“I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die”
—Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
“I just killed a man / Put my gun against his head / Pulled my trigger now he’s dead”
—Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
“Oh my! I’m getting really bitchy in this interview!”
Grey DeLisle is surprised at herself, but unnecessarily so. Her most cutting remarks wouldn’t even register on the Lydon-Gallagher-Albarn scale of rock bitchiness. In fact, on the overwhelming whole, she’s one absolute pop sweetie—a gleefully square peg with another fine album of Gothic Americana to promote in whatever time she can find away from her rather lovely and impressive day job.
DeLisle is one of Los Angeles’ premiere voice actresses. With an almost indecently long line of credits to her splendid name, she offers something for everyone. A four-year-old of my acquaintance was hugely impressed to discover I would be talking to the villainous Femme Fatale of Powerpuff Girls infamy, while I consider talking to DeLisle is pretty much the next best thing to that date with Rachel Weisz I’ve always promised myself—Grey DeLisle played the role of Evy O’Connell (neé Carnahan) in the animated version of The Mummy. But how did she get into that line of work?
“When I first moved to LA, I did stand-up comedy? I was like 20? And I wasn’t very funny at all?” When you read DeLisle’s reported speech, try to picture an enthusiastic early-30s Valley Girl with a fully engaged brain and a ready laugh, and you’ll be halfway there. “But I did do good impressions so this lady said, ‘Honey, you’re just adorable but your jokes need a lot of work. You should do some cartoons or something.’
“And I said ‘OK’, because I thought it would be really easy to get into. But it turned out to be really, really hard. I made a little tape and everything? And I sent it out? And nobody called me. For ages. But then finally someone recommended me to my agent, and she took me on, and I booked like seven things in the first month I was with her. So I got really lucky…from being so bad at one thing…I guess I took my weaknesses and ran with them.”
DeLisle laughs freely and easily, often at her own expense. She quips—untruthfully—that she has a face for radio but concedes she would consider on-camera work if the right offer came in.
“I used to do on-camera stuff. I played a teacher on That ‘70s Show and a few other little things here and there, but it takes so much time and you get paid exactly the same amount as you do when you’re doing voiceovers for cartoons. Like today, I worked for 45 minutes on a cartoon, and I made exactly the same amount I would make if I was on camera.
“Not that it’s all about money, but when it takes you less time to make your money then you can devote more time to doing things like writing songs.
“And also, with cartoons, it doesn’t matter what you look like. There’s such a down-to-earth quality with the people I work with. They’re not always looking in the mirror or checking out what I’m wearing. And I can play the sexy girl even if I’m nine months pregnant in sweatpants. It doesn’t matter at all.”
DeLisle is refreshingly honest about the relationship between her acting and her music.
“There is no money in music at all. Acting pays all my bills and allows me to make records that I feel I can have integrity about. My record label gives me this tiny amount of money to make the record with and I put in thousands and thousands and thousands of my own money just to make it something I can feel good about. So this really is a vanity project, or a really expensive hobby.
“I don’t plan on making a whole lot of money in music. It’ll just be something I keep doing because I love it.”
DeLisle has always been an actress—and her acting informs her music in many ways, but she came close to never making records at all. Although she was obviously drawn to music and musicians (she’s dated a few and married one), she rejected music because she considered it to the preserve of others in her family.
“My mom and my grandmother (who sang with Tito Puente) are both singers; and you know what it’s like when someone in your family does something? Well, I tended to shy away from it because I think that’s their thing, and I’m going to have my own thing. So I was an artist, I did portraits in the park and I did my acting and stuff, because no one in my family was an actor.”
When DeLisle did succumb to her musical genes, she recorded her 2000 debut album The Small Time in just three days at a studio where she was more used to working on cartoons. It proved to be an attention-grabbing collection of simple heart-felt narrative songs. Her often difficult second album, Homewrecker (2002), presented a fuller and more rounded set of songs that veered from old school country to near new wave pop and back again, while The Graceful Ghost (2003) was almost a museum piece: 12 songs reportedly devoted to the story of her long distance romance with Old 97’s guitarist Murry Hammond, played and recorded in an authentic old-time style. Her new album is Iron Flowers. Consisting mainly of songs DeLisle wrote while she was writing The Graceful Ghost but which were deemed “too modern” for that work, Iron Flowers careens across the musical landscape without regard for conventions or niceties.
“In 2003, I was thinking of maybe putting two records out together because I had them both ready to go, but The Graceful Ghost just took on such a life of its own that I wanted to make sure I gave it everything I had. So I held back and then everything that didn’t fit on The Graceful Ghost became the seeds of Iron Flowers. No pun intended.
“There was no percussion on The Graceful Ghost because it was so old-fashioned, and so this time I really wanted to take it to a completely different extreme and do a very heavy rhythm record. So I decided to take my two favourite bassists and my two favourite drummers and just have them play at the same time. It was such a big sound. Really great.
“We didn’t do any overdubs to fix things. We just played about five or six takes of a song and then when Marvin [Etzioni, her regular producer and collaborator] thought he’d got a good one, we just moved on to the next song. And sometimes we just did one take and it was great. I think two or three songs were done in one take. I don’t mind mistakes at all, you know. In fact, the only overdubs on the record are the pedal steel because the guitarist we wanted—Greg Leisz—wasn’t available for the session.”
Although Iron Flowers boasts several truly noteworthy songs, the headline news is all about the opening number: a pared down dramatisation of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Sadly, DeLisle’s take on the ridiculous pomp rock anthem lacks all the humour of We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It’s entirely acapella re-enactment, and chooses to omit the opening stanza, the ludicrous operatic section, and those few glorious metal moments. But it’s not all bad news, because the voice behind Scooby Doo‘s Daphne seems instead to have chosen to explore the parallels between “Bo Rap” and “Folsom Prison Blues”? Or maybe even “The Green, Green Grass of Home”?
“Yes, absolutely! I was trying to mine the country song out of it. If you take the opera out, I can just picture Johnny Cash singing it. And I was surprised that nobody had ever treated it that way. When we were in Europe, we were just kinda working it up on the train as we were on tour, and it was just so exciting. I just thought this is like a new song. I felt that people might hear us play it and sort of recognize it but that it would take them a while to really get it. And that’s exactly the response we’ve had.
“I had to open the record with it because I thought you’re either going to get this record or you’re not, and we’ll find out within the first three minutes because if you’re not into this (‘Bo Rap’), you’re not going to be into the rest of the record at all.”
It’s clear that most people see DeLisle as a country singer, though the PopMatters jury is still out.
“You could say I was a country singer. But every time people ask me what kind of music I play I can never really give a straight answer because it always depends on the record because for me every record is a different journey.
“But I will say that I’m highly influenced by country music. My father was always playing the Carter Family and Hank Williams around the house. And George Jones. I think George Jones is one of the greatest living singers. And a lot of the people I look to and really enjoy are country musicians, but I’m really sick of that thing that’s going on in Nashville right now where you can’t tell anybody apart. Those people are really doing the music a disservice. There’s no pain, no suffering, no reality. It’s all just so carpool moms and completely uninteresting and happy happy.”
Leaving country to one side, there could have been two “classic rock” covers on Iron Flowers.
“We did ‘Wish You Were Here’ too, the Pink Floyd song? We did that in Europe too and that went over really well also. So we were a little torn: Are we going to do ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or are we going to do ‘Wish You Were Here’?
“But it had to be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ because it’s just so country.”
“I hate covers where people do nothing with the song. I just think, ‘You know what, you did not need to do that. We already have that.’ I hate to take on certain bands, but Counting Crows? When they did that cover of that Joni Mitchell song? ‘Big Yellow Taxi’? It was just so…meh…so frustrating because I thought, ‘Not only did you do nothing with it, you did less than nothing. Why? Why did you waste the tape?’. But that happens so often.”
DeLisle has taken precious little flak for “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Indeed support for her interpretation has come right from the top.
“Brian May was so excited about it that he put it on his website! My manager is really good friends with Mick Rock, the photographer who took the famous pictures of Queen [for the cover of Queen II, later the inspiration for part of the ‘Bo Rap’ video]. So my manager asked him to photograph me for the cover of Iron Flowers as a sort of nice full circle kind of thing. And he loved the song and he shared it with the members of the band that he still keeps in contact with, and Brian May was like ‘Oh Freddie would have loved this’, and very supportive from the very beginning. And with his little stamp of approval people have been very nice.
