Wow, I have so much to say about Mandy Lemons of Low Society that I don’t even know where to begin. How do I tell you about her extraordinary voice, the legends in her Blues band, her soul diving lyrics, and her personal journey without turning this article into a novel? I don’t know, but I’m going to give it go. Let’s start at the present when I met her and Low Society this past February in Memphis…
My duo (now Babs Martin & Outlaw Haints) had the great privilege to open for Mandy’s band, Low Society for the first time at Kudzu’s in Memphis, TN. We were only scheduled to play a very short week prior to the event. During those days Mandy and I were playing each other’s music and trading hell yeahs and oh hell yeahs back and forth. I only thought I had heard her sing until I got to see her perform live. Oh my gawd, her commanding vocals knocked me out! It was as if spirits of Etta James and Janis Joplin were free-form dancing around her on stage. Mandy can belt out some hopped up Blues and keep it up all night long . . . I know, I saw Low Society pour it all out into the wee hours of the morning. I was so struck and so excited I pounced on Mandy when the last note had been played. Poor thing couldn’t even get off the stage to go to the ladies’ room or get a drink from the bar. That’s when I knew I wanted to include Mandy Lemons in “Rough Road Darlins” here on Kickass Music Women. I finally gave her enough space to get a drink and I joined her at the bar where she shared her story.
Mandy is originally from Houston, TX. She grew up in a musical family and started singing as soon as she could talk. Her mom plays piano and sings, one brother plays guitar, the other plays bass and drums, and her cousin is a talented songwriter, guitar player, and singer. It was Mandy’s mom who exposed her to the greats in Blues and Jazz. Mandy eventually received vocal training from the Houston Conservatory, the Manhattan Singers Forum, and more recently studied under Katie Agresta in NYC. In the end of course it’s all Mandy as she shares, “I discovered many other soul-saving genres on my own.”
Mandy talks about her love of Houston including the people and the Mexican food (boy howdy how I can relate – nothing beats a homemade tamale from the Houston street vendors). She also talks about the hard times, “I always end up barely escaping there with my life! Houston’s a weird town where you either die or leave, though I do have a handful of friends that have been able to flourish there. Houston is a town that’s no stranger to death, destruction and chaos.” She adds, “To quote a friend I guess no one gets outta this town without singing the blues.” Before she left Houston life had sunk to some bottom lows for Mandy. The fella she was dating committed suicide with a shotgun blast to the head (unfortunately not the first boyfriend she lost in this tragic way). To add to the hardship, her band split up, her 1977 Chevy was towed away, she was strung out, and she lost her job. Mandy was broke and things were only getting worse – almost impossible for many of us to imagine. She fled Houston and escaped to New York City in 2003.
NYC was a medicine beam, a saver of life and soul for Mandy. She hooked into the contagious energy and took off like an infinite music festival. Mandy describes NYC, “It’s a fabulous city. The people are incredible, If the city can’t shake you, she’ll embrace you – and WHAT a freakin’ ride!” She met the love of her life and amazing legendary talent, Sturgis Nikides. Sturgis has worked with Velvet Underground’s Nico, John Cale, and more. Mandy also received love and friendship from James Fox, who Mandy describes as incredible. He became her guide, mentor, manager, investor, spiritual advisor and best friend. He loved the music, believed in the band, and got Low Society off the ground.
Low Society began in late 2009. Their first show as a band was in Jan 2010 at The Shrine, in Harlem. Mandy and Sturgis began collaborating on song writing while Sturgis was involved in other projects. The couple was set up to release Low Society’s debut album, High Time in August 2011.
