Interview with vocalist/producer Genya Ravan | By Janelle Jones
“I’ll tell you, Janelle, this is a fun interview.”
Pioneering vocalist and producer Genya Ravan seems to have a good time talking about her life in music—she made waves with her ‘60’s all-girl band Goldie And The Gingerbreads and, later, became the first woman to produce outside artists—and her latest album, the eclectic, powerful Icon, out July 26 via Rum Bar Records. In addition to this new release, she mentions that her 2004 autobiography, “Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee,” is being shopped for a play and that a company in England is interested in doing a rockumentary about her life.
Below, Ravan offers an entertaining, informative, and wide-ranging peek into her new album and storied career.
You’ve had such a cool history; we just feel you fit perfectly in the magazine.
I think so. When you think about CBGB’s and the Dead Boys and everything else, I would say I qualify. Plus, I think I was a punk before punk came in.
About this [new album], because that’s what you’re proud of right now…
That’s right. Every time you do a record, you think that’s the one. [Laughs]
What got the juices flowing for this one in the first place?
I’m pretty active in music, and I haven’t stopped. Well, I stopped a while back when I got real sick. But I’ve always been in music; it’s the only thing I know. Then, producing for [CBGB owner] Hilly Kristal, that was just another avenue I took for a rest from my own career. I don’t know if you read my book, [“Lollipop Lounge”], that would tell you a lot. I’ve had two lifetimes, or maybe even more, in my one life. It’d be impossible to run everything down.
I could tell it to you this way: From the singing, I was very disillusioned after my career. My last album I recorded for 20th Century [Fox Records], which was [1978’s] Urban Desire, that was right at the same time I was [producing] the Dead Boys and all that. I was climbing the charts, and myself and Bruce Springsteen were the most picked albums of the week in Billboard charts and everything. The record company folded, and I said, “That’s it. I’m just not gonna do this anymore.” So, I went into producing. While producing, I missed my singing, because when you’re a performer, there’s nothing quite as important to who you are [as] getting up and singing. That was my life.
So anyway, I was producing, and I worked with Hilly. He thought I’d be the best producer, because I’d been on both sides of the glass, and he was right. I tend to get a great live feel from rock ‘n’ roll bands, which is something they miss when they’re in a studio, because producers—what do they know? They don’t know what it’s like to be onstage. The first three takes is it. If you can’t do it after the first three takes, you better move on. I mean, for a live band. The Dead Boys didn’t even know they were finished when I finished with them; that’s how fast it went for them. They listened to me. They were wonderful. That’s why the record, [1977’s Young Loud and Snotty], came out as good as it is, because they listened to everything I had to say and never questioned me. It came out incredible, and it still stands up. It’s an incredible punk record.
But anyway, I decided—every year, I’ve been doing records, but I hooked up with [Rum Bar Records owner] Lou [Mansdorf] because I’m working with Steven Van Zandt [on his satellite radio station], Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I’m a DJ there, and I have two shows. One of them is “Chicks & Broads,” where I play only women for about an hour, and then I have “Goldie’s Garage,” which is how I met Lou; he was sending me music. It’s an hour show of only unsigned bands. The reason I came up with that show is because I really feel for the bands today, the fact that, number one, there’s almost no real record business anymore. Where are these guys who are practicing gonna find—where they can find themselves on the air, anywhere, where anybody pays attention? There are no A&R men. The record industry ate itself up. Honestly, there’s nothing out there for the bands who are rehearsing and trying and trying and trying. So, I went to Little Steven and I said, “Steven, I think I’d like to have a show of only unsigned bands so they have a place to hear themselves, because sometimes, hearing yourself on the radio makes you better, makes you go back in and just go, ‘OK, now I hear it on the radio waves, I think we have to do this or that.’ They need an outlet.” I could have eight hours a night seven nights a week with all the talent I’m finding.
So, I found a home with Little Steven’s Underground Garage where I’m able to do a lot of stuff. I’m also recording out of my house, and I can make my records here. I do the basic tracks at my drummer’s house, his basement. He’s got a big basement where we bring the musicians in and do that and rehearse. That’s how Icon came to be. That’s what you heard. […]
I gotta tell you, I love Lou. That’s what I was getting at. When Lou found me, he was pushing his artists, and you know what? I loved the way he did it. He did it with class, and every group he sends me is outrageously good. I tell him my whole show is about Rum Bar Records for god’s sake. [Laughs] He’s got incredible taste, so we’ve been in touch, and then, when my album was coming out, I called him and I said, “I wanna pick your brain.” He goes, “Sure.” I said, “Who do you use for pressing CDs?” He goes, “Genya, if I can help you in any way, let me know.” I said to myself, “I could use the help. I haven’t asked for help in over 15 years.” So, I said, “Let’s partner up on this record.” He was so pleased and was so excited, and I’m excited about him, and that’s how we got to be together.
