June 14, 2024

Denise La Grassa: Sundown Rising

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I’m often drawn to music that has a message or tells a meaningful story. Songs that uplift the soul or expresses honesty and joy about the human condition are most appealing. You can listen to John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Hound Dog Taylor, and R.L. Burnside, Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and hear the deep connection to something more painful, or joyful, not unlike a lot of blues songs. Blues artists often present the music in a very approachable way, hitting the emotional center and even something you want to dance to, makes it an attractive hopeful vibe. I’ve always tried to infuse my songs with the same sort of hope. Like ‘here’s the problem, let’s find the solution, and along the way we’re going to stomp our feet and move our bodies.”

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I would call what I do “blues infused soulful, rocking music.” I love my blues but there are so many other kinds of music’s I’m attracted to that it all ends up finding a way into my music and message. Sometimes you‘ll hear a straight up blues, then something  more soulful, or country, or funky sounding. I’m not following any form when writing the music, but rather, blending life experiences or my observations of others struggling or overcoming the many obstacles we all encounter on the journey. Amen to Happiness is one of those types of songs. A blues infused structure with a call to God to send down some Happiness. Sounds bluesy, Americana and the message is there, a call for justice. Sometimes it just comes out of joy or deep sadness, and I have to let the song be what it is. Bottom line though, the blues is at the center and everything else comes from that rockin chair I sit in when writing a song, pouring out my honest emotions.

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions?

You need all of it, and ideally a healthy balance of those two ideas.

What moment changed your music life the most?

Losing my job at Lincoln College, a small, private school in central Illinois. I was running the music program there and had just almost a year prior completed with the Higher Learning Commission the transition from a jazz studies program to a music business and music production curriculum. My program was doing well. But on March thirtieth in 2022, the college decided to close their doors permanently after 157 years. It was so sudden, so very sad for the students, staff, faculty, everyone was in a state of shock. Enrollment was down. Many smaller liberal arts schools were closing after Covid. That and other issues made it impossible for the school to remain open. We had basically two months of notice, and you can imagine how painful and scary it was for everyone. And it was another economic shock to the town, which had already been in decline for the past 30 years. It was then I decided that instead of trying to stay in academia, my husband recommended we take some real time to focus on my music. I was going to move back to Chicago and pursue songwriting and performing full-time. I have been a performer all my life, but I had never devoted 100% of my time to music. So, I guess like a lot of people that went through the pandemic, I took a leap of faith and I’m still at it. It’s been scary, exhilarating, frustrating, and rewarding. And I imagine those emotions will continue.

What are the highlights in your life and career so far?

Well, if we’re talking about childhood to today, I was a spunky little kid. When I was five, I wrote what I call poem-songs at home, then went door to door in my suburban Chicago neighborhood singing and trying to sell them to my neighbors. I even told them I’d write a song right there on their doorstep. I was thinking I could make money to buy presents for my parents for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, or Christmas. Well, the neighbors called my parents to tell them what I was doing, and Mom shut that down quickly.

When I was in 8th grade, I set the world record for muscle grinds on a trapeze and got my name in the Guiness Book of World Records. It was a challenge from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. It’s where I spent my junior and senior high school years.

After moving to Chicago after college I spent time in the 2nd City touring company and acted in musicals and plays around Chicago. I formed my own blues/funk band, sang lead with a blues/funk band. I always blended the theatrical with my bands. For professional acting, I even landed a part in a made for HBO movie with Anthony Edwards and played a couple parts in the TV series Unsolved Mysteries.

Even with all that and a “day job,” I played music all over Chicago as well. Moved from blues/funk into jazz and created my own jazz-theater shows that got me to NYC, Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Great melodies and great storytelling. My hope is that I can continue to write and perform music, hopefully on a world stage in the future.

What does it mean to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says?

It can be brutal and at the same time surprisingly welcoming.  The hard knocks always contribute to my songwriting. I don’t literally write about what I’ve gone through or go through as a woman in these songs, but the hard knocks and roadblocks that present themselves because of my gender get weaved into the emotions of the songs I write and perform.

Why is it important to preserve and spread the blues?

The classic blues is ground zero for American music, and for my songwriting. Everything else comes from that. It’s like being influenced by Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones without understanding that they took their inspiration from Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and others we now call blues icons. So even though nobody will confuse my music with blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Albert King or R.L. Burnside, you will hear those old souls in my music, and my songs would not be what they are without these trailblazers.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience along your music path?

Forgive the cliché, but “teamwork makes the dream work.” And that if someone doesn’t fit into your vision, move away from them, you don’t need band mates dragging you down. Also, always keep your patience and courage and flexibility intact, and as John Hiatt once told me when I asked him for advice on songwriting, “just be true to yourself.”

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state?  Or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Most definitely. People need a release from our war-torn world and division in America. I think the blues can help us release the anxiety and sadness around all the hard times we’re going through in this country and world. It’s a cathartic expression both in the song itself, and the movement that comes from hearing the music.

John’s Substack

John Porter
JUN 18, 2024

Okay, if I’m being honest, this was another performer that I knew nothing about prior to her new disc, Sundown Rising, landing in my inbox. It came from a publicist that I trust and he   told me that I would like it.

He was wrong. I love it.

Denise La Grassa is the real deal. She lives and performs mainly in the Chicago area and is in great demand. Aside from her regular appearances in clubs in the Windy City, she branches out to other hot spots in the Midwest and has another couple of CDs that she has released previously.

