When Lawrence Trilling, director of the Amazon TV series Goliath, wanted to cast a nightclub singer for some scenes that would provide lyrical exposition and an emotional backdrop to the crime-drama goings on, star Billy Bob Thornton knew straight away that Lynda Kay would be the perfect chanteuse for the job.
Anyone who has seen the 2013 video for her cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” would know it also. Kay is a soulful classic pop singer with R&B and Americana roots, blessed with a sultry voice and a rare contralto range that is both mesmerizing and incredibly expressive.
In addition, she carries a vibe that has a little bit of darkness about it. Not in a sinister, unpleasant way but rather in a TV-creepy, Lynchian way. The David Lynch reference is important — that’s what Trilling was envisioning when he considered the part, and that’s what we get from Kay. A background club singer, swaying and, in turn, crooning and wailing. Think Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks, but also the likes of Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney from Dick Tracy and even Jessica Rabbit. The film noir and pop culture references scream out but, simultaneously, she’s found a sound of her own. She calls it the Lynda Kay sound.
Kay has been singing for as long as she can remember; her mom told her that she was singing before talking and dancing before walking. If that’s hyperbole, we’ll allow it because it speaks of the passion that she’s always had for her art.
“I guess I started singing really young — I sang all through school and choir, church and such,” she says. “When I went to college I studied theater arts and studied singing a little, and then I really thought that I was gonna be a lawyer or an FBI agent. And then I realized I’m not that serious so I focused on being an entertainer.”
That’s right, Kay studied law and considered joining the FBI. Maybe some of that fascination with crime, an exploration of the darkness in people, made its way into her art. Ultimately though, a life of solving crimes was just too heavy.
“They had an opportunity for the students at my law school to meet with a representative from the FBI, to basically determine if it was something that would be the right kind of career for you,” she says. “I went, sat down at the meeting, and what I realized was that I was more fascinated with the idea of going undercover in costume than anything. By the time I graduated, I realized that I don’t like arguing and I hate keeping serious secrets. I had a potential position working in the district attorney’s office in their rape and assault division, and I was like ‘Oh god, I can’t look at those pictures every day and hear those tragic stories.’ I have a lot of respect for people that take that on as a position because I just realized that I don’t have that in me, to be able to do that on a daily basis.”
So, Kay moved from Texas to L.A. to become an actor — not an uncommon story. She had previously moved from Dallas to Austin; the latter, she says, aligns closer to her own political views than the former. Once in L.A. though, she started auditioning and things started happening.
“I hadn’t been here for very long when I went to an audition for a musical,” Kay says. “I came in for the audition and it was a very serious one with a pianist and a panel of casting directors. They had me come in and sing my piece. When I finished singing, they didn’t really say anything. They just stared at me. One lady in the center looked around at everybody, then she turned to me and said, ‘You’re totally wrong for the part but your voice is amazing — will you sing us another song?’ That never happens. If you’re wrong for the part, they might as well leave their shoe print on your behind. I just took that as a huge sign that I should be focusing on my voice instead of a career in high comedy.”
So that’s what she did. Pretty much from that point on, Kay has considered herself a singer first. Of course, there’s still room for outside endeavors. She has dreams of a Carol Burnett-esque variety show. For now, she’s settled in her Venice Beach home with her husband Jonny Coffin, owner and creator of Coffin Case guitar cases. Kay helps him out, working the books.
“Jonny and I met in January in 2002 at the NAMM convention,” she says. “It was backstage. There was a show with some supergroup playing for this party. We were hanging out backstage and we made eye contact. Really the rest was history. We got married in August of 2005. We co-own the business Coffin Case, and also Jonny owns the rights to Vampira, the glamour ghoul from 1954. We run the business together. Jonny’s a marketing and product genius. My job is to keep an eye on the books. That’s my serious side. We have a blast together. It’s a good thing we do, because he produces my music too. We like to hang out.”
Jonny Coffin started making the cases in 1996 and then started producing them for the public in 2000, two years before meeting Kay, though this is clearly a team endeavor now. That the pair work together with both Coffin Cases and also Kay’s music speaks volumes about their relationship, their partnership. Those cases, meanwhile, have been made for the likes of Slash, Keith Richards and Johnny Cash.
“He’s touched a lot of people with that product,” Kay says. “He made his first one in his garage. He needed a new case and he’s a carpenter, that was one of his early jobs, so he made himself a case. Laid out his guitar and drew it out and said, ‘Oh cool, it’s like a coffin.’ A light bulb went on and that was it. He got so many comments on it — that’s why he built it up. He got a Guitar Center account and that changed everything with the business for him.”
In 2006, Kay released an album called Lonesome Spurs with rockabilly guitarist Danny B of The Headcat (which featured Lemmy and Slim Jim Phantom) as a duo also called Lonesome Spurs. Her debut solo album, Dream My Darling came in 2009. This year’s Black & Gold is her fourth full length solo studio offering, and Kay feels that the biggest change in that time has been in her voice.
“I have done a great deal of work to try to expand my vocal range and testing its parameters, to see if I can go even higher and lower,” she says. “I feel like I’ve found the right center of my voice which is contralto, the same as Patsy Cline and Karen Carpenter. Since Lonesome Spurs, I have three more octave ranges. That I would say is the biggest change vocally. Back then I was playing a four-string guitar and since 2008 I’ve been playing Gretsch six-strings.”
Contralto is defined as the lowest singing voice type for females. As well as Cline and Carpenter, famous non-operatic contraltos include Brandy, Fiona Apple, Cher and Lana Del Rey.
“It’s very rare and I don’t know exactly why that is,” Kay says. “I think women are often encouraged to sing in their highest range. I think that started with opera and classical music. I made it a point to try to find my proper range. I started working on that really seriously in the last ten years. I love Janis Joplin and I would try to hit my scratchy range but I do better when I’m not trying to hit it — finding the range where that happens naturally.”
The new album Black & Gold is very deliberately split into two parts which were initially intended to be two separate release — The Woman in Black (which seems to call out to Johnny Cash) and The Lady in Gold. Black, she says, is the rootsy, country, Memphis soul side, while Gold is the lush, string-filled orchestral side. Both are very much parts of Kay’s personality.
“There was a period of time for several years where I wasn’t doing any country music,” she says. “But I discovered that I was really missing my country roots and I wanted to push the envelope on those. The other thing that happened was, I was given permission to release a country song that I wrote and recorded with Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead. I took that as another sign and as an opportunity to do an amalgam of sorts, both sides of me as a musician coming together on one double album. The way I look at it is, the Gold album is the dinner album, and the Black album is for the afterparty.”
That all brings us neatly to Lemmy, who of course left this realm in 2015. (Has it really been nearly four years?) Any previously unreleased music featuring the great man is obviously going to be of huge interest to his masses of fans, as is the case here. “The Mask” is the sweet country ballad recorded by Kay and Kilmister, the fourth track on the Black side of the album.
“In 2009, I met Billy Bob Thornton,” Kay says. “Billy and I figured out that we have a lot of friends in common. We really connected, and so at the time he was living in Slash’s old house in Beverly Hills, and Slash had built a recording studio in the basement. I used to hang out there all the time — they used to joke I was the Angie Dickinson to their Rat Pack. I was totally cool with that. I was hanging out there one night and Billy said, ‘I heard you’ve got some really great songs — why don’t you play me some of them.’ We recorded a duet that night. That same night, Jonny was seeing a show at the Whisky. I parked in a lot and had to walk by the Rainbow so I went in to say hi to Lemmy. He sees me and says ‘Hey, where you been?’ I said, ‘I was just recording a duet with Billy Bob Thornton.’ He stops looking at his video poker machine, turns around, looks at me, and says ‘When are we gonna do a duet?’”
So they did. The next week they got together and Lemmy pulled out the rough beginnings of a song that he had started in 1979. The pair finished writing it together, recorded it in-between Motorhead sessions, and that became “The Mask.” Sadly, there wasn’t the opportunity to release it while Lemmy was alive.
“You can’t push something like that,” Kay says. “It needed a proper space. He sounds so revealing and emotional — it’s completely different than his fantastic gnarly vocals in Motörhead. We ended up getting permission this year to release the track from his estate and management, and we couldn’t be more grateful to them for that. If it wasn’t his last, it was one of them.”
Kay confirms the stories that countless people have already told that Lemmy was a warm, wonderful gentleman.
“He was an incredibly gracious human, absolutely hysterical, best storyteller I ever knew, and I would make him repeat jokes to me because his delivery was so impeccable,” she says. “I miss him a lot. I would hang with him and watch rock documentaries and Law & Order, or he would read poetry.”
That Billy Bob Thornton link provides us with another handy transition. It is he that Kay is now working with on Goliath, the Amazon show about a down-on-his luck lawyer (Thornton) trying to pull himself back up. Kay, as the nightclub singer, is playing herself.
“I am playing my songs, and then they have requested that I record some cover songs for the show,” she says. “I knew about the show and I loved it because it always had the Santa Monica Pier, the Boardwalk and everything which is part of our neighborhood, so I appreciated the location. Plus Billy is not only a friend but a phenomenal actor so I had to check it out. Jonny got contacted about having me be in the show by the casting director, so that was very exciting.”
Director Lawrence Trilling met Lynda through Billy Bob Thornton.
“When we started thinking about our new season of Goliath, we wanted to have this surrealistic, almost David Lynch-like casino and we were looking for the house band that was gonna give the right mood and vibe to the casino. As soon as Billy Bob read the script, he said ‘We have got to get Lynda Kay for this — she is perfect.’ He was dead right.”
The choice of music is vitally important, as it provides some exposition to what is going on plot-wise. It also offers the opportunity to tip the hat to some favorite movies and shows.
“We were able to draw on her catalog, and also we selected different covers like Roy Orbison and things where we wanted to make cinematic references to movies we like,” Trilling says. “When we first meet her, she’s singing the Kenny Rogers ‘Just Dropped In’ song, that was from The Big Lebowski. [Orbison’s] ‘In Dreams’ was from Blue Velvet. So there were times where we were doing little cinematic winks with the covers, and other times we were able to just draw on her catalog.”
It all worked out perfectly for Kay, who had just reached the point where she was ready to share her new music when she was given the part.
“I’m so grateful to be part of this fantastic series, and they’ve got a killer cast this season,” she says. “I am performing in a venue, and every scene that I’m in Billy is in. I may have a line or two, I don’t know. Mostly it’s my lyrics and my presence that is part of the exposition. I got to be who I am on stage. I didn’t have to fulfill another vision. The director Larry is a joy to work with. He gave me great direction and also let me do what I do, which is very exciting. To be in a TV show playing yourself — that’s pretty great.”
It really is, and she nailed the part. As Trilling says in conclusion, it’s perhaps underselling her performance a little to simply say she’s “being herself.”
“We were looking for a really particular tone in there, which is cool and spooky and a little bit kitschy but also fantastic and that’s what she does so well,” he says. “Thread the needle of all these different tones, while being a fantastic musician at the same time.”
Singer, actress, business owner — is there anything she can’t do?
Black & Gold is available from October 4. See Lynda Kay on Goliath now, on Amazon Prime.
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