South African rock legend has it that I first heard Lesley Rae on a car trip to Durban when a hitchhiker that had cadged a lift with me gave me a cassette with 2 songs on it. I was so blown away that I stopped the car and called a number on the tape cover and signed her … Where these legends come from I have no idea, it’s a great story but not true … well, the part about being blown away is true!
The real tale of my long and intricate relationship with Lesley started sometime in 1980 when producer Tully McCully sent me a tape containing “The Spaniard” and “Grips of emotion” – 2 songs by a new Stellenbosch singer-songwriter that he was working with in the studio. I was a young budding A&R man at WEA Records, flush from some success with boogie rockers Baxtop and had worked with Tully the previous year on psych-rock reprobates Falling Mirror. He told me that he was having problems finding a label home for the project and in fact, had been turned down by most local record companies. Although I was mainly an unrepentant rock fan (I still am), and my ‘ears’ were turned that way, I also had a soft spot for female singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Carole King, and the like. To say that I was stunned by what I heard was, and still is, an understatement, and I begged, cajoled, and finally threatened the powers that be in the company to let me sign Lesley … to their eternal credit they did (although there was a half-joking ‘your job is on the line’).
The story of Lesley’s meteoric rise to superstardom in the early ’80s, her struggles with the industry machine, love/hate/love relationship with both the media and live performances, and her incredible multiple award-winning comebacks in 1994 are well documented in the liner notes for the “Conspirare – Best of” release. She went on to make a string of stunning albums in the years to come but I have always had a soft spot for the first two albums … not only because they were so groundbreaking and ultimately commercially successful, but also that they, in a sense, ‘made’ me as a successful A&R man so thanks for that Les!
As I sit here writing this piece and listening to the songs for the first time in many years I am experiencing the same sense of awe and wonderment as I did in 1980. The first thing that struck me was … the voice. I had never heard anyone sing with so much passion, her voice enticing, swooping, slurring, and caressing the words with no thought to pop convention … looping around the music like an exotic unknown instrument. And the songs? Despite being totally different from anything else on the radio at that time, dare I say it sounding quite ‘kooky’ and eclectic, the songs were little vignettes set to music that I felt had broad appeal if given the airplay. Thankfully pop radio in the early ’80s was still willing to play something that was considered off the wall.
Lesley Rae Dowling continues to write, record, and perform her own wonderful music without any commercial or critical concern, that is the hallmark of a true artist. In my opinion, she remains one of the most unique singers in modern music.
Cape Town, March 2006
Lesley`s fashion look too was changing…gone was the precocious doe-eyed lace draped imagery of the previous years and in its place, a warm cutting edge high fashion look as evidenced by the multiple personas in the album artwork.
Lesley then took a long overdue and no doubt welcome break from both recording and concerts and for the next three years concentrated on her family life. In the interim WEA Records released the first ` best of ` compilation “Myths and Legends”. In 1986 Lesley returned with the soul-drenched “When the night comes”,produced by superstar Jonathan Butler and Tully Mc Cully. It was clear that Lesley had undergone a radical writing change, the new songs like “Innocent Child”, “Headstrong” and I wanna dance with you” were slinky, funky, and soulful pop grooves. The album also featured what is arguably her finest song “Living without conversation”, a song that Lesley noted “So many people have relationship problems because nobody talks. Even this country itself had so many problems because people cannot talk to each other. We all need to talk to each other more.”
Both albums were enormously successful, both commercially and critically. Once again Lesley was back on top. She went on to record several stunning albums over the next few years including the five-time award-winning “Unbounded Waters” (recorded after a self-imposed six-year hiatus).
