Parlor Showcase

Alicia Previn: Born to Make Music

Alicia Previn. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Alicia on St. Patrick’s Day at The Field. Photo by Michael Oletta.

Photo by Michael Oletta

Bart Mendoza interviewing Alicia. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Photo by Dennis Andersen

Some people are born to make music. In the case of Alicia Previn, that’s no cliché. An incredibly prolific musician, Previn never seems to stand still for long. She has led an incredible life, playing with a multitude of bands, touring the world, recording for major labels, writing children’s books, and much more. Her life is a documentary waiting to happen.

It’s clear Previn would rather be making music than not, happy to collaborate and happy to play venues and events, big and small, including everything from the world’s finest venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall to the less acclaimed, such as Wegeforth Bowl at the San Diego Zoo. Sitting with Previn at Lestat’s coffeehouse, post Dennis Anderson cover photo shoot, I quickly realized how easy it is to get lost in her stories, each revelation leading down multiple paths.

Early Days
There is no way around it, Previn is musical royalty. Her mother is jazz singer Betty Bennet, perhaps best known for her work with Benny Goodman during the 1950s and a string of acclaimed solo albums. Her stepfather is guitarist Mundell Lowe, who has worked with such icons as Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and Barry Manilow, as well as recorded the soundtracks to such evergreen TV programs as Hawaii Five-0, The Wild Wild West, and Starsky & Hutch. Meanwhile, her father is legendary conductor and composer Andre Previn, who has received ten Grammy awards, as well as the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and four Oscars for his work on such classic films as Porgy and Bess (1959) and My Fair Lady (1964). Rounding out the family music connections, her son, Max, is now playing in his own bands and doing studio work.

Make no mistake. Despite such familial connections, Previn has carved her own path since she formed her first band, Heartfelt Inner Jar, at a British boarding school in 1974. That said, her public debut was a little higher profile than most, taking place three years earlier, when she was part of the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus’ performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, conducted by her father at the Royal Albert Hall.

“One aspect important to me is that other than paying for violin lessons from the greatest teachers from age 7-13, I made my own way–traveled, experimented, and met whomever I bumped into,” she said “My parents never helped me with my career.”

As a child, attending Highland Hall in North Hollywood, “I was in plays where I played the recorder, acted, or was in orchestra, which I did at school in England as well,” she said. She took violin and piano lessons, but by the age of seven she made her decision on the choice of an instrument. “I got frustrated with my piano teacher because she scribbled out these fingering numbers and I was also frustrated that you can’t take pianos with you, especially back then when they didn’t really have a lot of electric pianos.” Her choice of violin for her main instrument was pragmatic. “In my little childhood mind, I decided to play the violin because you can play all kinds of music with it and you can carry it with you,” she said.

While she did study classical music, she quickly found that to be limiting. “People see you with a violin and they’ll ask, “What kind of music do you play? Classical or country? I always say “neither.” I can play anything, but my greatest joy is improvisation.”

The decision to avoid being pigeonholed came early. “I made a very distinct decision when I was around 11, when I talked to a world-renowned soloist from Korea. What she said about not being able to have a family, because she has to practice eight to 12 hours a day and she’s always on tour really hit home. And my heart said, that’s not the life I want; I want to do other things, but that’s what you need if you are playing those difficult pieces and they’re memorized and flawless. That’s where my decision to move away from classical started and then I started experimenting with other music.” She cites trumpeter Freddie Hubbard as an early musical inspiration.

Anyone perusing Previn’s discography will notice that on many of her early recordings she is credited as “Lovely Previn.” The name comes from her time in the early 1970s as a member of the Source Family, a spiritual collective, that highly valued improvisational music. “That’s a name that was given to me by a father figure I had in my life at the time. He said that it fit me,” she laughed.

