One of the original members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention in the 60’s, Alice speaks with us about those times, songwriting, touring, her encounters with many other legendary musicians and so much more.
May 14, 2004
Guitarhoo!: Hi Alice, we’re happy to talk with you. The first section of this interview will be based around your time spent with Frank Zappa as a tribute to the master. Now, you were one of the original members during the formation of The Mothers of Invention, with Frank, back in the 60’s. How did the two of you get together?
Alice Stuart: We met at a coffeehouse in Santa Monica in 1964. We had come in separately and had both been there for about 2 hours. We got to talking and found out we were both waiting to meet the same person, Steve Mann, a great guitar player who had been a major influence on many guitar players. We left together after about 3 hours (and a LOT of coffee)
G!: Great. What was your first impression of Frank?
AS: We immediately fell into a warm and comfortable relationship and were inseparable for a few months. I was drawn to his energy and sense of ambition. He knew what he wanted and was a good communicator.
G!: Was his music at that time very damanding for you or more free wheeling?
AS: He had a blues band when I met him, just 4 people and the Turtles sang with him occasionally. I was looking to move from acoustic guitar to electric, but he wanted to incorporate my acoustic delta style with his electric leads.
G!: Did you take part in coming up with ideas for songs and guitar parts?
G!: What was the over all essence of what the band was trying to do at that time?
AS: It was just a blues band, but Frank had been working on some new songs with these strange, complicated chords that went right over my head.
G!: How would you compare Frank’s ideas on music to what other bands/musicians were doing at that time?
AS: We were playing “Get Off of my Cloud” and straight blues tunes. But his new songs that he was working on (that ended up on Freak Out) stood apart from anything I’d ever heard before. (By the way, he spelled my name wrong on Freak Out, the bum)
G!: Haha… What was the working environment and vibe in the recording studio like with Frank?
AS: I left right before the first recording session.
G!: Did you tour with his band? And if so, how was that experience?
G!: How long did you remain in the band?
AS: It was a very short time, a matter of months.
G!: What were some of the things you liked or learned from your time together with Frank?
AS: How to believe in myself and my music.
G!: What guitars were you playing at that time?
AS: A Martin D-18 that I still have. Frank bought me a little red Fender electric and it was a real dog, like a 3/4 size or something. Really hard to play. I didn’t have my own electric guitar yet.
G!: ok, let’s move forward with your career. Where were you born?
G!: At what age did you show interest in music and pick up an instrument?
AS: I started taking piano lessons when I was 5. Read music before I could read words, I think.
G!: Do you play other instruments besides guitar?
AS: I play piano, banjo,(at least I used to), autoharp, parade snare drum, and bass (in a pinch)
G!: Right on! Who were some of your early musical influences?
AS: I loved classical music as a kid. I was also heavily influenced by the great country artists of the 40s and 50s like Hank Snow, Hank Williams. Buddy Holly and Elvis and Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers & Ivory Joe Hunter. About a year after I picked up the guitar (when I was 19) I heard Joan Baez. Lovely voice and great guitar playing. I was heavily involved in playing ‘real’ folk music from the British Isles, Ireland, Scotland, etc. Peter, Paul and Mary were No-no’s in my crowd Even though they did some traditional songs, they did the pop version. I was also hearing some of the old records from the 20s and 30s from people like Blind Willie McTell, Bessie Smith and Rabbit Brown. This music really reached in and grabbed me like nothing else had. Then I heard Bob Dylan’s first record. That record made everything make sense to me musically. It changed my life and direction. I was able to finally incorporate everything that had touched me musically into my own style. I guess you could say it gave me the guts to just do my own thing.
G!: Were you self taught or did you take lessons?
AS: Only took lessons on piano, and ironically that’s the only instrument I can’t improvise on.
G!: What were some of your first bands you put together and what kind of music were you playing?
AS: I had a band in Berkeley when I switched to electric called The Minx or the Minks, can’t remember which. It was about 1968 and a lot of bands had animal or bird names. Austin DeLone was in that band. Then there was Fat Alice and then when I moved to Marin County near S.F., Alice Stuart and Snake with Bob Jones and Karl Sevareid (now with the Robert Cray Band) and then just the Alice Stuart Band (6 piece band with Joachim Young on keyboards (formerly with Boz Scaggs) and 2 fabulous background singers (who worked some with Jerry Garcia when I went on hiatus) Then after my “retirement” from the business (78-90), I had an acoustic duo with Prune Rooney called Stuart & Rooney.