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters. And whether it matters for ages or for only a few hours, nobody can say. But if sacrifice a hair on the head of your vision, a shade of its color, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand, or some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, it is the most abject treachery and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest human disaster, are mere fleabites by comparison.” Virginia Wolfe
Dedicated to the inner vision
Just another quiet night in Stellenbosch in the year nineteen hundred and eighty… the air is still and warm in the mountains around the wine-producing town and a post dusk stillness settles into the valley. In a room in town, the local folk club meeting has just begun and the small audience prepares for an evening of the usual fare. Then a young woman takes the stage, with huge soulful eyes, a wild main of dark hair and beautiful, delicate features…. she doesn’t say much, just takes the microphone and starts to sing. She fills the air with smokey, sensual weavings, telling tales of the past, of love lost and never gained. In a rich, textured voice that plumbs the depths and climbs the heights, she sings her songs of love and loss. And no one there is in any doubt whatsoever that Lesley Rae Dowling is going to be a star.
In the audience, noted artist manager Paddy Lee Thorpe was deeply moved by the woman’s voice and after the show, he spoke to Spaced Out Sound Studios honcho Tully McCully.Together, they agreed that something must be done with this immense talent. All Lesley Rae wanted to do is sing, and her songs came pouring out of her soul almost unbidden. Although she was initially not all that interested Tully managed to persuade Lesley to make a demo tape of songs and armed with these recordings, he flew to Johannesburg, to make the rounds of record companies and find her a deal. After seeing almost every major label in the country Tully was struggling to get his protégé signed up,the general industry consensus was that she sounded ‘too weird and offbeat’. That is until he met with Benjy Mudie at WEA Records who was totally blown away with the songs and the voice …” Tully brought me the demos of “Grips Of Emotion” and “The Spaniard” and I was like, ‘Wow …she had this voice that just dripped with passion and I just knew that I wanted to work with her.” Lesley became only the second artist Benjy was to sign to WEA and her success was almost immediate.
Once Lesley was signed to WEA Tully persuaded Paddy to become Lesley’s manager and together with Benjy and the WEA team started sketching the promotional campaign that was to soon catapult her into the limelight. In the meantime Tully and Lesley worked on the material , fleshing out and recording the songs that were to make up the bulk of her debut album. The first single “Grips Of Emotion” and its accompanying video made an immediate impact on a then lackluster market and made her an overnight media item in the South African pop press. This was followed by the now-classic single “The Spaniard” and with its evocative and groundbreaking video, Lesley was suddenly one of the most talked-about artists around. A short trip to Johannesburg saw her performing at the legendary Chelsea Underground in Hillbrow and whilst both the fan and media response was positive Lesley herself felt raw and exposed on stage and clearly did not enjoy the experience. Paddy remembers, ” Perhaps she went live too quickly, as her performance experience at that stage was minimal”. This was to become a qualifier that has dogged her career. Lesley’s talent and interest most definitely lie in the writing and recording of her songs, she is not a born performer and would always rather write and record than step up onto the stage. As with many great artists before her, the act of performance does not come naturally.
“I don’t think Lesley was ever prepared for what happened, concurs Benjy, “Although she came from a relatively big place like the Cape, she was quite isolated where she lived, out on the farm. Success as a recording artist came very quickly. With that came the demand for live performance. I think the mistake everybody made was assuming that she would step it up to the live level instinctively. And that wasn’t the case. Her first performances were endearing. But the transition from a small club to a big stage like Sun City was too great. This is hardly unusual among great artists, it just took her, and us, a while to realise that.”
“It’s true that I don’t really like performing,” agrees Lesley, “Before a show I am always incredibly nervous. I feel nauseous and that I am going to forget everything. Luckily, normally when I sit down behind the piano and start to play, that all goes away. I get caught up in the music and don’t really think about anything else. But beforehand… I’m a wreck.” She laughs. “I think it was a deliberate thing. It stems from when I was quite young and I used to be shy, I didn’t like to bore people with my poetry. I used to write these short little poems that I would quickly read to my friends before they could leave the room. I think it just transposed itself into not wanting to ever bore anyone.”