By the mid 1970s Previn had relocated to Hawaii, working with a pop band, Breath, and a psychedelic rock group, Yahowha 13 (1975-1979), but she didn’t stay in one place for long. She also worked in a duo, Tantalayo, playing the East Coast from Florida to New York, including a show at CBGB’s. “That was really interesting,” she mused. “It was all improv; I’d play and my partner would dance.” She recorded in Los Angeles at the Record Plant and performed at the Troubadour, even performing in 1977 on the syndicated television program, The Gong Show. The pair won in the category of the “Weirdest Act,” ending the show in a shower of confetti. Previn was surprised when the show’s host, Chuck Barris, asked for a date post show. “My friend heard the word ‘producer’ and insisted that I go,” Previn laughed. “Of course, there is a big difference between a record producer and TV producer, but she didn’t know that. It was a nice enough time, but that was that.”

She wrapped up the seventies recording with the group White Cargo (1978) and performing with Polydor artist Philip D’Arrow in the New York area from 1979-1980 before heading back to England. Notably, she penned her first children’s story, What Paradise Found, during this time. Though she didn’t find a publisher at the time, it did help sow the seeds of her future writing endeavors.

The Session Years: The 1980s/U.K.
She next headed to Europe, where her first release was with a self-titled band, Lovely Previn. She would release the quirky new wave single, “From A-B” on the indie label Secret Records, followed by the album Shatterproof in 1982 and two more singles: “I’ll Never Get Over You” (1982) and “Wasted Love” (1983). While none of these releases troubled the charts, that would not be the case with her next projects.

Previn’s first major label appearance was with former Dexy’s Midnight Runners keyboardist, Andy Leek, working with him on his 1982 album, Deceit, and for Beggars Banquet, as well as a pair of singles in 1984: “Soul Darling” and “Dancing Queen,” a recasting of the Abba classic, produced by Bowie compatriot, Tony Visconti. Leek would later work with George Martin, “who used my violin lines performed by classical players,” Previn noted.

The years 1984 to 1988 were a blur of activity with solo performances at venues such as the Hippodrome (1985) and appearances on such now classic albums as General Public’s All the Rage (#24 U.S. / #19 Canada, 1984), The Communards /t (#7 U.K. /#90 U.S., 1986), notably on their #30 U.K. hit, “You’re My World,” and the Hothouse Flowers, People (#2 U.K./#88 U.S., 1988), where she can be heard on the song, “It’ll Be Easier in the Morning.” She also appeared in various capacities on RTE Irish TV during this time frame and even acted in a television commercial for the Irish National Lottery.

Though the “dancing girl with a fiddle” visual is now common, there is a case for Previn being amongst the earliest practioners, if not the first, in the modern rock era. “I can’t help but dance when I’m playing music,” she said. “I’ve done it for years. I recall seeing a younger performer doing something similar, so I went up to compliment them. I was taken aback a little when they responded with, ‘who do you think I’ve been watching for the last seven years?’”

Not that every performance went smoothly. Whenever she needs grounding from all her experiences, she thinks back to that 1985 Hippodrome show. “I was working with a publicist [a member of the all-female hit makers, Toto Coelo] and I had to sing two songs at this venue that had a wooden dance floor and a stage that rose up from the center of that floor. Unfortunately, people dance on it before it rises and someone left ice on the floor. As I was coming around to the front, I slipped on the ice. All I could think was, ‘Great! I haven’t even sung one note and I’m blowing it.’ So I thought, ‘What would Mick Jagger do,” she laughed. “I fell over, but landed on my knees with my hands outstretched. If you watch the video, no one really noticed what happened, but I figured that from now on I’m going to fall down first because nothing worse can happen on stage after that.”

1988 would prove to be a banner year for Previn, when she was asked to join Irish band In Tua Nua, recording for Virgin Records and touring with the group in Europe, Scandinavia, Ireland, UK, and the USA throughout 1988 and 1989. One of the high points of that time was opening for Fleetwood Mac at the Nuremberg Ring Festival (June 4, 1988) in Germany. “It was just a sea of people,” Previn said. “There were some nerves at first, but then I saw some people in the corner, holding up a sign with my name on it, saying ‘we love you’ and the name of a band I was in when I was in Dublin, called This Is It. Turns out they had seen me perform back at home. I was blown away; it made all the difference.” She appears on In Tua Nua’s album, The Long Acre (1988), including both singles, “All I Wanted” and “Don’t Fear Me Now,” complete with MTV International videos. She also performed with the band on television in Holland, Ireland, and Italy.

