Liz Lenten (Auburn) - interview,
Last year I received an album from a band I had previously not come across before, nothing really strange in that as it has happened many thousands of time in the past. What was different about this was that the CD came in a cardboard box, and when I opened it up, inside was not only a CD but a board game, die etc, all tied in with the music. I was initially incredibly concerned that I wouldn’t like the album, which would cause me an issue given the amount of cost involved in putting this all together, but I needn’t have worried as I soon fell in love with it. In my review I said “It took a while for me to get my head around the fact that Liz is British and not American (although the album was again recorded in Nashville), as this is Americana to the core. Liz sings in a breathy gentle style, which in many ways reminds me of the delicate side of Janis Joplin (honest, she had one), and the arrangements are all about providing the perfect support for her vocals to be front and centre.” So, who on earth are these guys? The only way to find out was ask some questions, so settle back, and be entertained by the wonderful Liz Lenten.
Kev Rowland: Who, what and when is Liz Lenten and Auburn?
Liz Lenten: Hiya, I’m Liz Lenten – a singer/songwriter/facilitator/manager/teacher/animateur/choir-leader/community musician – and general chief cook and bottle washer!
I live in a small village in rural Lincolnshire, where I have my office and recording studio, where my business Scarlet Music and Scarlet Records is based. I run the band, artist management company, two record labels and teach singing and guitar in my studio here. I am also an active ‘artist in education’ leading community music projects with children and young people living in ‘challenging circumstances’ - work that keeps me sane in the craziness of the music business – and was thrilled to be recently nominated for the ‘Heritage Inspiration Award’ for my community singing work with migrant workers and local residents.
For as long as I can remember music has filled my days, my life, my heart and my head.
At 16 I left school and went on the road with several different jazz, dance and function bands – touring solidly, pretty much, throughout UK and in Europe, until I was 22 when I settled in London – ready to take on the music industry!
After a few years of knocking on doors, and singing with pub bands, functions, sessions, (luckily, I could read music, so that helped!), teaching and arranging - for anyone who would have me…. I set up my first studio (with PYBT funding – I think I am the longest running business for the Princes Trust!) Sync City – soon to become Scarlet Music in Tottenham (for 13 years) – running rehearsal and recording sessions for loads of bands then forming my own band Auburn.
The first line up was me, Gus (Mark Gustavina) – who STILL plays with Auburn and is my main co-writer today, with an old friend on bass and my ex-husband on drums! We played our first ever show in a little pub in Enfield – and it was fab – although scary to be singing my own songs out loud! In the summer of 1999, I launched my own label, Scarlet Records (held at the salubrious, jam-packed and smoky Madame JoJo's in Soho) to a completely packed and enthusiastic house.
We released our first EP 'Sweet Sebastian' a few weeks later and received extensive airplay and sold out of its limited pressing within two weeks. We then teamed up with producer Tim Pettit, (Travis, Sun House and Carlene Carter) and recorded 'For Life', which also got great radio support.
The debut album ‘Dreams’ was released in 2003 and Auburn toured with Sophie Ellis Bextor in the UK and Europe playing to 40,000 people along the way. In 2005 our single “Cry” reached #5 in the indie video charts after which they took a break … to concentrate on parenthood – as my son was just starting school!
In the years between 2005 and 2011 I concentrated on writing, teaching, community work that I love – in nurseries, schools, colleges etc. – teaching and facilitating many music projects from early years music, to song writing and composition, from Gamelan to African drums and ukulele – and of course lots of singing. This is also when I set up my Contemporary Community Youth Choir , together with my local AC, and CHOIR VIBE is still running today! – it is still one of the highlights of my week – I love these kids like my own – they sing so sweetly, I drive them crazy with detail – but they always do me proud – I will keep doing this work until either they stop coming – or I keel over! We have been doing online sessions during the current situation with Covid 19 and are writing a group song – called “LOCKDOWN”! I also became more involved in my management duties during that time – and have been looking after Eliza Carthy (folk singer) for 12 years, as well as working with other artist including Shane MacGowan & The Popes, Galia Arad and others.
