American Girl: an Interview with Roxanne Fontana

“Well, she was an American girl, raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life, somewhere else. After all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to. And if she had to die tryin’, she had one little promise she was gonna keep.”- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, American Girl

Roxanne Fontana is a dual-national  singer, songwriter, musician, poet, actress, author and clothing and jewelry designer.  Rarely do I come across an artist who is gifted in no less than eight facets of the arts. Roxanne Fontana is a truly astonishing artist, a one off. She’s the kind of artist who sets afire the minds and imaginations of other gifted artists, and makes journalists sit up and take notice; myself included. Once you see/hear her, once you read her writings, see and touch her utterly exquisite creations, she quite literally blows your mind…and you love every minute of it.  Her formidable talents are matched only by her boundless energy.

She knew Tom Petty. Legendary poet and photographer Gerard Malanga predicted that Roxanne Fontana would become “the voice reaching the millennium”, while Rock writer and musician Lenny Kaye described her music as “shimmering nighttime pop.”

In her current home in Herefordshire (England), the Los Angeles Beat chatted with this multi-faceted artist, on a chilly Winter morning last Friday.

First of all, I just want to say that, as of this moment, you’re easily the most multi-talented artist I have ever interviewed! A master in not less than eight facets of the Arts-WOW! At the present time, is music your primary focus?

Thank you very much. I wouldn’t say I’m a master at all of them, but I think if I had more time, that could be possible, ha. Music is the main focus presently, but since the summertime I have been concentrating on the direction to go in getting my memoir American Girl into print. I was advised to get editing done. It took a while to find an editor. New York underground scene king, the late Marty Thau (manager of the New York Dolls), pointed me to someone. Then the editing job took over a year! The version that is available on ebook now is not the original version. So I’m all ready to go now with it. My PR rep and I have just recently put the fishing rod out to one major publisher, and let’s just say the door is open and I am very excited! The book will go into print in 2018, finally. If I don’t find a deal that is acceptable to me, I will stay independent, and just work with Amazon for printing. Y’see, I have had people read this book, and then be curious about the music because of it.

You currently have over 80 compositions registered with the United States Copyright Office, authoring both lyrics and music.  In addition to the released songs, I’m told you also possess a sizable number of unreleased songs, some of which are now-over three decades later-are finally being released to your fans’ delight.

When I first started writing and putting the demos around in 1980/1981, the most frequent comment I got was “timeless.” This is probably because I am so influenced by the sixties. I guess those people were right, because as you say, I will pull an old song out, record it today, and people love it. No one says “retro.” Well, sometimes they do, lol. I haven’t even learned to play the piano yet, so I can envision myself being busy writing till at least 100 years old

Tell our readers about your current musical recordings/projects, especially your song-with noted producer Jack Douglas- ‘Time Won’t Wait’ in 2015. Can we expect to see any new recordings this holiday season?

I just went into the studio in London and recorded a Jagger/Richards cover song! I’m putting it out in early Spring. It’s a song the Stones actually never recorded, which is why I’m referring to it as a Jagger/Richards song, but I think they wrote it in 1964.

My last release was recorded in Brighton, which is on the South coast of England, and that was my song ‘He Does the Look.’ I wrote that song in 1978! The demo I recorded of it in 1981 was never released. It was okay, but not anywhere near as good as the version that I put out now, decades later. I wrote a whole article about recording this song, for UK internet magazine Zani.

Roxanne Fontana with producer Jack Douglas, mixing her 2015 single ‘Time Won’t Wait.’ Jack Douglas produced John Lennon’s last recordings.

Yes, in 2015 I went into the studio with Jack Douglas, and recorded a single with him. That was a dream come true. I’ve always been a fan of visuals, and I’ve been equally inspired to try to look good enough to make promo videos for all of these songs I’ve recorded. It’s been a major challenge to look ‘young’, but I think I’m doing okay.

