George Usher And Lisa Burns Interview for Wicked Spins Radio

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George Usher And Lisa Burns Interview for Wicked Spins Radio

By Phlis (Alteria Anarchy)


The collaboration of George Usher and Lisa Burns is nothing short of magical.  Both George and Lisa have wonderfully rich and beautiful musical history.  But when their world’s collide wonderful things happen.  In this interview with Wicked Spins Radio George and Lisa tell us more about The Last Day Of Winter and George tells us how cancer effected his life.  This is a truly wonderful interview, so read on and see just how wonderful it is.

WSR – Thank you so much for giving Wicked Spins Radio this interview, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves?

G: I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but I’ve been a New York-based musician/songwriter since the 70’s. That means a trail of terrific bands (The Decoys, Beat Rodeo, The Bongos, House of Usher, The Schramms, George Usher Group), gigs (CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Peppermint Lounge, The Ritz, Mercury Lounge, etc. etc.), record deals (Sire, IRS, Lonesome Whipporwill, Blue Rose, Parasol) and composing a few small radio hits (“Not The Tremblin’ Kind”- Laura Cantrell, championed by John Peel, “River To River”- Richard Barone)…

L: I grew up in Westchester County N.Y. with a transistor radio pressed up against my ear. I was mesmerized by girl groups and Dylan. My first major label recording was Lisa Burns on MCA Records, in 1978, produced by Craig Leon. In the 80’s Sal Maida and I formed a band Velveteen and released “After Hours” on Atlantic Records. In the 90’s I experimented with country and more recently released a couple of home-made records that are really good.

WSR – George, how did you getting cancer truly effect you?

G: That’s a very wide open question, ha ha!…Getting through the operations was one thing. Then, the chemo and radiation treatments crippled me physically for a few years. I couldn’t use my hands or play an instrument and that became the genesis of the “Last Day Of Winter” project. I could only write lyrics. Lisa stepped up, out of a group of friends and supporters, to write the music to all my lyrics. Beyond that, it obviously impacted my family and those around me. It disrupted everything and delivered an everyday focus to life and living that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Once, at my dayjob after a strong chemo treatment, I passed out on the floor of the “server room”. The folks who found me thought I might be dead, ha ha! A group of them hovered over me and that’s how I woke up, with all of them looking down at me as a collective group. So, it was a very “psychedelic”, out of body experience, in a way. I had no control over what reality was or what it might become. When you have cancer, you never know if your time is up. Or if it isn’t right then, how soon it might be.

WSR – What made Lisa the right person to help you bring you musical visions to life?

G: – Because, she just did it, without my asking ha ha! I’d been a fan of Lisa’s since the late 70’s, when she released her Lisa Burns album on MCA. Then, over the years, we met, became friends and our families hung out together. During the cancer years, there were any number of surprises. Some of my closest friends couldn’t deal with it and literally disappeared from my life. Other friends filled the gap by just showing up and giving me their time. Lisa was one of the friends who would come by once or twice a week to visit. At one point, she asked about my not being to play an instrument. I told her I had been writing lyrics about the situation and she asked if she could see them and put them to music. I gave her the lyrics to, “Wake Me When Tomorrow’s Here” (the first song on the album). I appreciated her gesture, but I didn’t expect too much. A week later, she came by and played the whole song for me on guitar. I was blown away and we just set off from there. I’d give her a lyric and a week later or two weeks later, she’d come back with a brilliant, complete song. Our partnership wasn’t planned. It just developed out of the ups and downs and inexplicable magic of life.

WSR – Lisa, how did George approach you collaborate with him for his musical adventures?

L:  I approached him and he said yes! At the time, my creative energy was roaming around, looking for a challenge. Because of his serious condition, I wanted to do my best work for George. I was moved and inspired by his words and it felt good to be working on something that was important. I was thrilled when he liked my first contribution and fed me more words.

WSR – What makes you work together so well musically?

G: We have a lot of similar musical influences. We draw on all of them, 60’s girl groups, Dylan, Beatles, Delaney and Bonnie, The Byrds, on and on. We’re able to bring them all to the table. If certain arrangement choices work for a given song, we use them. If not, we laugh and try something else. But, the main thing, when all is said and done, is we’re great friends. And the fact that we’re a man and a woman means there is always a very natural interaction between us. When one is down, the other brings them back up. When one is uncertain, the other brings clarification. And when we’re both on the same page, it just feels like all is right with the world.

