Lee Lessack is not only an incredible singer and performer, but he is also quite the businessman. While every cabaret artist must, for tax and music rights purposes, form a company in order to record an album (unless they are one of the lucky few who find a label to produce it for them), Lee did us all one better. His company, LML Music, has evolved into a record label that handles not only his albums, but those of twelve other artists, including Brian Lane Green and Stephen Schwartz. Lee recently released his second CD, I Know You by Heart, and I spent an enjoyable afternoon talking to him about it, and his views on cabaret, both as a performer and as a businessman.
Jonathan: Welcome, Lee, to Talkin' Broadway. I hear that congratulations are in order: you just finished doing some work for Disney's new TV movie, Geppetto.
Lee: Thank you. Geppetto was a lot of fun. I had never done a soundtrack recording before.
J: What did you get to play?
L: It was just an ensemble choral number. You would never even know it was me, but it was a still lot of fun.
J: When is this coming out?
L: I think it's coming out in November. It's a two hour Disney Movie of the Week starring Drew Carry. I would really love to do more studio work, because it's a way to stay home.
J: Now Stephen Schwartz asked for you specifically, correct?
L: He did. It was just so generous of him. He has been extremely supportive of me.
J: And you have also performed at the ASAP/Disney New Musicals Workshop which Stephen runs, correct?
L: Yes. That was fun too. It was a very last minute gig for me. I was on tour when I got the call, and had no idea what it was. I didn't have a clue! I just knew it was Disney and Stephen Schwartz, so I said "sure, that would be fun!" And at that point, I had already been working with Stephen. He was in the process of writing the liner notes for my new CD, so we were in contact, and it was nice.
J: And those were quite the liner notes he wrote for you. I particularly like his quote, "With candlelight, a cold glass of Chardonnay, and your arm around someone you care for, I cannot think of a better CD as accompaniment," and have to say I agree with him. Your new CD is wonderful.
L: Thanks! He said he was going to be busy doing the Prince of Egypt publicity, and that if he had the time he would be more than happy to write me something. With the timing of it, I didn't get a mastered CD to send to him until late, right around when the Prince of Egypt was opening. I e-mailed him that I was Fed-exing it to his house and that I knew things were crazy for him right now, but even if he could write a sentence, I would be thrilled. He replied that he was going to listen to it on Sunday and would see what he could do. And he wrote such a sweet notes.
J: Now are you originally from Los Angeles?
L: No, Philadelphia.
J: And how long did you live there?
L: Through High School, then I moved to New York, then Chicago and then Los Angeles. I was in Chicago for one winter, and I decided "never again." I love it there, but not in the winter. I like to go back there in the winter to work, but never to live!
J: I hear ya! I spent 10 years in North Dakota. I love not having to shovel driveways. When were you in New York?
L: I was there from '82 to '89. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Acted ... did a lot of summer stock ... actually, when I was in New York, I fell into a job and ended up being the national make-up artist for Christian Dior for two years! I'm not sure how that fits into my resume ... isn't that bizarre?
J: You can do all the make-up for your cabaret performers then!
L: (Laughing) I don't think so!
J: So what brought you to Los Angeles?
L: Well, I knew I wasn't going to stay in Chicago. My parents had moved there, so I went for the summer to help them move and unpack. And I liked it there, and thought that with all the theater opportunities, it wouldn't be too bad a place to live. Then the winter hit, and Los Angeles started looking good. I decided I just had to try it. And when I got here, I spent six years working as a personal assistant for Henry Winkler and his family, so that took me completely out of the business. And that's really why I started doing cabaret, because I desperately wanted an outlet in which to perform. I couldn't do a show, because I worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day practically. As an assistant, you're on call all the time. It was unrealistic. So I went to an open mike night, the place wanted to book me, and that's how it started. And then I would take my vacation time and go to New York and do my show there. So I just started off doing my shows in New York and LA. After a while, I left the Winklers, and started to expand to other areas. But that's really why I started doing club work, because it was something that I could do which was manageable and didn't infringe upon my work schedule.
J: How long ago was this?
L: I was with the Winklers until about 1995 and did my first club act in 1990.
J: I never even thought about LA as being a cabaret town until I first came down here a few years ago. It's surprising how many spaces there are here! It's second to New York, I think.
L: It's funny, because I usually don't work here in LA. I had my CD release party here, and I perform at The Gardenia occasionally, but mostly I work out of town.
