Interview with Roni Lee

Photo Credit: Frank Rodrick
We chat with Roni Lee, who recently released her Doll Face EP. With a successful career spanning 40 years, the guitarist and performer was a staple in the ’70s rock scene, sharing the stage with artists like Van Halen, Steppenwolf, The Ramones, Blondie, and The Motels. She is performing at the Cutting Room (NYC) on Thursday, June 14th, and also at Rhodes North Tavern (Sloatsburg, NY) on July 15th.

1. Your newest release, the Doll Face EP, delivers a captivating guitar-fronted rock sound. How and when did the EP begin to come to life?

During the pandemic I was putting out some re-releases and arrangements of cover tunes — just things to basically keep myself busy even though I thought I would get a lot of writing done during that time, but it was actually more difficult for some reason. Just the uncertainty of the time, so I ended up spending more time with my family, and I did enjoy that. Then music restlessness stepped in, and I think that drove the crunching sound that I wanted. I just wanted to have some fun “love sucks but life is great,” tunes that rock ‘n’ roll and have some fun!

“Doll Face” reflects the many faces we all wear in life to try to be everything to everyone, or just doing what we have to do these days! I guess I relate to that, especially since I almost feel like I’ve lived multiple lives in this lifetime! To get a little deeper, it’s a bit reflective of what it’s like to be a woman and keeping up with that face we literally (and figuratively) put on daily!

Lynn Sorensen, my writing partner, and I wrote, recorded, and did a music video called “Prisoner.” Dealing with some heavy situations that we had experienced with our children so that was put on this EP as well. It was great to get new music out and really, a new direction for me with “I Don’t like the Rain.” (A little ironic since everyone who knows me, knows I love actual rain) LOL

2. Your successful career has spanned from the ’70s to today — from co-writing The Runaways’ hit “I Wanna Go Where The Boys Are” to being the guitarist in Venus and the Razorblades, and sharing the stage with the likes of Joan Jett, Van Halen, Blondie, and The Ramones. Is there a particular experience that stands out to you as career-defining or especially integral to your growth as an artist?

There are many of course. Wrestling with Van Halen and Joan Jett before shows to get “pumped up,” sitting across from Ted Nugent at the Rainbow when he said, “So you’re a guitar player? You will get pregnant and that will be the end of that.” Well, I did get pregnant, a few times – and it wasn’t the end of that! LOL. A girl rock, lead guitarist was very rare at the time and I was treated as a weirdo or a party favor or dismissed and patted on the head many times. Joining the boys club of rock and roll is basically a constant initiation. Even now, I feel like I have been “allowed” in but they could pull my membership anytime!

But really, I learned to shake it off, work hard, follow my dreams and goals and not pay too much attention to all that. I think it was a plus really and those experiences built strength and character …. And patience – a trait I was definitely not born with! Respect is earned and that takes a while when you often have to be twice as good to be considered half as good.

3. The EP’s single “I Don’t Like the Rain” is a scorching, emotive rocker, driving to a riveting string-laden backing. Were there any specific thematic or artistic inspirations for this stellar track?

Funny thing about that track. It was the “filler” and now has turned out to be possibly my favorite and others as well by the looks of sales.

I wrote the lyrics, melodies and guitar “licks” to these songs … we were noodling and Lynn — who is awesome with chord changes, mood changes, etc. — took me down a road with it, and I had a set of incomplete lyrics that just fit like a glove and there ya go!

I lost my husband and my oldest son’s father to alcoholism in the last five years, and love has always been a challenge as a touring musician anyway, so there has been enough stuff to write about for sure. The girl touring musician card is even another dynamic, so many of these songs are very reflective of the emotions I have experienced at one time or another. When I write lyrics, I seem to be able to store the emotion

I was feeling with the lyrics, so I guess that’s a good thing. It comes back when recording. Almost like method acting, I suppose.

4. Your “Doll Face Tour” is underway, with upcoming dates at the Cutting Room. (NYC) on 7/14 and at Rhodes North Tavern (Sloatsburg, NY) on 7/15. You’ve played everywhere from small clubs to major festivals. Do you have any preference as to your favorite types of venues to perform at?

