Versatile Soozie Tyrell emerging as soloist after years as backup

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

For someone releasing her debut album, Soozie Tyrell has certainly been around.

The singer-songwriter-violinist, who put out her first CD, "White Lines," on April 8, has played for change on the streets of Greenwich Village and is performing with Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band on their current "Rising Tour."

She has been one of Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes and one of Buster Poindexter's Banshees of Blue.

She has sung the blues with John Hammond, and will be heard on "My Private Nation," the upcoming album by rockers Train ("Drops of Jupiter").

Tyrell, now 45 and living in Colts Neck, says her circuitous career path "makes total sense to me."

"For a long time, maybe I wasn't totally satisfied being the sideperson, but that's where I chose to be, whether it was some fear of success or ... I don't know," she says. "But I feel totally comfortable at this point, stepping out (as a solo artist). Right now, it seems like everything progressed pretty much like I wanted to."

Tyrell is taking advantage of the current hiatus in Springsteen's tour (which resumes May 6 in Europe) to present some shows of her own. Backed by a six-piece group, she will play at the New York nightclubs the Bottom Line and the Cutting Room on April 29 and 30, respectively, and the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, May 2.

She'll emphasize the crisp rockers and heartfelt ballads of "White Lines," an album that not only showcases the musical versatility that has made her a valued support musician, but proves she can stand on her own as a lead singer and lyricist.

Springsteen, in a prepared statement, praised "the raw beauty of her voice and violin," and said she "has been one of the best kept secrets of the New York and New Jersey musicians' community for a long time."

"She's a real honest singer, and an honest rock 'n' roller, even though she has a lot of country roots," says Southside Johnny, who employed her as a backing vocalist in the early '80s. "She likes a lot of different things. She's not just one type of musician."

"White Lines" is autobiographical at times. The album's title track is about Tyrell's travels as a youth (the daughter of an Army officer, she lived all over the United States, as well as in Italy and Taiwan), the pain caused by her parents' separation, and the constant motion the professional musician's life demands.

"Life sure ain't changed at 42," she sings, "Still got my hand out the window, my hair's blowin' back/Still tryin' to catch them white lines on the road."

In "Wild Ones," Tyrell sings compassionately about the kind of dead-end characters any nightclub performer knows well: "What happens to the wild ones? Can they ever settle down? ... They know what they want, but they know that it just won't last."

"Out on Bleecker St." was inspired by her days as a member of the Greenwich Village trio Trickster, which also featured Patti Scialfa (Springsteen's wife and E Street bandmate). It's a rollicking song, full of references to people they knew, such as "Martha he-she" and "drunken Jimmy," and the places where they used to hang out. Scialfa and the third Trickster member, Lisa Lowell, contribute harmony vocals

"Soozie told me about the song when she was writing it, and I couldn't wait to hear it," says Scialfa. "It's such a fun song, and it's all there: Martha he-she, the Lion's Head, the Village, Hell's Kitchen, the cheap cigars. Yes, we did all that. We sang on those streets; that's how we supported ourselves for a few years. It was so unbelievably freeing and empowering, and it is one of my most treasured memories."

Scialfa also sings on the track "Ste. Genevieve," a touching look at a farmer whose life is "turned upside down" by river flooding.

She says she and Tyrell "have a pretty long and emotional musical history together."

"You get to a place where you just instinctively know each other's phrasing and what you have to adjust in your individual voices to make a good working sound," Scialfa says.

"Soozie's voice, with its deep soul and sweet roughness, is so beautiful. She's just a very honest singer, and it's fun to tap into that together."

Springsteen plays lead guitar on the title track, and sings backing vocals on "Ste. Genevieve.

Tyrell originally expected him to appear on just the title track. "I got gutsy, and asked him if he'd listen to 'Ste. Genevieve,'" she says. "I told him that Patti had sung on it, and I would love for him to do a background vocal. I figured he probably would not, but I thought I would ask, and all he could do is say no. So he said, 'Let me hear it.' He listened and said, 'What do you want me to do?'"

The two musicians go back a long way. Scialfa introduced them in the '80s, and Tyrell says she almost went on tour with him in 1988.

"I actually auditioned -- it was sort of an audition -- for the 'Tunnel of Love Tour,'" she says. "I went to his house and pulled out the violin, and he pulled out a guitar, and we played for ... I don't know, two hours, it seemed like. I was actually asked to do the tour, but then something came up, or they decided to change their minds."

Springsteen didn't forget about her, though. She appeared on his "Lucky Town" (1992) and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (1995) albums, and she backed him on some of the shows of his 1995-96 acoustic tour. Her violin is prominently featured on his 2002 album, "The Rising."

"I was thinking to myself, 'Jeez, he's got to take me (on tour) this time. My violin's all over that record! Is he gonna get somebody else? Is he not going to use a violinist?'"

Tyrell has been staying onstage throughout most of the "Rising" shows, though she often puts down her violin and concentrates on singing when the set list veers away from the new material. She has added violin to some oldies, though, like "Dancing in the Dark" and "Atlantic City."

Though the timing couldn't be better for "White Lines" -- the tour has given Tyrell's name recognition an immeasurable boost -- the album has been in development for about two years. Jerry Klause, president of the Somers Point-based label, Treasure, discovered her during a 2001 session for singer-songwriter Patty Blee's Treasure-released album, "Disguise."

The session took place at Scullville Studios in Scullville, Egg Harbor Township. "I think she was down here for a total of three hours before I said to her, 'Well, you got any songs?'," says Klause. "That was pretty much it. I immediately said, 'I'd love to do a record with you, if you ever want to do a record.'

"This wasn't one of those things where we said, 'Who's the new violin player (with the E Street Band), let's do an album.' It was a year before that when we first started talking to each other. And it was one of those things where it was very surprising to me -- and to a lot of players that knew her -- that she had never done an album before."

Tyrell has been active in the New York-New Jersey music scene since 1977, when she moved from Fort Myers, Fla., to Manhattan. She lived in a rehearsal studio and performed both in the streets and with a number of different bands. She met Scialfa in late 1977 or early 1978, she says.

"A friend of mine was playing guitar with her, and said, 'You've got to come and see this girl play.' So I went to see her, and it was just, 'Whoa.' I was blown away from her writing and her voice, everything. Then we were introduced, and we hit it off immediately."

They formed a duo, then a trio with Lowell, and sang in numerous bands together. The three women even joined the Jukes as a team.

"They were trouble on the road -- they were a lot more disreputable than any of the guys," Southside Johnny jokes.

They went their separate ways, but remained friends. Scialfa became famous as a member of the E Street Band, while Tyrell fronted her own New York-based group, the Wild Blue Marlins.

The Wild Blue Marlins were courted by a major label, Tyrell says, but the deal fell through. She began to concentrate more on backing other musicians, while continuing to write.

Only half the songs on "White Lines" are new, she says. "I wish I had a little more time to put even more new material together, because I think my writing of the past few years is much better than my older writing. But I'll save it for my next record."

Tyrell says she wants to mount a full-blown tour with her own band after the "Rising Tour" ends in the fall.

"Soozie's been out on the road for 20, 25 years -- the road is not something new to her," says Klause. "The idea of her being the (main) person, as opposed to the sideperson, is the transition that we're looking to make. Ultimately, playing with Bruce, or anybody else, doesn't help you make that transition, if you don't have it."

Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger.