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October 2023
Vol. 23, No. 1

Cover Story

Lisa Sanders and Karen Hayes: ALMOST FAMOUS

by Tamra MillerFebruary 2014
Lisa Sanders & Karen Hayes, aka Brown Sugar. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Lisa Sanders & Karen Hayes, aka Brown Sugar. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Lisa and Karen with Steve Poltz

Lisa and Karen with Steve Poltz


Jewel Kilcher works behind the counter serving muffins and coffee. Steve Poltz is on stage telling a meandering story that will eventually lead into a song; his Mexican adventure with Jewel during which they co-wrote “You Were Meant for Me” has yet to happen. The cast of characters milling about will shape the San Diego music scene for decades to come. We’re talking about local luminaries Gregory Page, Jeff Berkley, Calman Hart, Joy Eden Harrison, Carlos Omeda, Elizabeth Hummell, Peggy Watson, Dave Howard, Mary Dolan, John Katchur, Sven-Erik Seaholm, CiCi Porter, Wayne Price, and, of course, Lisa Sanders.

These musicians all gravitated to an unlikely music haven — then located in a strip mall in Poway — which would put San Diego on the musical map. What Frank Zappa did for the Laurel Canyon music scene, Java Joe did in San Diego by providing a community in which artists could flourish. Though he didn’t always recognize great talent in his midst (he fired Jewel) Java Joe certainly had a way of attracting it. I imagine it was one of those times when those involved sensed they were part of a legend in the making. Looking back it was a golden convergence of talent and serendipity that would launch careers and cement friendships. Lisa calls it fate.

Lisa loves these words, “serendipity” and “fate” and uses them to account for any number of fortuitous events in the arc of her career. “I was right on time,” she says about being a part of the pack at Java Joe’s. “I was behind the eight ball so to speak but right on time, right where I was supposed to be, right there with Jewel, right there with Poltz.” Already divorced and in her 30s, Lisa routinely brought her two daughters along with her, sitting them down at a table with coloring books to keep them occupied. Lisa knew she had something going with her songs and the coffeehouses were where she could give them wings.

It was Lisa’s oldest brother, Ty, who sparked her interest in music when she was a little girl. “I learned to sing because of him,” she remembers nostalgically. “He would play guitar and I would sing.” Lisa tagged along with her brother everywhere growing up and says of him, “He’s the air that I breathe.” His untimely death from cancer six years ago devastated Lisa. By the time she was seven Lisa and Ty were singing on street corners in their hometown of Philadelphia. Her first song came at the age of eight or nine, set to the tune of “Greensleeves.” It wouldn’t be long before Lisa created her own melodies, which seem to come through her without the usual labored birthing process most writers suffer. “I am innately a songwriter; it’s my God’s gift,” acknowledges Lisa matter-of-factly and without pretense.

Gifted as she is, it had not dawned on Lisa that she was also a powerful performer. She intended to write songs for others to perform. “I was so shy I couldn’t even look at people when I sang,” Lisa explains. Christopher Hoffee, who co-produced Lisa’s album Hold on Tightly, emphatically recognized her as the full package: “One thing I recall was her talking about being a writer for other people and focusing more on that than being a performer. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘NOOOOO! You are an amazing performer and singer! Don’t stop!’” Lisa credits Doug Millwood, who used to run the open mic nights at Java Joe’s, with coaxing her off the diving board. He accompanied Lisa to her first opening act at the Curbside in Vista, after which he said, “Now get your own show.”

It’s a dry, chilly January night in San Diego as I walk the several blocks from my parking space in Normal Heights and approach the door of Lestat’s West . “The Lisa Sanders Show” illuminates on the marquee of the popular Adam’s Avenue music venue. Manager/engineer Louis Brazier has mixed the sound to perfection and the fans assemble. Lisa is enthusiastically at home here, “ I love Lestat’s; I love that it’s intimate, I love that Louis is there; I love that I get to sing on the Gregory Page Stage.”

After two opening acts, Lisa takes the Gregory Page Stage to a warm reception. She holds her most coveted guitar, a Larrivee, to which she has glued a furry mustache. Several tables have been reserved for a group of young fans that will be treated to a career-spanning set, punctuated by Lisa’s stories from the road, from love, from life. Chairs are also filled with members of Lisa’s extended family to whom she is quite close. Many in attendance have followed Lisa’s music from the time she got her start in the Java Joe’s days.

While Lisa’s voice represents well on recordings, the strength of her lush vocals, rich with pathos and adroit guitar accompaniment, make her live shows an energizing event. Soon after the music begins I notice my mind escaping its usual round of cares and grumbles and find my feet reflexively tapping. I look around to witness bodies swaying; the audience no longer observers but now participants. Good live music coaxes us out of our isolation and reconnects us with pieces of ourselves that we may have left behind. After the show, one man will gratefully tell Lisa he is going to get out his drum kit again and return to his musical roots. Another woman will share that Lisa’s voice made her cry.