This album took me two years to do, a long time, because I’ve been very busy with the radio shows and just my life in general. When you have your own studio, you tend to not look at the clock and rush anything. That could be a curse, [laughs] because that could be, “I’m gonna close down the session and get back to it later.” It works in your favor, and it doesn’t. […] We don’t go on the road; it costs too much money to rehearse and stuff and put people on salaries. Who can afford that? I can’t, so all we do is record. They have other gigs, my musicians, so by the time I could get them all rounded up, this herd [laughs]—by the time I get the herd rounded up, it’s two, three weeks a song. Each month, we do two songs, three songs. It took a long time to get it together, but this is it. This is the one. I mean, this is the finished product. There’ll be more albums, but for now, I’m excited about this one.
You took all my questions. [Laughter]
I know. I told you I’m a good interview. I’ll tell you everything, whether you wanna know it or not!
What about the writing aspect, do you do most of it?
Yeah, I’m a lyricist. I love to write with people, and I love to perform with people. Like Urban Desire, I had Lou Reed sing with me, and on my …And I Mean It! album [from 1979], I had Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson [of Mott The Hoople]. I come from the school of, you can jump up on the stage with any band and do any cover song. That’s where I come from—the club scene. So, there’s an intimate feeling to music as far as I’m concerned, and I love jamming with other people. That’s not happening; there’s no clubs, really, where people can jump up. Everything is so manicured. You can’t jump up with the band and say can you play a Ten Wheel Drive song for me. No, they do their own stuff. A lot of the camaraderie and a lot of the passion in music is gone. I’m trying to hold on to that. I have [noted session musician] Elliott Randall. He lives in London. I had him record on my album via emails and Dropbox and all of that.
I won’t give up playing with other people. It’s more fun and you learn more. I can sing anything from R&B to jazz, and the reason for that is I’m a singer. There is no one bag. I’m a singer, and I like to try different things. I’m not cornered. I don’t want to be cornered, and as far as rock ‘n’ roll and punk or anything like that—listen, if it’s good, I’m into it. If someone says, “What music do you like?” I go, “Music.” That’s another reason why record companies fell down. When Madonna came out and she had a number-two record, everybody wanted a Madonna. When Janis Joplin died, [then-president of Columbia Records] Clive Davis tried to compare me and wanted me to be another Janis Joplin. I said, “I’m not Janis Joplin. I’m me. I’m Genya.” I understand the comparison, but you can’t do that. We’re not fast food. You can’t just say, “One burger.” It depends on the meat.
You touched upon producing and getting with the Dead Boys. You had your own music career before that, but what drew you to CBGB?
I was living in Manhattan. I had quite a few people say, “There’s a club downtown. Come with me and check it out.” So, we took a cab downtown, and I walked into this very seedy place. [Laughs] You gotta listen to the song “Don’t Go in the Bathroom” [from Icon]. It’s all about CBGB’s.
I love that one.
[Laughs] Did you hear what I said? “This bathroom has no sink…”
There are some great lines in that one.
“Stiv is spitting on the floor,” [referring to Dead Boys vocalist Stiv Bators].
I’ve seen things in the bathroom that…
…you don’t wanna see. [Laughs] How about people shooting up down there? You felt like you needed a good shower after.
But it came with the territory.
Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, I miss Hilly so much. He really believed in me, and I needed that at the time, because I was starting to bottom from drugs and alcohol, and he really helped my life. I went through that whole thing. I’ve got 28 years sober.
Wow, that’s great. Also hooking up with the Dead Boys—did you approach them?
No. Oh my god, this is the funniest freaking story you’re gonna hear. Hilly calls me up and he goes, “Genya, I need for you to come down here. They’re gonna play tonight.” I go, “Who are they?” and he goes, “They’re called the Dead Boys,” and I go, “Oh, great.” [Laughs] So, I went down. I’m standing by the sound booth with Hilly, and the first song Stiv sings is “everybody knows you were caught with the meat in your mouth.”
So, I turn around and I look at Hilly and I go, “Huh, they have no bass player,” and he goes, “I know.” I said, “You can’t rock ’n’ roll without a bass player.” Then, he goes, “Yes, but aren’t they charming?” I said, “Charming?! They’re singing about somebody giving somebody else a blowjob. You’re talking about charming.” [Laughter] Then, he introduced me to the band afterwards. When Hilly says it’s something special, I never questioned him. Just like he never questioned me in a recording studio. At that time, [Dead Boys] were a quartet. So, we started to talk a little bit. Stiv was talking about who did what to whom, and who wanted to hear that? I wanted to get down to brass tacks.
I told Hilly I would work with them, but I would bring in a bass player. The Boys, at that point, they were so happy that I was gonna produce them and that Hilly believed in them. I worked out a great deal with Electric Lady Studios, the Jimi Hendrix place. We did the record in three nights, and then, I mixed for a week, because I kept firing my engineers because engineers are frustrated producers, most of them. They wanna get their sound, they wanna get their feel, and I say, “No way, Jose.” I’m the producer, and I said, “You’re gonna do it my way.” They said I was a bitch, of course, but if it was a guy, they would’ve said, “Oh, that guy knows what he wants.”
