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Dana Fuchs has never dealt in nostalgia. For this questing artist, it’s not about the rear-view but the road ahead. The next song. The next session. Tonight’s show and tomorrow’s bus ride. But as Dana sheds her musical skin with her triumphant fourth album Love Lives On, it seems a fitting juncture to rewind the reels and thumb a backstory as compelling as any in rock ‘n’ roll. This life and times doesn’t always make for easy reading. The triumphs are laced by tragedy, ugliness, injustice. But whatever the obstacles, music and love have been the beacons that guide her on.
As one of New York City’s favorite daughters, it’s tempting to imagine that Dana’s career began amidst the subterranean throb in the clubs on the Lower East Side. It’s true: that city was her birthplace and springboard to fame. But to truly grasp her artistic motivations, you’d have to follow the family’s car towards Florida, and rattle along the dirt tracks until you hit Wildwood: a backwoods town, population 2000, where black and white were split along battlelines and distrust simmered in the air. “Back in the ’70s, it was a sorta small, racist town,” remembers Dana, who dropped a social hand-grenade by dating a black friend. “We were a big family from New York, Irish-Catholic, there was no one like us in the area. I tended to gravitate more towards the African-American community. I felt more accepted by them.”
Dana and her five older siblings ran wild in the woods (she remembers herself as a “tomboy with dirt under my nails”). Yet this was no picture-perfect childhood, the family’s mood and rhythm set by her father: a former Marine in daily conflict with his demons. “He was a very tortured soul who had one of the most brutal lives of anyone I’ve ever known,” explains Dana of the patriarch commemorated in Faithful Sinner, one of the songs she wrote for the album. “He was tortured by his father and molested by his mother. His beatings only stopped because his father took his own life. My father found him. With all that pain, he was most certainly a flawed parent. He could also be very angry and scary, especially when he drank. Still, we knew he loved us.”
If the household was fractious, then music was always the balm. Ostracised at school, Dana found solace in the stomp-and-holler gospel of her local Baptist church, but it was the British classic rock blasted out by her siblings – The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Fleetwood Mac – that lit a lightbulb over her head. “That’s when I knew I had to do music,” she explains. “When I started hearing that stuff, at 10 or 11, I stopped listening to other music completely. Later on, I appreciated my parents’ music – Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday – but when I heard the old classic rock ‘n’ roll, I lost my mind over that stuff.”
Dana’s musical appetite was bottomless, and when fronting a band at a local Holiday Inn was no longer enough, the 19-year-old singer hatched a bolder plan. At this time, New York did not hold happy associations. The city had been the backdrop to the tragic death of Dana’s beloved elder sister, Donna. “She and my brother Don had a band, quite popular in the South. She went up to New York City to find her fame and fortune. She took a lot of wrong turns and tragically ended her life.”
Any other 19-year-old might have run a mile from New York’s bearpit music scene, but Dana used the pain as her fuel (“Donna’s suicide,” she says, “catapulted me from despair to determination to fulfil our shared dream of music”). Yet she still needed a foil. One fateful day, pounding the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, Dana heard the missing puzzle-piece, in the form of Jon Diamond: a heavyweight session guitarist who could already boast credits with Joan Osborne and others. “I was walking by this little club and I heard his guitar from the sidewalk,” she recalls of the musical partnership that flourishes to this day. “I introduced myself to Jon on the break, told him I thought he was great, and that I had come to New York to be a singer. So, he invited me up to sing, and I faked Stormy Monday. Afterwards, he said, ‘You have a good instrument, but you really need to learn what you’re doing’.”