Auburn reunited in 2011 to create our first album in years, ‘Indian Summer’, which garnered rave reviews worldwide and saw Auburn back on the road – with the line-up that still works today – me on rhythm acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Gus ( who now also plays with Les Binks amongst others) on lead acoustic guitar and harmonies, Jevon Beaumont ( Arthur Brown, Laura Vane, Voodoo Lounge) on bass and harmonies, Pat Garvey (BIMM, James, David Cross, Fischer Z) on percussion and various members of my lovely Choir Vibe sometimes coming along to embellish harmony vocals. Although I now record in Nashville with my musicians there – I always tour in UK with Gus, Jevon and Pat - these amazing players are known as Auburn Acoustic UK.
In March 2013 I went back into the studio to write some new songs joined by my original Auburn collaborator Mark ‘Gus’ Gustavina. I was looking for a producer and had been chatting to the lovely Gretchen Peters, who I had been working with through her booking agent and she introduced me to my amazing producer – Thomm Jutz – award winning bluegrass player, singer songwriter, producer, arranger, engineer extraordinaire! Luckily Thomm loved the material and wanted to work with me – I was over the moon!
So, I headed off to Nashville, TN, to work Thomm and his team of Grammy winning musicians – Mark Fain on Bass (Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs) ; Lyn Williams (Wild flowers, Del McEnroy) and amazing harmony singer Britt Savage (Garth Brooks, Crystal Gayle) plus Dolly’s own fantastic steel player Terry Crisp and Gretchen’s amazing piano playing husband Barry Walsh – it was a mind-blowing and inspiring time – and I have never felt more at home anywhere in the world! (I have since done a further three Auburn albums with this team at Thomms in Nashville– and every one is a joyous experience – not just the music, but the people, the music, the vibe and Thomms wonderful wife, and now my good friend Eva, with whom I do Yoga, Pilates and so much more, that Nashville now feels like my second home!)
The initial resulting album, entitled ‘Nashville’, was released in early 2014 to great and much appreciated critical acclaim and Auburn toured UK as special guests of Jefferson Starship (with Paul Kantner and David Freiberg) and then again later that year with Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick.
In January 2015 I again returned to Nashville, TN., and with producer/guitarist Jutz and my fantastic Nashville musicians recorded ‘Mixed Feelings’ - which was released in 2015 to more fantastic reviews. Again, touring with Jefferson Starship, and playing other headline dates, the album continued to build Auburn’s loyal fanbase, and I was very grateful.
With so many life changes going on for me, so much to write about and emotions to spill, and not being one to sit around aimlessly for long, in January of 2016, I returned once again to TJ Tunes in Nashville with Thomm Jutz and the guys and recorded 12 new songs for the ‘Love & Promises’ album, which featured a duet with American troubadour Chet O’Keefe, whom I toured with in UK over the summer of 2016. Gathering more great reviews and considerable international airplay I toured again in early 2017 with Auburn Acoustic as guests of US west coast legends LiveDead69.
With family health issues overwhelming life, I took a small break from the band to spend more time with my mum, who had suffered an awful stroke, devastating me and all of us in fact, and then after a frantic song writing splurge at the latter end of 2018, which seemed to be the only way I could process everything at this point, I returned to Nashville in January 2019 to record 14 songs for my latest album ‘Game Of Faith’.
As you noticed in your lovely review, – this album also comes with its own board/card game – based on the songs, lyrics and ‘rules’ of the album! It was devised by my son, an avid gamer, who is now at Uni, studying computer science and game development – and it has been a lot of fun to play and develop. A brief explanation:
The game of faith is a unique ‘take that’ card/board game – that heavily features interpersonal ‘politics’, tactics and social interactions…..you can ‘help’ or ‘hinder’ others in the game – a bit like real life!! The game is based on the songs, lyrics and the ‘non-rules’ as defined on the album:
- There is no limit to the non - rules…and all that there are, will be broken
- You can make your own non- rules….and still break them
- There is no set judge – you can choose between:
- A greater divine judge
- Your fellow man
- There are winners and there are losers throughout the game
- You can control some moves, but most are totally out of your control
- Your start point, gender, sexual orientation, race or creed is random
Aim: To get through the game and remain in one piece
It’s a lot of fun to play! It includes elements of all sorts of games – strategy, cyclical board, cards that instruct play, social dynamics, dice rolling… The goal is to move your character one full revolution around the cyclical board, before anyone else. Each player has a random start point but must travel clockwise around the board to reach their starting point as fast as possible. This is accomplished by playing cards that have a variety of effects, including moving multiple players, stealing cards, switching places with another player, and so on.