L:  Desire. We both have the desire to create something meaningful together. And hey, who wouldn’t wanna sing with George Usher! When we sing together it’s like ice cream with butterscotch topping.

WSR – Have there been any occasions that you actually clash musically or any other way?

G: No, which is surprising for any collaborative project. “The Last Day Of Winter” was conceived out of some difficult circumstances, but its entire creation had a very organic, step by step, mystical quality to it. There was one song, “Wasn’t Born To Belong,” that Lisa demoed acapella; no instruments, just her voice. She sounded so beautiful on her own, I thought the final recording should remain acapella. But Lisa disagreed. So, after trying a few things, we placed a piano and organ behind her. But that’s just working together on arrangement choices. It really wasn’t a clash of any kind.

L: I remember bugging George to sing with me on “Wasn’t Born to Belong.” He said “absolutely not” and he was right.

WSR – The Last Day Of Winter is a beautiful title for an album, what is the inspiration behind the title?

G: The “last day of winter” is literally the day before the “first day of spring.” The phrase just popped into my head one evening, while I was thinking about the long road that had gotten me to that point and the difficult struggles that still lay ahead for me. I was determined to beat both the cancer and then, the crippling side effects of neuropathy the treatments had given me. “I’ll be back on the last day of winter,” acknowledged the struggles, while providing a positive outlook on my eventual recuperation.

L: When George suggested the title I felt in my bones it was perfect. It’s also the title of the last song on the record and has a gorgeous string and horn arrangement.

WSR – You had a few guests contribute to The Last Day Of Winter, who are they and what was their involvement?

G: Essentially, we drew from the friends and family who were around at the time, supporting me. For instance, bass player Sal Maida (Roxy Music, Sparks, Cracker ) is Lisa’s husband. Their son, Dylan Maida, played organ, piano and a number of other keyboards.

My old friend, Wylie Wirth (The Dead Ex’s) drummed and played percussion. We had a few special guests on lead guitar, folks who wanted to chip in, when they heard about the project. “Captain” Kirk Douglas of the Roots, whom I’d known for years before he even joined that band, played on two tracks; “More Than That I Cannot Say” and “The Ferryman’s Name.” Other lead guitar tracks were performed by Dave Schramm (The Schramms) and Mark Sidgwick (Holly and the Italians), both longtime bandmates and collaborators of mine.

L: Well, I’m a bit biased since my boys played on it, but it sure was a cool mix of musicians. The rhythm section has relaxed round sound that was great to sing to. Claudia Chopek, the sexy angel of violin, played and rounded up a wonderful cellist and horn player to add to the mix.

WSR – You both have a very rich musical background to say the least, could you pick out one part of your past that always makes you smile?

G: I’ve been performing live since I was very young, in the late 60’s, back in Cleveland. It was mostly garage bands and powerpop bands. I moved to New York in the late 70’s and played for decades in my own rock/pop and folk/rock bands, as well as being a sideman for numerous others. However, the only time my family ever saw me perform was when I was playing organ, on tour with the Schramms, in the early 90’s. We passed through Cleveland and my sisters, both a bit older than I am, came to the show. I was just the organ player. I wasn’t the frontman or anything. But they acted like seeing me on stage was the greatest thing that had ever happened, ha ha! They videotaped it and showed it to my mother, who was in hospital at the time. She passed on a few months later. Despite all the years I’ve put in fronting my own bands, this was the only time they saw me on stage.

L: It was a Lovin’ Kind show at the Lonestar Roadhouse uptown. Sal and I had a hot group of musicians and the place was packed. I was six months pregnant with our son, Dylan, and high on my surging hormones. It was the one and only time we performed “Sweet Dreams” and there was a whole lotta love in that room. After the show, folks wanted to touch my huge belly.

WSR – What would you consider each others finest work and why?

G: Well, I’ve been a big fan of Lisa’s “major label” albums, as well as her numerous indie projects. My absolute favorite is an album she released a few years back, called, “Channeling Mary.” Her songwriting on it is brilliant, exciting, inventive, moving, sexy, and intelligent. And her singing is breathtaking, whether she’s belting out an updated girl group sound (“Pretty Disillusion”), or delivering stream of consciousness, poetic, rock and roll (“Channeling Mary”).