G!: In the mid 60’s you toured with the likes of Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and many other legendary artists. What can you tell us about those experiences?
AS: I had only been playing guitar for 2 years when I hit the ‘big time’. My first real professional appearance was at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964. That’s where I met Joan Baez and John Hurt and Doc, as well as many other greats. I was just scared to death and couldn’t figure out what I was doing on the same stage with such luminaries. After the festival, John Hurt had some gigs in L.A., where I was living at the time, so I drove him down and he stayed at my place. At the Ash Grove, he refused to go on if I wasn’t playing autoharp with him on both sets. Talk about embarrassing. I was expecting rotten fruit to be lobbed at me. He was such a dear man. Very quiet and sweet and just made of music. I was lucky to have the time I spent with him.
G!: Cool! You had your own music TV show in Seattle in the 70’s. What can you tell us about that?
AS: After the World’s Fair in 1962, King TV (KOMO?) wanted to keep something going at the Mural Stage. Folk Music was big at the time, so a show called “Hootenanny” was born and they picked my group (Mike Hall, Steve Lalor and myself) called “The Upper University District Folk Music Mandolin Society and Glee Club” (believe it or not) to host it. We were on once a week and had 3 or 4 guests on per show. I left in 63 and moved to LA. The show went on for another year or so, I think.
G!: In the 70’s your original songs were being covered by artists such as, DeShannon, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Rabbit and others. So, at that point in your career were you leaning more towards songwriting for other artists or was that just a welcoming addition to your own solo artist career?
AS: I started writing songs when I was about 12 or 13, but didn’t get back into heavily writing until the late 60s. I was just writing to express myself and really had no idea anyone else would be interested in them. When I made my first album for Fantasy in 1969, called Fulltime Woman, all the songs were written by me. The band was a mixture of studio musicians and people I played gigs with. The album was distributed all over the world and got very good reviews. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records heard it and loved the song Fulltime Woman and tried to get Aretha to do it. When she didn’t do it, he settled for Irma Thomas, not a bad 2nd choice. Then on one of the US shows I opened for Van Morrison, Jackie was part of his show that night. She heard the song and loved it.
G!: With songs such as, “Once I had A Sweetheart” and “I Ruined Your Life”, how much of your songwriting is autobiographical and how much is based in fiction?
AS: I have never written anything that isn’t autobiographical. I wrote Once I Had a Sweetheart about the guy that helped make my decision to leave Seattle in 1963. He was married (and going to leave his wife) and I thought I was his only girlfriend…( was young, okay?) Broke my heart.
G!: I hear ya… Songwriting is both excellent for sharing stories with everyone as well as a great tool for therapy for the writer. At any time in your life could you say, “Thank God I have songwriting as an emotional outlet or I don’t know what I’d do”? Are there times you felt music saved your life, in other words?
AS: I think it’s great therapy for a writer to be able to express their deepest sorrows and their highest highs (natural, of course) with music. It’s also a great way to tell the person they’re writing about what their take is on the relationship without having to have any kind of confrontation. I had horrible writer’s block in the late 70s and finally wrote a song called Rock and Roll Queen, which was harder to get out than having an actual baby. It has the same kind of anger/hurt (is that what they call angst now?) in it as Bob Dylan’s (I think it’s called Positively 4th Street) that starts “You’ve got a lot of nerve…” I would like to rearrange it chordally and start doing it again. I was starting to play bigger venues like Winterland and other big concerts with The Dead, Steve Miller, Santana, etc. and was having a groupie problem. The main problem was that the male groupies were looking for a backstage pass more than anything else and I was actually looking for a relationship…so that’s what the song’s about.
G!: Ok. I also think it’s amazing that sometimes you can express something to someone (either in an argument or something positive) and you can run into a brick wall, but as soon as you set it to music and express those very same feelings it can suddenly capture that persons attention, speak to them and really get through. (that’s the power of music I guess).
Would you say you are a very prolific writer? Do you have a steady stream of things to express or do you sometimes throw down the guitar and say to yourself, “I’m done, I’ve said all I have to say”?
AS: I am prolific with ideas and ‘starts’ for songs. Sitting down and finishing them is the hard part. I am so busy with booking, emailing schedules & newsletters, etc., and rehearsing and playing that I’m really behind on finishing new tunes.
G!: Well, when I listen to your music, I hear the real goods. Your voice, playing and lyrics all tie together and I can hear you walk your talk. What do you think makes a great songwriter?