Joseph Tortelli, of Goldmine Magazine, aptly described your voice as “innocent yet world-weary.” May I also add haunting and evocative as well! I think the last time a female singer’s voice moved me in so powerful, yet subtle a manner, is when I was a kid back in the sixties and was listening to Marianne Faithfull and The Shangri-Las!

Oh, thank you very much. I have to say that I was diagnosed with COPD/early emphysema a year ago, and had to cut back drastically on smoking marijuana, much to my frustration. So, lately I’ve been sitting around with my guitar and singing, as usual, and cannot believe what’s going on with my voice and how amazing it is. Sometimes now I get up after practice, and have to look in the mirror.

There are magical things happening, darling. We live in an era of auto tune, and yet I’m now working with tools of not only singing in tune but having “timber” without tech instruction.

I am a fan of the early Marianne Faithfull records from the 1960s and Francoise Hardy, and have a passionate love for the Shangri-Las. I went to high school on Long Island, actually walking distance from the Cambria Heights border, which is where the Shangri-Las are from. So I’m going to put my similarity down to accent with that one.

Thank you for appreciating the energy of my vocal style. These days everybody seems to want to sound the same. I am bored to death as a fan, I gotta tell ya. The dumbing-down of society is not just exclusive to education and politics, you know. It seems if a singer doesn’t have a powerhouse vocal, they are dismissed. But that identifiable aspect of a singing vocal is easily attained with exercise, just like sit-ups. It has nothing to do with talent, and it certainly has nothing to do with magic. In fact, it is probably the opposite.

I believe that your skill in virtually any musical genre is ever-increasingly difficult to find in most artists today. However, I personally find your work in Folk-Rock to be-for myself-the most satisfying and emotionally powerful. At this time, is there a particular musical genre that is your favorite to write/record in, and why?

The diversity that one hears in hit records of our great popular music era has been completely frowned down upon by music executives for decades now. I remember having my music rejected by some big beloved company President (CBS I think), because he said that I didn’t fit into a category. The categories he cited that he thought I should be in, for my own good, are laughable. Despite his accolades and respect, I know he was an idiot for me to receive that kind of feedback on my stuff! Whatever, he died with his millions, but I’m still here. Don’t mean to drift, though. I understand what you are saying. I’m actually the most comfortable in the folk-rock stuff.

However, in the past couple of years, I’ve been resurrecting my pop girl-group sound, and have been enjoying that the most. As you may know, my first CD is electronic dance music. There’s something in your insight, though, because all of these songs, which I record in different production styles, start off as folk rock, with just me banging away on rhythm acoustic guitar. Then there’s ‘Passing Bye’ another ‘old’ song recorded recently in England, that’s a whole other kettle of fish! Sounds like the Moody Blues right? That might be my personal favourite.

You began your musical career in New York, but by the 1980s you relocated to Los Angeles, which you continue to make your home from time to time. Please tell us all about your experiences/adventures playing the Los Angeles club circuit in the 1980s, and how living in LA has affected your music.

Roxanne Fontana in her Los Angeles apartment in the early 2000s.

Jesus Lord, we’ll be here all day! I played the club scene in the eighties at the same ‘level’ in the day as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Bangles. But I made this big regrettable mistake by leaving in the mid eighties. Oh my God, I would have been a great star, I know it, had I only stayed put. The L.A. record guys thought I was a little bit odd ball, but they were intrigued. One major dude even thought I was a junkie! Can you imagine me, a junkie? I am the most defiant, rebellious, in-love-with-myself artist I’ve ever known of. One of them told me years later that I shouldn’t have left, and that I didn’t bother him enough. The New York record biz people were just too hopeless to even penetrate, so LA was def the place to be. Think about it: were there any NY acts that broke out of NYC from the 80s? No. Oh, just Madonna and Lauper: the helium voices and wrestling gimmick thing. Nothing intelligent would see the light of day!

