Hard Workin' Women

TAMMIES winners Lisa Otey and Kathleen Williamson find that love is best of all in both life and music.

A sweet-smelling breeze cuts through the humidity on a midsummer's night at the Tucson home musicians Lisa Otey and Kathleen Williamson have shared for the last dozen years.

On entering the living room, you stroll past a baby grand piano and through a well-equipped music-and-TV room to the patio, where the couple has created a sleeping porch--with no central air conditioning, the house is just too hot for slumber these nights.

With a guest, Williamson and Otey are munching watermelon slices and sipping mango juice while rain threatens above and lightening dances on the horizon.

Xena, their regal-looking Akita, pads calmly around the patio after earlier sending a few greeting barks to the dog across the street. The breed isn't supposed to bark, says Otey of the gorgeous dog with a coat dappled in gray, brown and black. "But we used to have a pit bull that taught her how."

Otey and Williamson wear matching claddagh rings, a traditional Irish symbol of faithfulness and marriage. In the design, two hands hold a heart surmounted by a crown. The poesy that usually accompanies the giving of such a ring is: "Let love and friendship reign."

Williamson is a classic redheaded colleen with striking blue eyes. With her flowing mane of dark hair, tinged with a few stray grays of late, Otey's look is more that of a dark-eyed gypsy. The couple is equally comfortable discussing Radiohead, immigration laws, art, philosophy, literature and their favorite TV program, Xena: Warrior Princess.

They also happen to be two of Tucson's busiest musicians--and most-honored. It was announced this week that, between them, Otey and Williamson won six of this year's Tucson Area Music Awards, aka the TAMMIES.

Williamson was voted Tucson's top songwriter and upcoming artist (even though she has been performing since the 1970s) while her recent album, Love Is Best of All, got the nod as top new release. Otey topped the lounge music, keyboards player and female vocalist categories. Williamson also notched a runner-up mention in the latter division.

In addition, Otey was welcomed to the Tucson Music Hall of Fame, an uncommon distinction for an artist so young--she's 36.

"I'm grateful and everything, but I am really too young to be inducted into any Hall of Fame," Otey demurs. "Two years ago, when the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame included me, I thought they were really running out of people to recognize."

Although Williamson spent much of the '70s and '80s as a folk-jazz guitarist and singer-songwriter in Jerome, Ariz., and various locales overseas, Williamson's day gig now is as a criminal defense attorney, and she keeps her office in a guesthouse in the backyard at the couple's home.

Williamson has served time as a prosecutor and judge, and she holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology, giving her a unique perspective--that of an attorney, an academic and an artist--on legal affairs. And most of life, for that matter.

"It's a tough time for civil rights and liberties," says Williamson, whose sense of justice and activism has been influenced greatly by such artists as Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Hoagy Carmichael, who all studied law.

"I think, with legal training, they were better able to empathize with people in all kinds of situations," she says of her heroes.

"And they were aware of what we all should know today: that if you don't have an avenue to express yourself, it's depressing. That's why so many people today are on anti-depressants."

She evinces genuine outrage at the state of the American legal system. "Maybe I shouldn't get into it here, but the prisons are just full of poor people, and the real criminals aren't in prison."

While maintaining her law practice, Williamson has been re-focusing more of her energies on the music business; her muse just won't quit. The imminently eclectic Love Is Best of All was just released a few months ago, trumpeting in a way Williamson's official return to the music business.

A FIRST-GENERATION IRISH-American native of New York City, Kathleen began performing at an early age, mounting skits with her three sisters when they were kids. She played with basement rock 'n' roll bands, and at open microphone events in Greenwich Village, writing songs of love and protest. Heavily influenced by contemporary folk, soul, jazz and rock music, she came out West in 1974 to play in the artists' community of Jerome and throughout the Verde Valley.

In Arizona, Williamson studied with Katie Lee, her mentor and friend--and a renowned folk-music pioneer. She also collaborated in those days with the late Joe Wolverton, a jazz guitar virtuoso and teacher of Les Paul. She spent time touring in Japan, Guam, Hong Kong, Korea and Samoa. By 1986, Williamson was in Tucson, where she headlined the first Tucson Folk Festival. But soon her pursuit of academic degrees, such as a J.D. and a doctorate, began to occupy her time.

Although she has been described as a folk-jazz artist, Williamson proves on Love Is Best of All to be far more versatile than that appellation might suggest. She has sometimes been called a "twisted torch singer."

Williamson works a gauzy East Indian groove on the title track. "The Stars Draw Near" is a cantering country-bluegrass track, enlivened by an interlude than transforms from a polka to a Sinaloan brass-band sound. There's the jazz homage "Jazz Fiesta Show," on which she name-checks a couple dozen classic jazz artists and tunes.

On her satirical, literate "Big Deal Small Talk" and "I Can't Make a Livin' Lovin' You," Williamson uses her sultry voice to talk-sing in a syncopated fashion that might otherwise be called, well, rap. But she's no bandwagon jumper when it comes to rhythmic wordplay. "I've been doing rap since 1980 because I was listening to Gil Scott-Heron."

These days, Williamson loves to play with her partner, but she also maintains an ongoing collaboration with guitarist Ed Delucia and country combo with Delucia and steel-guitarist Hal Rugg.

Otey is a well-regarded jazz-blues pianist and singer with six albums to her credit, the most recent being 2002's Boogie Woogie Baby, featuring the Dutch musician Mr. Boogie Woogie, with whom Otey has often collaborated.

Many Tucsonans--and Tucson visitors--will recognize Otey most easily for her high-profile position as co-musical director and bandleader at Tucson's Gaslight Theatre.

But lately, she has been cutting back on her hours there because of frequent touring and outside gigs. In fact, Otey didn't play at the Gaslight at all during the month of July.

She recently completed a series for the Invisible Theatre's Sizzling Summer Sounds series, including an all-request show during which she played tunes by the Rolling Stones, Anne Murray and Janis Joplin, among others.

Her barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano style is a crowd-pleaser, but Otey's two most significant inspirations have been Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday.

"Billie Holiday got down to that pain, the human element, better than anyone, and with Elvis, there's a voice that's the sexiest thing I've ever heard," Otey says in wonder. "That's the music that I enjoy listening to most, is that kind of emotionalism in music."

Otey performs in a wide variety of contexts, from her ragtime and boogie-woogie shows, through gospel and Latin, to performances with the female vocal group Desert Divas (with Hurricane Carla Brownlee, Anna Warr, Liz McMahon and Williamson) and the rip-snorting jazz-blues combo Lisa Otey Band (featuring drummer John Westfall, bassist Steve Grams and Brownlee on saxophone).

During her years of musical growth and evolution, Otey says, "The audience determined what my niche was. I threw out everything I had learned, all of the music, and they just told me what stuck. They still do."

It's tough to tell now, but Otey endured an unhappy childhood, first growing up in an emotionally tumultuous home on a dairy farm in rural Oregon and then moving in with her father and his girlfriend's family in a suburb of Portland.

"The house I grew up in before I was 12, things would get so emotional, I'd go way out past the boundaries of the land and just look at the highway. Then I pretty much spent my whole high school years with the headphones on transcribing Manhattan Transfer songs and practicing conducting," Otey says.

Otey left home at 17 and eventually wound up in Tucson in 1984.

WILLIAMSON AND OTEY MET when Otey was playing a moonlight gig on North Fourth Avenue in 1986.

"It took me six months to get up the courage to talk to her," Otey says. They started hanging together, their relationship progressing naturally.

"Kathleen gave me her tape and I just wore it out. She turned me on to jazz standards and Joni Mitchell . ... "

Otey takes a breath. "And it's been a partnership ever since," Williamson finishes.

At first, Otey was the youthful pursuer, and Williamson the hesitant older woman, 13 years her senior.

"She was hell-bent," Williamson says. "To be with somebody so young, I didn't know if Lisa had her stuff together." Apparently, she did.

Williamson and Otey note that they each have known they loved women since they were children. They just assumed they were normal, despite what some parts of society told them.

But they can't always be themselves--and haven't always been able to be publicly out as a couple, especially during the periods when Williamson was a judge and Otey a schoolteacher. "There were times when we could not hold hands in public," Otey says.