Stage right stands Ms. Karen “Brown Sugar” Hayes — the harmony to Lisa’s melody — whose presence adds both sweetness and spice with her darting repartee and sensual musical evocations. They met in high school; both attended Mt. Carmel in Kearney Mesa yet did not form a friendship until a chance encounter at a Kingdom Hall meeting in Escondido over two decades ago. After graduation, life took them in different, albeit mirrored directions, including marriage to high school sweethearts, children, and then divorce, each within a year of the other. As newly single moms, both were eager to build a community of support for their children and from that imperative grew an enduring friendship and musical collaboration.

Singing together happened organically when Karen began chiming in with her spare, well-placed harmonies as Lisa wrote songs. Karen is a natural harmonizer, content to stay out of the spotlight; her joy comes from artfully blending her voice with Lisa’s melodies, which she says, “melt me.” Steve Poltz, who has written two songs with Lisa, including the heartfelt “Rainbow,” inspired by Lisa’s Dad, says this about Karen’s contribution to the band: “ I love Brown Sugar. Brown Sugar is good for Lisa. She is gorgeous; she adds a really good comic relief on the stage. She doesn’t overstep her bounds. She lets Lisa shine. She knows it’s Lisa’s show and she’s there for support. I’m a fan.” On performing together Lisa declares, “She’s my muse; it has taken years of singing together to get to the symbiotic point. Having Karen sing with me is like heaven.”

Karen and Lisa counterpoint nicely, with Karen being the more jocular of the two; she has large, mischievous eyes that suggest she knows something she’s not telling. It’s clear she is Lisa’s biggest musical supporter, though she is beguiling and talented in her own right. Lisa has the more serious nature. She shares her treasure trove of life adventures with a wry humor. Her motto: “A whole lotta living, a little bit of time.” Lisa is warm, earnest, and humble, at times taciturn, revealing her deeper emotions in song. Both gals have large, devoted families and share a love of cooking, especially fried chicken. Lisa builds furniture as a hobby. Karen loves to dance.

Many stars have taken a shine to Lisa over the years and no musical alliance is more precious than her long-time friendship with Grammy-award winning singer Lucinda Williams (Williams is coming to the Belly Up this month; see page 12 for a profile), aka America’s best songwriter. “Lu,” as she is known to friends and fans, has had a defining influence on Lisa, immersing her in the music she came from but had yet to embrace: the blues.

Growing up in the folk era, Lisa listened to such artists as Crosby Stills and Nash, Jackson Brown, and Joni Mitchell. “In the ’70s I was a huge hippie. I saw all the big people at the Sports Arena (the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd) just like in the movie Almost Famous.” And while her musical excursions also included Motown, rock, country, Americana, and jazz, it was not until a dear friend introduced her to the music of Etta James and Lucinda Williams, that Lisa’s heritage and music came full circle at last.

Serendipity struck again when, as fate would have it, Lucinda Williams walked in one night to a concert at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, where Steve Poltz was playing. After Lisa came on stage and sang a rousing rendition of “Cry Me a River” to close the show, Lu was waiting for her at the bar. “Who are you and what are you doing here? I want to know everything about you.” Lisa handed Lu a copy of her CD Hold on Tightly that night and then waited, and waited. Month’s later Lu recognized Lisa at a Los Angeles music store signing and “hugged the crap out of me,” Lisa says, and then told her manager, ”this is the girl we listen to in the car.”

After that Lisa was invited by Lu to come to LA where she was her guest at the Safari Hotel. “She put me up for three days and took me around to meet everyone that could help me.” During her stay Lu gave Lisa a CD featuring the lady blues greats of the ’30s and ’40s. “I cried like a baby. For the first time I heard the blues, I heard my people, what they had to do to make it, the reality of black people, and it hit me that I knew where our struggles came from,” recalls Lisa.

Lisa’s talent has attracted opportunities to work with and learn from superstars like B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and T- Bone Burnett. In addition she has opened shows for the likes of Gillian Welch and Joe Cocker. After coming to the attention of Sara McLachlan’s manager, she was invited to join the 1999 tour of Lillith Fair. “I got to see how a big festival machine works — it was priceless,” says Lisa of the experience. Lisa also was invited to the 2008 Telluride Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year Festival where she took third place, a testament to her musical diversity. Of her good fortune, Lisa says, “Hanging out with famous artists, I got these privileges. They got to show me what I would like once I’m in that reality, which I believe I may be very shortly.”

According to Lisa her records sell like hotcakes at her shows and it is little wonder given her captivating performances. “Every time I’ve ever showcased Lisa,” says Steve Poltz, “she’s batted it out of the park.” His fans come up to him after shows and ask, “Who was that girl? What’s her name again and where is she playing?” Even so, her music has yet to break into the wider market she’s been yearning to reach. With unintended irony, Karen says of Lisa, “She is one of the best kept secrets in music.” It’s a secret Lisa is clearly weary of keeping.

Like a rock in a rough current, Lisa has weathered the music business, been tumbled around, been taken on some amazing rides, been worn a little smoother for it all. She is often asked why she is not famous. To this question she has mixed musings. “I couldn’t run all over the world and leave my kids at home.” “It wasn’t my time yet; I can say that honestly.” “I liken my career to steps and I’ve been building a business.” There are references to bad breaks and being told she is too much like Tracy Chapman or too old, too whatever. Fame is a fickle food, Emily Dickenson noted. However, friend Steve Poltz sees Lisa playing possum. “Lisa doesn’t really know how good she is. I find that charming and also frustrating. Sometimes I want her to be a little more bad ass.”