Yeah, in Los Angeles. The Lhasa Club, the Lingerie, the Roxy.  John Belushi popped into the Roxy the night I played, right before he died. There’s a good chance I was the last act he saw.  Ah well, I hope so. But y’know, oddly my book American Girl starts, Chapter 1, on having just left LA for Amsterdam .  It all needed to happen that way, and now, what’s going on is my Hollywood influence rears its head as my main pipe dream for the book is to go back to LA, to TV.  I fantasize Kiernan Shipka as me, and it’s so perfect, she’s the perfect age and she’s got my looks: sort of cute but not conventional, a bit of a grimace? So LA’s influence on my psyche is quite huge, but then the whole Johnny B. Goode mentality is ingrained all over the USA and beyond, and that originates from Hollywood.

You temporarily put your musical career on hold in 2001, when you married Montreal singer/guitarist Mat Treiber and again returned to Los Angeles. Tell us about your musical collaborations with Treiber.

Mat Treiber’s music is very straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. He is like Brian Setzer with a dose of Johnny Cash. We started writing together almost immediately. The first song we wrote together is called ‘She’s Got It Good’. My style, blended with his, can only be defined as power pop, which makes sense, no? He usually starts, and I usually take over. I really love the songs that we’ve written together so much, every single one of them. We just released ‘Go All Around the World’ as a download and a 7” vinyl single. We took the live version that Mat recorded at the Mint in L.A.  It’s gotten worldwide airplay, and has been on regional BBC Radio, which is really unheard of without major corporate sponsorship. We did the video for it out here in England and I’m in the beginning of it, sitting on a bench reading an Elvis book.

In 2006, you and your husband moved to England in order to be near Treiber’s chosen musicians and band. It’s my understanding that these days, England’s music scene is much more “under the radar” than it was during it’s heyday of the 1990s. Do you feel that this has affected your music, and how.  What recordings/singles have you made since moving to “Old Blighty?”

The music business has been dying a slow death since the turn of the century, let’s face it, and presently seems to be going full-throttle into a ditch. And the lack of any high-profile British music, as you are observing, is definitely the evidence of that. I don’t know why this happened in the UK. The British did their celebration at the London Olympics, and presented their contribution to popular music as their Number One export, yet they’ve taken it out of the public psyche here.

When all of the great British acts of the mid-nineties emerged, they were hidden by the American music business, just the way the American music business did this in the sixties by trying to hide the Beatles, if you know your music history! Of course, Ed Sullivan defied the music corporations. In the nineties, however, the Americans succeeded in blocking Oasis, the Charlatans, and Blur, to name a few, from entering the American mainstream. I write about this in my book American Girl, actually. You mentioned the nineties, and that is rightly so, because that was the beginning of the end, a strangulation.

Artistic integrity has also, since the turn of the century, been really out of fashion, so it’s not just the industry people who are to blame though. I’ve recorded a bunch of download singles since moving here in 2006, including a few covers. For example ‘Another Place’ by Francoise Hardy, and the anti-war song ‘Fields of St. Etienne’, originally recorded by Mary Hopkin. These are all download singles. In the near future, they will all be compiled for release on an album, most likely on Crytmo Records out of Rome, Italy. The head of that little label in Rome is one of the coolest guys on the planet.

 

From 1976-1978, you did a number of interesting film shorts, all of them directed by Joe Marzano (of “Venus in Furs” notoriety).  What was it like working with Marzano?

The late Joe Marzano was a character who loved dark comedy. My desire to go into acting in that era was just as strong as my musical desire. Please realize, at that point I had only written about six songs. Being an actress is no place for a control freak like I am. I could see that the Hollywood film industry wasn’t quality, and I didn’t think they were going to return to their Golden Age. I think the American films of the 1950s were pretty bad, and there are a lot of films of the sixties that are awful. In my opinion, in the 1970s the films were a little bit better than the previous two decades, because it was very fashionable to be circumspect. My intuition was that it was going to turn to shit, though, and I think I was right. I’m glad I didn’t go into acting.