J: How did you start your company, LML Music?
L: I started LML Music because I wanted to release my album. I had met David Friedman, and sent him a demo tape. He called back and said he was impressed with the demo tape and asked what he could do. I said that I wanted some of his music and wanted him to produce my album for me. He said that at the time he wasn't recording any artists except for Nancy LaMott. He was going to be in LA that year, and we got together. He came over, and was so incredibly generous. He suggested several things I should do: I should do the Cabaret Convention, I should meet Michael Kerker (who works at ASCAP), and that it was time for me to do an album. He said that it would be the difference between carrying a credit card and carrying the gold card. I asked him if he would produce it, and he said "no," that he wasn't focusing on anybody but Nancy, but that he would support me and help me through it.
J: Did you end up producing it yourself?
L: Yeah. I always said I did that first album on a wing and a prayer, because I didn't know what I was doing! The day that I decided to make that recording, I literally had $37 in my checking account. But it was clear that it was time for me to do it, so I sent out letters to various investors, family, and friends. I raised the money in about ten days and just did it. And I created the label to do that first album.
J: And now it's become a label which handles a variety of artists, like Brian Lane Green ...
L: Brian was the first artist to contact me and ask me to release his album. At the time, he was about ready to go on tour and replace Sam Harris in Joseph. I told Brian that if he could get the merchandising company that tours with the show to sell his CD with the shows concessions, I would do it. And he did, and we sold tons! And at that point, I thought "If I am paying the royalties for two artists, and since it's the same action every quarter, why not have five artists?" I never imagined that it would grow to this, though! I was on a cruise ship in Russia last summer, and when I left in May LML handled 4 recordings. When I came back, I had 9. And now I have 13, with two more artists recording this summer!
J: Now do you produce the CDs?
L: Some I do. I produced the Joan Ryan CD, which was just released. I was there every step of the way from song selection to arrangements to studio ... everything. Most of the time, people will come to me with a work in progress. I will give my input on some of the songs, and I assist on the coordination of post production work, in terms of packaging and artwork.
J: And do you handle the distribution of the CDs?
L: I do. And I manufacture them. Want to see my garage? (Laughs) It's filled with thousands and thousands of CDs! It's really just grown. There are very few labels that handle this genre of music. There isn't a lot of money in it, as you know, but I honestly believe that there is a market for it, and the more we put out there, the better it is for everybody. And I think the market is growing. In terms of sales figures, every quarter gets better and better.
J: Where do you see LML Music going?
L: Who knows? I never saw it getting to this point! We just signed on Stephen Schwartz and are going to handle the re-issue of his CD, Reluctant Pilgrim. I'd like LML Music to continue to grow. Maybe it will grow to a point where a major label will buy the catalogue, which would be nice. Because it's hard to be a performer and a label owner, especially touring so much. It requires daily attention. But I feel the same way about my career; as long as every year I feel growth and that I'm going to new places ... not only new venues, but new areas ... then I feel like I should keep going. As long as there's a forward movement. And I feel that way about the label; it just keeps growing. If you had told me five years ago that I would have a record label and that I would be distributing Stephen Schwartz I would have laughed in your face! I'm not sure where I see LML going. I want it to continue growing. I'd like to produce more.
J: Do you plan on focusing on the LML portion of your career instead of your performing?
L: No. I love singing. It's my first passion. And I'm hoping that the new CD will generate more solo touring.
J: Along with your solo tours, you have also been doing a lot of touring with Joanne O'Brien doing An Enchanted Evening; the Music of Broadway, for the Community Concert series. Do you ever perform your solo show while you are on the road with Community Concerts?
L: Rarely. I did in Little Rock, Arkansas, but that was a fluke. The guy who produced the series there met me while I was doing the conference in New York for Community Concerts. But mostly, it's due to the fact that there just isn't time ... our schedule is really intense! We move every day.
J: Are you going to continue touring with that show, or are you creating a new one?
L: Next year it's going to be the same one. We've put together a couple of others, and I'm working on 2000, 2001 for the new shows. The Community Concert people are finding it hard, now, to stay alive. The people who started it and are on the board now have been the board for 50, 60 years and they are tired! And it's hard to bring in the next generation in a lot of these places, so a lot of the Concert Associations are closing down. And it's really a shame.
