By Paul Freeman [June 2012 Interview]

For Mill Valley, California-based vocal great Lisa Kindred, the appeal of the blues was simple. “The songs just always touched me,” she says.

As a child in Buffalo, New York, Kindred’s musical fire was ignited by a local disc jockey known as The Hound Dog.

“He was phenomenal, played really great stuff. I was listening to Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter. The other radio stations had some of the same tunes by Pat Boone, etc. And I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute. What’s wrong here?’”

Of her early attraction to the blues, Kindred says, “It just made sense to me. The lyrics made more sense. The rhythms made more sense. They made you want to dance. The ballads were much more heartfelt. They weren’t like being read off a chalkboard. It really struck me. I was 11 years old and I thought this music was the best thing in the universe. It just touched me really well. And I’m very grateful.”

At the library, Kindred found Folkways recordings. “I listened to Leadbelly and all these things that Samuel Charters had recorded in the South. And it just touched the things that I’d listened to when I was 11 and 12. And I was just starting to play guitar. And it just made sense to me. They weren’t over-sophisticated. My mother loved opera,” Kindred says, laughing, “which is the other end of the spectrum. But these songs weren’t too pretty. They told the truth, which the other stuff sort of sidestepped somehow.

“The rock ‘n’ roll back then, really all stunk, except for Bill Haley and the Comets. I went to see him, having no idea what rockabilly was like. They were at a Catholic high school. I walked in and went, ‘Wow! What’s this!’ Oh, my God! They’re wonderful. They make me want to dance. They make me want to feel good.’ Jerry Lee Lewis and people like that were great. But they were few and far between. And Elvis, of course, for a couple years.”

Kindred had started playing guitar for fun. “I had a friend who played. And she liked all those Joan Baez-y ballads. I went back to the library and got a thing called ‘James Alley Blues.’ And it just made sense. Later I found that James Alley was the street behind the prison in New Orleans. And it just seemed easy for me to sing. It wasn’t stressful. It wasn’t like I was trying to open my heart to the universe. It was just great songs. And I got turned on to Jelly Roll Morton at that point. And all the early New Orleans blues guys. It just felt natural to do.”

At 19, Kindred played local coffee houses. Her husky, earthy, sensual voice has always roused listeners.

She decided to relocate to Greenwich Village, a haven for folk and blues artists in the late 50s and early 60s.

“It was a very small village. All these places, you could go in, play three songs and pass the tip jar. First time I made a dollar, I thought I was going to fall over. I thought I was the richest person I’d ever met. It was exciting. You got to meet everybody who came through.”

Dave Van Ronk and Fred Neil were mentor figures to her. “Dave Van Ronk was the kindest person in the universe, as far as I was concerned. He was wonderful. He looked at me and said, ‘Kid, don’t sing a song, if you don’t like it, no matter how much they pay you.’

“Fred Neil, there was a place called the Fat Black Pussycat and you could sit in the corner and play guitar and sing - as long as you didn’t interrupt everybody who was playing chess - all night long. And I got to play with him for hours and hours. And various other people would come in and play, just sit there and play. It was an amazing situation. And he was from Florida and had a lot of blues history. So all of these people sort of influence you without even knowing that they’re doing it. It was absolutely wonderful.”

She encountered the Village scene’s darling, Bob Dylan. “He was strange. I mean, nice man. Wrote good songs. But, I don’t know, there was something about him... I ran into him one time, he was tearing up money. He said, ‘I’ve sold my ass and I just can’t handle it.’ I was like,‘Hey, give me a break, buy me a cup of coffee,’” she says with a laugh. “He was very dramatic.”

For Kindred, it was a dramatic moment when she signed with Vanguard Records. They released her debut album, “I Like It This Way,” in 1965.

Photo @Ken Friedman

Young Don McLean played on the record. “The people at Vanguard wanted Erik Darling to produce the album. I’m really a bad guitar player. I’m not very good at it. It’s really a secondary thing. They said, ‘Put down the guitar. We’ll get Erik Darling to play.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I knew who he was. I’d listened to him. He had an album out on Vanguard. And of course, he was doing The Rooftop Singers at that point, which is a lot of sort of jug band-y, old-timey stuff, which I really liked. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be really fun.’ So we did that.