Anyway, I brought in a bass player, and he was an old friend of mine, Bob Clearmountain. He went on to produce The Stones. He was perfect for the band at that time, because he was a frustrated engineer at Media Sound who loved playing bass. I couldn’t get a pro bass player, because the Boys weren’t all that savvy in a studio yet. There was a lot of work I had to put in to their arrangements, but they listened to me. The key is, when you produce an artist, the first thing they gotta know is whose ground is whose ground. I am the ground that tells you what I’m hearing, and I’m the person who tells you what take is going to be worked with. I’m the one who is going to make you sound better, and you gotta trust me. If they trust you, they come out with a great record, like the Dead Boys did. The second album they did, [1978’s We Have Come for Your Children], it came out terrible. It came out awful, because there was no control. It’s like a herd of horses; if you can’t control the herd, it ain’t gonna happen. So, they listened to me on all counts.
They thought they were making a demo, which made them feel better and easier. There is no such thing as a demo.
I guess it made them feel like it was less pressure.
Absolutely, and that’s what it’s all about.
You’ve worked with so many people, but one that stuck out to me, because they’re Long Island hardcore, are Crumbsuckers. How’d that come about?
Oh yeah, I was called in to mix it. I didn’t record them. They called me in. They weren’t happy with how it sounded. They weren’t happy with who they had as a producer, so the record company called me because they heard what I did with the Dead Boys. So, they wanted me to mix [1991’s Life of Dreams / Beast on My Back]. That was quite the honor. I think Crumbsuckers are great.
Also, about this record, [Icon], it’s fun and eclectic.
Yeah, it was fun. It was a lot of fun. When you say eclectic—I love that word.
You get everything in there, which is a good thing.
Like I said, it’s music. I love music, from R&B to you-name-it. When I got disillusioned with my career, I gave the songs I was saving for me to other groups I was producing, and I decided—like, “Kisses in the Dark” and “Coming Up the Hard Way,” those are old songs I gave to another group that I produced, and I said, “The hell with this. I’m gonna be doing it now.”
Wait, so other people did them?
No, the record never got out.
OK, so these are all new then?
These are very new. Are you kidding me? The other one was never put out. This is totally new. The only thing you should recognize is the song “I Fooled You This Time,” the ballad that was done by Gene Chandler in the ’60s or ’70s, I’m not sure.
What about [Elvis Costello & The Attractions’] “Pump It Up”? [Laughs]
Oh, of course! You know, come on, baby. Yeah, I had to do that song. What do you think of that?
So much fun.
Yeah, it is. I’m glad you keep saying it’s fun, because that’s what it was supposed to be. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Some are hard-hitting.
Like which one? Tell me.
“I Just Wanna Feel Good.”
Oh, that is a killer! I love that. It’s very hard-hitting, and it’s supposed to be. Imagine how many times we’ve all felt that way. I wanna do things right, but Jesus Christ, I just wanna feel good. That’s the story of my life. “Come on, baby, make me feel fucking good!” [Laughs] I’m so glad you brought that one up. That’s one of my favorites on this album.
I feel it’s a universal message.
Absolutely. You just made my day. I wasn’t sure that’d go over, but I knew it was one of my favorites on this album.
I don’t know if you get nerdy about the track listing, how you want it to be presented…
Well, I’m a rock ’n’ roller. Any way you look at it, that’s what I am. My roots are very, very R&B. You don’t know this about me, but I wasn’t born here; I was born in Poland. When I came to the United States, I didn’t speak English at all. I learned how to speak English through music, and what did I listen to? Doo-wop. All those slow songs from a New Jersey radio station I could barely hear, I was learning the language through that. Whatever I do, you gotta know that there’s R&B and rock in all of it. My scope is wide as a singer. Like I said before, you can’t really corner me as to what it is, but what you could say is rock ’n’ roll, R&B all the way. Do I have an attitude when I write? Yes. You wanna call that punk? That’s fine with me too. What does punk really mean? It’s called rebellion, and this has been going on since I can remember: Marlon Brando and “The Wild One” or James Dean in his movies. I mean, belligerence of a teenybopper is punky. [Laughs] The terrible twos go on for a long time.
I meant about tracking the record, is it hard…
No, I think the introduction is important to say who I am. So, on this particular record, I opened up with “Coming Up the Hard Way,” because the lyric, “I was a jukebox kid / A rock ’n’ roll junkie [at heart] / From the bars, I got my start coming up the hard way / I was livin’ on chump change / With a band of volunteers / I survived those hungry years / Coming up the hard way.” So, really, that tells you my life story in the first song. If it wasn’t going to be called Icon, it was going to be called Coming Up the Hard Way.
That would’ve been great too.
Yeah, but my significant other said Icon would be great, because everyone who mentions me always says “icon,” because of the pioneer work: my first girl-band, Goldie And The Gingerbreads, and the first to produce outside bands, as far as I knew, so I was a first in a lot of stuff. You either hear “icon” or “pioneer.” A “pioneering icon.” [Laughs]
Purchase Icon here