At the altar of song, Dana Fuchs' smoldering voice is a sermon that electrifies and redeems. Her unique brand of triumphant blues forged of profound tragedy enraptures devotees, as she also uses the stage to keep her sister's memory alive with a message of mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
When Dana Fuchs walked into Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem for our interview, I only recognized her because of her height, all six feet of her. Her perfect curls were tucked up under a baseball cap and the flyaways were braided on each side. It had poured the night before we spoke. Streets became rivers and subway tunnels filled with water. It was mid-July and the air was so thick my shirt clung unsympathetically to my back. She had biked in with her husband Kevin and two boys who are four years and 15 months old. They had bags of necessities, bottles, snacks, and Legos. My first thought was, thank you, she's normal!
As soon as we began, Aidan, her four-year-old, interrupted us with a question about T-Rex dinosaurs. Dana apologized, and I explained that I had four children of my own. We ordered food, a tiny foot hit a bowl on the table knocking it into a glass, Dana caught the glass, and I grabbed the bowl. She and I glanced at each other as if to say, well played, and from then on it was no longer an interview, we were just another group at Dino having lunch and chatting.
Socializing outside of your circle was just starting to happen again. Restaurants in the city had only recently gone back to 100% capacity and one of the things we discussed via email was that we had all been vaccinated.
Everyone Has a Story For the Summer of 2020
Dana and her family hadn’t left during the roughest parts of the pandemic. She was pregnant with her second son, concerned friends and family pleaded with her to leave the city, but wanting to stay close to her obstetrician, she stayed in Harlem.
Candace Harding Medel: What was it like living in the epicenter of the pandemic?
Dana Fuchs: It sounds strange to say this but I had the best year I have had in New York. I fell in love with the city again. We went on the balcony every night to cheer for the essential workers at 7 P.M. I found a community in my building I didn’t know we had. We got the music going with live streams and writing, and I got to spend time with the kids. Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association (MMPCIA) got a key to open the hydrants, they closed off 120th Street, and it was like old school New York. The whole neighborhood came together.
Dana started a small pod school for pre-K students that morphed into a summer camp. She took the kids on field trips to the Lego store and brought in swim instructors. One of the instructors told the kids, “If you are ever sinking, don’t go down quietly, scream for HELP!” Dana, a songwriter, thought, “Wow, that will end up in a song.”
Despite her family contracting COVID-19, Dana used the time during the shutdown for personal growth. She finished her undergraduate degree earning the distinction of Summa Cum Laude from SUNY, and the Global History courses she took fueled her writing in ways that her life experiences hadn’t.
She also managed to write a musical.
“It’s a lot of songs I already had. I wrote some new songs for it also. It’s called Love to Beg, the title track of an older album from 2011.” This album tapped into our vulnerabilities, and grabbed us by the heart with a cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Dana Fuchs is always singing, writing, and again, teaching. The preschoolers aren’t her only students. She also started her work again in clinics with young adults going to school for performing arts.
CHM: What kind of life lessons do you share with your students?
Dana: I always tell my students the key to stardom is being a team player. There is too much competition out there. The days of being able to be a diva are over, just like the days of sex drugs and rock and roll are over. If you’re gonna live on the road you better live like an athlete. You can’t be drinking and drugging. Some artists from the past didn’t survive and those who did dropped dead in their 50’s and 60’s.
Dana speaks from experience. Mistakes and amendments have molded her into the woman, mother, entertainer, and activist that she is today.
The Early Years
"You gotta let the music take over your soul!"
She was the youngest of six, born in New Jersey but grew up in the south “where the turnpike ends, in Wildwood, Florida.” It was the early 80’s, “at the time it was a racist town, predominantly black, and only a few white families had money. Those families sent their children to kindergarten at the white Baptist church." Dana did not attend the Baptist school and was the only white kid in her kindergarten class.
