Parlor Showcase

MICHELE LUNDEEN: At the Corner of Heartbreak and Euphoria

Michele Lundeen. Photo by John Hancock.


Young Michele.


Michele with her band Steamroller, 1980s.


Michele in Dayton, Ohio, 1982.


Michele as Madame LeRoux. Photo by Vince Jones.


Best buddies: Michele, Candye Kane, Sue Palmer (Heine Andersen in the background). Photo by Chet Cannon.


Michele at the Baja Blues Festival.

Michele Lundeen is one tough cookie. And I say that with the utmost admiration and affection. She’s a free-spirit who works intensely at her craft and chooses direction, speed, and velocity on her own terms. If something is not right she’ll tell you, to your face. If it is right, she’ll hug you to within an inch of your life. Just one of many reasons Lundeen is so well-respected in the San Diego music community. For almost a quarter century now, she’s been determined to share her love of music and that in-turn has gifted all of us with one of the most recognizable voices in San Diego’s blues scene.

Lundeen continues to captivate audiences of all ages in and around Southern California and it’s not uncommon to find her down in Baja in support of a charitable event or stalking the stage of a three-day blues festival. In 2017, she increased her fan base significantly when she toured in the Netherlands with Sue Palmer for one of Candye Kane’s favorite projects, United by Music. And thanks to her 2004 CD, Song Inside Me, Michele’s music is globally available on internet and satellite blues programming sites and heard around the country over broadcast R&B radio.

Don’t be mislead, it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns for Lundeen. Her path has not been the smoothest and she’ll be the first to admit, her wounds were sometimes self-inflicted. What you won’t hear… are apologies. Lundeen knows who she is, and she owns it. Was there a time when she thought leaving home and hooking up with a motorcycle guy who went by the name “Crazy” was a good idea? Yes, yes there was. Did she roll her pickup truck off a mountain highway using up all nine lives in one crash? Yes, yes she did. But we warned you going in: Michele Lundeen is one tough cookie…

When we sat down to talk we began simply. How do you describe your sound… the music of Michele Lundeen? “That’s not simple at all.” She says. “Really! I suppose I could use terms like soulful, passionate. That’s a tough one. Start with an easy one? What the hell are the rest of them going to be?” (laughing)

Your musical vocabulary is so extensive, what pulled you toward the soul blues category? Why that direction? “Because it moves me,” she says with emphasis. “For me, it’s telling a story from the gut. When I was young, I heard gospel. My mother used to listen to all kinds of music and she sang around the house. My sister and I sang as kids and we harmonized, and I loved it. We always had music in the house. Everything turned into a song. My mother would always break into some kind of song during a conversation. It was hilarious. And my sister and I have sung ever since we were little. We were the ones that always sang at the family picnics. You know the popular music of the day—Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, that kind of stuff. We would always sing at home, I would sing along with records, in choir in school, and a cappella. But the things that really jumped out at me and moved me were rhythm and blues and gospel. I liked that powerful, soul-wrenching message that border-lined on heartbreak and euphoria. And I think that’s what I love about blues…and the rhythm and blues soulful aspect of it. It has depth.”

You grew up in the Bay Area? “Yes, grew up in Oakland. Grew up is a subjective term. [laughing] I was actually born in Alameda, which is right next door to Oakland. We moved to Millbrae when I was in the 7th grade, I went to school there and was involved in music and stuff. I even sang Handel’s Messiah in a contest there one time. And I loved that stuff; I loved to sing. I love all kinds of music, I really do. I love the expression, how you can take something and express it a different way, make it your own. I love all facets; I like folk, rock, and gospel. I like country, more old school kind of stuff. I like to mix it up.”

Who influenced you musically growing up? “Back in my early teens, I loved Ray Charles. My mom had Ray Charles records. And she had African drum music and we used to dance around the house to a lot of rhythmic stuff. I loved Johnny Mathis and the Ink Spots. When I got a little bit older and I first heard Janis Joplin. Okay, that got me. Man, that’s some soulful shit there. Like, wow, okay! I remember sitting in a parking lot waiting for my old man to get out of work, singing ‘Piece o’ My Heart’ in the car. Little did I know, he wasn’t even at work! So that was the beginning of the end of that relationship! [laughing] The poignant lyrics.” Michele, much like her mother used to do, breaks into song. “Take another little piece o’ my heart now, baby!”