But the talent and appeal of this woman from Stellenbosch are such, that small factors like rare stage appearances never seriously looked like they were going to impede her success. Her Celtic good looks, fair skin, dark hair, and luminous eyes, reach out along with her emotional songs and unique voice, to capture any who wander within earshot. “I write about what I am feeling at the time,” says Lesley. “It’s not about writing a pop song, or a song for any particular reason. Largely my emotional state governs my writing. There are boxes of songs in my house, which will probably never see the light of day because they are just too obscure, too personal. But I write them anyway. I’m not just looking to write hits for records or the radio.”
With a gold album and multiple hit singles and videos tucked behind her, Lesley returned to the studio with Tully to record her sophomore album, “Unravished Brides”.Delving deep into her folk roots the album was a diverse collection of songs including the moving title track with its Norse and Celtic influences, the sheer pop sheen of “I’m a woman”; Lesley’s sharp and barbed “Critics”, her moving version of Yancey’s “Fallen Angel” as well as “All is one” with its pointed and harsh criticism of the political landscape of the time.
Later that year the public (and reluctantly the critics) voted her Female Vocalist of the Year and with this accolade the first of her many industry awards. This was quickly followed in 1983 by her third album “Split”….a record that deviated from the formula of the first two albums and showcased a harder, more rock-orientated sound incorporating elements of the ‘new wave’ that was sweeping the world. Lesley’s fashion look too was changing…gone was the precocious doe-eyed lace draped imagery of the previous years and in its place a warm cutting edge hi-fashion look. Lesley then took a long overdue and no doubt welcome break from both recording and concerts and for the next three years concentrated on her family life. In the interim WEA released the first ‘ best of ‘ compilation “Myths and Legends”.In 1986 Lesley returned with the soul-drenched “When the night comes” produced by Jonathan Butler and Tully Mc Cully. It was clear that Lesley had undergone a radical writing change, the new songs like “Innocent Child” and I wanna dance with you” were slinky, funky, and soulful and the album also featured what is arguably her finest song “Living without conversation”.Once again Lesley was back on top, her handful of concerts was standing room only, she garnered several more industry awards, filmed a stunning and lavish TV special with award-winning Ken Kirsten and there was considerable international interest in her work.
With her increasing reputation at home, expectations began to turn towards an international career for Lesley who, after all, has one of the most remarkable voices put to tape in this country. After much wheeling and dealing around Europe and the UK, MCA Records, Europe declared that they were interested enough to sign up the young Stellenbosch diva. In fact, their CEO went as far as to exhort the managers of all his European regions to make sure they signed her up for distribution. But there was one catch. As a South African, Lesley naturally fell foul of the cultural boycott. If she wanted to take up this deal, she would have to take up Irish citizenship and live in Ireland for six months a year. This was a condition that Lesley, someone firmly rooted in her family and her life at home in Stellenbosch, was simply not prepared to take. “I felt that to take up this offer was to live a lie. Remember what happened when Milli Vanilli was discovered to not be the voice behind the songs? Well, I was worried that, if it worked, and I did become a big star, that I would soon be uncovered as a South African, and would lose everything. I also had a life and family in South Africa to think about, and they are very important in what I do with my music. It was not so much that the plan might backfire, but that I would have been forced to live a lie.” Paddy sees this as a blessing in disguise for Lesley. “For her career, to have gone overseas than would have been good, but for her personal life… it would have been very bad. At times I was sorry that she didn’t take the gaps that I was able to make for her, but I understand why she didn’t”.
After rejecting the proposed international deal Lesley withdrew to the farm and decided to take a sabbatical from the music business. Benjy remembers “At the time I think that she had had quite enough of the bullshit that this business deals out and I recall her saying to me that she wanted to chill out and write some songs. I was ok with this, expecting that after a year or so she would bounce back….hahaha I didn’t know that this would stretch to seven years! I would call her every few months and ask her if she was ready and the answer was no so I just hung in there until she was ready…that’s that way Les works”.