Her teacher, who was black, was like a second mother, often bringing her home and exposing her to some of the music greats she was unfamiliar with. The Fuchs family was Catholic, but in that region, most churches were Baptist. On one occasion a few years later, her teacher took her to church Sunday morning, and a new world opened up.
Dana: I had been to the white Baptist church, which had very polished music. I didn’t know the black Baptist church world existed. It was a shack on the other side of the tracks. I went in and people were getting possessed by the Lord! There were people on the ground and I remember this big woman turned to me and said in a very low voice, "You gotta let the music take over your soul!" I just started jumping up and down and I think they got a kick out of it, a white girl in there loving every minute of it! And that was it for me and music and that's where I learned what gospel was.
From Wildwood to New York City
Although Dana's life at home had gotten tumultuous, music remained one of the comforts for the family. “Dad was really into music, thank God. Both of my parents were. We had music playing all the time. Good music, soul. Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline.”
Her father was an alcoholic and although he loved them, he often neglected the family’s needs. Her older sister Donna had already escaped the situation and left for New York to pursue a career in singing. At 19 Dana started using cocaine and turned to strip clubs to earn money. Months later, she left Wildwood, followed her sister Donna, and made her way to New York. It was 1995.
It was more of a calling and less of a decision. She went to New York City to sing, and started like most, as a waitress, but eventually returned to erotic dancing when it became difficult to make ends meet.
It wasn’t long after that when the sound of her future came wafting out of a club on the Lower East Side as she walked by. It was Jon Diamond, a veteran guitar player who had shared stages with Etta James, Joan Osborne, and Debbie Davies. The sound of his playing drew her in, she introduced herself, and her moxie got his attention.
Jon invited her up to sing.
Dana: The first song I sang with Jon was "Stormy Monday" and I butchered it! That’s when Jon said, “You have a great instrument but don’t know how to sing blues.” After his gig, we went to a small and smokey blues club, on the then quiet fringe of the Lower East Side. He told me to go listen to the blues artists that influenced the bands I loved, like Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Traffic, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
Months later, they met back up at Jon’s tenement railroad-style apartment to do all of their work. Dana’s husky, soulful voice went from good to great, they formed The Dana Fuchs Band and have been a team ever since. It was 1998.
CHM: You and Jon have been partners since the day you met. How have you made your friendship and business relationship survive?
Dana: He strums and I write and that’s always how it's worked with us and it happens so freely. We just had a writing session the other day and the song “Nothing You Own” just flowed out. Like any relationship that has lasted this long, there have been bumps in the road.
We’ve had some fights (Dana confessed, grinning.) Like the time I jumped out of a car in the middle of the street in London. I was so mad! (she laughed.) That was a long time ago before I started the meditation practice. We just come from the same place musically. We both love the old stuff and speak the same musical language and there’s no reason to change it up.
Tragedy and Loss
At the time the band formed in ‘98, both Fuchs sisters were in the city, separately dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. Through her collaboration with Jon, Dana began to pull herself up and away from what had become a thousand dollar a week coke habit. Donna descended deeper and Dana’s attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. This would begin a succession of tragedies for the family.
Donna died by suicide on July 8th, 1999.
Dana’s parents told the family to keep quiet
about the cause of death. A service was held in
the family home in Wildwood, and only close
relatives attended. At the time, her life wasn’t celebrated, and her death felt like a shameful secret which left healing from it impossible.
One night just shy of two years later, while playing a gig with Jon, good fortune would help catapult Dana into stardom. Some Broadway musicians in attendance noticed that Dana’s voice seemed strikingly similar to Janis Joplin’s. Eventually, word of Dana’s voice would reach casting agents involved in the musical Love, Janis.
Dana wasn’t familiar with Joplin at the time and didn’t realize her resemblance to the iconic star. Surprisingly, Joplin eluded Dana, but it makes sense. In the south, Joplin’s music wasn’t accepted during Dana’s days with the black Baptist church. Then, while being schooled by Jon in the ’90s on the pioneers of blues, Joplin whose music was inspired by blues wasn’t on the turntable.