Ray Charles and the Rhythm and Blues thing, that kind of stuff was just cool. Wilson Pickett, the Coasters. I loved the Coasters, loved that tongue-in-cheek humor. A lot of Motown stuff and then I heard Bonnie Raitt. Okay, that’s really cool, I can relate to that. But I also loved Joan Baez. I used to do a lot of Joan Baez a lot of folky kind of stuff.”

When did you clue into blues music? “Two weeks after I graduated from high school my mother got married and I was only 17 and didn’t have a job. I moved with her and her new husband to Orange County. I left everybody I knew after high school and it was like the end of the world as I knew it. So that put a little rebel streak in me. I went to junior college and met this crazy chick who turned me on to, well… things. [laughing] It brought out some other parts of me. The first guy I started hanging with had this old Volvo, a low-rider and had his hair all greased back, and he would play all these old blues songs. I was like, okay this is hip. I didn’t know what they were, I just knew they were freakin’ cool. And I was with this greaser in some old, vintage Volvo! [laughing] I thought it was cool. And then I started hanging with the bikers. I met these bikers at a Tastee Freeze where I worked. And that took me down a whole different avenue.”

You were a rebel. “Meanwhile my mother was ‘Yaaagghhh!’ And I moved in with these bikers..[laughing] I wore a primary chain as a belt. I was badass. At least I pretended I was badass. Everybody thought I was a hippie, but I really wasn’t. I felt like an undercover agent, because it wasn’t my life. I was an undercover agent for the blues.” [laughing]

Were you singing? “No, I wasn’t singing, but when I was with the bikers we did win a free pitcher of beer because I sang a Janis Joplin song… and I wasn’t even 21. [laughing] And then I got pregnant with the leader of the pack. I left that situation and moved in with my dad and stepmom because my mom was freaked out about me being pregnant at 19… by a biker. I had my son and ended up relocating to Northern California again, to Los Gatos. I lived with my sister and her family for awhile before I met somebody and moved to his ten acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We built a cabin together, all by hand. We had no electricity and I used to listen to music on a little transistor radio. Our water was gravity fed and came from a big holding tank. We cleared the land ourselves and built everything by hand. I was listening to a lot of folk music and English madrigal type music, fun, cool stuff and blues. It was a station called KFAT out of Gilroy, California. That station was my solace.”

KFAT was legendary, were you ever able to get out and see any live music or shows? “I went to a concert at a college,” she says. “It was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. And I went, ‘Wow!’ So I became a convert way back then not realizing how broad this whole family was. But seeing Sonny and Brownie in person…this was freakin’ cool!

So you’re living in a rustic, hand-built cabin in the mountains? “It was probably 1973 or ’74 and I was making a plan of escape because I was not in a good marriage. I wanted to go sing. Are you kidding me? I wanted to go find Charlie Musselwhite or Juice Newton because they were playing close by and real popular. Just to go sit in and share my voice, but my husband was so jealous I didn’t have the confidence to go do it. I was looking for a way to evolve. One morning after a party, I fishtailed off a 250-foot cliff and rolled nine times. Thank God it was a Dodge Power Wagon! Yeah, rolled nine-times…and with my dog in the back. I climbed back up the hill and the dog was at the top with a stick in his mouth. Thank God, I didn’t kill him. It was Friday the 13th.”

Damn. “The end result was not long after the accident, I found out I was pregnant with my second child.”

You have one child and one on the way. “Well, when I was coming to term, there was a huge storm coming in so we decided to go down to my husband’s mother’s house so we wouldn’t get stuck in the storm and I can’t get out. The storm comes and my husband says he needs to go back to feed the animals. I go into labor and when he finally comes back, I’m already in the hospital and he’s stoned… bad! Right then and there, as soon as this baby reaches a certain age, I’m gone.