As with any business, or endeavor, there have also been missteps: a chance to write music for the Jackson 5; a song that didn’t end up getting placed in a Val Kilmer movie; record deals gone awry; bouts with booze and self-doubt. Karen recalls a time when after their live shows Lisa would routinely come off the stage in a funk. Feeling undermined, Karen would tell Lisa, “I had the best time in my life and you are not taking that away from me.” “{The} only thing I could see is my imperfections,” Lisa explains, “I couldn’t feel it.” The “it” Lisa alludes to is the joy of making music; she’d been unable to receive the love coming back from the fans. She often thought about quitting.

“I remember the moment that it changed,” says Lisa. It was a few years back during an audition for America’s Got Talent. The two had hoped to be selected as a duo for the television competition; however, a tuning fiasco turned their audition into an agonizing 90 seconds for Lisa. She struggled to find her opening notes, and, deeply disappointed that they were not chosen to continue, left the room bitter. Karen, incensed not by the missed opportunity but by Lisa’s defeatist attitude, gave her the “what for” talk. Lisa admits she was taking the joy out of music, “I had to drop my rock; I needed to change, to find what makes me happy. Nothing gets in my way now.”

In order to continue making music, Lisa has worked at a number of jobs over the years to keep a roof over her children’s heads and the gas and lights on. My favorite is sperm deliverer for the doggy sperm bank, though she has also fixed windshields, cleaned teeth, made pizza, checked groceries and arranged flowers. Even so, the gas and lights did go off a few times. Lisa also says she’s lived in her car and lost everything she owns, twice. More recently, Lisa taught music to a class of adoring school children for several years until budget cuts ended the program. Karen, a nurse, has worked in home health care for the past 11 years.

Perhaps of all the honors Lisa has received to date, she is most proud of the award she was bestowed by the National Association of Professional Women. The group celebrates women who do not come from a business background but have nevertheless created and sustained a business to accomplish their goals. The award will be officially presented in New York this spring. According to Lisa, no one in her family has ever done anything like she has done, “I’m proud of the fact that through sheer determination I’m still here. I stepped out to be a writer and ended up being an entertainer,” says Lisa. Another feather in her cap is a San Diego State University documentary made about Lisa’s career. The film is currently making its way around the college film festival circuit. Lisa also recently signed contracts with CBS Viacom to license her songs for movie and television placement.

And the momentum continues. Lisa’s eighth album, Shiver, will be released on March 8. No doubt brother Ty would be proud. The CD release party will be held at Queen Bee’s Arts & Culture Center in North Park. The public is warmly welcomed. Doors open at 7pm, music begins at 8pm. Among those musicians taking the stage as special guests will be guitar great Doug Pettibone, who plays with John Mayer and Lucinda Williams, as well as Josh Damigo and Randy Driscoll.

Lisa promises the album, which has been in production for the past four years, will be her best yet. It’s about love and all its facets. Produced by Jeff Berkley, Shiver features songs “Sometimes It’s Hard to Fly” written by David Howard, who is credited with being the most covered of all San Diego writers; “In My Mind” written with Annie Dru, whom Lisa calls one of the best lyricists in town; and a Lisa/Karen co-write titled “That’s How I Feel About You.” Other tracks include favorites like “Butterflies” and “Stars,” which Lisa wrote for the wedding of her fans Ben and Sue. A promotional campaign and tour will follow. Lisa says she and Karen will be on the road for most of the next two years.

“It is my time,” says Lisa. She’s always known her music would take her places. She has a sense for these things; she knew Jewel would be a superstar. Years later Lisa would be struck by the same feeling when in 1999 she met Jason Mraz at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach. After shaking his hand and saying hello (even before he took the stage to perform) Lisa told Java Joe, “Jason is going to be a star.” As for her own star potential, Lisa says, “I’m not a household name maybe; maybe that will never happen, but I have a rich life, the best family and friends.”

During the course of our interviews I asked Lisa which of her songs she thinks is most autobiographical. She never did come up with one. When I tell her I think it’s her song “Angels” she says, “That sounds right, it was really painful, too honest.” If only Lisa could see that it’s her transparency that makes her a tour de force.

Isn’t Life Fine, 1997, produced by Cargo Records, later rereleased by MCA
Life Takes You Flying, 1999, produced by Josquin Des Pres
Lisa Sanders Live, 2002, produced by Lisa Sanders
Hold on Tightly, 2003, produced by Christopher Hoffee and Patrick Dennis
Last Night in Roseburg, 2007, produced by Jeff Berkley
The Sven Recordings, 2008, produced by Sven-Erik Seaholm
The Lisa Sanders Blues Compilation, 2012, produced by Lisa Sanders and Roxanne Stone
Shiver, set for March 8, 2014 release, produced by Jeff Berkley.

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