“My dad was from the Bronx. He always had the turntable spinning but he wasn’t really about a strong female presence,” Dana chuckled. “Joplin was one artist I wasn’t exposed to growing up.”
I wanted to learn more about how Dana landed the role in Love, Janis, and how she feels about being continually compared with Joplin, but was concerned that this topic had become irritating or monotonous. Her answer surprised me.
Dana: I honestly never tire of being compared to Janis Joplin. Other than it being a compliment, if someone doesn’t know who I am and they are told I sound like Janis, then they are interested. Just by word of mouth, it has done me way more good than harm.
It’s funny, we both come from a southern place doing soul-blues songs, having been inspired by and covering all of those songs. Janis didn’t get a lot of time to write her music, she wasn’t here long enough, but I feel that she was the kind of person who would have written songs that were about humanity. She’s just a deep soul.
The Love, Janis audition was at a casting agency in Chelsea, NYC. Dana went begrudgingly after agents kept calling her to come in. The room was packed with girls dressed like Janis and they rushed her past all of them. They asked if she had a resume and she said “No, I just sing and you called me here.” They laughed and said, “OK then, let’s hear you sing!” Dana did a few lines of “Piece of My Heart”, then they asked her to do the famous Joplin scream. Next, she read part of a scene and they said “Can you start next week?”
CHM: Janis is all over the place musically. Did you find it difficult to emulate her songs?
Dana: I had eight days to learn 19 songs and 52 pages of dialog! I had her in my headphones 24/7. She had jazz notes, she had blues, she had such soul, such gospel, and of course rock. I had never heard a singer model all of those. I thought, oh my god! I was shocked. “Summertime” was a hard song to learn, I spent a lot of time on that one. She took notes and bent them in ways that were unheard of yet it worked.
Love, Janis ran from 2001 to 2003.
A Healing Song
Dana and Jon’s first album, Lonely for a Lifetime, was released in 2003, an album filled with depth and personal experience with a nod to Dylan and The Stones. The album included a song Dana wrote after her sister Donna’s suicide called “Songbird (Fly Me to Sleep),” It was written as a way to process the pain, and it wasn’t until Dana took to the stage, sang “Songbird,” and told Donna’s story that her healing began.
From there came another unexpected acting gig. Director Julie Taymor, famous for her stage adaptation of The Lion King, needed a singer who possessed that raspy soulful voice. The producer of Love, Janis said ”you should check out Dana Fuchs.”
CHM: Julie Taymor, a major director. Were you nervous?
Dana: I almost canceled the show that day, I was as sick as a dog, but I had promised this NYU student that was working on a project that he could come film it and I didn’t want to let him down.
The show was at a little tiny club, the original Living Room. When Julie came in I had no idea who she was. I got an email from her the next day asking me to come in, it was to do a demo as The Goddess Of Death for a movie she wanted to make with Tina Turner. I did the demo and it was crazy. I had to do all this chanting. It took my whole body to do it. When we got done she said, "I have something in mind for you," and it was a year later that I got a call for an audition.
Julie Taymor had been directing a Beatles-centric1960’s jukebox musical, Across The Universe. After working with Dana, Taymor decided to create a character named after the Beatles song, “Sexy Sadie.”
At first, Dana had no idea that she received the part of Sexy Sadie, let alone that Taymor had created it for her. She was called in multiple times to run lines with various male leads, each time hoping to hear that she landed the role. She was beginning to feel discouraged and finally asked, “Am I getting this role or not?”
That’s when she found out. The crew member looked at her confused and said, “You are Sadie.” The callbacks were to find a suitable male lead, someone who had the acting chops, had chemistry with her, and also matched her stature. “I found out she created the role of Sadie for me based on that day we spent together!”
Across The Universe was released on the big screen in 2007 and would go on to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - musical, as well as a nod of approval from Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney. After that, her fame skyrocketed.