The Session Years: The 1990s/U.S.
Sadly, her stay with the band was to be short lived, but it did lead her into the next phase of her life. “I had come to LA from Ireland in 1989 to record an album with In Tua Nua,” Previn recalled. “But they broke up. That was when I was pregnant with Max and I had about two months to go,” she said. Now stateside, Previn quickly immersed herself in the local music scene, soon joining in on the ground floor of a new band, the Young Dubliners. She was in the group from March of 1991 through December of 1995, a period of time marked by relentless touring and recording, including the band’s albums Rocky Road (1993) and Breathe (1995). “We had a great time with that band,” she said. Of course, not everything always went according to plan. “We were playing a show in San Francisco’s Union Square. At the time I was using a 30-foot chord with my violin and would check out venues in advance. I always had solos, so I would wander around the stage, seeing how far I could take it. This time I decided to go way up high and climb up on the speakers–it was fine getting up there, but pretty scary when I looked down. I remember needing serious help to get back down,” she laughed.

Now a founding member of one of the area’s most popular bands, Previn balanced music with motherhood, but in the meantime her mom moved from the Los Angeles area to San Diego. Having a child in her life changed Previn’s perspective. “When Max got to be around four, I realized that I didn’t want to live in LA , I wanted to be somewhere more rural. So I moved to Marin County and I put him in a school there, where I worked in exchange for tuition. But I still flew down anytime there was a Young Dubliners show. I was still flying down to do important showcases for record companies. I told them, ‘I’m happy to fly down, my son has to see his father every other week anyhow, if not we can work it out.’ So I did that for a couple of years.”

Ever restless, Previn continued to be in demand for session work, playing with a pre-Flogging Molly Dave King and appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, alongside the band Cages in 1993. She also recorded a series of three albums with Bay Area indie rock band Ten Bright Spikes, which included Nicky Garratt of UK Subs, though only Astro Stukas (1992) and Blueland (1993) were released, with Crime Map (1994) remaining unissued to date. Meanwhile, Previn also appeared on such diverse albums such as folk legend Richard Thompson’s Mock Tudor (#28 / UK- 1994) and post Camper Van Beethoven rockers Crackers’/t (1995), even joining the latter on stage at album release shows at Los Angeles nightspot the Palomino. She also played with metal favorites, Great White, showing up on their album Let It Rock (1996). Notably, she also recorded with Great White frontman Jack Russell’s on his solo album, Shelter Me (1996).

Following her departure from the Young Dubliners in 1995, with Max growing up quickly, Previn had a realization. “I spent so many years away from my parents and it was time to move to San Diego to be near them,” she said.

Arriving in San Diego: Storytelling
Previn admits it was a bit of step back, relocating to San Diego, which has an intense, but much smaller music scene than Los Angeles or London, but she needed to “catch up on life.” She quickly became a mainstay of the local music community, a situation that continues today, playing up to four or five times a week, more if she can. Previn often plays in local churches, resulting in work with the Ric Blair Band and the album Break the Walls (2002) as well as the Chuck Butler Band, as heard on their album On Fire (2006). She also regularly performs twice a week at hospitals and for senior citizens. Since arriving in San Diego she has remained prolific, worked a long list of local notables including Terry Talbot, R. Groom, the New Archaic, and Folding Mr. Lincoln, recording on the latter’s SDMA-nominated album, Two Rivers, in 2013.

The biggest change upon her move to San Diego was the addition of the word “author” to her resume. In addition to her work in music, as with most musicians, she has held a variety of jobs. “I’ve done a bit of everything,” she said. “I’ve had sales jobs, but there’s just too much stress with that. I’ve studied nutrition and have been a professional cook in restaurants and for private families; I’ve also been a personal assistant.” She is also a beloved music teacher, particularly adept at helping beginners, but most recently she has begun to make an impact as a children’s author, penning books with an environmental theme for her own publishing imprint, Tortoise Brand Books. Previn’s first offering, The Earthworm book and CD (2009), is an audiobook, with music and instructions for kids on how to build a worm bin at home with simple easy items. She followed this with The Strange Disappearance of Walter Tortoise (2013), which explores dangers to the desert environment as well as resource sustainability and then, Give Bees a Chance (2014), which explains the importance of bees in our food chain. Future projects include a reworking of her first book, What Paradise Found. “I’m working on several titles now,” she said. “But I’m also looking for ways to bring these stories to a wider audience. It’s fun to come up with the stories and write songs for these themes, but it’s just as important that this information is out there.”

