March 1985. The Palomino, North Hollywood. Onstage: Lone Justice, pounding out a Parton-meets-punk mutation of country-rock that had seduced an entire city of music observers. The Next Big Thing. They play stomping blue-collar tales ("Working Late") and brokenhearted weepers ("Don't Toss Us Away"). They showcase "Ways to Be Wicked," a catchy-as-hell rock tune given to them by superstar Tom Petty, a song soon to be worked to radio. Twenty-year-old vocalist/guitarist Maria McKee, by then the recipient of more critical acclaim than most artists garner in an entire career, announces that Lone Justice's self-titled debut LP is due in a month, and that the band will soon be supporting emerging heroes U2 on an East Coast tour, their first ever.
Turns out that night, that moment of promise about to be delivered, would be the band's high point; the accomplished Lone Justice goes on to sell in the 200,000-unit range, but soon after, the honeymoon ends. It now has the ring of cliche: impressionable young band gets crushed under weight of major label; band searches for vision, handlers search for accessibility and success. Handlers win. Shelter, the band's 1986 sophomore album, shows a group on the brink of collapse, its original members--McKee, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni, drummer Don Heffington--having grown apart and/or been booted. The result: With hollow, booming production courtesy of Little Steve Van Zandt, Shelter is the sound of a desperate, futile search for the top of the charts.
Fast forward. Thirteen years. Current day. Two events bring McKee back into the conversation for the first time in a long while. First: the January 12 release of The World Is Not My Home, a compilation of Lone Justice songs that succinctly demonstrates both the band's initial brilliance (via never-before-released demos and the high points of the still-fine Lone Justice) and its subsequent tumble (songs from Shelter and a clumsy live version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," with guest vocals from a self-involved Bono). And second: McKee resurfaced for her first L.A. performances in two and a half years. A pair of gigs that showcased several new tunes and served notice that the now-35-year-old wunderkind has neither burned out nor faded away. She's without a label for the first time in her adult life, she's completely devoid of any sort of a buzz, and McKee has finally gained complete control of her career--writing and recording precisely what she wants, while coming to an understanding of what role fame and success (or lack thereof) are to play in her life. In short, Maria McKee has finally been left alone to grow up.
"I have to be honest with you, I have a dream career," McKee says, sitting in her snug and homey West Los Angeles apartment one December afternoon, casual in a long-sleeve pullover and jeans. "I can do what I want. I have pretty much artistic control. I can tour. I make a very healthy living as a songwriter where I can, like, actually enjoy my life, and play music with people I love at gigs where there's reverential silence, with people going insane and having encore after encore."
How times have changed. Thrust into the spotlight with Lone Justice soon after dropping out of Beverly Hills High in 1981, McKee faced absurd hype--the L.A. Times's Robert Hilburn likened the roof-raising singer to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde, and Janis Joplin--and the pressure that came with it. Lone Justice's first album was produced by Jimmy Iovine (who had also become its manager), whose previous successes included such classics as Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, and Patti Smith's Easter. Furthermore, this virtually unknown band was given not only the aforementioned Petty tune, but one from Bob Dylan, who showed up at the studio one day with the number, bringing pal Ron Wood along to play some guitar. (That song, "Go Away Little Boy," is available for the first time on World.) And, it's worth repeating, Lone Justice's first tour was in a support gig for U2--a seemingly pointless pairing, aside from the common concern of devout Christian faith--that found the outfit staring out at indifference night after night.
In the midst of all this quick glamour, though, the quartet was busy dealing with more mundane challenges that it hadn't yet had time to overcome--like flushing out their artistic vision and learning to play together. That turned out to be their undoing.
"We were wusses," recalls McKee, who started singing professionally at age sixteen, and whose brother is former Love guitarist Bryan MacLean--which probably didn't hurt Lone Justice's chances of getting hyped early. "We were kids that had passion, and we fell together and we didn't know how to play, and because of that, we couldn't handle it."
McKee wanted to tell Iovine that she was scared and overwhelmed, but she didn't know how to do it. And by the time she made Shelter--for which an entirely new backing band was brought in--it was too late. Any hint of the rough-and-tumble cow-punk band was lost.