In 1993 Lesley was ready to record again but had reservations about recording in the city so together she and Benjy decided to bring the process to the farm. After connecting with Mango Groove keyboardist and songwriter Alan Lazar whom Lesley had expressed interest in working with, the Bop Studios mobile recording studio plus assorted musicians, engineers, and technical staff were duly shipped nearly 2000 km to Lesley’s farm and set up in the old stables next to the house (where incidentally “The Spaniard” was shot in 1981). Benjy recalls “God…what a mission! The stables were rough, the rain came through the holes in the roof; we used bales of hay for acoustic panels and we had to stop recording when the farmworkers came past on the tractors! We also had to put up with the occasional light aircraft coming thundering over !”However despite all of these problems and the sad passing of Lesley’s mother during the sessions “Unbounded Waters” is perhaps the most focused and spiritually satisfying album of her career. Backed by a stellar band including Tanana’s drummer Ian Herman, bassist Sipho Gumede, guitar supremo Mauritz Lotz, and Alan Lazar the album includes such gems as “Possession”, “You and I”, the Robert Johnson classic “Stones in my passway” (recorded in one take live at midnight after a lengthy red wine session!) and the eight-minute epic “Will I ever get over you”.The album was hailed by fans and media alike and swept the board at that year’s SAMA AWARDS. This was followed by a brief UK tour where Lesley was the first artist to perform at the South African embassy in London. Despite the critical acclaim Lesley has and still does have a tenuous relationship with the music business. She describes music as a destructive force in her life and seems to have a love-hate relationship with her talent. “I write all the time, but to get swallowed up in that life is not something I want to do.” So, while it is something she obviously has a deep abiding passion for, she feels the need to keep it in its place, and not to let it dominate her life. This she explains as being a result of her obsessive tendencies. “When I was at my most successful, I remember looking at a magazine article of myself, all dressed up and posing and thinking, ‘Is that person really me?’ I could hardly recognize myself, all dressed up. I was losing touch with who I really am.”
Benjy compares her very much to Scott Walker. A musician of immense talent, who desperately needed to be heard…..both for their own good as well as ours. A mercurial character, she at first embraced the limelight that her success brought her, but later, realising the effect it was having on her personal life, she withdrew further and further away from it. An eclectic person with many different interests aside from music, Lesley found it increasingly difficult to make contact with a music press that was determined to portray her as a star and was disinterested in anything else. The press in return came to regard her as an often wayward, contradictory subject in interviews, as they struggled to come to terms with this immense talent who seemed to prefer gardening and life on the farm to life in the spotlight.
Like Scott, once Lesley got a little bit closer to the machine, she rejected it. The world of managers, journalists, targets, deadlines, and record company executives simply left her cold. One of the expectations of the music machine is that it expects its artists to conform, to toe the line, and make predictable, hit music. And Lesley Rae Dowling is quite simply, way too complicated for that. She describes herself as a hybrid person with a myriad of interests. And while she managed an album a year for the first four years of her career, she had far more interests in life than music, which began to draw her away from the world her music had drawn her to. It was this miscommunication and the frustration Lesley felt at it, that is as responsible as anything else for her seven-year sabbatical after Unbounded Waters.
Returning with “Clear” in 1999, Lesley signaled her determination to continue to do whatever it was that was foremost in her mind. This last recording is more stripped and simple than anything she has ever done before. Both in terms of the songwriting, and the instrumentation and recording. It sees her dealing with things on a new level, as a mature woman. “I sometimes think I must get boring,” says Lesley, “All my songs seem to be about love or relationships. But you see, I like to write about things that are close to my heart and interesting to me. I’m no good at writing “oh Baby baby Yeah” pop songs.”