The past year has been particularly busy for Previn, touring and recording with San Francisco-based prog band, Hedersleben’s. She performed on their album Orbit, released in May 2017, and toured  October and November 2016 with Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, where they backed Turner for his set. Hedersleben’s song from Orbit, “Rarified Air,” with lyrics by Previn, can be heard in the current film, Diamond Cartel, starring Armand Assante and Peter O’Toole.

Previn has also worked with singer-songwriter Laurie Beebe Lewis, including her recent album, Baby Birds. Meanwhile she continues to take the stage every chance she gets, performing with the Idyllwild Seahawk Mojo Jazz Orchestra at the Jazz in the Pines Festival, as well as gigging with likes of Pullman Standard, Clint Westwood Band, Greg White Jr., Michael Tiernan, Joe Rathburn, Tim Foley’s Random Folk Band and most recently, the Now Time Jazz Quartet

As busy as her past has been, the future looks even brighter. “My goals are to publish my children’s books worldwide and to work on, The Previn Technique: Previn Points, my violin beginners teaching book, as well as to finish recording my own CD.” Currently scouting for musicians to be involved in her solo project, Previn continues to record and work with a multitude of artists; her focus moving forward will be in releasing her own music. “I truly enjoy playing with all the different groups, but it’s time to do something on my own. I’ve had songs just waiting to be recorded, but I think I’ve also learned a lot over the years. Record companies only let you make a mistake once and you are pretty much done. I’ve wanted to avoid all that and make sure the musicians I work with get paid and aren’t taken advantage of. It’s a hard road, but it’s time for me to move on these things. Of course, if someone want to make me an offer and take me on tour, that would be great. But beyond that it’s definitely time for me to stop taking a back seat.” She points out that she intends to branch out a bit musically. “My gift is improvising,” Previn said. “I don’t hesitate, I love to try new things, work with the space in music, not necessarily try to play a million notes. It’s important to push for new heights and burst through the musical ceiling. One of the things I really want to spotlight with my new recordings is my singing,” she said. “I have been playing my violin for so long and not really singing much, that I’ve almost forgotten how to play my old tunes on the guitar.” The catalyst for the activity is the rediscovery of some older music long thought lost. “My notebooks with all my old songs got thrown out,” Previn lamented. “But recently an old box of tapes turned up and there they were,” she enthused. “My son is transferring the songs now, but there is a lot to dig through; I have an album from my childhood in the ’70s, a full album by the band Lovely Previn from the ’80s and new mastered songs.”

Building on that she has been performing with her step-father, Mundell Lowe, and is working on collaborative recordings with him. “It’s the most beautiful thing that’s happened,” she said. “Mundell loves fiddle. You know, for many years he accompanied Stephan Grappelli. I saw him in London when I lived there and dad came to play there. He laughed and told me, “You know what Stephan thinks about when he’s up on stage? His tax returns,” meaning he’s been playing for 40 years the same way so he doesn’t even have to think about what he’s playing. It just flies out of his fingers,” she said. Previn considers being able to play with Lowe, who is recovering from cancer, to be very special. “The fact that dad, every time he has a gig, asks me to play with him,  has meant more to me than a lot of things. At first my mom didn’t even understand why he did that, but he obviously thinks I’m good and believes in me. We’ve even been working for a few years on some tunes, when he can, as his health has not been too good. ”

Heading out from the coffee shop I can’t help but be struck by how many collaborations Previn has had in her career. Is there someone she would be interested in working with? “XTC,” she says without hesitation. “They’re not around anymore, but that’s a band I really loved,” Previn smiled. “But I don’t even have a manager and that’s really what you need, someone who can shop you and scout around for those rare opportunities.” In the meantime she is happy where music has taken her. “I’m still just as passionate about music as ever,” Previn said. “I’d like to think that the passion comes through when I play. I like the way music touches others.”

  • Categories

  • Archives