Lynda Kay: An Interview with the Gretsch Queen of Retro Cool
The Southern California song stylist talks about her upcoming double album, singing a duet with the late Lemmy Kilmister, and her love for sparkly Gretsch guitars.
Timing, as they say in Hollywood or in this case, Austin, Texas, is everything.
In 2008, Joe Carducci, Senior Product Manager for Gretsch Guitars happened to be at a Rockabilly Festival in Austin, Texas and saw an interesting, albeit somewhat unconventional, artist performing onstage. The petite lady, dressed up as a 50s retro rodeo queen, had a big voice, a big presence, accompanied herself on a four-string tenor guitar and supplied a steady backbeat by stomping on a bass drum pedal affixed to a big red Samsonite suitcase. Joe was mesmerized.
“Lynda Kay had the whole package. While being gloriously received by the audience, her voice, her songs, and her stage presence really intrigued me,” Joe shared. “I thought her stage persona would be better suited if she was playing a Gretsch. After a short conversation with Lynda that evening, she agreed to be a Gretsch Artist and the relationship lasts to this day. The first guitar we sent her was a Gretsch Knotty Pine Western Roundup. It was the perfect guitar for her stage persona and look back then.”
And speaking of personas and musical stages, Lynda has had numerous ones over the years and a career path that could be filed under “What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.”
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, she earned a law degree at Texas Tech but decided to follow her life-long passion for, as Lynda calls it, “acting, entertaining, and playing dress up” instead of litigating for a living. So in 1997 with $1,000 in her pocket, Lynda bought a one-way ticket to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress or the next Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett and hosting her own TV comedy variety show.
Unfortunately, that dream was never fulfilled. Although she appeared in commercials, had some bit parts in TV shows, and even had a small role in Terror Tract, a 2000 dark comedy/horror movie that starred John Ritter and Bryan Cranston, it was a failed audition for a part in a musical that started Lynda’s music career.
The casting directors told her she wasn’t right for the part but they thought her voice was amazing. She was even asked to sing another song before leaving the audition. Lynda took that most unusual audition experience as some sort of sign and worked very hard at refining her voice; a powerful one with a four-octave range that has been compared to the likes of Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, and Roy Orbison. She also decided to get more serious about songwriting and taught herself to play guitar so she could put chords to all the melodies swirling around in her head.
As a professional singer and performer, Lynda has had fun creating a slew of memorable personas. She’s been a 50s retro rockabilly/country and western darling (both solo and as part of a duet with guitarist Danny Harvey called The Lonesome Spurs), a one-woman band busking at Venice Beach, and even a club performer singing eight genres of music onstage which required eight quick wardrobe changes (thanks to Velcro).
Lynda admits the Gretsch endorsement was a big deal and the shot-in-the-arm her music career needed at the time. In 2010, Lynda’s career got another boost from Gretsch when she was featured in their “Coolness Incarnate” ad campaign and she also appeared on the cover of L.A. Weekly. That same year, Lynda released her critically-acclaimed first solo album, Dream My Darling, which was produced by her husband Jonny Coffin (of Coffin Case fame) and featured all original songs, including a duet with friend Billy Bob Thornton.
The album marked a turning point in Lynda’s career. She was saying goodbye to her retro-country-and-western-meets-rockabilly persona and morphing into the dressed-up, refined countrypolitan look and sound of a Patsy Cline circa 1961. Her next recording project, The Allure of Lynda Kay, found Lynda recording early 60s pop and R&B in the historic Capitol Records Studio with Grammy-Award nominated producer, Brad Benedict. And Lynda’s fans were also treated to seeing her perform her honky-tonk song, “Jack and Coke,” on the FX TV series Justified.
Today, the Los Angeles-based song stylist still has a love affair with the elegance, glamour, and timeless Jackie Kennedy style of the late 50s to early 60s. Lynda’s go-to look usually includes bouffant hair, chic gold lame’ outfits, and, of course, colorful, sparkly Gretsch guitars.
For the past two years, a collapsed neck disc kept Lynda from touring, but fortunately for her fans it didn’t stop her from writing songs and spending a lot of time in the recording studio. She’s happy to report that her neck is now fine. She’s even happier to report that she’ll have not one, but two albums released together as a double album package (The Lady In Gold and The Woman In Black) by the beginning of next year and plans to hit the road and tour with a 10-piece band.
Although she’s busy finishing up her double-album project (and creating videos for each of the 24 songs), Lynda took a break for a phone interview to talk about her ambitious album project, her duet with Lemmy Kilmister, and why Gretsch guitars are the perfect choice for her various musical styles.
