The BellRays’ sound is one of those simple but undeniably effective combinations: soul vocals and garage rock music, both of which they belt out at maximum force. Those things work perfectly in combination but, as their singer Lisa Kekaula explains, getting in front of a rock band wasn’t easy at first. Her audition for the band, then called ‘The Bloodthorns’, didn’t go well at all.
“It was one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve ever been through in my life,” she says. “It actually made me not want to do bands at all, that one audition. It was just the fear of it, it was so different from what I had been doing.”
What Kekaula had been doing was singing with jazz performers, extremely professional and well-mannered modern jazz groups full of the kind of musician’s musicians who take the job very seriously. But while Bob Vennum, the guitarist who had invited her to try out for The Bloodthorns, seemed excited for her to be there, “the guys that he was playing with at the time really didn’t seem to care that much.”
Kekaula had known she wanted to be a singer from an early age, and tried out for her school choir several times, but didn’t receive much encouragement. “Because of how deep my voice is – it’s always been that way – I remember realising ‘I know what I’m doing when I sing,’ and any time that I would audition for any of the lead parts I would never get them, ever. I remember having a talk with the choir teacher, and she said the other girls they pick sang monotone, and they sang with a higher voice. She said ‘Well, they just hit all those notes exactly the way I want,’ and blah blah blah. I remember thinking that sounds like a load of shit! I didn’t do choir anymore, just made my decision that somebody like that can’t stop me from being able to sing. Why don’t I just go sing on my own?”
After that first disastrous audition with The Bloodthorns, Kekaula went back to jazz and Vennum stayed with his rock band, but the two – who had met while working the same shift at their college’s diner – started dating and eventually married. That’s what finally convinced Kekaula they should be in the same band. “You have a family, you have a kid and all that stuff, you figure ‘Well, we’re gonna have to figure out a way to at least see each other. If I’m doing a jazz band and you’re doing this it’ll be difficult, so maybe I should try to sing rock’n’roll.’ I just gave up,” she says with a laugh.
With a new name and an altered lineup, they made it work. Although they’ve never broken through to the mainstream, The BellRays have survived for 23 years, doing the hard work of frequent gigging and eventually building a reputation for legendarily hectic live shows and becoming a reliable recurring part of the bill at festivals like South by Southwest.
They’ve put out 14 albums and toured the world repeatedly, visiting Australia in 2006, 2007 and 2008, although they had to put off expensive trips like that for the last five years because, as Kekaula says with another laugh, “there’s a whole thing that happened with the music industry exploding in on itself.”
While The BellRays have been slogging away, Kekaula has maintained a sideline lending her impressive voice to dance acts. Basement Jaxx’s 2004 hit ‘Good Luck’ is the best known of these collaborations, but she’s also appeared on tracks by The Bloody Beetroots and The Crystal Method.
Although she says that it’s fun doing songs for other people, it’s not the same feeling that she gets when recording vocal takes for The BellRays, “because there’s so much energy in that live performance… If I have to go back over and sing something for The BellRays I think I’m much more critical, because that’s my baby. That’s my heart.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
The BellRays‘ ‘Black Lightning’ tour with Spurs for Jesus and The Demon Parade hits Manning Bar, Sydney University on Friday June 14.