“And he had this friend, Don McLean, who was a young guy. And he came in and played and sang harmony on that first album. Never met him before, but just the nicest person in the universe. Was just very, very, very nice.”

But the Vanguard experience, as a whole, wasn’t so nice. “Signing with them was probably not the swiftest move I ever made. I had a chance to go with Elektra and I probably should have taken it, because Vanguard was the label to be on, but it was a little snooty. But they had Odetta, who I loved. And they had the Jug Band. It was an interesting time to be alive.

“I never had the freedom I wanted with Vanguard. I was very naive. It was a learning process. I learned a big lesson about business from the people at Vanguard. Singing and business, together, never made sense to me. Of course, the record company has to have a product. But it’s hard for me to think of myself as a product.”

Her second album, “Kindred Spirit” suffered an incredibly bizarre fate. The master tapes were stolen and delivered to musician/cult leader Mel Lyman, who released the record four years later under the name “American Avatar - Love Comes Rolling Down,” by The Lyman Family. Kindred, whose original vocal leads still shone on most of the tracks, was listed on the back cover, among the other musicians.

“What happened was, the Lyman Family destroyed the hi-fidelity tapes and took it down to a mono, because there was something in their brain about, ‘Mono good... hi-fi bad.’ These people were crazy. I don’t care at this point. There were some good songs on there. Obviously they needed it for something. My life’s gotten along just fine without it. The whole thing was just too weird for me.

“It was beyond me that someone would do that. But I don’t get too down in the mouth about certain things. It doesn’t make any sense to me to do that.”

At one point, Kindred became part of the Cambridge, Massachusetts scene. “In New York, I had this great, bogus manager, who was sending me all over the United States, playing in places I didn’t like. And it was getting to a point where it was really business, which is fine. But I was like, ‘I miss the camaraderie of just playing.’ In Boston, in Cambridge, they were still doing that, they were sitting around playing, because they liked it. And it was just plain good. The musicians were wonderful. A little nutty, but, you know... A lot of them went to college. There were a lot of college kids. And they used their brains and they didn’t take too many drugs. I’m not saying they were angels, but that was not the center... The Village was getting pretty smarmy by the ‘60s. It was like acid and all this. And I’m like, ‘It’s not really what I want.’ So I moved to Cambridge. And it was not far behind, but it was not the center of the whole universe. Everything was getting rough in New York.“

Kindred befriended Tim Hardin. “Hardin made a big impression. He was my neighbor in Boston, when I moved out there. He was great. I don’t know how to explain it... He had other things on his agenda. He didn’t want to be a superstar. He just wanted to sing, which is fine.”

While in the Boston area, Kindred played alongside Little Walter and discovered additional influences, courtesy of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

“They took the time to show me some tunes. And they kind of made sure that I listened to the right people. When you’re listening to the people that influence you and they go, ‘Have you heard the original?’ ‘What original?’ That was great. That was a very good time.”

In Chicago, she made friends with Nick Gravenites and Paul Butterfield, who turned her on to artists like The Staple Singers. They took her to see Muddy Waters.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was wide open to that. I was so in awe. I would just sit and stare. “I once saw Muddy Waters play at a place in Chicago called Pepper’s Lounge. He must have been having a bad day. I walked in and the first thing I saw was him take a right cross to this woman and knock her across the room. There I was, a little white girl, sat in the corner with my friends, didn’t say a word, just watched.”

She had an opportunity to jam with Mississippi John Hurt. “It was a good growing process,” she says.

That growth included absorbing the societal revolution of the ‘60s. “Tolerance was growing, in a good way. When the guys went down to Alabama to march, we had a lot of concerts up in Boston to raise money for the people down there. A lot of us, for one reason or another, weren’t able to go down there and march, and get involved in that side of it, but we did a lot of money-raising and that was a very good feeling to be able to do something, a little white girl from Buffalo, New York, being able to do anything to help was an absolute joy.”

