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Bixler finds new voice with ‘We Don’t Own the Blues’

Leslie Bixler, of Malibu, will have a Sept. 29 album release party for “We Don’t Own the Blues,” at Casa Escobar in Malibu. Suzy Demeter
The cover of “We Don’t Own the Blues” is shown. Artwork by Gina Szafner
Leslie Bixler (center) performs with Bill Bixler and Monty Pollack during a songwriters night at Casa Escobar in June. Suzy Demeter/22nd Century Media
Barbara Burke, Freelance Reporter
10:50 am PDT September 12, 2017

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the North, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness,” wrote Frederick Douglass in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” “It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” 

All of us evolve over a lifetime, perhaps in a vocation, an avocation, one’s personality, or in all other dimensions that blend to define a person’s journey.

Malibu’s eclectic and electrifying Leslie Bixler has been writing, recording, performing and evolving as a talented, cutting-edge artist since her early 20s. Her works range from smooth jazz, to rock and roll, to charming children’s records, to the blues — her current fascination and focus.

Bixler’s newest album, “We Don’t Own the Blues,” created under the moniker “Miss Bix,” is a soulful, sultry, sensuous collection of Mississippi Delta songs written by Bixler and produced by Ralph Carter (musical director for Eddie Money and co-writer of the hit “Shakin,” composed and produced music for “Dancing with the Stars,” and Kidthing). The pair, who have collaborated on some of Bixler’s other albums, including “Moon Food,” added many multifaceted musicians on the album, including guitarist Franck Goldwasser, JT Thomas (touring with Bruce Hornsby) on B3 and keyboards, Gary Mallaber (drummer for Van Morrison and Steve Miller) on drums, RJ Mischo, a stellar harmonica player, Bill Bixler playing saxophone, and Brian Calway on harmonica. The album also features Chad Smith (drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) who makes a guest appearance on drums. 

The multi-faceted Carter played guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele, keys, piano and bass.

Malibu Surfside News sat down with the Bixler and Carter to talk about the creative process, the synergy and the soul that combined to make the pair’s latest album.

“Both Leslie and I got a re-exposure to the blues through the workshops that we worked at together in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I saw Leslie light on fire,” Carter said. “The spirit of the blues hangs very heavily there and you can feel the depth of the culture.  

“ ... [Leslie] embraced it and her background – she’s an incredibly versatile musician as a songwriter and musician – combined with the soulfulness of the blues, that deep feeling of the blues, created a magical combination. She let it take her where it was meant to go.”

For her part, Bixler says she and Carter have great synergy.

“We have complementary skills,” she said. “I’m darting and outgoing. He’s a plodder. He knows how to take what I’ve done and bring the best out.”

Bixler connects with the Deep South and the blues that evoke the struggles of slaves, the disenfranchised, people paralyzed by poverty, and especially women, who are restrained by stereotypes and who desperately want to break free and find their voice.

“I dedicate this collection of songs to women everywhere who have been silenced, trivialized, shamed, or excluded,” the album cover states. “Keep holding on. A change is gonna come.”

The collaboration between Bixler and Carter has resulted in a phenomenal, emotive, evocative album that beckons one to feel the music, to dance rhythmically to it, and to literally immerse oneself in its rawness.

The album speaks of love, love lost, eternal yearning, elusive justice, angst, and of yearning to be free. 

Bixler’s voice, vibes and volume are sensual and evocative.

The gritty, gutsy sequences and interludes of the album mesmerize the listener. One feels they are entrenched in the emotions, the hurts, the haunts, the sometimes aching hollowness at the bottom of the human soul. And yet, the album excites and invigorates the listener.

“I want every song to feel good — to have that groove where you want to move to it,” Bixler said. “The pocket is where the beat is laid back enough that you’re grounded in your body. The rhythm is so important. The best players really understand that is where you put your vocals to the back of the beat where the listener is so relaxed. A lot of the delivery is phrasing as well – you come in late to the phrase. I strive for the back beat. It gets your attention like you’re speaking to someone.”

The blend of Bixler’s resonant voice, voluminous and voluptuous, with the instrumentals makes for a great listen.

“I really think I’m at home in the blues even though I’m not a classical blues musician,” Bixler said. “In this album, I stretch out a little singing simple blues melodies.”

Dick Van Dyke, with whom Bixler has collaborated in creating children’s albums (“Moon Food” and “Rhythm Train”), has seen Bixler evolve as an artist. He knows a cutting-edge body of work when he hears it.

“Leslie and I have collaborated on the children’s albums where she wrote the very best children’s songs,” Van Dyke said. “In this work, it’s all brand new blues. The songs have got all that soul.” 

Somewhere between jamming and conversing about the songs, Bixler and Carter realized they had a wonderful, creative success. Their biggest challenge was finalizing the album production.

“We started making sketches of songs in one session and then layered on parts, drums or some sort of percussion, bass, or a couple of guitar parts,” Carter said. “At one point, Leslie turned around and said ‘I’ve got an album here.’ Then, we turned around and let ourselves be creative. 

“Leslie can think outside of the box and we allowed ourselves to be experimental and followed our gut. We’d work on a song for a session or two and then put it away and come back to it and decorate it the way we wanted it. We had a huge amount of creativity going on. The tough part was choosing what songs to put on the album. Our sketches survived and there are songs for the next album.”

“We Don’t Own the Blues” is an intense, passionate body of work.

“I’ve worked with a lot of performers and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Leslie because she knows how to work with others and deliver it,” Carter said. “You can open your mouth and sing on pitch, but to know how to deliver the feeling about what you’re doing — that’s what separates the real artists from the amateurs.”

B.B. King once said “The blues are three L’s, and that would be living, loving, and, hopefully, laughing.” 

None of us may own the blues. 

However, when Bixler sings a blues song, she owns one’s admiration, and all who listen feel her sense of lessons learned while living, loving and laughing.

Fans new and old are invited to Bixler’s album release party at Casa Escobar at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29. The event, which is free, will feature Bixler, Carter, Montgomery Pollack and Pete Gallagher.