Lee Small Interview
12th April 2021
Lead vocalist with Lionheart, The Sweet and Shy
This interview had a few delays including Lee catching a horrible case of Covid. When we finally did get around to chatting, my first question was about his health.
Q: Fully recovered?
LS: I’ve still got the Covid hangover mate. It’s so weird, it’s left my voice really weak and what I can’t get rid of at the moment is the stuff on my chest which is so flemmy. I’ve tried to get back into a few sessions again but I’m really struggling and I just can’t seem to lift it even with the antibiotics. My other half had it as well. We had dodged it for two years and then we both got it within a week of each other.
Q: These things take time Lee, let’s get onto some music stuff. Lee Small…Solo artist, member of Lionheart, The Sweet, Shy, album project singer and I might add, stylish hat wearer. You’re a busy man.
LS: I am yeah and you may have noticed the self-promotion hat.
Q: I did, the Chameleon album (2021) – what’s all that about?
LS: It started as a bit of therapy for me during lockdown. During lockdown, I didn’t want to go outside and I was getting stressed because every time I did go outside, people were getting too close to me and it was doing me more harm than good so I was just living in the house. I was exercising indoors, doing 10,000 steps a day walking around the house – I’ve got no carpet left now (laughs) - and I was doing that just to keep sane. Anyway, I dug out all my Island Records Bob Marley stuff which I loved as a kid and would put them on when walking around the house and mentally I got so much therapy from doing that. I wouldn’t touch a guitar, hadn’t been in a studio of course and had no passion to do anything to be honest and then I thought that the way out of this, if anything was going to get me out of it, was to do a reggae album, to do something a bit different from what I am known for and share a bit of my influences. The title is just me as I’m a bit of a musical chameleon with many diverse styles and things inside me, so branching out and doing this album, that’s where the title came from.
Q: A voice is a muscle; muscles need to be exercised to keep trim and there has been a distinct lack of gigs for musicians over the last two years. How have you kept your voice in shape?
LS: I didn’t! It’s been really, really tough because I haven’t been doing much at all. It’s not that I didn’t mean to but the whole thing just left me in a darker place. It wasn’t until I started doing Chameleon that I started to get back on track and I realised that if you don’t use it, you lose it. It took me a while to get it back to strength because I’ve been ill since basically the end of The Sweet tour in December. It’s just something that goes with the territory of growing older.
Q: That’s how we are at this age Lee: it’s why our generation get together and talk about ailments.
LS: (laughs) Ailments! Yeah it’s not ‘What have you been up to this week?’ it’s ‘What ailments have you got?’ (laughs) This year hasn’t had the best of starts but things will get better and I can get myself a bit more back on track. (Note: Lee is back in full voice and as of writing, currently on tour in Europe with The Sweet)
Q: All the bands you are in are melodic and have a lot of harmonies. To me, sitting in Japan, there seems to be a small resurgence of Melodic Rock for want of a better term in the UK with Lionheart, Cats In Space and a few others; is that the case?
LS: In the UK…it’s difficult to answer to be honest because you speak to the labels and they tell a different story. They will tell you it’s dead in the water and that people want heavier stuff and all this but I think there has always been a loyal fan base for melodic music here which never goes away. It might get smaller, not have such a big profile but then it will raise its head again. It’s great music and I would say the loyal fan base is keeping it going for sure.
Q: It seems to be the veterans that are really nailing it.
LS: It is and I can throw myself in that bracket now. I think some of those veterans are doing the best material they have ever done.
Q: Second Nature came out in 2017, The Reality of Miracles was 2020 and Steve Mann told me the new album is on schedule for this year. That was in December, what can you tell us now?
LS: I can tell it will be the best Lionheart album ever. I know everybody says that but it is going to be an epic piece of work. Obviously, I am close to but I am trying not to be biased – talk to Steve and he will tell you the same thing. Something has happened with this record that has brought out the best in everybody and Steve has been incredible on this one. His music has got so many different aspects to it and there is a bit of a darker angle to this album.
Q: It has a theme running through it I believe…
LS: Indeed. It’s bizarre because what is happening in the world right now with Ukraine, the album has an anti-war message. It’s a concept album and all basically based on WWII. It’s not an Iron Maiden guns-blazing album, it’s in-depth and lyrically, I think I’ve penned the best lyrics I’ve ever done in my life because I have some meaningful subjects to get my teeth into. Dennis (Stratton) came up with this little ditty, a set of chords which he sent to me and I wrote some lyrics all about the little fishing boats that went over to Dunkirk in 1940 to rescue the troops off the French coast in and it’s turned out to be a great little Pop song. I said earlier it’s a bit darker but there are still so many commercial elements in the record; it’s still Lionheart.
Q: I was at the Japan show you did with Praying Mantis and at that point, I hadn’t heard Second Nature and you guys floored me with a brilliant arrangement of Chris De Burgh’s Don’t Pay The Ferryman which of course is on Second Nature. You also did a great version of Mark Lowry’s Mary Did You Know for Christmas a couple of years back; any covers on this one?
