“Take a deep look at the person
Say do you like what you see
There’s only one show, no rehearsing
Admission ain’t free
What will you do with this life?”
– Lo Steele, “Like This Dove”
Lo Steele is a princess of the city, a born and bred Portlander of impeccable pedigree, immense talent, and outsized charisma. Steele, the daughter of two very accomplished Portland musicians, Mark and the “First Lady of Portland Blues” herself, LaRhonda Steele, has proven herself to be one of the most gifted and multifaceted rising young artists in the city, announcing herself as an actor, spoken word artist, poet, and singer to look out for.
A graduate of Southern Methodist University’s prestigious drama program, Steele won a Drammy Award for her solo performance of Queens Girl in the World and has made her name recently in productions at Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and the nationally renowned Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.
But Steele’s first passion, the engine that is driving her creativity right now, is her music. “It’s my story.” says Steele. “And right now,” she adds, laughing, “I’m self-interested. And I’m interested in community and having experiences with my friends. I’m in this wonderful situation where my best friends are incredible, incredible artists. What better experience to have than making music and telling stories with people whom I love and trust?”
Among those experiences are included recent performances on KOIN 6, at Alberta House, the Griffin House in the Gorge, and Cathedral Park, and a handful of performances at the just-concluded Waterfront Blues Festival. In other words, if an award were given in Portland for Hardest Working Person in Show Business, Steele would most certainly qualify.
On June 30, Lo Steele released her first full-length album, Happy Girl (available on BandCamp). Happy Girl, a deceptively simple title containing multiple layers of meaning and complexity, is a kind of aural collage of different moments that have complicated the life of the young artist over the last three years.
“It’s an anthology,” says Steele, “that ended up having a through-line on accident. Initially, I wasn’t intentional about that. Some songs didn’t make the cut that I thought were going to and some did that I thought wouldn’t. It was more about a cohesive sound than a story I was trying to tell with the album.”
There were, however, certain things she knew she wanted to have present. “I knew that thematically I wanted to bring a lot more joy to this than I have to other projects,” says Steele. “Shit is hard, right now,” she acknowledges. “Shit is so hard. There’s so much pain. And I think it’s important to talk and give space to that pain, but I also think it’s important to laugh. Not everything has to be about our trauma.”
Throughout Happy Girl’s rich tapestry of neo-soul, rhythm, blues, and Steele’s honey-dipped vocals are woven threads of wit and humor, even when delineating a dysfunctional relationship, as in “I Know He Loves Me” or the infectious “Hey, Hey, Hey,” where she draws her romantic line in the sand:
“And there ain’t no pressure
I think you’re so special
So go on and get in your spot
Shit or get off the pot”
The last word sung with angelic euphoria in ironic (and hilarious) contrast to the earthy lyrics.
Irony is a primary color of Steele’s palette. In the eponymous track, the “happy girl” of the title who is ostensibly “living in a happy world” has to account for racist cops, unrelenting student loans, predatory males, and then choose to make a conscious decision for happiness. Conversely, it is the almost whimsical quality of the underlying music, the glockenspiel in the chorus, that suggests the protagonist has the conviction necessary to achieve that happiness amidst these ubiquitous outside pressures.
“Just for me,” says Steele, “I am much happier than I have ever been in my life, and it is because I practice happiness. I force it upon myself. I make myself get up and do things and dance and smile and laugh. That’s part of what this album was. I made myself explore joy, and it worked.”
Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Happy Girl is the exquisite “Syrup,” ostensibly a breakup song that in Steele’s hands becomes something much more complex. In the song she is forced to demand respect and space for herself that her lover is not giving her, and, possibly not capable of giving her.
Another artist might have needed to put him in his place, to fight fire with fire, to hurt him. But though there is undoubtedly anger, hurt, and frustration within Steele’s unwavering defense of herself, she also manages to find space to grieve a relationship, and even a hope that the lover finds what he needs somewhere with someone – but it will not be at her expense.
“I hope you grow
That you find someone
That makes you change your tone
That reflects the heated passion that you own
You’re not alone – you’re not alone”
“With “Syrup,” says Steele, “the heartbreak of that song – there was so much anger and so much pain and so much … but also, I really wanted to … understand — why somebody would want to treat me that way.” That wisdom, that expansiveness of spirit, that capacity to accept and interact with people as whole people, pervades Steele’s lyrics and music.
Happy Girl came about because in the last few years, Steele has found the people to help her unearth the singer/songrwriter she wanted to become. “I met musical collaborators that were able to help me find the sound that was me,” says Steele. “I only had a certain amount of tools writing on my own with my guitar. Particularly [keyboardist] Charlie Brown III — with the things that we wrote together — and even when I come in with ideas — he would bring them to fruition and help create the music for them.
“It was so exciting for me because I’d finally found my voice. I was able to make tracks and music I was genuinely proud of.” Steele, Brown III and guitarist Samuel Eisen-Myers were the primary artists on Happy Girl. “We had good friends of ours that would come in and work with us,” says Steele, “but it was the three of us primarily. And we recorded a lot at Anjuna Recording Studio,” which was also where she held her record release party.
Happy Girl was a long time coming, and like a lot of artists, this achievement has Steele thinking about what the next one is going to be. “I’m already writing stuff that I’m excited about, that I’m more excited about, frankly. The intent with Happy Girl, at this point, is to have a body of work that people can reference; to have a body of work that I can send people that feels truthful to me and my sound.”
Big cities like NYC and LA are possibilities for Steele. She had just arrived in the Big Apple when the pandemic hit, so she came back. But she has deep roots here and loves her musical family in Portland.
“This music community is so important to me,” she says. “The reality is that I have been steeped in it for so long and it feels like family. I haven’t spent enough time in other places to know what the other music communities are like, but I think it’s kind of a clique and a family everywhere and I don’t know if I feel like doing the work (laughs) of finding my way into it.”
So, for now, look for Lo Steele at The 1905 or one of the myriad other local venues where she is often seen performing. And pick up Happy Girl on Bandcamp — one giant leap for a young artist on the rise.
“Don’t wanna hurt nobody
Don’t wanna hurt myself
It’s all a lovely party
Till I am someone else”
– Lo Steele, “Liq”