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Maria McKee makes
brassy album far from her country roots

Maria McKee makes
brassy album far from her country roots

Maria McKee knows fans love her quieter, rootsy material. So why did the singer make a bold, brassy disc overladen with glam rock and enough melodrama that even Meat Loaf would be exhausted?

Perhaps because it's closer to who she really is.

McKee is a musical cult figure with an eclectic solo career, known for intensely heartfelt songs and a showstopping voice. She first became known in the mid 1980s as the lead singer in Lone Justice, an alternative country act before the term was coined.

Her solo material has veered between the country-tinged rock and stately ballads Lone Justice presaged, and the more ambitious and artsy numbers in Late December, her newest disc.

''Some people like Lucinda Williams and some people like Bjork,'' she told the Associated Press over a late breakfast recently. ''Not everybody can marry the two.''

McKee, who turns 43 next week, grew up a Hollywood kid. Her aunt and uncle were vaudevillians, and an older brother, Bryan MacLean, played in the rock band Love. She figured she might have talent when, at age 7, her Sunday-school music teacher brought her to the front of the class to sing a song over and over, as he stared, stunned.

She sang Barbra Streisand songs and was a Stephen Sondheim fan, and dreamed of a career on the Broadway stage.

Her older brother pushed her toward pop music, and they performed as a duo when she was a teenager. McKee was a precocious talent; her song ''A Good Heart,'' written at age 19, was a hit in Europe for Feargal Sharkey. She records it herself on Late December.

McKee was attracted to a rockabilly scene with the guys who became Lone Justice, and they took the style a step closer into country.

Geffen Records signed the band, giving them a big push. They opened on tour for U2, where routinely McKee would hear a big cheer and turn around to see Bono had strode onto the stage to join her for a duet. Blessed by Bono--and she was just a kid.

''I was pretty much in a panic attack the whole time,'' she said.

Lone Justice never made it, and collapsed after two albums. McKee was an undeniable talent, and Geffen was anxious to launch a solo career. She remembers a lunch with some of the biggest executives in the business all talking about the album McKee would make. She only opened her mouth to eat.

''This is my life, and I thought that was the way it was,'' she said. Producer Mitchell Froom ''called me the next day and we talked. He said, 'OK, you have a brain. You have musical taste. Now I know.'''

McKee's first left turn came in 1996. Life Is Sweet showed her theatrical side, the intense title cut a song of solidarity to those bruised by life. ''I'm a melodramatic person,'' she said. ''When I'm doing something, it's on 10. And that's not for everybody.''

Many of her fans were confused. The album was a spectacular commercial failure that led Geffen to drop her.

After stays in New York and Dublin (McKee has a larger fan base in Europe), she has settled back in Los Angeles. She and her bass-playing husband, Jim Akin, do much of their work from a home studio and cut deals with independent labels to get her music out. She has also written a couple of plays.

The song ''Late December,'' despite its title, feels like a breezy summer tune with its finger-clicks and rap breaks. It also hints at the vocal and instrumental overdubs to come, sometimes to Queen-like proportions.

''I'm pretty honest with myself about what I want to do,'' McKee said. ''It's like the path of more resistance. It's hampered my career in some cases but I think ultimately it made me a more honest person.''

She has a few regrets. She turned down the sneaker company that wanted to use ''Life Is Sweet'' as a centerpiece for a campaign, a decision she wish she could take back. Same with an offer to sing the Will & Grace theme song, particularly as her current work attracts some gay and lesbian fans.

She's making the music, taking the chances, she wants to make. Not everyone she sees can say the same thing.

''I look at some of my all-time favorite artists and some of the things they're doing aren't that interesting anymore,'' she said. ''It doesn't feel vital, it doesn't feel alive. It doesn't challenge me as a listener. It scares me. I don't want to be one of those people.''

There's one prospect that scares her even more.

Where would she be now if Lone Justice had become the big stars everyone hoped for 20 years ago?

''I'd be boring,'' she said. ''I'd be dead. I'd be a has-been. I'd be on Celebrity Fit Club or a 'where are they now' show. I'd probably be retired from the music business.'' (David Bauder, AP)

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