In the course of a twenty-year recording career, she has released seven albums, and one Greatest Hits compilation: Lesley Rae Dowling (1981), I’m A Woman (1982), Unravished Brides (1983), Myths And Legends (1984), When The Night Comes (1986), The Best Of Lesley Rae Dowling (1990), Unbounded Waters (1993) and Clear (1999) and now “Conspirare”, a new ‘best of compilation that includes songs from the “Unbounded Waters” album as well as all her hits. She has garnered almost every award that has been available in that time. In the early eighties, she won the 3M Scotty Awards three years in a row for Best Female Vocal. She took various SARIE’s in the best Female Vocal and Best Pop Album categories, several SAMA’s for “Unbounded Waters” and has now topped off that list with an FNB SAMA for “Clear”. It is not just the public that has been captivated by the emotional honesty and intensity of Lesley’s work, but the critics as well.
Her trademark vocal sound is still there, as is the steady stare from her indigo eyes. After twenty years of recording and performing her music in South Africa, Lesley is one of the few artists to be enjoying a liquid career where she is recognised and still considered a viable artist. When you listen to this collection of songs, you will hear why. By staying out of the mainstream of the local music industry, Lesley Rae has explored her own muse to the full, unpolluted by commercial copycat concerns, and informed only by her own wide-ranging and inquisitive musical taste. She might be hesitant to say so, but I think there’ll be more from her before too long.
CONSPIRARE ….in her own words
1. THE SPANIARD – I was always amazed that people liked this song, as it actually is really busy – there are twenty chord changes in the first three lines! Luckily, Tully’s production turned it into quite an accessible song in the end.
2. GRIPS OF EMOTIONS – Tully and I wrote this one, it’s really just a great pop song!
3. FALLEN ANGEL – This is one of the very few covers that I ever did. It’s written by an American woman called Yancey, and I just fell in love with it at the time.
4. INNOCENT CHILD – This song is not really innocent, nor is it about a child. It has more to do with human relationships and how they work.
5. LIVING WITHOUT CONVERSATION – So many people have relationship problems because nobody talks. Even this country itself had so many problems because people cannot talk to each other. We all need to talk to each other more.
6. POSSESSION – A song about impending loss, it’s a pretty sad song about someone about to lose someone they love.
7.NO TIME – This is really a little story about Lord Mountbatten’s wife, an extremely loyal woman who probably actually led a pretty unhappy life.
8. MAMA’S LEAVING – This is an old one! It’s about the situations that women find themselves in, and the difficulties these often involve.
9. WHEN THE NIGHT COMES – This is a song about passion, sexual passion when one is waiting for night to fall and the passion to be unleashed.
10. UNRAVISHED BRIDES – This is also a small story, this time about the Vikings and how they would raid and sack villages and steal away with all the village virgins.
11. THE RAVEN – This is centered on a paraplegic in a wheelchair, and deals with issues of impotence, both sexual and physical.
12. MOROCCO – This was written on a hot, dry night in Stellenbosch when it was so hot clothes would stick to the body. The result is this erotic vision.
13. I WANNA DANCE WITH YOU – Jonathan Butler was my influence on this, I think he did the chorus. We were just jamming around and came up with it.
14. I FEEL LOVE – This is quite a cynical song, it’s about denial and vulnerability and looking after one’s self.
15. WILL I EVER GET OVER YOU – Another song about loss. My mother was dying while I was recording that song. We couldn’t stop recording though, she wouldn’t let us. She passed away the next morning.
16.1917(ANASTASIA) – Another tale from history, this one is about the Bolshevik revolution and the execution of the Russian Royalty.
17. THE ROSE – Another cover, originally performed by Bette Midler
18. YOU AND I – This one is about a relationship that just peters slowly out for no real reason, but also about those bonds that are established in relationships that are never severed, even when the terms of the relationship have changed.
Liner notes by Dave Chislett with assistance from Benjy Mudie.Grateful thanks to Lesley for her precious time, Paddy Lee-Thorp, and Tully McCully