Julie Taymor's innovative musical movie Across the Universe (2007) was the gateway drug that turned the world on to Dana Fuchs. The 6-foot Floridian with the powerhouse voice had been singing around New York for years, written and performed the score for the acclaimed indie film Sherrybaby, and had even channeled Janis Joplin in the Off Broadway smash Love, Janis.
But Taymor's dreamy, kaleidoscopic interpretation of Beatles songs — in which Fuchs (it's pronounced Fyooks) had the central role of earth mama Sadie — made her a star.
Fuchs and her band, which includes longtime guitarist and collaborator Jon Diamond, are on the Dec. 7 concert bill at Screven Motor Speedway, with Devon Allman and the Marshall Tucker Band.
She grew up in rural Wildwood, a blip on the map about an hour north of Tampa, and it was there she learned to love rhythm and blues and the (mostly British) rock 'n' roll that had firm roots in American blues. At 12, she joined the choir at the African American First Baptist Church. And learned to wail.
According to Fuchs, it wasn't burning ambition so much as a desire to flee Wildwood, and her dysfunctional family, that led her to run to New York at the age of 19.
We checked in with her this week from her home in the Big Apple.
"My mom was from New Jersey. My dad was from New York. I was born in New Jersey , and I was 2 years old when he just kind of shipped all six kids — I'm the baby — down to this little bumf--k nowhere town. My dad was always into music, especially the black music. He always had something spinning on the turntable. We were raised Catholic, and by the time I was 9 or 10 we were driving pretty far to hit the only Catholic Church within a two-hour radius. In Wildwood, you were either a white Baptist, or a black Baptist. I went to a public school, and most of my friends were African American kids. I got picked on a lot in school for that. I was sort of alienated, but I didn't fit in with the little rich white kids. In the 4th grade, one of my friends brought me to a black church, and I was blown away. It was just a different world. Everybody was joyful, and screamin' and shoutin.' They welcomed me right in. There was no judgment."
"I had this one teacher who just loved me. And she would take me to her house and play me all the old Donna Summer records. I really got into the R&B stuff. That was like a steady diet for me. And my Dad was really into Ray Charles and Billie Holliday, which is of course leaning a little more toward jazz. My oldest sister had a band, and they were doing classic rock covers — so I fell in love with all the classic rock music at a very young age. After my sister left, I sang with the band in Leesburg, Florida —the next town over — every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And when I was 19 I said 'I gotta get the hell out of this town.'"
Living the blues
"Jon was playing in this club, with this ginormous Cherokee Indian black man who called himself Moose. They were playing 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' I literally heard Jon's guitar solo from the street. I had never really heard down-home blues like that. I tried to sing 'Stormy Monday' with them, and I butchered it. Jon said 'You don't know blues. Who are you listening to?' I said 'Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and the Who.' And Jon said 'Now go listen to who they listened to.' Jon gave me a list of who to buy. I bought every CD by Etta James, Otis Redding, Koko Taylor ... I just went deep. I was just lost in this music for about a year, and then I called him and said 'I'm ready to do this.' I remember, the first song we played was 'That's How Strong My Love Is' by Otis Redding, and he was like, 'Wow, you've really been doing your homework!' He had tears in his eyes."
"When I first opened my mouth in New York I got the Janis comparison, but I had never really listened to her. I knew a little bit of 'Bobby McGee.' It was really just the same sort of influences — a white Southern girl interpreting these black artists. Singing hard with a raspy voice. We had just signed with this little label, and I wanted to go on the road. That was my dream. I didn't want to be stuck in some Broadway thing. But they kept calling me — they were desperate at this point. It had been going for a while; they couldn't keep a singer on this damn show! I sang 'Piece of My Heart,' and they were like 'Could you please start in a week?' I stayed and watched the show that night, and that's what convinced me. Because it was such an amazing show. I had eight days to learn 20 Joplin tunes, and a lot of dialogue. I did it for about a year."
Across the Universe
"Julie said 'Can you act?' And of course, you tell a director yes. I did a play in third grade! She had me audition for this role. I really wanted it, it was a great part. When I got it, Julie told me she wrote the part for me, which was mind-blowing. The first three months were all rehearsals, from 10 to 5 every day in Times Square. I literally couldn't believe this was my job. It was so much fun. It was like doing a live play, because we'd always have a small audience of cast, crew and some people Julie would invite. We would sit around a round table doing live reads, and doing the songs a capella. That part was such a blast. And of course, making the soundtrack with T-Bone Burnett was a dream. That was probably my favorite part. Then shooting, you know, it's intense ... but it was amazing. I realized wow, I could probably never do another movie after this, unless it was super-thrilling like this, and I had a lead part."