This interview took place prior to Pearl’s show at the Warfield in San Francisco on 8/4/18.
In a cramped, basement dressing room, Pearl puts the finishing touches on her makeup and makes time to video chat her family before taking the stage. Revel Young, her buoyant son with husband Scott Ian is on tour with Anthrax and Slayer at the moment.
“BEST SUMMER EVER!!!!!” she jokes, referencing the testosterone-heavy father and son trip.
Swinging a large crystal necklace aside, Pearl rubs a dollop of shimmery lotion over her freckled arms and chest, pausing to question whether it was a little too much. She shrugs indifferently and makes the call to her guys, who are somewhere between Syracuse and London, Ontario.
Seven-year-old Revel is eager to share his new findings with Mom, launching into a detailed explanation of the difference between Gandalf the White and Gandalf the Grey. Minutes later he’s converted the bunks of Dad’s tour bus into a rolling climbing gym, maneuvering skillfully from bed to bed — long, red locks swinging while telling his mother to “look at me.”
A chipped aqua paint job in a room where the butts outnumber the seats serves as the backdrop to the goodnight wishes of mother and son. Scott then turns the camera on himself to bid his lovely wife a good show and send his greetings to the inhabitants of the room.
While the life of a rock and roll family may seem exotic to some, it’s all Pearl — the daughter of Meat Loaf and ’60s rock muse Leslie Aday — has ever known. In her teens and early twenties, she was already singing backup for Meat Loaf and even performed at Clinton’s inaugural ball.
“I think it was his second inauguration actually,” she says modestly. Because performing for a president’s reelection is apparently no big thing. That night she met the president and first lady, and danced with then D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who she remembers as “a funky, groovy man.”
“That was a trip,” says Pearl, who also performed for Prince Charles as a member of her father’s backing band, Neverland Express. Considering the fates of so many stars’ children, Pearl is remarkably grounded. There are no airs about her, and she doesn’t seem to think the world owes her anything. Tonight she is opening the Warfield for rising country star Cody Jinks and headed to the airport straight from the show.
“We’re gonna pull an EP,” she says as she packs up her things in preparation for the quick break. “You know, an Elvis Presley.”
“We call that a runner” chimes in Fred Mandel, one third of Pearl’s band for this pared down San Francisco set. He picks out a tune on the guitar while recalling a chaotic escape from a venue following a performance with Queen. Mandel’s resume reads like a novel and includes work with everyone from Lady Gaga to Pink Floyd.
A young Robert Davis is also stepping in for Pearl’s regular lineup, founding members of Mother Superior, who, for several years, served as the Rollins Band. “I’m like a substitute teacher,” says Davis, “but more like a substitute learner because I’m the one who’s learning.”
Chances are, there won’t be much fanfare tonight after the show as Pearl and the guys slip quietly out the stage door. Though lifetime touring musicians, they are not household names, nor faces for that matter. Earlier in the day, Pearl and I caught up in a Market Street bar adjacent to the Warfield, virtually unnoticed as pregaming Cody Jinks fans streamed in.
“All these people are coming to the show, I can tell,” she says smiling. Hmmm, I wonder if the straw cowboy hats gave it away. Not something you see every day on the streets of San Francisco, but Cody Jinks fans get around.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” a concert going couple stopped her on the way back through the gilded, now filling theater. “You were in Tahoe weren’t you?” they ask. Her svelte, black-clad figure and curly, white blonde hair were more recognizable with a little context.
“We were the crazy Texans waving the Texas flag,” they say, excited to share a connection. When she’s supporting Jinks, Pearl’s sets are usually acoustic, and though many country fans may not have known her before, the audience is receptive to her bluesy, stripped down sound.
“When you hear a song acoustically,” says Pearl, “you can kinda bend it in the way you want to hear it.”
Though her latest album, Heartbreak and Canyon Revelry, is touted as “California country,” Pearl’s music isn’t easily defined. “This really isn’t country, but it isn’t really rock and roll. But it’s got a pedal steel,” she says. “It’s just music. It doesn’t belong in either tight little wrapped up package.”
The new album, which delves into subjects many mothers quietly grapple with, was a labor of love for Pearl. It marks a turning point for her family — moving to a remote LA suburb and giving birth to their first child. While Scott was on the road with Anthrax, and Pearl was adjusting to the routine of caring for a baby, she began to lose touch with part of her identity.
“I had kind of a good momentum going years ago before I got pregnant,” she recalls. Her band was opening for big acts like Heart and Velvet Revolver, and made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! She performed with Meat Loaf a few times during the pregnancy, but opportunities were starting to dry up.
“And once the baby was born it was like, nothing. Just nothing,” she says. “Well, that’s gone. It feels like a huge part of me, but maybe it’s gone. Maybe it’s just done.”
Pearl dove headlong into her new role as mother, the stage lights fading off in the distance.
“I was in this depression, but I didn’t know it because you’re met with such intense, beautiful joy every day. You wake up every day and you see your baby, and their face. They’re smiling and running around, and you’re guiding them and they’re learning
to speak, and you’re entertaining them and feeding them. . . It’s so intense.”
“It was a choice though,” she says of the sacrifice. “I was also just completely head over heels in love with my baby and I didn’t want to leave his side.”
“But then where’s me? I’m Mom, of course, I am, that’s a given. What about this part over here?” she asks, referencing her music career. “That fell away. I didn’t know if I could come back to it. I didn’t know if it still fit me anymore.”
For seven years, Pearl and songwriting partner Jim Wilson worked on Heartbreak and Canyon Revelry, a little here, and a little there. Wilson, who also backed Henry Rollins with his band Mother Superior, has been a longtime collaborator.