Eventually, Kindred headed to Los Angeles. She joined a female folk-rock band, The UFO’s. Capitol wanted to sign the band, but Vanguard wasn’t ready to let Kindred out of her contract.

“We had fun doing it. It was soft. It was a nice thing. All the women in the band were nice. They weren’t chintzy and weird. They were all folkies. We all came from the same reality, as far as folk music was concerned.”

They can be briefly seen in the 1967 LSD exploitation film “The Love-Ins.” “I forgot about it. One of my roommates brought it home and said, ‘Did you ever see a movie called ‘Lovin-Ins’?’ I went, ‘Oh, God!’ They paid us well. [Laughs] A lot of people from The Mothers were in it, also. We just all sat around and did what they did in those days.

“We looked at it afterwards and a couple of the women in the band had degrees from various colleges, like, the bass player had gone to Brandeis and she goes, ‘What did we do?!’ ‘We paid the rent.’ [laughs]”

Kindred refocused on the blues. “I just found that music and the people in it were a lot more real, a lot more nitty-gritty, than the frou-frou stuff in folk music.”

In 1970, Kindred decided to move to the Bay Area. “Los Angeles was interesting, but you can’t breathe there. In the Bay Area, it’s a better quality of life than New York. Besides the weather... the stress, the tension, the competitiveness didn’t seem to be that important out here. The music was more the center than all the other little things.”

Kindred got to know figures like John Fahey and Travus T. Hipp. She became a fixture at such famed venues as Berkeley’s The Cabal and The Coffee Gallery, as well as San Francisco’s Drinking Gourd and Coffee and Confusion.

Her powerful voice was compared to Janis Joplin’s. “You know what? We don’t have that much in common. She’s an alto. I work with a chorus now. I sing bass. I’m either tenor or bass. And yeah, people said, ‘Oh, white blues singer, you sound like Janis.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’ And then there was Maria Muldaur, who’s just marvelous, too. And she came out of that jug band, too. So there were comparisons, but not that much. I wasn’t into hard rock at that point.”

For a time, Kindred faded from the scene. “I got married, dropped out of it for a while. I was Sadie, Sadie, married lady for a few years. I learned to make bread.” [Laughs]

Today, decades later, Kindred’s voice is as power-packed as ever, as evidenced by her current album, “Steppin’ Up In Class.” “It’s amazing,” says the 70-year-old singer. “I stopped smoking and drinking years ago. I think it saved what voice I have.

“Plus I started singing in a chorus. So, all of a sudden, you’re doing vocal exercises. And suddenly, there’s notes I never knew I had. The exercises have opened up my throat. Singing alone is different than singing in a group. In a chorus, the art is not to stand out, it’s to blend with all these different voices, which is fun and really challenging. My ear is better, because of singing with other singers. And it’s nice to know that, at my age, something still improves.”

She’s putting her voice to work, completing a new album, tentatively titled ‘”Hello Stranger.” Guests include Charlie Musselwhite and Freddie Roulette.

“The songs were written by friends over the years, including Billy Roberts [“Hey Joe”]. He had a horrendous accident and he’s been in long-term care for 25 years. And he wrote a gorgeous song called ‘Thoughts of California,’ so we pulled that. I pulled a great song by a man named Lenny Laks, who lives up in Mendocino. And a woman named Judy Mayhan who lives in Mendocino, another good song. We did one I wrote, too. I wrote it with Austin DeLone. I think we ended up calling it, ‘Not In My Sane Mind.’

“I didn’t listen to the album for a year. I put it away, to find out if I liked it. And Austin, who produced it, did the same thing. And we both listened to it and both liked it.” Soon the public will have an opportunity to like it, as well.

For years, her significant other was John Lee Hooker’s bass player, Geno Skaggs, who passed away in 1987. Kindred, who also works as a teacher’s assistant, still finds great joy in singing the blues.

“I’m just so grateful that I can do this. It just feels so good to be able to send this out to people, to connect on a real basic level. I’m very, very happy that I’ve gotten to do this.”