"We do a Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie (Gorme) thing together on stage sometimes, but that is accepted because it's camp and as long as we are not seriously singing a love duet," Williamson notes. But rarely do they get to perform together as a couple.

"We sang together at Gay Pride Festival in Flagstaff. We realized we could be ourselves as a couple on stage," Otey says.

"Pat Benatar was on one of the morning shows on TV the other day, and it was announced that she and her husband had been married for, I don't know, so many years, and the whole audience cheered and applauded," Williamson says. "But you would never see them do that for a couple that was both men or both women."

"I look at my audiences, and I know that sort of thing wouldn't go over well," Otey adds.

"You know how they announce people's anniversaries from the stage at the Gaslight? They'd never do that for a gay couple, or if they did, they would make a joke out of it."

Over the years, the couple has played music together on and off, often acting as sounding boards for each other's material, but they never wrote songs together until the last couple of years.

One of their first collaborations-- the gently optimistic "I Can See the New View"--appears on Williamson's new album. Another, the whimsical "Don't Make a Scene, Kathleen," is included on Otey's latest.

Both are, to cop a phrase from the title of Otey's 2001 album, hard-workin' women.

When asked if she ever tires of performing live, night after night, Otey responds, "I love music; that's all I ever wanted to do." Even the day-in, day-out process of playing at the Gaslight or going on tour doesn't dissuade her.

In a seriously Andy Hardy-sort of way, Otey never lacks the enthusiasm to get up on stage and entertain. She professes: "It's a whole different audience every night; every audience is special. I may get tired at 6 p.m. when I get home some nights, but if I knew I had to go and play two shows in a night, I would be up for it.

"And I think touring is actually easier than being at home. At home, you have to arrange schedules, book flights and hotels. There's so much planning and logistics. When you're on tour, all the work is done, and all you have to do each day is play your show."

Williamson and Otey have stepped up their European touring lately. "We've gone to play in Europe five times in the last few years," Williamson says.

This past March, they were in Spain (during the outbreak of war in Iraq, as it happened), where Otey did a week at Café Central, one of the premiere jazz clubs in Madrid. "The waitress would actually shush people," Williamson says.

"People actually listen in Europe. They seem to presume we have something precious to say. England is the exception to that rule, though."

In a male dominated music business, the couple more often has encountered simple ignorance rather than blatant prejudice or sexism, they say.

"For instance, in Europe, on the bills of jazz and blues festivals, I have literally been called the token woman," Otey says.

Adds Williamson, "The general operating default thing for these guys on committees and in music societies is to go for the guys when booking gigs or festivals, because that is what they are used to."

A woman who plays jazz or blues is recognized not only for her talent, but because she is a female player, which is a tacit form of separatism.

"I never felt excluded from the musician's circles," Williamson says. "But I always felt that I had to play like a guy if I was going to be accepted."

Otey simply says, "We always had to play better than the guys around us or we'd be ignored."

THE COUPLE MAINTAINS A frenetic pace sometimes. Both are always working on new material and planning concert tours while somehow keeping up with their other obligations. Tucson Weekly readers who voted Love Is Best of All to the top of the local album release heap for this year's TAMMIES will be excited to hear that Williamson is preparing on a new album, An American Bard, for release in 2004.

Next year, by the way, will mark the 10th anniversary of their independent record label, Owl's Nest Productions, which also is headquartered in their "compound" in a quiet midtown neighborhood. Plans are underway to celebrate the label's anniversary with a special all-star concert at the Temple of Music and Art.

While the couple seems to get busier and busier--both are on the board of the Tucson Jazz Society and Williamson just joined the board of community radio station KXCI FM--they recently took time for their first real vacation in three years. They spent two weeks in Costa Rica.

It's their goal to make a fortnight of relaxation an annual tradition. This year, the trip was to celebrate Williamson's upcoming milestone, her 50th birthday.

Regarding her impending cumpleaños, and any gifts that might present themselves, the always-jocular Williamson declares, "I am just so thankful to get time--to have another year of life with all my teeth and two tits. And I'm grateful that we both feel that way about life."