L: I think “The End and the Beginning” on his “Days of Plenty” album is otherworldly good and may be his finest recorded song. But, I am going with “Yours and Not Yours.” It’s a seamless, classic album wrapped in mystery and sensuality. It’s a poet’s long look at love in all its themes and variations. “The Stranger Came” is a story so sad and so honest it should be covered by Willie Nelson. “Is There Something You Want to Say” invites an ex-lover to express herself. I love that! Sublime melodies, compassionate intelligent writing, sans cynicism, makes this record a gem.

WSR – I have seen you described as indie-pop royalty of New York, now I am from the UK so would you please tell me what you feel is the most magical place in New York?

G: New York is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s always moving, always changing, always presenting pockets of magic and surprise that can disappear at any moment. The “most magical place” isn’t necessarily there the next time you go by. For me, it’s any stage in town where I’ve performed, even if it’s no longer there. I’ve played a lot of the old punk/rock and roll venues: CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Peppermint Lounge. I’ve played all the folk clubs: Folk City, The Bitter End, Kenny’s Castaways. I’ve been lucky enough to play bigger rooms like the Bottom Line, the Ritz, the Beacon Theater, Limelight, and the Palladium. And I’ve played some of the smaller rooms, like the Lone Star Café, the Mercury Lounge, Fez, Arlene Grocery and the Living Room. All these years later, I’m never happier than when I’m on a New York City stage. And when I pass a bank or a clothing store or a coffee shop that used to be a terrific music venue, I can still feel the presence of its stage. And that’s always “magical” for me.

L: The West Village (west of 7th Ave) still retains a semblance of purity reminiscent of an earlier time. It was the place I read about while growing up in Westchester. It was the feeling I got looking at the Freewheelin’ album cover; Dylan and Suzie Rotolo huddled together, beatnik folk rock romance. I wanted that! I imagined painters and writers in their apartments making art and having great sex.

WSR – What is the worst experience you have ever had whilst on holiday and what place will you never visit again and why?

G: I was out on Long Island for a few days, with my son. I’d booked a room in a small hotel that turned out to be a hangout for lots of hookers and a drive-through for drug dealers. We only stayed one night and I didn’t sleep at all. I just lay on the bed with a baseball bat beside me, ready for anything, ha ha! We checked out at daybreak.

L: I went through a phase of obsessively listening to “Tunnel of Love,” so Sal and I ventured to Asbury Park to soak up some Springsteen salt air. Our motel room was extremely funky, but not chic or even clean. It was a hot summer’s night and the air conditioner was broken and when we tried to open the window it was stuck shut. The drapes were lopsided and drooping and they didn’t work either. There was a wasp locked inside with us buzzing loudly and our noisy neighbors were having a beer brawl. Screw the romance of the boardwalk, we couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there!

WSR – If The Last Day Of Winter was a person, could you describe that person?  What kind of person would they be and what would be their greatest achievement in life?

G: It would be a very contemplative person; rich in reverie for where he’s been, proud and defiant about where he wants to go, calm and reflective about what he’ll never be able to do. His greatest achievement would be to leave those he loved, stronger and leave those who wronged him, forgiven.

L: He would be a complicated man; flawed but spiritual with the palest blue eyes and broad shoulders. He would have vast contradictions; be very strong but extremely vulnerable with a sly sense of humor. His achievement would be to live creatively.

WSR – People like me always ask you questions but if you could ask me a question or anyone else interviewing you, then what questions would you like to ask?

G: In a world that is so overwhelmed with technology and relentless interaction, what is the simplest pleasure that still gives you solace?

Phlis – Walking. Walking on the beach, walking in the rain, walking around a beautiful city or walking hand in hand with my girlfriend.  Walking in general takes us away from the technological minefield of today’s world, a simple way to relax but also see new things.

L:  Does the relentless interaction George mentioned impact your enjoyment of music, If so, how?

Phlis – Technology has made music more accessible to the world, but in my mind true enjoyment of music is when you hear it and see it live.  Yes in so many ways that restless interaction means I don’t get to enjoy new music fully as I get sent so many new acts to listen to, but I do still enjoy music that I have always liked.

WSR – Thank you so much for giving Wicked Spins Radio this interview, is there anything you would like to add?

G: I’m very proud of “The Last Day Of Winter.” It’s a living, human document about this life with all of its joys and sorrows. It represents the best we bring out in one another.  And, if that’s too” heavy” it’s still a terrific collection of songs and performances.


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