Her resume doesn’t read like the average blues performers. I doubt many blues artists had a career working in improv comedy, but La Grassa was a member of the Second City touring company, traveling all over the country making people laugh. She stepped out on her own after that and quickly gained a reputation for her voice and for her outstanding showmanship.

The album starts off with the title track, Sundown Rising. The lyrics are poetry and the backing musicians pour their soul into each note. This is my first exposure to Denise La Grassa, and I am not disappointed. She has a dark voice that made the hair stand up on the back of my head. If the rest of the album is like this, this will be on my “Best Of” list.

La Grasse transitions to None Of Your Business and the drums usher us into the world of the song. The guitar sounds jazzy and when her vocals come it, there’s a strong rush headlong into an exciting number.

Hope In Love is a powerful funk blues number that is optimistic in its evaluation of love. “It’s what we live for, it’s what we die for.” It’s quirky and upbeat and the rhythm section gets a real workout during the song. It’s crunchy and I’m sure it’s a real crowd pleaser as La Grassa’s husky whiskey voice adds so much to the song.

La Grasse gets down and gritty on Key To The Highway. Her low notes drop precipitously and there is some good harmonica work that should satisfy the most discriminating blues fan. This is a solid number and should find its way onto a number of playlists.

La Grasse picks up the tempo with Vision Of Good Rule Makers. The drums get a real workout on this song and don’t miss a beat. The guitar run is sweet and adds a nice touch as does the chording of the organ. The high energy is a nice change of pace and there’s a Gospel drive to the song. Good song!

The Door is a beautiful ballad that showcases La Grassa’s sumptuous vocals and a stripped-down arrangement. The deceptive simplicity of the song makes it a standout on the album. I’m sure I’ll be playing this one sooner than later.

There is a nice bass intro to Sweet Talk that quickly adds drums and guitar and turns into a delicious jazz number. La Grassa’s vocals have been exciting throughout the album, and she delivers another outstanding performance on this song. I’m delighted by her tone and look forward to hearing more from her soon.

The next song, Quit Your Whining, is short but powerful. La Grassa tells the person to whom she is addressing, “Quit your whining before I quit you.” In a difficult world there is so much to be concerned about, she doesn’t have time to listen to petty complaints. It’s got a fast tempo and good lyrics.

She ends the album with Loving For Love’s Sake, and it’s a good way to sum up the experience.

Denise La Grassa may not have been on my radar previously, but she is firmly on it now. Her        voice is powerful but not overly so. She has good control of her instrument and knows what the song calls for.

According to her upcoming show page  on her website, she tends to stay near her home in Chicago, so if you are lucky enough to live in the area, keep an eye out for one of her shows and let me know how she does live.

I bet it’s a killer performance.

For the rest of us, I’m going back to her store page and drop a few bucks on her earlier CDs. You can’t have too much from this talented performer.



August 11, 2023

Denise LaGrassa – The Flame


10 tracks/37 minutes

Blending blues, roots and Americana, rock and soul, The Flame continues the rite of passage for Denise LaGrassa. Her North of 40 video blog showcases her journey through her life after 40. Inspired by the closing of central Illinois’ Lincoln College, LaGrassa expanded her work writing songs and performing to replace her time at Lincoln teaching jazz studies. Her songs touch on social change and a better nation and world, with the hope that the spiritual part of each enough will be enough to make the world a better place.

LaGrassa handles the vocals and keyboards. Her band is Alexander Kleiner on guitar, Steven C. Manns on bass, and Mike Gee on drums. She has some top notch guests appearing, too, who are noted below.

The album begins with “Dawn of the New Day” and features Pierre Lacocque from Mississippi Heat on the harp. LaGrassa sings with authority about the revelatory changes coming and Lacocque blows some greasy and cool harp. “Love Is Like An Elevator” is a fun cut about how love just stops at every floor like and elevator and like a yoyo going up and down and stringing you along. Anne Harris plays fiddle here in a rootsy/American sort of cut with slide guitar and a cool country sound.

“Lucy Mae Blues” is up next, an acoustic cut with Denise and Kleiner on guitar, a stripped-down sound with nice finger picking and LaGrassa passionately giving it her all. Up next is “Right Step,” a funky cut about making choices.  Stinging guitar by John Kregor on this and some sultry vocals are featured here.

Ellen Miller adds her harp to “Better Day’s Coming,” mixing some roots into a blues rocker tune. Denise sings with power and conviction and the harp and band play with equal, forthright sound. “Wide Eyes” is next, a haunting and somewhat daunting cut.

“Amen To Happiness” follows with a funky and rootsy groove. LaGrassa sings and slide guitar accompanies her with this cut with a bouncing and vibrant feel. “Sewing Good Seeds” is a song that plays of the Biblical theme of sewing good seeds; it’s got a jazzy, soulful feel. This one also features a poignant electric guitar solo.

“Cut It Right Out” is a romping and jumping cut with acoustic guitar and a driving beat. LaGrassa gets down low in her vocals as she and the band rock it out through this one. More ringing guitar work is featured here. She concludes with “Judge a Little Less,” a song giving us advice not to be too judgmental. Funky and slick stuff, great guitar and a big cut to finish things off.

LaGrassa lets her faith and beliefs drive her songwriting. She showcases her ideas and delivers performances filled with the emotions she feels through the songs she has written. Her background is in jazz but here we see a side of her in rootsy blues rock and Americana where she and her band and guests give some very impassioned performances.