of it.

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Visit the Dana Fuchs Band website for complete tour schedules, and other news.

The Dana Fuchs Band’s Love to Beg is available at

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