“I ended up relocating to Reno where my mother and sister are now living. It’s 1976 and I thought my sister and I could start an act. But she had already started her musical career. She taught herself how to play guitar and she hooked up with a jazz band. I was crushed because she had already moved beyond that and I’m just this little country girl trying to make it. [laughing] Turns out she wasn’t happy and wanted to leave the band and why don’t I learn some of those songs and I could step in to her spot. So I learned a bunch of standards and those were some of the first songs I performed in public. They were jazz standards in front of a seven-piece orchestra.”

I’ve never known someone whose first garage band was a seven-piece orchestra. “It was so fun hanging out with those older cats, the musicians, and listening to their stories. Some of them were curmudgeons and some were comedians, but they were great and I learned a lot. I didn’t know anything. People would come up to me and say, ‘You’re so young, how do you know these songs? [laughing]

“But I wanted to do other types of music, so I put a note up in a music store in Reno and found this southern rock band that needed a singer. We did a bunch of different stuff and over the course of time I was doing Janis Joplin, I was doing Joan Baez, and I belonged to the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association. I loved all kinds of music; I loved the old-timey country stuff, the harmonies and textures… and the stories.

“The bands evolved over time and I was doing rockabilly and blues, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, Motown kind of stuff. And I’m raising a family by myself. I’m working, I’ve got two kids and I met these guys from Virginia City, Nevada who were much better players. We played in these bitchin’ old weird, funky bars where you could see daylight through the floor. Camel races, bathtub races, and biker bars. The End of the Trail, The Golden Gate Bar… just funky dives, I loved it!

“In 1992 I met and started playing with some guys at a blues jam at a place called Hacienda del Sol in Reno, the band was called Guitar Woody and the Fly by Night band. So it became Guitar Woody and the Fly by Night band featuring the Queen of Steam, Michele Lundeen!”

Rolls right of the tongue. “…hard to fit on a playbill!” [laughing]

Let’s talk about your moniker, the Queen of Steam. “I was called that by a DJ named Emerson Biggins,” she says. “And I think it’s two-fold. I love to jump around and dance around and get in people’s faces when I can. I’m energetic on stage, but I think it also comes from the way I sing and the passion behind my singing.”

In 1996 you relocate again, this time to San Diego. “I didn’t know anybody and I had a computer problem.” Michele says. “I called up somebody out of the paper and they came to my house. I had blues books lying all around because I had been a blues editor and co-founder of the Reno Blues Society, and he’s looking at all these books and says, ‘You into the blues?’ Oh, yeah, I’m a singer. He goes, ‘really, I’m a bass player.’ So, he turned me on to a gig at Blind Melon’s in 1997. And that’s when I first met Ric Lee and we formed a band. We played at Blind Melon’s and Patrick’s and that became my home away from home.”

You have an alter ego. Where did the persona, Madame LeRoux, come from? “So, Ric had his Bayou Brothers band but he also played drums in my band. He invited me to play at a Blues in the Schools thing. I made a feathered head dress for a Mardi Gras party so why don’t I dress up and be all voodoo-ish! We did a couple of gigs like that and over time I added more songs, eventually it just became a thing and evolved into Madame LeRoux and Krewe. And I can be somebody else, that other part of me.

“I had somebody come up to me the other night after I sang ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’, the Meters song, and said, ‘Are you from New Orleans?’ I said, ‘No, I’m from Oakland.’ She goes, ‘Wow, you just took me back; it made me feel like I was at home!’ And that made me feel awesome. I want to move people, even if it’s just one person. I want to move people with the depth of my story. I want people to feel what I feel when I’m singing.”

A lot of Michele’s success comes from the company she keeps. Over the years she has played in San Diego, Lundeen has worked with some of the very best. Her list of guitarists is stellar: Jimmy Woodard (currently), Charles Burton, Kenny Beaumont, Eric Heuschele, John January, Reuben Vigil, Johnny Vernazza, and Nik Simons.

Let’s talk a little about your 2004 CD, Song Inside Me. “Johnny Vernazza was instrumental in the initial line up.” Lundeen says. “It was amazing because I’m from the Bay Area. After meeting Johnny and playing with him and the Bayou Brothers, I asked if he would help co-produce my CD. He had done it before and he knew a lot of people and my God, I loved Elvin Bishop! It was so up my alley—it’s blues, gospel and fun, it’s all that. So when Johnny agreed to do it, he said, ‘I know a studio!’ I thought this is perfect, I’ll go back to where I’m from, my roots.”

