By John. J Moser for The Morning Call
Lucy Woodward was on the verge of breaking big as a pop singer in 2003. She had a Top 40 hit with “Dumb Girls,” which was used in the Amanda Bynes movie “What a Girl Wants.” And she wrote “(There’s Gotta Be) More to Life” that Stacy Orrico took to the Top 5.
Woodward was scheduled to appear with Orrico at Allentown’s Mayfair festival before Orrico got sick and canceled. But Woodward, then in her mid-20s, never found that big success and eventually was dropped by Atlantic Records. It was a story all too common for the early 2000s, when teen pop ruled and record companies were crumbling.
Thirteen years later, Woodward’s career is on the upswing. She recently toured with Grammy-winning jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy and continues to be a backup singer for rock icon Rod Stewart. And she’s preparing for the July 13 release of her first album in six years.
It’s been a journey for Woodward, who along the way released two more albums, sang on songs by Celine Dion, Carole King and Joe Cocker and toured relentlessly. Those experiences helped her find her true voice and lead her to where she is today. In a recent telephone call from her home in Los Angeles, Woodward spoke about her career, her new album and more.
LEHIGH VALLEY MUSIC: Part of this interview is going to be reacquainting the readers, and myself, with you. So if you don’t mind, can you give me sort of the brief history of how you went from somebody who put out the song “Dumb Girls” in 2003 and was playing on the “Tonight Show,” to where you are today.
“Oh, wow. It’s such a long, crazy path. Well, I was signed and put out the single in 2003. I was signed really fast, it was on the radio really fast, the record was out really fast, and it was like this whirlwind of living in a van, driving all over the country, doing a radio tour – Jay Leno, MTV.
“And it also went away really fast – that’s how I always look at it. Like your life changes very fast – in this speed-of-light kind of way. And then label confusion up there with people getting fired. And you just – it happens all the time. You don’t think it’s going to happen to you: You get dumped.
“And I went into this kind of mode of, like ‘What’s next – I should just give up.’ There was a whole vibe, especially in the early 2000s, that, if you’re not on MTV, you’re not successful. If you’re not on MTV, you should just quit music. That’s kind of what the major label world was putting out that – letting you sort of know that.
“And so afterward, you go, ‘I got dropped – what else is there?’ And I remember starting to write a whole bunch of songs with my then-boyfriend and one of my best friends, Itaal Shur, who wrote Santana’s ‘Smooth.’ We’d always had funk bands together, and just always wrote songs – he’s just like my musical brother. And we started writing a song a day. He said, ‘Let’s just get you out of this funk.’ Like, ‘Forget that stuff, forget all that! Of course you make music. You come from music, your parents are musicians. This is what we do.’
“And we walked around the city one night at 2 in the morning, just talking about coming out of that pop world. So we wrote a song a day and then we just made a record in our basement. And that was my indie record, and that put me back in the mode. I was kind of going back to my roots a little bit more. And there was no A&R person, nobody trying to see what was a hot, what wasn’t. It was just us in the room, whatever.
“It took a year or so to make because of funding and all that, but we made this record. And put it out – Barnes & Noble actually distributed it – an amazing situation for an indie artist, because they bought a ton of copies from me.”
Are we talking about “Hot and Bothered”?
“Yeah, ‘Hot and Bothered’ record. So that was the indie world. And then I was playing a lot of New York, and doors opened up for me on my terms – not in this, like, pop/MTV world, because that was also falling apart, and there weren’t even videos on MTV anymore. And it didn’t even matter to me – I had done my work and started to learn really learn how to shed that old skin.
“And then Verve [Records] sort of caught wind of what I was doing, and we started working on another record together and they started coming to my shows and loving the jazzier side of what I did – which is what I was always …. My first gigs were singing jazz songs in Italian restaurants and coffee shops on Bleecker Street in New York. So I was, like, really going back to my roots of what I wanted to do. It was really another genre now after that whole Atlantic experience.
“And so I did a record on Verve with Tony Visconti, who produced the bulk of it and had a lot of big-band feel and some string-quartet stuff. I’m really proud of that record.
“And a lot of people kind of looked at me like, ‘OK, she was the ‘Dumb Girls’ girl and then now she’s doing jazz? Very confusing to a lot of people. I wasn’t a Diana Krall, I wasn’t Anita O’Day. I’m not like a scatter jazz, but I’m also not totally pop. So people were a little confused about ‘she’s not pop enough/she’s not jazz enough.’ So I kind of fell in this weird market. But I said, ‘This is what I do. This is where I come from.’
“And then, when I started touring the Verve record, I couldn’t bring, obviously, a big band, or sometimes I couldn’t bring even a five-or six-piece band on the road – couldn’t afford it. So I started doing van tours with just three of us, and song really broken-down versions and get sing-alongs going, and lot of stomping and clapping in the room to keep a beat. And got really, really creative singing all of my material – except not the ‘Dumb Girls’ era – but the two previous records.
” And I started going on the journey of getting really more blusier and rawer and saying, ‘Wow, I could actually be this – this is like opening up another door for me that’s not as big an instrumentation. I just learned a lot just from running around with a trio about what I can do with my voice.
“And then it ended up I just signed with Ground Up, which is Michael League, the bass player in Snarky Puppy. I just signed to his label, which is on Universal Classics. So I left Verve a few years ago, but now I’m back on Universal. So it’s kind of a funny thing. And Michael League actually produced this record with Henry Hay, who will be coming with me to Allentown. He’s my piano player for many years.
