Play Like a Girl - An Interview with Roni Lee

Venus and the Razorblades. The name alone is enough to conjure up the Sunset Strip of the 1970's. Roni Lee didn't stop there, and she agreed to give us some insight into her journey through rock'n'roll.

Roni Lee co-wrote one of my favorite songs, "I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are", and so when I got the opportunity to interview her, I was excited at the chance to be able to speak to a pioneer. With bands like Halestorm, The Pretty Reckless, In This Moment, and The Butcher Babies taking their fair share of rock radio airplay lately, some may forget that there was a time where women had to fight to get the recognition they deserved in the rock'n'roll world. Bands like The Runaways, for example, have yet to truly be recognized by the industry that made it so difficult for them to showcase that they could indeed rock just as hard - if not harder - than their male counterparts. Venus and The Razorblades were one of those trailblazing bands, and Roni Lee was their lead guitarist and songwriter, and later went on to play in bands like Steppenwolf and Mars Bonfire. Here's what she had to say to us about the state of rock music today, her gear, and so much more.

Playing With Chaos (PWC): You were a part of Venus and The Razorblades in the 1970's, and you opened for and toured with bands like Van Halen and The Runaways. What was that experience like and how does it compare to today's rock scene in Los Angeles/California?

Roni Lee (RL): Todays' rock scene is very different. In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery. In the late 70s you wrote, played, got “discovered” by a label, the label supported you, sent you on tour and your songs made it (or not).  The Whisky, Starwood, Gazarri's, and The Roxy were full of good bands, with lines out the door most nights. The bands were paid a small but respectable amount and it seemed everyone got a bit of a fair shake or at least a chance.  Now, unsigned bands record in private or home studios, put out their own product, promote and distribute it, book themselves and sit on Facebook or Twitter most of the day. Recorded videos for YouTube and other video venues have created a world of remote voyeurs instead of frequenting the music venues for live performance.  It’s very confusing for bands, even the established ones.  Many of the venues are pay-to-play.  In other words, you have to sell a certain amount of tickets to even gain entry to the venue and set up or hand over cash.  Sort of takes the “rock star” out of the deal.  But the main ingredient is constant: write good songs and play those songs well live. Kick ass.

PWC: Many people may not know that you were one of the people that wrote "I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are", which The Runaways included in their live set on many occasions. How did that song come about and what do you remember about the emotions that went along with hearing it played so many years later as part of a major motion picture?

RL: When Kim Fowley hired me for Venus and the Razorblades, he immediately wanted writers, not just pretty kids pretending to play.  Kim knew the value of writing, he knew how to survive in this business was through royalties and also, how to leave a legacy.  He said to us all one day after rehearsal “go home and write a song or don’t come back”.  I was a bit nervous since I had never written a complete song before – I was 18 at the time.  I sat down and began thinking about what got me to this point.  The challenge being a girl in the 70s wanting to play lead guitar.  How many people, men and women included, that just flat out didn’t believe I even played much less that I could pretty much play the entire Blow by Blow album by Jeff Beck.  How jealous I was that guys could just say “I am a guitar player” and heads would nod and you could see the respect.  Most people patted me on the head (figuratively and actually). LOL  So the song was born, simple but real.  Kim added some LA style choruses and it was birthed.  We recorded it but Joan and Sandy loved the song so the Runaways began playing it at shows, it was on the Live in Japan album and became a “mantra” song for a lot of young girl musicians at the time.  I sold the publishing when "I Love Rock and Roll" came out in the 80's thinking I would never make much more money on it.  Actually, I didn’t know it was in the movie until the movie came out and a friend in LA called me to say she just heard my song and saw my name on the big screen.  Needless to say, I had not kept in touch with the publishers or the old gang.  But we reconnected from that and all is cool.

Joan Jett and Roni Lee, 1977
PWC: What does your songwriting process look like and how do you approach writing a new album/EP?

RL: It always starts with a new song idea.  A theme, something I want to say.  I usually write with a drummer initially because the feel of the song is very important to me.  Drums create the emotion.  Words are usually last.  Since being on my own label, I only record EP's.  Less expensive and I can crank them out faster with more product available at the shows.  It is very hard to sell music on line these days. It just doesn’t happen easily.  Again, “times, they are a changin”.

PWC: We're gear nerds here at Playing With Chaos! What makes up your live/studio rig? 

RL: I have had an awesome experience with gear.  First of all, I have gear-heads that give their time to me (techs) both in southern California and Seattle so I am spoiled.  I don’t really care how things hook up, just make em work (sic).  Having said that, I am very particular about my sound.  It has to be real. I only use tube amps and a couple analog pedals and a bit of a delay (a Carbon Copy by MXR), a tuner and an SD-1 super overdrive for a boost by Boss) I play what I think is thebest guitar in the world - a PRS. I have endorsed them for a couple of years, represented them at NAMM and just got my main guitar back from the factory in Maryland with a whole new face. That guitar goes everywhere with me and gets its own seat on a airplane if necessary. Then there is the most bad-ass amp on the planet: Soldano. Mike Soldano and I have known each other for years but he recently called me and asked if he could build me an amp.  Being up to this point, a Marshall Maniac I said "sure" but was a little nervous since I am very picky about that real crunchy guitar sound.  Basically, if my pedals get lost or quit working, I want to plug into my amp without missing a beat. I don’t really need pedals to be honest – except for tuning which my PRS hardly needs even with the beating I give it during a show with the whammy!  Turns out the Soldano amp is amazing. I am in love with the combination and could not be happier, so Marshall is out and Soldano is in.