You’re finishing up a double album. How would you describe it?
Twenty-four tracks of gold-and-black goodness with some surprises in there too. It’s called “Lynda Kay: Black and Gold” and it’s a double album with an overlying message of hope, determination, promise, dreaming, and inspiration. The Gold album absolutely stays in the late 50s/early 60s Southern California era, but I did a little exploring on the Black album. I’m really proud of how it’s coming together.
Did this project start out as a double album?
No, it was just going to be a single album. But a contract I was in had ended; one where I wasn’t allowed to do any country music, so I had the opportunity to revisit some songs I loved so much that I’d written and didn’t know where to put them because I was in a different musical phase. There were just too many songs I wanted to record and I didn’t feel I could get it onto one album, so I had to do two. But, more than that, this collection of songs just didn’t belong on the same album. The music is definitely from two different eras.
Tell us about the first album, “The Lady In Gold.”
I’d call it pure early-60s gold. I cover Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity” because I just love that song and performing it, eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy” in a tango, and “Peter Gunn” with the vocals; I think people are going to love the lyrics on that one. And because I love Burt Bacharach and his mesmerizing arrangements so much, I recorded “The Look Of Love” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart.” Those are both essentially the same structures as the originals, but we added our own flair with the strings, horns, and woodwinds.
The rest of the songs are originals I wrote myself, with my husband Jonny, or with other songwriters. I wrote “Main Street Parade” with my dear friend, the enormously talented singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Louise Goffin, (the daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin). “One Of A Kind” was written with a friend of mine from Germany named Bernie Batke who is the bass player in Smokestack Lightnin’ and was the backup band for Bela B and myself when I toured in Germany with them. Both are such timely songs for today and each has an encouraging message of people being true to themselves. “One Of A Kind” has the most modern production and leans on the Amy Winehouse meets Portishead side, with a little Goldfrapp mixed in. I’m really excited about this album.
“The Woman In Black” is the name of the second album. How would you describe it?
It’s more rebellious than “The Lady In Gold.” It’s like early 70s music and every song on the album is original except one. This album reminds me of listening to the radio in the 70s and how you’d hear everything on one station from ZZ Top to Elton John. I loved that about music on the radio back then. This album features up-tempo originals in the rhythm, blues, and rock direction which shows my Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley influences. I also harken back to my roots with some new original rockabilly and Americana songs in the Johnny Cash/Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard vein of country. There’s some pure Memphis-soul and my only cover on this album is of my favorite Lou Rawls’ song, “Trouble Down Here Below.” This song really inspires me during these tricky times we’re living in. And then there are a few other special surprises, including, hopefully, a duet I sang and wrote with Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead called “The Mask.”
How did you get Lemmy to sing a duet with you?
Lemmy was a good friend and we used to sit around and play music, read poetry, or watch TV together. Sometimes I’d fry him a steak and serve it with the whole milk he’d ask me to bring him when I was coming over. He was an absolutely hysterical storyteller and he had tons of on-point industry advice he would share with me.
The way the duet came together was one night I stopped by The Rainbow on Sunset Blvd. to say hi to Lemmy after I’d just been recording at Billy Bob Thornton’s recording studio. When he asked “Where you been Lyn?” and I told him I was at Billy Bob’s recording a duet, he said, “Well, when are we going to do a duet together?” I said, “Tonight?” then we laughed and talked about recording a song he’d started in the 70s called “The Mask.” We finished writing the song, went into the studio, and recorded it together. With his gravel-tone voice and delivery like Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” in the American Recordings sessions, it’s Lemmy in his twilight years with honest, raw emotion. I feel honored to have written and sung this song with Lemmy and I really hope to have it on my album so people can hear how incredible he sounds. Lemmy was always so sweet and supportive of me, I want him to be remembered as the kind and thoughtful gentleman he truly was. I sure miss him a lot.
You’re a gifted songwriter. What is your creative process like?
Well, thank you. To me, songwriting is an incredible way to get out of your heart what you can’t bear to hold in anymore. I get inspiration from many different things. It can come from any emotion I’m feeling that I don’t know how to express in any other way, and tears are just not enough.
I often write melodies in my head then I’ll pull out the guitar. Sometimes I’ll match-up parts, or end up going in a totally different direction altogether. That happens quite a bit actually. And sometimes I’ll write poetry or write down some thoughts and create a song around my words. And if I’m writing with someone, like Jonny (he and I write together quite a bit) we take that same approach.
