I think I need to start this review with a series of statements. I first came across South African born Lee when she signed to AAA Records for her debut NZ EP Lost Girl back in 2019, and my good friend TeMatera Smith asked me to write the press release. I loved the EP, so writing the release was not a hardship at all, and Lee and I soon became friends. I interviewed her for various sites and magazines, arranged for her to appear on a podcast, and then in a strange twist of fate she started working with guitarist and arranger Chris Ward (Chris and the Kingsmen) who just so happened to be my next-door neighbour. When she and Chris came up from Christchurch to record the album last year, I made my way over to the studio one evening and along with TeMatera we had a wonderful time with music, a fine meal, and plenty of red wine.
So why all the preamble? I have reviewed Lee a few times in the past, including a live stream she did during lockdown in 2020, and it would not be hard for anyone with Google fingers to realise we have known each other for some time. Some might think that as she is a friend then I am bound to give her a good review, but in reality, the opposite is true. I have been reviewing for more than 30 years and I need people to realise that I do not show favouritism, so when I am closely involved with an artist, I make it clear from the outset, and then am brutally honest in the review. True friends can tell each other when something is not as good as it should be, so am generally more critical than I otherwise would be, which also means that when I say something is awesome it means that it really is, and not because we have shared a drink or three.
Lee has slowly been creating a reputation for herself down on South Island, playing seemingly anywhere and everywhere, either solo, with her band, or as a covers act putting in the hard yards so that she can be in her natural environment, in front of a crowd. Before coming to New Zealand, she had recorded two original albums in South Africa which received ample radio play, so has many years of experience behind her. When she and Chris came up to record the album, she allowed TeMatera to source local musicians to fill the sound, while also paying close attention to suggestions made by TeMatera and Chris as to what should happen with the arrangements. This resulted in an album which originally was thought to be going in one direction which was totally transformed by the end.
The rhythm section of Marika Hodgson (bass, Troy Kingi) and Adam Tobeck (drums, Outside In) laid down the backing for all tracks in a single day (which is not surprising to anyone who has seen either of them in a live environment), with Forrest Thorp (Strangely Arousing) adding both keyboards and trumpet. Chris provided electric guitar, with Lee on acoustic and vocals, while for the backing vocals they looked to Lee’s roots and were recorded at Jazzworx studios in Johannesburg.
Lee has a style and finesse which is incredibly polished, timeless, and simply beautiful. Instead of a standard singer/songwriter release, this album looks strongly into Motown, with a groove and feel all its own. The vocals have real substance, with a depth and emotion that is way broader and carrying than many singers. There is a width here, plenty of room for Lee to slide into notes and be sultry and mysterious, allowing her voice to gently crack at times without the need to always be smooth. In some ways her vocal style makes me think of Jenny Mitchell, but there is more depth and passion contained within. The rhythm section just bounces along, with Forrest often playing a lead musical role with the trumpet. The keyboards are generally in the background, while both guitars add finesse and nuances as opposed to being directly in your face.
I generally find that whatever song I am listening to is probably the favourite, and currently in my ears in Wait Forever, a song which Lee and Chris decided sounded quite drunk so asked the musicians to improvise and play as if they were the loaded musicians at a Mexican wedding! What makes this work is that there is plenty of room within the arrangement for everyone to have their own groove, but they bring it all together in a way which just makes the listener smile. New Year’s Eve is far more upbeat and is one I will always feel a close affinity as Lee and I went out to buy some food for the meal, and while we were away Chris and TeMatera had decided to totally rearrange it and turn it into a pop belter with Supremes-style “Doo Doo Doo’s”. This is a fun number with everyone playing with a huge smile face on their face, especially when Lee sings the words Happy New Year to you, Screw You too.
Lee’s latest single is Daydreaming, a song which slowly builds on organ and picked electric, with the harmony vocals coming in at 0:45 taking it to a new level. There is a huge amount of room to move around inside the music as there is no rhythm section until the huge vocal lift at 1:30 which is both unexpected and totally right for the moment. When we get part of Amazing Grace at 2:10 we are taken to the Southern states of America, with a song which contains so many majestic and beautiful elements. The album ends with What If I Die, where Lee asks the question about what if she dies before seeing Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Greece? This came to her when she was speaking to a businessman at a corporate event she was singing at, and he was telling her that he and his wife were always planning to go to Paris when he retired, but she died before that took place. There is something about this song and video which really calls to me, possibly because my wife and I have had similar conversations over the years, and it was she who convinced me to fly back to the UK five years just for a folk festival. It is catchy, thought provoking, yet again loaded with wonderful vocals, lyrics, and superb arrangement. When I compiled my Top 10 Lists last year, (https://www.muzic.net.nz/articles/reviews/92933/kevs-top-10s-2021) this was my #1 single and I love it.
This album is something special, timeless, beautiful, and a million miles away from what most people think of as modern popular music. Although the recording was completed a long time ago, the release was delayed until the vinyl was ready, and that is certainly the right decision as music like this needs to be available in that format. Even with the restrictions currently in place, Lee is undertaking a small national tour to promote this, and I am flying back to Christchurch to be at the sold-out album launch as that promises to be a night not to miss. Check her Facebook page to see if she is playing near you, go and see her if you can, but at the very least you need to check out this album which is a class delight from beginning to end.
Yes, this is awesome.