“We got together and we just meshed right away,” says Pearl, who remembers mustering the courage to approach Mother Superior about “working with a chick singer” at a party following one of their shows. “Scott and I were, and still are, huge dorky fans of Mother Superior,” she says, “I was so nervous, you would think that Elton John was standing in front of me.”
Writing together for 16 years now, Pearl and Wilson slowly but surely carved out time for the new album. “To have so much time to work on a project can be a blessing, and also can kind of be a curse because you have all this time to come back and reapproach it and change it and tweak it. But then you have all this time to doubt yourself. And you’re also changing,” she says. “Well that’s me 4 years ago, and now it’s not the same and I have to rework it again. You’re changing through it, you’re changing through all that time.”
“Luckily,” says Pearl, “I didn’t feel any separation from any of the songs.” The result of all those years is a soulful, sun-drenched exploration of heartbreak and revelry, the highs and lows of her new life as a mother. Pearl lets it all out on tracks like “Who Am I,” a conversation with herself and her demons, and “Sleepless Nights,” a nod to the debilitating insomnia that accompanied her struggle with postpartum depression. The album is raw and real, polished in places and rough in others. Boot-stomping
tracks like “Be Your Own Horses” call to mind her live acoustic album The Swing House Session, while the bright, steel guitar laden “Let It Go” reinforces her place on a country music ticket alongside Jinks and the sons of Merle Haggard, Ben and Noel.
Pearl has actor and Kentucky native W. Earl Brown to thank for last year’s serendipitous introduction to Cody Jinks. Known for his work on Deadwood and Preacher, Brown is a Southern boy who also plays a bit of guitar.
“Hey, do you wanna come over for a pickin’ party?” the story goes. Brown was hosting a get together following Cody Jinks’ and Ward Davis’ appearance on Conan. With the lure of Mexican food, tequila, and a jam session, Pearl signed on for an evening at Brown’s place.
“I don’t know who these guys are, but it’s Earl, and it’s his house, and they’ve gotta be good people,” remembers Pearl. The artists each offered up a few numbers, Jinks playing his new song at the time, “I’m Not the Devil,” and Davis singing “15 Years in a 10 Year Town.” Pearl contributed a couple songs from her yet unfinished album, and they all joined in on the classics like Patsy Cline.
The following day, Pearl received an invitation to duet with Jinks on a cover of “Wish You Were Here” at the Troubadour, and a few months later she was opening for him in Ventura. Jinks, who was wrapping up Lifers at the time, put a little friendly pressure on Pearl to finish her album and get her out on more tour dates. Ward Davis, who also received some nudging from Jinks to complete his new album, brought Pearl in to sing on a track.
“Just like gifts raining down,” says Pearl of the breaks that started coming her way after years of creative frustration. Doors were opening for Pearl, but getting back in the saddle after such a long hiatus wasn’t exactly easy. Giving birth was “like putting the car in reverse on the highway going 65,” she says. “Now I’m going backward and everyone else is going forward. I don’t know how to go forward anymore.”
When she first returned to performing, Pearl felt like she was wearing a costume, like she was a try-hard or a wannabe. “The people around me didn’t see it that way, but I felt that way,” she says. “You’re your own worst critic. You slam yourself for having these really real feelings, but then you’re also like ‘why are you being such a whiner, what’s wrong with you, everything is good, there’s no reason for you to feel this way.’”
Her breakthrough took place when Pearl was diagnosed with postpartum depression. For several years she had been plagued by insomnia, each day watching the sunrise only to get up and go through the motions. After visiting a long line of doctors and gurus, she finally got the correct diagnosis, and now wants to raise awareness for other mothers who may be struggling too.
“I want to talk about it because I didn’t even know, I didn’t even realize what was going on,” she says. “So that opened up a big door for me, just knowing that was such a huge relief. It was like ohhhhhh okay, well I have an answer now.”
Though she may not be entirely out of the woods, Pearl is finding relief with the help of Chinese medicine, kickboxing and her yoga practice. Finding balance was a big step toward owning her power as a performer, which, after years out of the limelight was very much still there. “It took me a while to figure that out. Even just yesterday I felt more comfortable and better about myself. Every day is kind of snuggling down into the boots — these fit me again.”
The challenges of the past few years have left Pearl with no shortage of material, and that is never more evident than when she digs deep and leaves it all out on the stage. From a darkened, no-frills backdrop, Pearl belts it out, arms and wild blonde hair flying. Every note is not pretty, but they each ring out with her truth. Her set at the Warfield is compact but powerful — like a pitbull — or better yet, like a mother.
In the vein of Bonnie Raitt and Pearl’s namesake, Janis Joplin, she’s continuing a long line of songstresses who alternate from vulnerable to guttural in a single phrase. It may not be the crowd she’s used to performing for, but country fans can appreciate a singer with something in her soul. Being back on the road is more complicated now that Pearl has a family, but it’s easy to tell that she truly loves to perform.
Of balancing family life and her music career, Pearl says they’re still figuring it out day by day. Motherhood is “so intense,” she says, “it’s everything, altogether at once.” She’s got a solid partnership with Scott to rely on, and a beautiful young boy who is growing up fast. While on tour with Dad this summer, Revel has taken it upon himself amp up the crowds -a tiny hype man throwing up horns to The Number of the Beast.
However they juggle the demands of parenthood and road life, Scott and Pearl are raising a rock family the best they know how. It’s doubtful Revel is sleeping in a guitar case, to borrow a line from Pearl’s song “Rock Child,” but it’s probably safe to assume bedtime brings some pretty awesome lullabies.
Photos courtesy of Earsplit PR and Gina Teichert