In March 2019 we completed a UK tour once again with now old friends LiveDead69 and the album came out summer 2019, once again getting lovely reviews, and making life seem bearable again. The later part of 2019 was busy with PR for the album and Game and more work with my Children’s Community Music group, Scarlet Community Music Club, that I have run in the local village hall for the last 14 years.
In February 2020 with Auburn Acoustic we just toured with The Flying Burritos Brothers’ 50th Anniversary tour (Greg Harris, Jeff Pevar) from LA, which was a blast!....and as the April tour has been rescheduled to the end of this year, I’ve found that being home has just started my writing juices flowing again…..so I guess I’ll be back to Nashville as soon as the world opens up again!
KR: What are your earliest musical memories and who/what inspired you to start playing music and what motivates you now?
LL: Wow, its funny you ask this, because it is something, I have been thinking about a lot recently, as my dad died last month, and he was the first musical influence and inspiration in my life. In fact, the most recent song I have written is about my Dad, and growing up in a house filled with music, and how it inspired and informed the rest of my life!
All four of my grandparents sang, and my dad played the piano –he could play pretty much any instrument he picked up –a bit! - he was not a guitarist – but he taught me to play the guitar – when I was about 5, he barely read music, but he had a fantastic ear. He wrote songs, and always encouraged me to write myself and experiment with music – I recorded a song he had written in 1958, about my then teenage mum, on the ‘Nashville’ album ( 2014)– it’s half in French (no idea why – he just liked French!) called “If You Knew”.
My parents always had regular parties , with several live bands, in the house – usually crazy trad jazzers (as kids we used to call them ‘the traffic jam’!) and several of their friends that played piano, or bass or sang – I’d spend hours and hours going through dozens of songbooks singing songs with my dad on the piano, and my mum smiling away and dancing around the room - we’d do house concerts for the Medical Benevolent Society, and I would get so nervous about it and cry for hours the day before saying I couldn’t do it – but always managed to perform on the day! – such a drama queen – even then! I just remember music being central to life as a child – and that never really changed as I grew up, it has continued to be a daily medicine for me.
My grandma was also an amazing pianist – she could transpose by ear – any key you want – but never knew what key she was in! - she just felt her way….I still have her little baby grand piano, we had loads of music at home. My mum loved music and had loads of old records - I was definitely influenced by her tastes – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Karen Dalton, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Sarah Vaughn - I started singing in jazz bands from the age of 16 – and I think she must have come to pretty much every gig I did – well, more as driver roadie…until I left home and could drive myself! But I also loved Kate Bush, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, I was mad about Reggae, Bob Marley, and soul – Chaka Khan, Rose Royce, Aretha and was utterly and totally obsessed with Blondie.
Now, I am still influenced by the artists that I love to listen to – (I really love the story telling side of songs) – and am motivated by telling my own stories through songs. My friends and family think/ ask if my albums are autobiographical – but that’s not strictly true – its all based on stuff I have experienced, or heard about, or been told about, or read about, or seen on the TV, or in the news, or just a comment or a feeling – but I love to get drawn in by songs, and I think the best advice I ever got regarding song writing was from Gretchen ( Peters) , who told me that TRUTH and FACTS are two different things – and that lyrics can be true, to the emotions of the song, without all the facts having to be exact – I think my song- writing went up a gear after that – as I had even more freedom of expression somehow – and my motivation is the same as it always was – Music just makes me feel better – if I am down – I listen, or play, or write – and still the best feeling in the world is being on stage with Auburn Acoustic – on a good night – there is nothing to beat that feeling – even though the nerves still overwhelm me – which always gives me a slight shock, more surprise I suppose, for some reason, as I just feel I should be over stage fright by now after 30+ years of performing!! – but it’s all good!!
KR: Auburn have been around for more than 20 years now, but how did the initial line-up come together and what are your favourite memories of that time?
LL: So, back in 1999, when I started Auburn, I had a rehearsal/recording studio in Tottenham, North London – which I had opened mainly so I had rehearsal and recording facilities…. but I ran it commercially, so met loads of musicians….
Gus (Mark Gustavina) was one of the very first musicians I met, even before we opened, when I was still building the studios – he used to come in and say hi….and we got on immediately! He started to rehearse in the studios, with his band at the time Kid Gladlove and I loved his playing too – so when I decided to form a band – he was the first person I asked to play guitar!
He was well up for it and together with my ex-husband (Wan) on drums (he used to play with Paul Di’Anno when we first met…. happy to report that to this day, although not together, we are still friends thankfully!) and an old friend called Robin on bass, we started rehearsing and did some live shows – it was very low key, and lots of fun!
Gus and I started to write together, and just seemed to understand each other so well – I just sang live then, I didn’t play guitar with the band at that time, well, except for the odd song – as I was pretty rubbish – Gus used to say – he promised not to sing if I promise not to play guitar!! – ha ha…..luckily over the years I have got a bit better- and now he actually enjoys playing gigs with me on guitar – apparently!!
We added keyboards sometimes, and backing vocals (I had 2 fantastic girls that sang harmonies throughout the set – we would rehearse parts for hours and hours – we called them the Dodettes….as my original band name was Dodo Spares – I know don’t ask!!! ) Recently I have always preferred smaller line up live – and as stripped back as possible – I just like the intimacy and the space so much better, and think it works better for the songs too, but back then it was all the rage to have a big band and make as much noise as possible!
We had a lot of fun the first couple of years…..I remember one evening, we were rehearsing the night before an industry showcase in Manchester ( I think it was ‘In The City’) – and somehow one of my band managed to not only lock us in the studio – but then break the key in the door so we couldn’t get out! I remember having to call the fire brigade, who turned up with 2 fully manned and fitted fire engines – slightly embarrassing…. but I gave them all CDs to say thank you for rescuing us!
Another show we did back then was supporting Sophie Ellis Bextor on her UK and European tour. That was an absolute blast – she was adorable – and even let me bring my (then) young son on the road with us – and let him share her special tomato sauce – that no one else could touch! My son thought she was a Princess, because she was so beautiful….and if she saw us she would always give him a hug….I taught her to roller skate on that tour, in a venue before the show….not sure why….and she taught me that even if you are the support band, the headline artist can be kind and generous to you – something we never expected – and always appreciated. One of my enduring memories of that tour is my son refusing to take off his Spiderman costume, which he insisted on wearing every day of the tour, until it smelt so bad we had to force him out of it…..and him playing with his bucket and spade in the freezing snow in Switzerland – asking when we were going on a proper holiday….
I also remember one night on that tour in Marseille, myself and Justin ( my sound engineer – who has been with me forever – I barely play a show without him or his prodigy, and our other engineer Felix – two of my very favourite people in the world I might add) had gone for a walk, before the show, in what we thought was a park – it turned out that it was a private garden, which had since been locked, and we had to run away from the guard dogs – and climb over a fence to get out. I am petrified of dogs, and still giggle when I remember literally climbing on Justin’s head to get out of there before those dogs arrived!!! We just made it!!!
We also got to play Hammersmith Odeon (as it was then) on that tour – a lifetime ambition of Gus’s, and a fabulous experience for us all…..and were given a massive bottle of Champagne from the promoter on that night – it was very special.
I have lots of wonderful memories from that time, from running out of fuel in the van and having to push, to driving through snow storms to get to a show in Cardiff…..as other vehicles were sliding off the road, we just held our breath until we hit a main road, that had been cleared – and was actually safe to drive on …. hmm, for some reason we still seem to always tour in winter …..and I have far too many stories about stopping for a ‘comfort break’ on the road somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at 2am in the freezing cold, trying to discreetly pee at the roadside whilst wearing skinny jeans, big boots and a huge coat, ( making it impossible to just squat and pee!!) whilst the lads found it all hilarious as it was so easy for them – it never ended well….!
Hearing my own music on the radio for the first time is still one of the wonderful memories I will cherish – driving to a gig and hearing your single being played on the way – and then ringing all the band and family and friends to tune in and hear it play!! – was so exciting at the time – Auburn early days were certainly fun….