PWC: Your career didn't stop in the 1970's, and I think it's important for people to realize that this is not a "comeback" type interview or promotional spot. You've released several EP's and you're still touring. What are your most recent projects and what do you have planned for the rest of 2014 and beyond?

RL: Thanks for asking that question.  I never quit playing. People have different definitions of “success”. My focus has been to live a fulfilled life and for me that includes, family, music, work, and taking time to do things and enjoy moments, and some stressful, difficult times as well - like anyone else. I will say that I have become more “in the public eye” since my children have become self-sufficient.  The future includes more touring, more videos, some interesting projects with my record label - Play Like a Girl - and side music projects like S!rens of Rock (featuring other women based groups and solo artists) as well as other projects. 

PWC: As a guitar player, do you feel that there is still some sort of discrimination that goes along with being female and playing that guitar? I mean, there still aren't a lot of women playing lead guitar out there, and those that are were also the pioneers of doing so. Why do you think that is?

RL: I was just discussing this with a long-time friend who played for Heart, Seal and many others as a guitarist, writer and producer.  A Girl.  We marveled over dinner at how, in 2014, peoples jaw still drop and we still hear comments like “ you play amazing for a girl”  (which is why I named my label the tongue-in-cheek name of Play Like A Girl.)  My theory is that women are still in the role of care-giver and supporter of children, spouses etc.  and while I don’t have a problem with that, we don’t seem to transition very well into meeting our own goals and gifts when those roles have been fulfilled and it's time to kick a little ass of our own.  A very common (and favorite) remark from my friends and fans  is “ you have inspired me to go and do what I love”.  What better way to pay it forward? 

PWC: Some musicians practice for 8 hours a day and have classically trained roots, while others don't play until they get on stage and wouldn't be able to identify a single note on their instrument. Where do you fall along this continuum and when did you first pick up the guitar? 

RL: Living in an remote area of Oregon at 13 years old, I listened to bands but was not welcomed as a musician. Band members were kind but didn’t take me seriously. I spent most of my time listening to records and trying to imitate the sounds on an old acoustic guitar. I found a girl band in Seattleto join but  they fired me for not being very proficient (and they were right).  I joined a lounge band in Nevada– playing 6 days a week, 5 hours a day – working with charts and jazz players.  I learned my music, but not until I felt it, if that makes sense.  The theory tied the soul and the logic together.  In my opinion, its takes both to really be “rounded” but that’s just for me. But the bottom line is, when I am playing, my sound and feeling is happening. 

PWC: Rock and roll has taken a beating in mainstream popular culture and mainstream radio. Let me ask the question I've asked everyone I've interviewed: Rock'n'Roll - is it dead?

RL: Led Zepplin never won a Grammy, and they never will. (Editor's note: Their Celebration Day live album did this past March, but I'm going to say that kind of doesn't count, so I'm with Roni on this one!) Rock and Roll is viscer, and being the parent of teenagers, I can tell you that there is a fascination with rock, the music of the 70's and 80's.  I am amazed at how many younger generation lovers-of-rock, lament having missed that magic time.  I have done many interviews with people maybe even like yourself,  that wish they had been involved in the scene that birthed so much amazing music and seems to be unrepeatable (smiles) So, do I think rock is dead… Absofuckinglutely… NOT!  Because rock is not just music, it’s a spirit.  It's freedom, power, and sex all in one heart-pounding moment.


PWC: What advice do you have for a young person starting out in the music industry in 2014? What changes have you seen that you think have been both beneficial (or not) to artists? 

RL: When I see a new or young band, I look for two things. One, "do I walk away humming a tune?", and two,  "Am I entertained by the live show? – does the band seem to care whether or not I have a good time, do they engage me?" That doesn’t mean cheesy jokes. I want to have an “experience”.  Not all musicians are entertainers.  Some write, some perform, some do both.  Know who you are, what you want from this crazy business and don’t let anyone take you down a road you don’t want to be on – no matter how nice the road is.  It's okay to do other projects, learn new things but be careful – don’t lose your focus . That is good advice for life in general.

Roni Lee and Joan Jett, 2014
Check out Roni's music on iTunes, or her website, where you can also get information about her upcoming shows and EP's. Don't forget to support her Play Like A Girl record label while you're there.

A special thank you to Roni Lee for her frankness, honesty, and kick-ass attitude. Thank you for making music and not taking "no" for an answer back in the 1970's. We are eternally grateful.

After this interview, I couldn't help but think once again how important it is to support your local live music scene. Roni Lee is still rocking out and playing venues, so why aren't you buying a ticket this Saturday night and heading out to see a real musician? Is it too expensive? No more than a week's worth of over-priced lattes, so that can't be it. Is it that the same people - people like you and me - that Roni refers to when I ask her if rock is dead or not are the ones contributing to the problem? Let's get out there are support the music we love. After all, you still "Wanna Be Where The Boys Are" don't you?