LS: Not at the moment. it’s all original songs. There is a cover that has been hanging around in the wings so to speak that has never made it onto a record which is Colin Blunstone’s I Don’t Believe In Miracles (1972). We do a really beautiful version of that so that may or may not surface on it or maybe it will just be a bonus track somewhere.
Q: How do you as a band choose a cover because your selection is never the obvious.
LS: Ermm…good question that is. I don’t know. Obviously, we throw it to the Lions (laughs) and it’s great to see the different ideas that Clive (Edwards) or Dennis or Rocky (Newton) throw on the table and then just settle on one that we can all agree on. It has to be something we can do something with because we don’t want to just do a cover for the sake of it.
Q: Steve was very enthusiastic about yours and his working relationship and one of his observations, to quote him, he said ‘…we have a fantastic understanding now about how each other thinks and works.’ Throw a compliment back at Steve and one for the rest of the guys in the band while we’re at it.
LS: It’s really nice of him to say that and to be honest, it’s true. I think we’ve realised how to get the best out of each other. As you know, he is an incredible all-round musician and he’s an emotional guy as well - as am I - which reflects in the music. When we start writing, he’ll send me something and straight away it’s really cool stuff but then I’ll say ‘Any chance you can swap that chord?’ and he’ll come back with the swapped chords and something else added. He’ knows exactly what I mean and what’s needed to transform it. It will bounce backwards and forwards a couple of time before we get the structure of the song and it’s the same with Dennis and Rocky. The really good thing about Lionheart is that nobody is precious about their ideas. We all just want the best for the song and the final product. There is never someone saying ‘Oh no, you can’t change that’. Everybody knows the score in that if you send something through, it will come back with suggestions of how to change it. I’m the same. I’ll do a vocal and Steve will send it back and say ‘Change this’ or ‘Sing it like this’ so nobody is precious about anything we do and that’s the good thing about it. Whatever happens, it’s the best for the song.
Q: Is it fair to say you write to themes rather than a concept?
LS: Possibly. The first couple of solo albums it wasn’t deliberate but they turned out to be concept records.
Q: Ok. Let’s go through them one by one…
Though the Eyes of Robert Lees (2008)
Q: Terrific idea! Like many English kids I grew up fascinated by the macabre and Jack the Ripper and all that. Lees is a forgotten or often disparaged character in the facts, where did the inspiration come from to write the album from that angle?
LS: Well, doing something on the subject is such a fine line and if you step over that line, you go into tat or tacky even. It’s one of those subjects you have to really play carefully with. It probably took me a couple of years before I actually recorded it just thinking how I was going to do it. So I tried to make it a bit more interesting and not obvious by telling it through the eyes of Robert Lees who was the psychic who had all the visions and could see the events. The police thought he was Jack the Ripper at one point because he knew too much. That was one angle and then I did another through John Netley who was the coachman. That was about his own personal torment and his guilt. Doing things that way spurs me on lyrically.
Q: I have to ask you; who do you think the Ripper was?
LS: Do you know, I even watched something last week which added yet another name to the big massive list and I don’t think anybody will ever really know but the thing that got me interested in the Ripper was when I was a kid and it was in the early eighties and late at night, just before the telly closed down for the night was a documentary called The Final Solution which was based on the book by Stephen Knight. That really opened my eyes because they actually interviewed Stephen Knight and it was all about the Royal connection.
Q: Yes and Joseph Sickert the artist.
LS: That’s it, he was involved in it and I just couldn’t believe it. I was so mesmerised by the whole concept of it and even back then I remember getting pieces of paper and scribbling some of the stuff down at half past two in the morning so I wouldn’t forget it because I knew I would never see the program again because there were no video recorders back then. I eventually did go out and buy the paperback of it and I’ve gone around the house a bit on this but to answer your question, he thought it was the Queen’s physician, William Gull. I love that theory and in my heart, I always like to think it was him.
Q: I am 95% sure it was William Gull. The whole timeline fits. The fact he was a surgeon, the fact he was diagnosed with madness, he had a stroke shortly after the last victim, it fits. Netley as well with his coach…
Q: Let’s move on.
Jamaica Inn (2012)
Q: Jamaica Inn next. The title I assume is from the Daphne Du Maurier book?
LS: Yes absolutely. That actually came from when I was talking to an English band called Dante Fox. We were talking about doing a different together with two lead singers, me and Sue (Willetts Manford), a sort of Classic Rock thing and the name Jamaica Inn was bandied around as a name for the band and it just stayed with me. I wrote a song called that and then one thing lead to another and the highwaymen and pirates and things like that.
Q: When you’re recording something like The Captain’s Quarters or Smuggler’s Blues, what’s going through your head?
LS: You have just got to throw yourself into the lyrics and storyline to be convincing. If you picture it when you are singing it and are in that zone, you can transform that into audio and the emotions will speak for themselves. I’ve never been any good at just writing a love song and really, it’s too easy to write lovey-dovey shit. Everybody does it and it’s just become a standard now. It’s not believable but if you get a good subject matter, you can really bring it to life. I find I have got to be into the subject though to bring out the best in me.