KR: How would you describe the music of Auburn to someone who has never come across you before?
LL: This is never an easy one – but will try - from my perspective Auburns music is: Americana / Rootsy / Bluesy / Singer songwritery / Country - ish!
It’s simple, low key and chilled out, never moves very fast – but definitely grooves along, the performance is intimate and confessional – and the voice is like marmite – breathy, edgy, conversational – people tend to love it – or hate it – never much in-between!! I have been compared to everyone from Janis Joplin (another hero of mine!!), to Norah Jones, to Kate Bush, to Bonnie Raitt, to Eartha Kitt!!!!! ….go figure!! It’s all about the story, and the feelings and thoughts and observations, and the production and playing is always sympathetic, classy and emotional….
So, I’m going to use the words of some of my favourite review quotes to help you get a better idea:
‘hushed tones, dramatic delivery and frank lyrics’ - R2 magazine
‘way left, non-art chick, deceptive simplicity” - www.midwestrecord.com (USA)
“JJ Cale meets 70's Bonnie Raitt – confessional and rootsy” - www.the-rocker.co.uk (UK)
“Stunning vocal performance, with strength and fragility, her exceptional and sensitive vocal talent give a vocal richness of emotions, an album with a real musical signature” - Radio ISA (France)
“I find it stunning; it takes you on a journey; the vocal grabs you” - Shindig Shire radio (UK)
“(it) blends blues and Americana in spades with touches of other styles adding to the musical magic” - www.rockwrite.blogspot.com (USA)
“Lenten sings with a unique character and conviction…the playing is superb throughout” - Lonesome highway magazine (Ireland)
“chilled out grooves and catchy yet slightly unusual vocals…sort of reminds me of Kate Bush or perhaps Bjork. It’s all very artful and tastefully executed” - www.seaoftranquility.org (USA)
KR: What’s next?
LL: Hopefully, the tour that was just cancelled due to Covid 19, with LIVEDEAD69 will be rescheduled, for either later 2020 or sometime 2021 – and summer festivals that have been cancelled will also be rescheduled soon – but, along with every other musician in the country ( world??!) until we know when venues and events can continue, live performances are on hold , which is such a shame as it is so much the best part of the whole process! Playing live is like no other feeling in the world, so fingers crossed we can get back on the road soon. We still have a lot of promotion to do with ‘Game of Faith’ – not just the album but the fabulous board game that goes with it – so really looking forward to picking that up again and getting it all out there!
I would love to take Auburn Acoustic to other places in the world to play live, I’d love to go to China, New Zealand, US, Europe, I think the band would do well in other countries. It’s a very intimate and bonding experience playing live: I love the little unplugged, up close and personal shows, so exciting, as much as the festivals and bigger venues. It is all different, but that’s what it’s about, communicating, connecting, there are no borders with music.
I am always writing songs, so , again, once the travel issues are sorted in the world, once I have a bunch of songs together, I will head back to Thomm in Nashville and record a new album. It is never ending, but I always feel like songs are like babies. It’s almost like being pregnant when you write a song, it grows inside you, until it is recorded , which is like giving birth! Sorry, that sounds really weird I know, but honestly, songs are like babies, they need nurturing, and then it can be hard to let them go once they are fully formed, but when they are ready, they really need to be born!! Let out into the world.
And I’m also hoping that I will be able to start up my wonderful youth choir, CHOIR VIBE, in person ( we’re on zoom at the moment) again, and to be able to deliver the community village music projects that we do every winter. This year we are planning to do ‘Beatsfit’, which is a combination of playing instruments and exercising, a project we developed a couple of years ago and have been delivering to special settings around the region. We have almost finished a resource pack for the project, that we shall distribute to schools, SEN and adult special needs settings – it’s a lot of fun – check it out on my site
And we have also very recently set up a screen hand printing studio here at Scarlet, so we are looking forward to working with our artists and bands, to create and make cool merch and clothing….already have a nice range of ‘facemask bandanas’ – which will be launched on the Scarlet site next week.
Of course - everything is so up in the air right now – but fingers crossed we will be back in action soon.
Thanks, so much for your interest!
For more details on Liz and her wonderful band, Auburn, visit the links below