Her years spent acting cut into her writing and recording time but the band was still able to pump out four albums including her contributions to the soundtrack for Across The Universe and 2011’s Love To Beg.
Love Lives On
Dana’s oldest brother Don was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she put her career on hold for a year to care for him, and was holding him as he died in 2011. Again she turned to writing to begin the healing process as she had done after Donna’s passing.
In 2013 Bliss Avenue was released which received acclaim for its passionate singing and heartfelt storytelling. She didn’t get long to celebrate. In 2014 her father passed away, six months to the day later she lost her brother Dan to a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine, and finally, her mother passed in April of 2016 while she was pregnant with her first son.
Her latest album, 2018’s Love Lives On, was born from the perfect storm of grief and happiness. Described as “her best album yet ” by Making a Scene magazine, it is filled with the emotions of all of the loss, along with the joy of bringing a child into the world.
CHM: When will you be releasing a new album?
Dana: An album is in the works and due to record in November and scheduled for release in the spring of 2022 on Ruf Records with plans for a full year of touring behind it. (As we discussed it, Dana began to tear up.) I get very emotional. The songs are deeply inspired by people unexpectedly dying and not being able to say goodbye to each other. There has been a lot of suffering that has brought people together during the pandemic and that also comes up in my writing. I’ve never been able to write a happy little song.
Dana had that deep soulful voice as a child, a sound that didn’t match her petite frame. That voice knew where it was going long before she did.
Dana’s music not only helps her grieve but also helps others move through the process, which is a contributing factor to her continued performance of the song dedicated to her sister Donna.
Dana had that deep soulful voice as a child, a sound that didn’t match her petite frame. That voice knew where it was going long before she did. She would be undertaking a task more important than simply belting out a tune. Dana would be helping families deal with or avoid the pain that hers endured.
Dana followed in her sister’s footsteps and now carries her memory with her from stage to stage. In her words, “I feel the only way to honor my sister properly is to talk about her, what a beautiful singer she was, and what a beautiful soul she was.” She does that each time she sings “Songbird” and discusses suicide, mental health issues, and where to find help.
Dana is an ambassador for the JED Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to prevent suicide among teens and young adults. CEO John MacPhee attended a show, was taken by her heartfelt storytelling and ability to interact with the audience, and when he left the venue, Dana was on board with JED's mission to strengthen school systems, mobilize communities, and support individuals in need.
Until the pandemic hit she had spent the last twelve years on the road. Taking the stage again as you kick off your first post-global pandemic tour may sound daunting. Add in touring with two small children and some musicians may long for the Live-stream. Not Dana Fuchs, who is described as “one of the best blues singers out there, period” by Blues Rock Review.
It’s more than just performing for Dana: being on stage goes beyond having an outlet for her music. When she connects with her audience and tells her story, people’s lives are changed.
The Show Goes On
Our interview was one week before the tour started. “July is always a loaded month for me.” Dana shared. Two days prior was the anniversary of her sister’s death and July 20th is her birthday.
The first show was on the shores where life began for Dana, New Jersey. The beach was packed with fans for the Somers Point Beach Concert Series. The next night, New York City Winery and a sold-out Loft. Everyone was buzzing about how wonderful it was to be back out with friends listening to live music. It was different from previous concerts, it was like being let out of a cage. Another thing was different, everyone was vaccinated or had a negative COVID-19 test.
Dana sang like a volcano waiting to erupt. Then she pulled out the big guns, her lyrics, which reflect the grittier side of her life, and touch on topics like addiction, death, religious hypocrisy, and suicide.
The first leg of the tour continued throughout the northeast. At the end of September, everyone packed up and took a flight overseas for five trio shows in a row in Denmark starting October 5th in Odense. Dana will be on vocals, acoustic guitar, cajón, and tambourine, Jon Diamond on guitar and backing vocals, and Kevin Mackall on bass. Then a break after the holidays before storming Germany, Switzerland, and Romania starting in the spring of 2022 with plans to perform songs from the new album.