AS: I hear a lot of songs that have good lines or good ideas but don’t really go anywhere. I think you have to have a hook, something people remember after they’ve left the building and something that makes it different from other songs.
G!: Do you feel you did pave the way for female singer/songwriters like Bonnie Raitt, Mellisa Etheridge and Chrissy Hynde? And have you met or worked with any of the ladies?
AS: All I know is I was there before any of them were. I worked very hard trying to be doing what I felt I was supposed to be doing and their weren’t many women out there who wanted to be a great guitar player. There were women folksingers, but not serious guitar players. There was Debbie Green (who later married Eric Anderson) on the east coast. She’s the only one I heard about that was really into playing the guitar like I was. I never met her. I know there are a lot of women doing it now so it’s a lot less of a surprise to fans. I mean I used to get “You’re really good for a girl” and now I get “you rock just like a guy”…subtle difference, but a difference none-the-less. I never really wanted to be chosen to play because they needed the “token woman on the bill”. I just wanted to be considered a musician first. I have met Bonnie 2 or 3 times, but haven’t bonded with her, if you know what I mean. I was out of the business for a long time.
G!: You’ve covered other songs like, Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” and Bob Dylans “One Too Many Mornings” and made them your own. What attracted you to cover certain songs over others?
AS: The words to Chris Wall’s song really touched me. It took me about 3 years to really make it my own. The arrangement I first heard of the song just didn’t seem to do justice to the words. I called Chris once when I was in Austin for SXSW but he never called me back. Thought he might have another gem for me. The words are what usually attracts me about another person’s songs. I’m definitely a word person and sometimes people say in their songs what I may have been trying to put into a song or sometimes I just think “how brilliant it is the way the words were chosen to express a feeling”. Once in a while I’ll want to do a song but there is one line in it that I don’t like. So, I either change that line or don’t do the song at all, regardless of how cool the rest of the tune is.
G!: Your latest album “Can’t Find No Heaven” is excellent. What can you tell us about the making of it and where can people buy it?
AS: This album is on Burnside Records and they are based in Portland, OR. I made the CD in Portland at a studio of their choosing with a very good engineer, Dennis Carter. That CD is available anywhere in the United States and probably Canada. Crazy with the Blues is also distributed by Burnside, so it’s available too. You can also buy it directly from my website or from CDBaby.com or just about anywhere on the internet.
G!: You’ve been touring quite a lot lately in Australia and the USA supporting “Can’t Find No Heaven”. How has it been going?
AS: The Australian tour was 6 weeks long and I had to pick up musicians there because of the airfare and other expenses. It was very successful. It would have been easier if my record company had international distribution, but I carted them along with me and I sold a lot. I remember when it was completely unrealistic to make your own recordings or try and take heavy albums with you on tour. CDs make so much more sense. We just returned from a 3 week tour of OR and CA and it was great, too. The trouble is we’re not kids anymore and everyone wants their own hotel room, and other amenities, so it sometimes doesn’t seem cost effective to do tours of this nature, but it pays off in the long run. The bands I used to be in shared everything equally. If we had a $2,000 gig then we split it 4 ways, $500 gig the same thing and all expenses were shared too. It’s not that way anymore. I suppose it may be with younger bands. But my band has mortgages, car payments, kids to support, etc. Thank God for CD sales because sometimes it really makes up the difference.
Alice live with her Anderson
G!: Do you do a lot of story telling and audience participation at your shows or do you and your bandmates just like to get down to business and hit it?
AS: It depends on the gig. If we are doing more of a concert format, I will tell stories about the way the song was written or why or try to give them some sense of who I am. Mostly, I don’t like to repeat myself and I get bored hearing the stories over and over, myself, and I just don’t want to be one of those people that does the same show every time you see them, so I try to change the stories up a bit. I think it’s important to share who you are as a person with the audience. They really need that, I think. I know when I go and see someone play I’m really disappointed when they don’t talk at all.
G!: What is the strangest or most memorable gig you have played?
AS: My most memorable gig was opening for Van Morrison at the Rainbow Theater in London. I toured with him on the It’s Too Late To Stop Now tour in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The strangest was in Rotterdam on the same tour when people actually threw rotten fruit and vegetables at me because they didn’t want an opening act. It was on the very first song. Unbelievably humiliating.
G!: oh man, pretty brutal… Hope you made it through the show ok! And all that stuff just makes you tougher. Bet you had some interesting songs to write after that. What does your present touring rig consist of?