“So I’m doing big instrumentation. The record is full of horns and beautiful arrangements.
“But I learned a lot about my voice from touring all those years – how to let the edge and the crackly part come out. That’s what just kind of happens when you make a record and you go out on the road and you perform it.
“So that’s the journey.”
Let me try to fill in a couple of the spots there. I’ve read that you’ve sung with Celine Dion, with Carole King, with Joe Cocker and, of course had a long stint with Rod Stewart. So how do you end up doing that?
“Well, Rod Stewart I still actually sing backup for. So we’re actually going on tour four days after Allentown for a couple of months.”
“So Celine Dion, Joe Cocker, these are .. I didn’t sing live with them, I never actually met them. But I sang on their records. … Celine Dion, my dear, dear friend John Shank, he was producing Celine and he said, ‘Come in and sing this stuff. And I’d never sang with an artist like that. She was so technically perfect, and I had to sort of sing with a little French accent. Rod is current – that’s what I do now, which has been crazy but also wonderful juggle of going on the road with him, coming home, working on my record. I live in L.A., but I run back to New York to record, then I go back on the road with him. That’s basically how I funded this.”
How does a gig with Rod Stewart happen? Is it an audition process?
“You know what happened? There were two backup singers, and one had to leave to have a baby. So I actually came in as a sub, and I subbed for three months. She came back, and the other girl had to go have a spinal surgery. So I subbed for her. And then she took a long time to heal, and I was basically a sub for 10 months, then he just asked me to stay.
“But the audition process was interesting ’cause I’d met him in the studio. I’m really close with the bass player with Rod for 12 years – Conrad Horsch. A New Yorker, so he is one of my best friends, and he called me into the studio to meet Rod – they were working on the ‘Time’ record that came out a couple of years ago.
“And he said, ‘Come in, meet Rod, we might have to get a sub soon because of so-and-so is having a baby. So I met him, and then he was lovely – [in a high voice] ‘Hello, darling,’ he was just so sweet. And then a month later they called me to come audition, and they just sent me some YouTube clips and ‘learn the harmony on this, learn the harmony on that.’ And then the day before the audition, I got horribly sick and I got laryngitis and I was talking like – there was no voice. So I called the musical director and I said, ‘I don’t know. I lost my chance, I don’t think I can come in.’
“And he was like, ‘Oh, no, we know you can sing just come in. So I went in … and so I had to learn maybe 28 songs and dance moves for 28 songs over a period of about five or six days. And then my second job was in Jakarta, Indonesia [laughs].
“So it was a whirlwind, it was amazing. I’d never sung in an arena before. And he’s amazing. I learn from him every night.”
As I was preparing for this interview, I looked at your career, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that movie “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” Do you ever feel like that?
“Oh, my God, totally. That is the story of my life. I’ve always been a session singer. I always sang in commercials when I was 20 years old. I as in wedding bands and cover bands in New York. So I’ve always sung – my mom is a singer, my dad’s a musician/composer. And my stepmom was an opera singer. So that’s just what I did growing up.
“So the gigs got better as I got older – as I got better. And I was able to make a living, and I just get to sing. So the songwriting and the artist sort of stuff I was always working on it,. But I wasn’t really ready until 2003, which was my mid-20s. So it took time to develop that. I was going out and having showcases and having Clive Davis’ people come down to my shows and everyone was rejecting me left and right cause I wasn’t ready as an artist. As a singer yes, I could sing a lot of different things and I did. But when it came down to being an artist, I had to make a real choice one day. And I needed that artist side of me to grow – like ‘Who am I?’ I’d sing in so many different styles to pay the bills. But when it came down to who am I, it came down to making a real decision to not take as much work. I had to make a really clear decision in my head to not take jobs that were confusing me and my sound.
“And then the more I did that, the more I found who I was becoming. So the first record on the 2003 record was – I wrote those songs, it was totally me then. But you get your hands on your first record deal, it’s ‘Finally,. Somebody signed me.’ Cause I had so much rejection and you kind of go with the flow of what the label wants. You’re like, ‘Sure.’ You go, ‘I want to wear a dress.’ They’re like, ‘Nope, you’re gonna wear jeans and sneakers and you’re gonna act like you’re 17 years old.’ You’re like, [in a cheery voice] ‘OK.’ [Laughs]. It’s just a struggle, so I learned that, who I was.”
Tell me about your new album.
“It’s coming out July 13 on Ground Up/Universal Classics. I started working on this record two or three years ago, and was going to put it out as an EP, but I just wanted to make more songs. I wanted to put out a full record.”
What does the new record mean to you and where you’re at in your career now?
“There ain’t no time like the present. You have dreams and goals every time you make a new record, and it’s always really different from what actually happens. I wish I had something more romantic or dreamy that I could give you [laughs] but I actually have no idea where this is going to go.
“I love this album, I loved making it with Henry and Mike. I love performing it. I haven’t really performed all that much of it and I already know that it’s another level for me musically and emotionally with it’s complexity and rawness that is very real. Sort of no bells and whistles. And I’m really excited to sing in that kind of raw energy. That’s a new thing for me.
“Those are the little simple goals from show to show, day to day, that I’m just excited to see where that takes me.”