“I have had a lot of people who’ve said that when they saw it on the back of the record they thought, ‘Oh no, what did she do?’ But then they’ve said that when they listened to it, it completely changed their minds. Which really makes me feel good.”
The song that follows DeLisle’s little bit of Queenery is “Joanna”, a slice of impassioned epic country rock backed with a big old beat and sung with a permanent catch in the throat: “She was a raven-haired, restless drunkard’s daughter / The kind of hero you need at 17”. Sorta kinda loosely about DeLisle’s mother, it’s a far better song than “Bohemian Rhapsody”. No, seriously. And so is “Right Now”, third song in, which chucks some highly amusing Brian May-like guitar posturing into the mix as a further nod to the unlikely influence of Queen on DeLisle.
“Being such a musical theatre girl when I was little, listening to Queen was probably the first time that I heard rock music that was so tuneful and artistic and dramatic, and to hear rock ‘n’ roll that sounded so musical theatre was really exciting to me. I couldn’t believe it existed.”
DeLisle is a very theatrical performer herself. Quite deliberately and fortuitously so.
“I had never experienced stage fright before I started singing. I was a trained stage actress for years before I ever moved to Los Angeles. I did professional theatre when I was little, and all through high school, and then in college I was part of a repertory company, and I never had stage fright. Not once. I’d heard about it, of course, but it’d never happened to me. But then when I started singing, it was terrible. I got terrible, terrible stage fright. I would get a really dry throat, start breathing really heavily, start feeling nauseous, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Until I finally realised it was because I was actually being myself, and I didn’t have any character to hide behind. It was really strange. So eventually I decided to treat singing just like acting, I’m going to pretend that I’m actually the people in these songs and for each song I’ll just change character.
“A lot of people when they see me live, they say ‘Gosh! It’s so different from your real personality, it’s more like a play than a rock show.’ And that’s because I’m using my acting, I’m hiding behind it so that I don’t get sick. It’s served me very well.”
DeLisle’s favourite cartoon character is probably Mandy from The Grim Adventures of Bill And Mandy: “She’s totally evil. More evil than the Grim Reaper. She outsmarts him and then torments him for the rest of eternity.” A typical DeLisle song will feature a character like Vannoy S, the real life heroine of “The Bloody Bucket”—a song that is closer to Nick Cave or Shane McGowan than Freddie Mercury or Dolly Parton.
“This lady just had this heartbreaking story about living in Lubbock, Texas and going to this bar called the Bloody Bucket where—basically—she would try to make people jealous and try to pick up guys.
“The whole story is that she had this little girl with one guy who was a bootlegger and he had a rival that he hated, so when she decided she wasn’t getting enough attention from the father of her daughter, she went to this rival gang’s bar—which was the Bloody Bucket—and started flirting with her husband’s rival. And then her husband showed up, and got so upset that he killed the guy. And then he spent the rest of his life in prison and her daughter grew up without a father. Just because of her need for attention and her addiction to adrenaline.
“I have kinda shared that need in the past, and when I heard her story it was just so heartbreaking; and also the Bloody Bucket is just such a good name for a bar that I was like, ‘Oh God, we’ve got to write a song about this.’
“And she was talking about how she would go meet people there and how this song ‘Sleepwalk’ was always the last song and the last dance, and the last dance was your last chance to home with somebody, and she usually would, and they would end up making her feel empty inside. I just loved her story and had to write a song about it.
“Another happy little ditty.”
“It’s weird, because I’m obsessed with writing about horrible deaths and terrible things. I love murder ballads, and I love stories. And stories are always best when the stakes are really high. And usually that means somebody dies.”
There certainly seems to be a big gulf between the woman who is both Emily Elizabeth (Clifford the Big Red Dog) and Betty Rubble, and the Grey DeLisle who sings on Iron Flowers.
“I know! I’m such a serious badass on stage and then after the show I’m just bubbly and happy…maybe I exorcise all my demons with my songs?”
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article