The Marzano shorts were wacky comedy things. This was in the era of the superstar popularity of Saturday Night Live, so it was a sympathetic genre. But it didn’t hold my attention for long. Marzano was truly wack. We really had to act. We had to be serious in these nutty scenarios, and after each take, we’d all be howling with laughter, with him the loudest.

In addition to being a lauded singer, songwriter and musician, you have won both critical praise and popular acclaim for your work as both a published author and poet. Its breath and scope is nothing less than astonishing! Tell our readers about your literary work, in particular your memoir American Girl.

2017 was a pretty active year. I wrote two articles for a UK online publication, and I was included in a book called City Primeval, which has just come out. My contribution to that book is a poetic remembrance of my amorous experiences with some Czechoslovakian men in the 1980s.

American Girl is my memoir that I finished in 1999. I always have to say that I think the book is more about everyone else, everyone I’ve met, rather than about myself. It sets scenarios. It’s not a name-dropper book, because a story that involves, for example, the story of a little destitute girl around the block from me when I was 15, is told with just as much significance as being picked up by Tom Petty in a Long Island parking lot. And that really is a reflection of what I’m like. I don’t mean to say that I’m one of those freak creatives who shies away from fame and money. But to me the most important thing is to be wise in perspective. It’s been the key to my sanity, and I would highly recommend it.

American Girl is multi-faceted. How does one mix a New York Italian-American Saturday Night Fever-like upbringing with recording demos at twenty-three years old as a female boss on the German-Dutch border, with sleeping with a lot of men who can hardly speak English and are from a communist country, to working for Hollywood star Connie Stevens (and she loved me)?

Plus, the book is littered with esoteric astrological references from beginning to end. I was raised a Roman Catholic, was an occultist student of Aleister Crowley writings for all of my twenties, and then I abandoned all of that for Christianity, and that all happens in this book! It took me 350 pages, a really good editor, and it only goes up to 1999! But I did it, and the reviews are great. If you can deal with an ebook please buy it, and I hope you love it.

I was especially intrigued by your utterly exquisite jewelry design company “Chanson de Tangier” which incorporated the use of vintage and antique beads; some over 1,000 years old. It’s my understanding that it had its beginning in Los Angeles.

Ah, into the future! When I was pregnant with my daughter, at 43 years old, I was managing Mat Treiber’s band in L.A., and decided to start making necklaces. I was taught in New York many years earlier by a good friend of mine who went to the FIT design school. So I blew up my credit cards for thousands of dollars, and bought all of these vintage and antique beads from around the world. It’s a very competitive business, but man, I got really lucky! Much luckier than I ever have been in music. They were selling me in Kitson, and on Beverly Drive; the section North of Wilshire, ahem. Also at Lorenzo’s on Sunset Plaza Drive. My beaded chokers were a huge hit. They also ended up in Hollywood movies, via one of the most popular film jewelry suppliers! My main fashion influence is Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, so invoking Morocco (Brian Jones’ favourite second home) by calling the line ‘Chanson de Tanger’ was in order. I then changed my jewelry company name to ‘VivaFontana1959’, because I started making Art Nouveau-influenced necklaces.

Your boutique “Atelier VivaFontana1959” sounds like my kind of store! Tell our readers all about it, and about your original clothing designs.

In a very odd, small village in England called Ledbury, I opened this shop. The property was authentic sixteenth-century. I was living out a dream, and kept the shop open for about six months. Besides selling the jewelry, we did velvet hats lined in satin, crushed-velvet hotpants, crushed-velvet leggings, but most of all, gorgeous lingerie-like tops. All the fabric was from Italy or France. I still have stock, but I don’t have the time to find another outlet for it. Robert Plant came into my shop y’know. It was the first time I ever met him, he hung out for quite a while and actually bought my cds. Now, I’ve only bought one Led Zeppelin single (D’yer Maker), because I grew up with the Vice President of Atlantic Records’ daughter, so I got all my Zep (and Stones) for free, but here Robert bought my cds… I like it! I like him.