"I didn't know how to seize control," she says, refuting the common belief that Iovine had a Svengali-like reign over her. "I turned him into a parental figure and sought his approval pathologically, trying to be the artist I thought he wanted me to be without actually being the artist I was best at, which I still didn't even know what that was yet. I was like, 'Okay, he's friends with Bono, he likes Stevie Nicks, he was flying me here and there to see Amnesty International,' so I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna try to be Peter Gabriel.' Shelter was like me trying to please Daddy. And that's my own fault."
By 1988, Lone Justice was kaput, a mere memory--and a puzzling one for those who wondered what went wrong. But the pattern was set for McKee: As her solo career developed, her decision-making process seemed still driven by a need for positive reinforcement. Thus, when 1989's Maria McKee--a grand, spiritual affair that continued her leanings toward Springsteen and Van Morrison--was received coolly by the American press, she exiled herself to Ireland, where "the journalists would bring me flowers and actually have tears in their eyes."
But after three years of mostly hiding out in the Dublin house she owned, she returned to Los Angeles, craving AM oldies radio, the food, the cars, the weather, and "the architecture in all of its kitsch glory." She also released a new album, You've Got to Sin to Be Saved, that found her reuniting with some of her Lone Justice bandmates and enlisting a few of the Jayhawks for good measure. The result was a punchy country-rock effort with an R&B tinge; it was workmanlike, inoffensive, and perfectly likable. McKee now considers it misguided.
"I still hadn't fully gotten to the point where I was brave enough to really do what I wanted," she says. "I thought, 'Well, the American media pretty much ignored my first solo record, so maybe I'll try to recapture some of that Lone Justice feeling.'"
General public reaction got even worse with Life Is Sweet, McKee's angry, driven album from 1996. The record contained moments so brash and unexpected (touches of Ziggy-era Bowie, Patti Smith, grunge; absolutely zero twang) that it was ignored by consumers and pummeled by many critics. The anti-McKee sentiments are best summed up by Ira Robbins's review of the record in The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock: "Life Is Sweet goes straight over the top in a bewildering styleless hodgepodge of bad production ideas, bizarre gimmicks, uneven writing, and singing so mindlessly zealous in spots that McKee can't possibly be hearing herself." As for Geffen Records, most there saw absolutely no commercial potential in the project and hoped it would never see the inside of a record store.
"The record company gave it such the enormous thumbs-down it was not even funny," says McKee, whose relationship ended with Geffen soon after the label heard the like-minded demos that followed the release. "I was kinda shocked. There was talk of it not coming out, and I have to admit I was suicidal. And I thought, 'I can't kill myself, because I'm the Life Is Sweet girl. That would just be too sick.'"
Rock bottom? Not so fast. Sweet is often a mess, but it's a scintillating, stunning one. The risks McKee takes on it have the ring of defiance, not desperation; it plays like a striking arrival instead of a major misstep. It's her own private revolution. And while McKee's manager, her label, and a host of her former proponents likened it to career suicide, McKee considers it her masterpiece.
Sweet provided the first evidence of the focused, adventurous artist that McKee has become--a far cry from the youngster who, trapped in an endless cycle of losing creative control, "sabotaged gigs, pissed people off, broke hearts, had liaisons with guitar techs, and caused Greek tragedies to ensue in the middle of the most important leg of the tour, to the point where band members quit." You could see it when she was onstage at L.A.'s Galaxy Theater earlier this month; during the set, McKee was relaxed and amiable as she showcased a half-dozen new songs on guitar and piano, sometimes with the help of Denis Roche and Jim Akin (the latter being McKee's fiance), sometimes going it alone. Such numbers as "Love Doesn't Love Me" and the drum-looped "Be My Joy" nicely fuse intimacy with a sense of high drama, resuscitated from McKee's pre-rock dreams of studying musical theater at Juilliard; the lilting "Worrybirds" hints at opera as it pierces the skin with grace and delicacy.
McKee says she's preparing to make an album her way, selecting a dozen or so of her thirty-forty recent compositions--among them a new version of "Life is Sweet," maybe the best song she's ever written--and recording them in her own bedroom studio with Akin and other musicians of her choice and a production sensibility of her own. She talks of maybe shopping it around, but is considerably more enthusiastic about the potential for a self-release. But she refuses to speculate too much.
"I know I need to make it first," she says. "Because I don't want anyone telling me how to make it. Those days are over. It doesn't have to be that way. I'm not in any rush.