AS: I bought a Dodge Ram 350 15 passenger van. It’s very comfortable for 4 people and works for 6, but not as comfortable. (No nap space) I am looking at buying a bus, but I better find a better booking agent and manager first.
G!: Besides your “transportation” touring rig, I actually meant “What guitars and gear are you using on the road”? haha, my mistake for not being clear there. (cool vehicle though)
AS: I use a Fender Super Reverb, 2 Ibanez tubescreamers (1 is a T-9 and one is a T-10) A Boss Stereo Chorus, a Line 6 Delay Pedal, a Lehle A B switching box a special Korg Tuner (for my Tom Anderson guitars equipped with the Buzz Feiton tuning system), a Sunrise Preamp for my acoustic guitar that has a Sunrise over the sound hole pickup) and a Pedal Power to plug everything into. They all fit on a large pedal board. I have 4 electric guitars, a 1986 Strat for open tunings (11-52 strings), a 1955 Telecaster (10-42 strings), and 2 Tom Anderson Tele Model guitars (10-42). One has a maple top and has 2 pickups and the other has 3 pickups) I use Elixer strings on all my guitars. The reason I have so many guitars is that I use capos on various frets for certain songs and don’t want the hassle of tuning them during a performance.
G!: Nice! Looking back at your career thus far, what were some of the more memorable experiences you’ve had?
AS: Knowing and playing with Mississippi John Hurt was one of the best. Having Van Morrison’s band join me and my band (because he was 2 hours late to the gig) was another. Being on the Dick Cavett show with George Carlin as host was right up there, too. Touring Europe with my own band and Redwing in 1971 was great, too. I don’t think I’ve had the most memorable yet.
G!: That’s cool! You were just recently inducted into the Hall of Fame and given an award for Best Songwriter by the Washington Blues Society. You were also given an award by the Seattle Weekly for having the Best Blues Band in Seattle. How does it feel?
AS: It feels like hard work really does pay off. I have been accused of “too much attention to detail” but I’ve always believed in working hard on the songs themselves and then getting the musicians together that make it all come together. The music doesn’t just happen…it has to be worked on by people who believe in it. I am lucky to have musicians playing with me now that believe in the dream. I think there are so many talented songwriters and bands out there these days that one has to take extra care and focus to come out in front.
G!: You are so right. Why do you feel Country and Blues music has survived the test of time?
AS: Blues and Country music is music of the people. It touches people’s hearts and gets down to the meat of life. Real country music is so simple and beautiful. I find very little difference between Hank Williams and B.B. King.
G!: Are there any aritsts you’d love to collaborate with, songwriting or recording wise?
AS: You ask really good questions. I would like Mark Knopfler to produce an album for me and I would love to play with him. He is such a great writer and guitar player. I would like to meet and write with Bob Dylan or just spend some time with him. I had a chance to meet him once, but I didn’t think I had anything to add to the conversation at the time. It was before a show at the Oakland Coliseum and his road manager (a friend of mine) asked if I wanted to tune Bob and Robbie’s (Robertson) guitars before the show. I said yes (with a tuning fork) and then I opted out for meeting them.
G!: Wow! How would you describe what the music scene was like in the 60’s and 70’s to what you see what’s going on these days?
AS: As always, there are good things and bad things. There were fewer groups vying for jobs in the 60s and 70s. But on the good side, we now have a way to reach lots of people at the same time with the email and the internet. It’s much easier to sell yourself ‘from afar’ now. It’s cheaper to email someone than call them and you can send press kits electronically. There are so many festivals and opportunities for big events now. But, it’s harder to find a booking agent or record company that is willing to take a chance on someone who hasn’t proved they can get the $10,000 gigs by themselves. The CD business is in the proverbial toilet right now and I think if the fans were made aware that the people who are making the music are losing out, maybe things would change for the better. I mean, the artist’s have never gotten the biggest piece of the pie in the recording industry, but the record companies used to do more promotion and try and “sell” you. But now that the recording industry is losing money, we’re all in trouble.
G!: In your time off away from music what are some of your hobbies and interests?
AS: I love to cook and have dinner parties. I love to dig in the dirt and plant things (like food), but I really haven’t had any time for that since I sold my house in California and returned fulltime to music. I do cook, but would do less of that if my husband cooked.
G!: Is there any advice you’d like to pass onto aspiring musicians?
AS: Go to college.
G!: Haha… Alice, thanks for taking out the time for this and sharing with us!
Keep on going! We all look forward to your future projects!
AS: Thanks for taking an interest in my music and in what I have to say.
Interview © 2004 Guitarhoo!