Throughout your careers in music and literature, you have publicly celebrated and chronicled your life; in particular your journey into a spiritual, rather than merely a materialistic, life.

Yes, that’s true. I am a very good astrologer. I love astrology. Astrology is more and more becoming a tool for therapy and counseling. I think it is accurate, and really helpful. If one hits really difficult times, to know that it is no coincidence, that it is at the same time as a textbook defined ‘bad transit’ could probably save lives. It’s an ancient science, with textbook definitions. Charts of people who go through everything from disgrace to fame to suicide have been scientifically studied. Think of how positive it could be for someone who is suicidal to know that it is just a patch, and then have them come through that bad patch.

Mind you, astrology was originally intended for use in the macrocosm more than the microcosm. For example, the astrology of the three kings in Bethlehem, and accurate foretelling of famine. Political astrology is so fascinating. For example, using astrology as a true professional, it was easy to predict that Trump was going to win the election.  I didn’t vote for him, but I did win a shit load of money on that election, cheating with astrology. I am a Christian, but because I’m into astrology, and the Tree of Life, and all things hermetic, I’d probably be considered a Rosicrucian or a Mystic Christian. I did give up Tarot cards, and occult ritual, decades ago. You know, I used to read Martha Quinn’s Tarot cards in her dressing room at MTV! I’ve always been really good at this stuff. I also remember looking at Tom Petty’s palm in bed when I was 19.

I know that the LA Beat readers would love to hear anything you’d like to share about the late, great Tom Petty!

So much, it’s so heavy. All those intelligent, charged, and emotional songs he’s left behind as his legacy. He has just checked out, so suddenly gone. No turning around. I only knew him briefly in the 70s, but then the last time I lived in LA in the early 2000s, I was at his house almost every weekend because I was best friends with his best friend, who lived there at his house. But I never told ‘our’ mutual friend my history. Once, we pulled in and TP was there in the drive and I hid under my seat. Why, I have no idea. I think I have some weird connection with him that goes beyond our little intimate encounter when I was 19. Past life thing, maybe. Another time. It’s always terrified me, actually. I’ve had dreams for years. Anyway, I feel so many things, contradiction of emotions. I have a lot of resentment and anger that he didn’t recognize my music, and I wrote about that in my book.

The most recent thing was I was a guest of his wife, at his London show at Albert Hall, not too long ago. I have dramatically referred to that show from the very next day on, as the “worst night of my life.” I cried behind my sunglasses for the whole show. I just thought his aura was completely different. I wondered where he was. Most of his fans love him till the very end, so I guess I’m wrong, or was I? I can’t explain that, so I have to just think it was premonition I guess. When he died, I cried every day for weeks.

All photos and music videos courtesy of Roxanne Fontana.                                          Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

Roxanne Fontana’s memoir ‘American Girl’ now available on Kindle:                            https://www.amazon.com/American-Girl-Roxanne-Fontana-ebook/dp/B0075GUG56/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515637252&sr=1-1&keywords=Roxanne+Fontana

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Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Peña began her career as a music journalist almost twenty years ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes: the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Peña has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them: Goldmine, American Songwriter, Classic Drummer Magazine and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Peña loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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4 Responses to American Girl: an Interview with Roxanne Fontana

  1. Connie Gregerson says:

    Excellent account by Shirley Pena. Thank you, Roxanne, for sharing your journey! CJ

  2. What a wonderful article! I really enjoyed this comprehensive and beautifully done interview. It’s a delight to read intimate information combined with an interesting subject. Many thanks to Shirley Pena, Roxanne Fontana & The L.A.Beat.

  3. ReW says:

    Amazing and always inspiring. Rosanne wears so many hats and all of them are done to perfection
    Great interview and article by Shirley:) I can read again and again and get something new each time xXx

  4. Sbyner says:

    Great article! Cheers Roxanne!

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