High Time is truly a collaborative effort. While they both write the songs and lyrics, Sturgis writes the majority of the music and Mandy contributes vital lyrics and melody lines. Sturgis relates, “….Mandy’s lyrics are essential to understanding her message – they are a window into Mandy’s life and experience. She has a LOT to say, and in my opinion, her voice needs to be heard, loud and clear.” I couldn’t agree more. When I listened to High Time I knew a lot of her story was bleeding out in those lyrics. Here’s an example from the first and last verse of “Texas Goodnight”
Texas Goodnight (First and last verses)
Left my home more dead than alive
Did all I could, was my plan to survive
The streets of the city can break you apart
Into so many pieces – rip out your heart
He loaded one shell, lined up the sight
Put the gun to his head – and turned out the light
No angels of mercy, no birds on the wing
No words can be spoken – to lessen the sting
Mandy says, “My favorite songs are the ones about the soul-shattering, painful things I’ve encountered in this life. What can I say? I’m a sucka for a sad song, and I LOVE the blues!” High Time also has a love story intertwined throughout with such songs as “Given Up On Love” written about when she fell in love at first sight with Sturgis only to discover he was unavailable at the time. Sturgis wrote the music for the song completely unaware the song was about him. “Crazy Love” is a song they wrote a year later in about 10 minutes at a Florida rest stop right after Sturgis proposed marriage. Then there’s “Three Time Loser,” a song Mandy couldn’t finish until she met Sturgis. Here is a sample from the beginning:
Three Time Loser
I’ve done things I’m not proud of
in my life
in this city
and, to you
But, I’m only human, baby, and – a woman too
Tho you always seem to see my light shine thru
To forgive and forget – Oh, it’s a special gift
If I could only rewind all my past doings
Turn back time
Make you mine
Mandy describes the rest of the album as being about drugs, suicide, screwing your loved ones over, having them screw you over, love, loss, and redemption. Not to mention “Black Pelican,” which was written about the B.P. oil spill in the Gulf. The couple found the disaster to be heart-breaking and wrote it like a letter of dissent from Mother Nature to humanity. Mandy continues, “It’s not all a depression-session tho – there’s fun songs like ‘Long Black Limousine’ about being drunk and getting robbed by a cab driver. Haha!” I’m laughing right along with ya there, Mandy. That is one hellava funny statement!
Mandy spent a decade in NYC building a new life, a music career, and a new album. Last June Mandy and Sturgis lost their good friend, James Fox. The couple decided to continue the spark James had started for Low Society by spreading the fire across the Home of the Blues and the Birth Place of Rock-n-Roll, otherwise known as Memphis, TN. Her second night in town she met saxophone legend, Dr. Herman Green. Dr. Green helped form the West Coast Jazz sound and has played with such greats as Miles Davis, BB King, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, and more. He heard Mandy sing and said he had to know her. Dr. Herman Green played with Low Society every week at the Buccaneer Lounge during Low Society’s residency. Mandy says they are growing and evolving as musicians in a way they could only do in Memphis. High Time to me is a Blues and Roots kind of album with a little banjo and bones clackin in the background. Since my music is based on Southern Mountain Roots music, you know I totally dig the CD. But live, they chase the notorious It well-known in Jazz, they rock out in the zone, and make the Blues walk and talk. You don’t just listen, you get an experience.
Low Society has played festivals in Czech Republic, Poland, NYC, Memphis, and Clarksdale, MS. Check their tour schedule for shows and festivals as it looks like they are going to have a really cool summer. They’re currently working on a new album and they look forward to getting back to Europe as soon as possible. Their goals are to continue playing festivals, tour internationally, and keep on screamin’ the blues! Mandy said she is beyond grateful to all who have helped her realize her dreams.
“Down Texas Way”:
Lyrics used by permission. Low Society music & lyrics ( Nikides/Lemons) copyright 2011/ frito pie publishing BMI
Photos Courtesy of Mandy Lemons
~ Babs Martin
Babs Martin is crossing genres and state lines under a new band name, Babs Martin & Outlaw Haints. She is also the new host of Kickass Music Women Radio. Babs is currently in the studio working on a new CD and looking forward to playing Mercury Lounge in Tulsa this summer. For more information, music, and news visit http://babsmartin.com/ .
Read more of Babs Column Rough Road Darlins Here.
I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” ~ Maya Angelou
“Woman is the Wonder of the World.” ~ Billy Joe Shaver