My songwriting is also very influenced by the inspiration from the guitar I’m playing. My Penguin Parlor is a perfect go-to guitar to pick up while sitting on the couch watching TV with the sound off, picking around and coming up with different ideas. And with the stroke of one big twangy chord on my Gretsch Penguin, I’m off to songwriting-land!
Which songwriters have inspired you the most?
Absolutely Roy Orbison. That man knows more of what to do with the C chord than anyone I’ve ever known. He is such an inspiration. I’d also include Burt Bacharach and Willie Nelson. And Johnny Cash too; I love the simplicity of his songwriting and the power of his message.
Which Gretsch guitars did you use on your album?
First of all, Gretsch guitars are perfect for me because of all the different styles of music I play. They’re so versatile. My favorite for “The Lady In Gold” album was absolutely my White Penguin; I feel a kind of symbiosis with that guitar. It’s just incredible and has such beautiful resonance and versatility.
For “The Woman In Black” album, my favorite go-to guitar was my Gretsch Gold Sparkle Jet. I love that one and it was the perfect guitar for everything; it just cuts through in the right amount whether you’re playing rock, rockabilly, or country. On both albums I’m playing rhythm guitar on my Rancher Penguin Parlor. I love that guitar, it’s a great sounding instrument, easy to play, and it’s a good size for me. Some acoustic guitars can be kind of brutal on your fingers, but my Penguin Parlor has wonderful action.
What Gretsch guitars do you own and play?
My first Gretsch was the Knotty Pine Western Roundup, which is just an incredible work of art. I also have a Gold Sparkle Jet with a Bigsby, a White Penguin, a black Rancher Jr. acoustic, a white Rancher Penguin Parlor acoustic, a black sparkle Gretsch baritone guitar, and one of those cool, mid-sized Gretsch Playboy Executive amps. And the great thing about all my Gretsch guitars is that they sound so fantastic plugged straight into the amp. I rarely need to depend on pedals for tone. I feel so lucky to be part of the Gretsch family of artists. It’s a big deal and has been a big boon to my career.
Do you remember the first Gretsch guitar you saw?
Yes, and George Harrison was playing it. It was the black Duo Jet George was playing on the cover of his Cloud Nine album.
Being immersed in a musical experience is important to you isn’t it?
Absolutely. All my life I’ve loved costumes and imagery and I love for it to be in an immersive experience whenever I’m listening to music. Music is the soundtrack of our lives. And being immersed can transport you into a completely different world of imagination. It certainly did for me growing up. I just loved the experience of buying an album, taking it home, reading it cover to cover, and losing myself in the artist’s lyrics, imagery, sound, and vision. That’s exactly how I plan to do the design on my next album, and, yes, I will be pressing in vinyl.
What is it about Southern California in the late 50s/early 60s that fascinates you?
It was a magical time. There were a lot of really significant cultural shifts in the world at that time, and Southern California’s style during the early 60s time period was historically and musically leading the way to projecting a new idea of the American Dream. There was so much optimism. A promise for a different future from what the world had experienced and Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Palm Springs were so instrumental, so emblematic of the era. And even today, it still has that same glimmer of optimism, dreaminess, and hope. There’s an undeniable mystique about Southern California.
Any regrets about leaving Texas, chucking your law degree and moving to L.A.?
No, I like this kooky city. Although L.A. has its share of detractors, it is a fabulous town. It absolutely tests you for the real world every single day, even if it’s just through the traffic alone. But despite all its challenges, I love Los Angeles!
What advice would you give aspiring musicians, especially female musicians?
Play music because you love it. That’s the only reason that you should be playing music at all. This business is way too hard to be in if it’s not what you have in your heart and in your soul. And, if you do, make sure that you give that heart and soul in every single song you perform because it’s a true gift. And if you are able hold on tight to the tail end of that crazy dragon, which is what the music business is, you’ll eventually land in a spot that is perfect for yourself and those who are drawn to your music, and that is very rewarding.
LYNDA KAY FUN FACTS:
Red is her favorite color.
She would love the chance to sing a song with Willie Nelson.
Roy Orbison is the one artist she wishes she could’ve sang with.
Lynda’s mother grew up in Lubbock, Texas and went to high school with Buddy Holly.
Cake is her favorite guilty pleasure.
Growing up, Lynda and her dad’s favorite songs to sing together were “Delta Dawn,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ The Floor Over You.”
Lynda’s first performance was in her neighbor’s garage at age four. She choreographed an interpretive dance to Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun.”
Lynda sings her song, “Jack and Coke,” that she performed on the Justified TV series.
The music video of “Dream My Darling,” one of Lynda’s favorite songs that she has written with her husband, Jonny Coffin.