Q: Presumably you’ve seen the film.
LS: Yes. Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton.
Q: That’s got to be due for a remake hasn’t it?
LS: They did do one. It was an ITV drama and done a couple of years after I did the album. It was really funny because the lady who wrote the new adaption for ITV started tweeting all this stuff about what I was doing which was really nice of her. It was good but the sound…I don’t know. I love old cinema and old Black and White movies and there is a certain atmosphere about them but with the new stuff, I’m struggling to hear the dialogue. It’s all sound effects and the background noise is louder than the audio and the new Jamaica Inn drama was like that. That’s where it fell down for me but it was a good adaption.
(At this point, Lee mentions the latest 007 film, No Time To Die and we both descend into schoolboy excitement about it. We start coming up with Bond trivia as we are both 007 nuts and from there we got into the old Universal monster films and other Black and White classics. I will not bore you with the details suffice to say if we ever do get together in a room with a stack of DVDs, you will not see us for days.)
Southern Wind (2018)
Q: 2018 and Southern Wind, a nod or tribute, paying respect as you write it to the classic Southern Rock musicians…Autumn Song on that one is sublime Lee.
LS: Thank you. There’s been a few people pick up on that song and I’m surprised it’s connected with a lot of people. There’s even a bit of Beatles influence in there with the mellotron and all that and it all came about because we had been away all summer doing the Lionheart shows in Japan and Europe and it sounds corny but it really was a bit of a shock that I had missed the summer and that’s where the theme of the song came from. I really enjoyed doing that album. It evolved from Jamaica Inn but it was a lot lighter with more a Doobie Brothers kind of thing – that’s my favourite band of all time. It was gain bringing out a different side of me with the guitars having hardly any drive on them. There was just enough to keep it in the Rock category but there are a lot of different influences on there as well like Angels Of The Highway which is very much my Stevie Wonder influence. There are so many different angles to that record and somebody summed it up lovely in one of the reviews when they wrote that it was like when you could listen to music without prejudice; the time when you could like all sorts of music.
Q: I’m with you on that. I was the kid at school who had Deep Purple, ABBA, Yes and Showaddywaddy in their collection.
LS: That’s it, yeah. I always remember is what educated me musically was that when I was a kid in the seventies, we didn’t have much money and I couldn’t afford albums much so I used to have a lot of singles and it was in the days when every town had a market and on a Saturday morning it was absolutely rammed. Now where I grew up is a ghost town with nobody around but back then, you couldn’t get through because there would be so many people and there used to be a little record stall and he had everything categorised. I’d have a pound for my pocket money and I could always come away with something. He introduced me to all the old late-sixties/early-seventies bands…Steppenwolf and Bachman Turner Overdrive and all these different things and that really did open up my music education. Also, my cousins were a bit more well-off than me and they used to buy albums so you could bet your life they would have anything that was coming out…Parallel Lines by Blondie and that sort of thing and I remember my aunt saying to me once ‘I can sort some records out for you’ and I was thinking ‘Oh great! I’m going to get this and I’m going to get that’ and I went round and she gave me this big carrier bag of all these singles and I couldn’t wait to get them back home. When I did, I started looking through them and I was thinking ‘Peter & Gordon? The Love Affair?...what’s this?’ You know what mate, that was the best thing she ever did for me because she educated me in amazing music. I was disappointed for about ten minutes but then I started playing them and she had done me a big favour.
Q: With apologies to Andy and the rest of the lads for not being able to include much of The Sweet in here but give us a quick update on the band.
LS: We are back out on the road in May. It’s no secret that Andy had a trapped nerve in his hand but he’s had an operation and he’s much better now. We did the tour last Christmas and I cannot believe he could play how he did with that bad finger. We were going to do a brand-new album last year as well, the first new Sweet album with new material for years but things got in the way so that should be this year.
Your Forrest Gump box of chocolate questions:
Q: As a kid, whose poster did you have on your bedroom wall?
LS: I had a massive big Marilyn Monroe poster at the foot of my bed and wake up to that every morning and I used to have the Dave Lee Roth poster from Women And Children First on my wall as well.
Q: First concert you bought a ticket for.
LS: Rush, Moving Pictures tour, Bingley Hall 1981.
Q: A film you love that not many people would have heard of.
LS: I would say Best Pair Of Legs In The Business. It’s Reg Varney who everybody thinks of as Stan Butler from On The Buses but he gives this most amazing performance as a compare on a holiday camp. To me, it’s an Oscar performance.
Q: I have never heard of it – I shall find it and watch it. Finally Lee, the rest of 2022. You’ve mentioned Sweet on tour, the new Lionheart album…anything else?
LS: I’ve just finished a new solo album. Basically, I’ve returned to my 1980s melodic AOR Rock roots and I’m really pleased with it. I’ve been writing with a guy in L.A. and I’ve always wanted to do a record in this vein with the great Rock riffs but it’s also got the Michael McDonald Toto influences as well. If you are into that 80s type of Rock, it’s one for you.
Q: Lee, thanks for doing this and look after yourself.
LS: Thanks for having me. Take care and we’ll speak again soon.