Well, I love arena rock. Was weaned on it so I love a good festival but if the crowd isn’t there or into it, then I’ll take a crowded, dive bar where the people are rockin’, any day. Most of the clubs I play on our annual German tours are like that and I love it. When it comes down to it, it’s the crowd that makes the experience happen. I am a performer, it’s my job to make sure that happens. I enjoy that more than the studio or even writing. I mentor musicians and bands and I tell them that performing is an art, not everyone can or wants to do it. I feel I have an obligation to the audience. I owe them a good time, an emotional experience to take home (and hopefully the t-shirt).

5. In your opinion, what is the biggest distinction between the music industry today and how it was in the ’70s?

Internet! LOL I still am amazed at how much we accomplished without email. But really, the biggest difference is probably record labels and how artists get their music out to the public. In the ’70s and even ’80s, you signed with a label, you went into a studio, to make a “record.” The label promoted it and put you on a tour, people bought the records and hopefully, you did it all over again the next year. The musician basically wore one hat.

Now… many hats later, people have amazing studios in their homes, they are their own promoters on social media, tours are tough, there’s a few booking agents left and it’s a crap shoot booking on your own. People don’t buy physical product as much but thankfully, that’s coming back especially with the vinyl craze. Probably due to my demographic, I actually still sell a lot of CDs at shows and have a vinyl dropping Sep 1.

I do think people buy merchandise to take a memory of their night home with them. I do think the ’70s, beyond a doubt, put out the best music and we have all been tryin’ to match it ever since! IMHO

6. As a pioneer of the LA female rock scene, do you have any advice to give to burgeoning musicians, giving it a go in the big city?

Yea! Be good, play well with others, listen more than talk. The days of the divas are over. Surround yourself with positive people but not yes-men. Be real. You can always be better and there is always someone else better than you so enjoy the ride. Listen to the people that were before you and already made mistakes that you don’t have to make. Take advice and don’t be the loudest person on the tour bus (I learned that lesson the hard way). Most of the hired Guns these days and the persons hiring the guns, will tell you that they would rather work with players that are good at their job and not an asshole than one that is a monster player but is miserable to be around.

7. You’re a fantastic guitarist. At what age did you first pick up the guitar, and was it the first instrument you tried?

Thank you, that means a lot to me. I did try a few others. I always had music instruments as a child raised by my grandparents, our entertainment was at home mostly. I had an accordion LOL and actually married an accordion player 30 years later – ironic twist of fate!

I loved the drums too and played them a bit even in my first band, but the guitar has always been, since I first held one about 12 years old, my first choice. Listening to the early rock bands, I just felt the power and emotion from that instrument. I was a guitar player long before I started singing. I always felt like it was like an emotional voice. It never occurred to me at the time, that none of the players I listened to were girls… I wanted to play that music. So I did. Of course, the fact that there was no YouTube probably played a role in that. I had to learn everything on vinyl with only my ears!

8. You will be releasing a vinyl collection of songs in September, entitled A Lifetime…, which highlights your 40-year career. Following your “Doll Face Tour” and the vinyl release, what’s next for Roni Lee?

Funny you should ask. We are starting to film a documentary about the road traveled over the last four decades or so. I have been putting notes together for a book as well and I think the film will be a good source for that information. Stories about the good times, bad times and in between times. Just what’s it’s been like to be a woman, a rock musician, a mom, a wife… A pretty full, blessed life with hopefully, much more to come. I actually think my songwriting is better now and I’m enjoying it more so musically, we will release another EP probably early next year.

I would not have done too much differently over the last 40 years. Of course, not every decision has been the best. I did turn down Leather Tuscadero role on Happy Days in the ’70s because I didn’t think the show was going anywhere and it wasn’t worth my time… That lesson taught me to say yes more often and take chances!

Mike Mineo

I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound, which was formed in 2006. Previously, I wrote for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine.

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