J: It is. I know that when I lived in Bismarck, the Community Concert series was one of the few outlets of 'culture' we were exposed to. Bismarck has a symphony and a community theater, but that's about it. So you wouldn't be able to see dance groups or chamber ensembles unless they were brought in by the Community Concert series.
One of my favorite tracks on your first CD is "Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr," an incredibly touching song about the AIDS quilt. When I got a copy of the music for "Jonathan Wesley," I noticed it was from Heartstrings. What is Heartstrings?
L: Heartstrings is no longer, I don't believe. But it was the largest event of its kind, in terms of being a touring musical fund-raiser. It was DIFFA, the Design Industry Foundation for AIDS, and ... something else. I actually brought them the song. A friend of mine was doing Names Project in San Francisco, and I sent him a demo of me doing "Jonathan Wesley Oliver Jr." and they sent it on to the producer of Heartstrings, because they thought it would be good for the show. The director, David Bell, really wanted me to sing the song, because he said it was my song, even though I didn't write it. In the meantime, though, I had gotten booked on RSVP Cruises, so I couldn't do the tour. So I asked him if I could do a couple shows. I did the opening in San Diego, and I was supposed to do it in New York and Chicago, but there was some inter-cast issues, I guess ... everybody wanted to sing this song. It was the eleven o'clock number, and as the song was being sung, the scrim would rise and the entire backdrop would be panels from the Quilt. It was an amazing moment in the show. And when they went to each city, they would have different celebrity hosts. When they went to LA and recorded it for ABC, Joel Grey sang the song. So the cast member that was supposed to sing it, didn't get to sing it for TV. And then Joel met the tour and sang it in several cities. So when it came time for me to do what I was promised, they were having lots of inter-cast issues, so ... .
But I recorded "Jonathan Wesley" for a compilation album called A Love Worth Fighting For, which was produced by Mitch Gallob. He's a senior staff writer for Good Morning America, and he wanted to find 'out' music. He couldn't find a lot of recordings by gay and lesbian singers and songwriters, so he created this compilation, and asked me to record "Jonathan Wesley." He actually called me because he wanted to get the rights for it, which I didn't handle. So I asked if I could send him a demo of it, and from that I got to record it. A Love Worth Fighting For came out three months before my first album did, so when my album was released, I was able to walk into the distributors that handled A Love Worth Fighting For. The timing was very good!
J: Which do you like performing more, contemporary songs or standards?
L: I'm pretty 50/50. I like to call the contemporary songs 'new standards' because I think that there are songwriters, like John Buccino and David Friedman, who are writing the standards of tomorrow. The way that they write is so lyrical, that they really are writing the standards that, thanks to the cabaret world, will be around for a long time. So I am drawn to them. I'm very lyric driven anyway. And I do like standards, with a little twist, perhaps. That's what's been great about doing this Broadway tour. I get to sing all these songs I grew up with: every song from every show I've never been cast in! It's like 'the bitter tour!'
J: Do you perform in musicals?
L: I haven't in a while. The honest to God truth is that I'm not a dancer, and I've gotten to a point in my life where I can say that I don't even like to dance. To me, there is no point in my life to attend a dance call. So for that reason, I've kind of taken myself out of many show opportunities. But there are many musicals that are not dance driven, that I would love to if I'm home! I get the trades, and either I can make the rehearsals, or I can make the performances, never both! And in terms of making a living ... it would be hard to support yourself that way. Especially given these concert tours. I can't make the money I am making on tour doing an Equity Waiver show, or dinner theater or anything like that. I grew up with musical theater, and I love it, and I'm sure there will always be a place for that in my life.
Also, from doing this concert tour ... we do five or six shows a week sometimes for two or three months. And I look at 8 shows a week and think "I don't know ... that's a lot of work!" You're a prisoner there! That's what I think about when I think about doing a Broadway show, which has always been my dream. Some day I think I will stand on a Broadway stage, but I don't know for how many months I would enjoy that. Because one of the things I love about the career that I've etched out is that it's so varied. I do the solo show, I do Three Men and a Baby Grand with Brian Lane Green and John Boswell, I do An Enchanted Evening, I produce albums ... I love that, because I never get bored.
J: Well, you are an inspiration. Thanks for joining us, and best of Fates on your new CD!
For more information on Lee, or LML Music, visit his website at www.LMLMusic.com