“I’m really Californian,” explains Maria McKee, the fiery vocalist whose band Lone Justice epitomized cowpunk in a mid-80s scene that included X, the Blasters, Rank & File, Dwight Yoakam and the Long Ryders. “My grandmother’s grandmother’s parents were born in Mexico when it was California. Mexico was still attached as Mexifornia, 1830…and the spirit of who I was and will be was cast then.”
McKee, the once glittering flower of the rootspunk movement with her furiously country band Lone Justice, seems preordained on so many levels. The half-sister of Bryan McLean, a key member of the psychedelic/pop/rock band Love, grew up around the Laurel Canyon music scene that included both folk-rock and Frank Zappa. She attended Beverly Hills High School, where she got the lead in all the musicals at a time when Nicholas Cage was also a student – and followed her brother into a charismatic form of Christianity that offered fervor and street corner witnessing.
If Bob Dylan wrote songs for her, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton made separate pilgrimages to see Lone Justice in dive bars before the major labels descended, Tom Petty and U2 both took the band out as support on massive tours and the press raved about her far-flung vocals, Dust Bowl/Steinbeck lyricism and kinetic stage presence, it was the tip of the iceberg.
McKee, who’d written Feargal Sharkey’s global smash “A Good Heart” at 19, evolved into a solo career that was quixotic, but wildly personal. Songscapes filled with theatrical emotions, images, scenes straddled across atmospherics, roots oeuvres, Bowie/Echo + the Bunnymen brooding and always that turpentine bursting into flames voice. Quentin Tarantino’s only original piece of music in “Pulp Fiction” was McKee’s “If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags).” But even the increasingly sporadic output was merely the tip of a far more intriguing, impassioned iceberg.
She would marry skateboard pioneer/filmmaker Jim Akin, play critical roles behind the scenes, on the soundtrack and in front of the camera for his art cinema features “After the Triumph of Your Birth” and “The Ocean of Helena Lee” – and seemingly fade from view. But there was a simmering for the woman who also lived in Ireland for many years, seemingly jumping to London, which provides La Vita Nuova’s articles of shimmering of faith ballad “Down To The Heart of London.”
“I have a very spiritual relationship with London,” she says on the phone from the UK, moments before social isolation shrouds the world. “The psychogeography and the city; I’m a (William) Blake-ian. It’s so dense here: Milton, John Donne. There’s a direct line from where I live that meets the river where Virginia Woolf died, the witch trials and Aleister Crowely, all those spirits… the skull and bones graveyard where they dropped all the teenage prostitutes. There are two million spirits for each person here, so there is this intense energy.
“I had a very dear friend who ultimately betrayed me. A flaneur, dilettante, scholar who was the head of the Blake Society here – and extremely knowledgeable about London, England, too.”
McKee absorbed all of it. The betrayal – they no longer speak – is the kind of falling out that concretizes one’s loyalties. Long an outspoken activist for LGTBQ people, especially teens, she found her own truth was emerging in ways she could not deny. More than a coming out, for she’d identified as gender fluid for years, there was a clarifying of who she was, how she was meant to live in this world – and the ways she could serve it.
“Also,” she continues, speaking of England, “my sort of dyke godmother here, who’s only in her 30s. took me under her wing and took me around. She’s one of those really cool East London dykes – and she wanted to give me a fast track to London society because of my age.”
The crystallization of who she truly was – like that iceberg – was inevitable, quite possibly there all along. Laughing, McKee looks over her shoulders and sees the inevitable, too.
“I was raised by a mother who was very, ‘Men are here to take care of you…,’” she explains. “My grandmother was very nonbinary in the ‘40s: she lived in blue jeans and sweatshirts, but was very beautiful like Hedy Lamar. One of the most engaged times I’ve ever seen her was at a Christmas dinner where we had this very masculine dyke…
“My mother told me between her two marriages…” There’s a pause, then a laugh. “At a certain age, the women in my family become little gentlemen. Very Georgia O’Keefe, very Greta Garbo.”
And so: inevitable.
At the age of reckoning for the children she’d never physically have – though McKee is and has spiritually been the mother to multitudes – the songstress was taken over by the muse. Songs began descending, sending her into “a gnostic state,” arriving at a furious rate over a few months. As the creativity washed over her, McKee realized she was being reborn.
Fourteen songs became La Vita Nouva, a song cycle about recognition, passion and awareness turning into new kinds of love. Atmospheric, raw, string-bathed in places, evocative, it merges many of her aesthetic touchstones with a voice that is lower, more velvet and smoke, thick and somehow porous.
Divorcing her husband of a quarter century, she not only embarked on a new life, but she maintained a creative relationship with “my best friend.” Akin co-produced La Vita, turning her notion for strings into actual arrangements and supporting the inescapable reality of his wife’s emerging identity.
In some ways, the songs also offer a sense of mourning the young girl thrown to the stars and the idea of reintegration of who we were with who we could be. “I remember when I was writing, looking at a lot of videos of the younger me. The spirit of who I was and will be was all there in this young woman trying to find her way out of this trap. It was this feral energy.
“So much of Shelter was out of my hands, and yet… I had to get out there and play.”
She pauses again. We speak of specific songs, of the process. It was also out of her hands, but in glorious ways that were as much about acceptance as getting on with it.
“I was completely blown away, having the muse descend on me in this wave,” she explains. “It had me by the throat. When Life Was Sweet was similar, but none of the ones between. So I look at this as a companion – epic, sweeping. It sets everybody up: this is journey we’re going on with this airy, romantic, orchestral thing.”
Drawing on Dante’s unrequited, unacknowledged love for Beatrice in the original La Vita Nuova for her own songs, especially “Courage,” McKee manifested the lover who arrived when the songs were finished, embarked on the life changing romance she didn’t imagine would ever happen, the one that burned through the last vestiges of who she was and christened her new self. With tender yearning and also the fiery catch in her most surrendered vocals, it’s a rebirth few achieve.
Just as importantly, there is that cinematic scope, the sense of brightness and muted colors. For all the music she’s made, a clearing breath rises in this record that offers not just truth but transcendence.
“It’s partly California,” she says, full circle, turning to consider the place where she still resides half the year. “It has this magical light, ancient sort of, I don’t know how to describe it. But the sea, the mountains, the adolescent sense of the entertainment industry. The whole town was built on that delusion that’s mental and conditioning; but it casts a Quixotic sort of magic that you can’t deny.”