Lessons learned

Hundreds of Detroit performers have left the city for the de facto meccas of entertainment to “make it.” Presumably, that’s the correct strategy. Go to LA or New York or Nashville, smash your head against the wall for enough years, and if you’re lucky, you get something. Some get a break, most get broken. How many come home to make it?

For local songwriter, musician and singer Liz Larin, an epiphany prompted her to re-evaluate the life she had in LA, where she was trying earnestly to establish herself with a national record company.

“I suddenly saw things the way they really are,” she says, “I saw all this love, and a lot of it was in Michigan.”

The Detroit-area native returned home three years ago to start her own independent label, manage her own artistic freedom — and reconnect with life.

Larin’s newest release, Story of O-Miz, just hit record stores and Web sites. This record is her most important and refined collection of songs yet. It’s a combination of ball-busting rock ballads and hopeful love songs, all of which reveal the deliberate exploration of deeper meaning to love and life. It’s Larin’s second release on her own label, Bona Dea (named after the Roman fertility goddess).

Combine youthful, sex-charged energy with a strikingly mature sensibility, and you have a modern urban goddess standing on a craggy outcropping of Mount Olympus ready to hurl a lightening bolt straight at your heart. Or something like that. That’s Liz Larin.

On Story of O-Miz, Larin writes of attraction, sensuality, integrity, commitment — and true love — unironically, in a way that would make most songwriters squirm. She does it deftly, through images and lyric hooks that don’t just get you singing — they get you thinking. But we never feel like we’re being made to think.

The songs are deceptively accessible and masterfully crafted. Larin’s vocals have been compared to Melissa Etheridge but her lyrics suggest the maturity of Bonnie Raitt. The melodic and rhythmic influences on Story of O-Miz run the Motown-to-Led Zeppelin gamut. But Larin’s writing and recording is anything but derivative — it comes across as “fact,” pictures of life observed, that she is simply delivering. Her voice is her own, varied and powerful, sweet and sensitive, edgy and sometimes almost menacing.

Besides Larin on vocals, guitar, keyboards and bass and Robert Tye on lead guitar, Story of O-Miz boasts a stellar crop of Motor City musicians: Chuck Bartles and James Simonson on bass; Dave Taylor and Todd Glass on drums, and Sponge’s ubiquitous Vinnie Dombroski as a guest vocalist on one song. Larin co-produced the album with renowned Detroit engineer Roscoe (Sponge, Brothers Groove). The aforementioned musicians appear in various combinations for Liz Larin shows around town.

Story of O-Miz is available at Harmony House, better area bookstores, and at amazon.com and cdbaby.com.

Larin began recording in the mid-’80s with Detroit bands like Press, which changed its name to Rebel Heels. Rebel Heels, with Larin as bassist and lead vocalist, landed a deal with Atlantic Records in 1987. Its only release, One by One by One — produced by famed knob-twirler Rupert Hine (the Fixx, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks) — got the thumbs-up from critics, but the disc stiffed and the band called it quits.

Larin says of the breakup that she “was devastated, but kept writing songs.” She carried on, and was soon signed to Atlantic as a solo artist, a deal that yielded 1993’s Test Your Faith.

Though the recording is slick and tight, the label dropped the promotional ball and Larin decided to ditch the meat grinder of Hollywood for Detroit. Her intent was to take control of her career. But her decision to return home was only partly business.

Larin had something of an epiphany in LA: “I walked out into the street in Hollywood, and I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’” Colleagues in the business, “said I was crazy, I was stupid,” Larin said. “People said I was turning my back on my career, I was going to lose my place in line.”

“I want to write about life,” she recently told Martin Bandyke during a live performance/interview on WDET-FM 101.9. “And in order to write about life, you have to live a life.”

Larin, the eldest of six children, came home and reconnected with family — and the creative backdrop of the Detroit music scene. “The audiences are tough here,” she recently told England’s Voltz magazine. “They really expect you to show them something real and not be a piece of fluff.”

Larin returned from California wiser and more experienced in working with top musicians. She learned how to get the most out of every studio and stage opportunity. She also had a great record called Merry Wicked under her arm, a leftover from her stay in LA.

In 1999, Larin released Merry Wicked, which was co-produced by Scott Spock (who is now writing and producing with Avril Lavigne), her first title on the homespun Bona Dea. Larin took to playing clubs in downtown Detroit and surrounding burbs, first as a solo artist, then assembling a first-rate band for playing larger venues.

She garnered attention from critical Detroit audiences and media, and her name appeared regularly at the Detroit Music Awards, where she often cleaned up. Appreciation for Larin appears to be growing in Michigan and elsewhere.

After having suffered the pangs and joys of life on a major label and living in Hollywood, Larin now has the confidence and well of material from which to draw. Detroit is a better place for it.


Liz Larin performs solo every Wednesday night at Goodnight Gracie’s, 222 S. Sherman, Royal Oak; call 248-584-7400. Larin and her band will perform Dec. 28 at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward, Ferndale; call 248-544-3030. You can always zip over to lizlarin.net.

E-mail freelance writer Leif A. Gruenberg at [email protected]
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