The album featured nine original songs, three covers, and Roy Rogers. Michele just smiles. “Johnny says, ‘Roy lives close to the studio, so maybe he’ll come do it.’ I’m like, ‘Well, hell yeah!’ I love Roy. So he did just a duet with me and it was the first song I did in the studio with him. ‘My All Day Blues’ with Roy Rogers and I’m going, ‘Holy shit!’ And he’s hilarious and cool and the guys are all funny. I’m lifelong friends with Steve Evans, the former bass player with Coco Montoya. He played with Elvin and is currently with Chris Cain. And Johnny Vernazza is just amazing and he got all these guys together and it was a dream come true. That album is still getting airplay all these years later. The guys were so good in the studio. Johnny and that crew from the Bay Area and then my band from San Diego, which, at that time, was Charles Burton, Tim Cash, and Ric Lee. Sue Palmer played on it too.”

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I asked Johnny Vernazza about working and producing alongside Michele. “Michele was a treat to work with,” he told me. “She loves music and the blues and really enjoyed the process of recording as well as the group of players I put together for her. She was untiring and always up to task. Her vocal work shined on that CD.” Vernazza adds, “Love Michele… she is one of the sweetest folks around.”

How did you guys meet originally and how did the project come together? “I had just moved to San Diego from Oakland and met Michele through Jonny Vaiu,” Vernazza says. “I had been producing quite a bit at that time and she heard some of my work and we talked about me producing her next CD. I suggested recording up in the Bay Area, one because all my contacts were there, and two, I felt it would be good for her to get out of town for the project. There are fewer distractions and you can keep focused on the job at hand.”

There was firepower in that lineup. “I put together a great crew of Steve Evans on bass, Gary Silva drums, and Austin de Lone on keys. All these cats are the cream of the crop and have worked with everyone up in San Francisco. I’ve been friends with Roy [Rogers] for 45 years and he was in town, so that was easy. Harry Gale at Route 44 did the engineering.”

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Michele, any recording in your future? “Of course!” she laughs. “I have a lot of songs. I need to just do it. I just recorded on a compilation album for Wayne Riker; Wayne got a hold of me and asked me to do a Janis Joplin song. I was so flattered and honored. I’ve been asked to do a lot of Janis Joplin songs over the years, I need to really kick ass on this and then he tells me what song it is. It’s ‘Half Moon.’ She laughs. And I don’t know that one! Yaaahhh! I gotta make that one my own and do it quick. I get to the studio and I try to do it a few times, and it can’t sound too pure. It’s gotta have some balls to it! It’s gotta be real, not fake you know?”

The new Wayne Riker project is called  R&B Thunder and is out now. The San Diego Lifetime Achievement award-winner says, “I picked Janis Joplin’s ‘Half Moon’ from the Pearl album for Michele, knowing it would be right up her alley. She performs some Joplin tunes, but not this one, so it was an exciting challenge for her and she subsequently nailed it—in one take—at our session at Studio West.”

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Tell us a little about the Blues in the Schools project? “We started that through Blues United of San Diego,” Michele says. “We emulated from the Blues Foundations program that Billy Branch started. We began sharing with the after school programs in the county and At Risk kids. It’s just magical and so awesome to see little kids’ faces. We perform an interactive music concert and try not to talk too much. We try to get them involved, to sing and to clap along or dance. The looks on their faces and the smiles and the hugs… it’s just glorious. It really is such a special thing. Again, I use the word blessed a lot. You know, I have five grandkids and the fact I still get to rock out, that’s my fix. I love to do things with the kids, and I love doing things at the senior homes. When I first started doing that, it was like hanging out with my mom or my aunts. I’m sentimental about a lot of things.”

Catch Michele Lundeen live in September! Sept. 5, Humphrey’s Backstage; Sept. 7, Old Town Blues Club; Sept. 14, Hoffer’s Cigar Bar; Sept. 17, Humphrey’s Backstage. Check the calendar for details.

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