On paper, singer-songwriter Lisa Finnie seems like one more soft-strumming aspirant in that voluminous coven of often less-than-engaging soul-bearing sisters, but in performance, the Pasadena native gently conjures a mixture of lush atmospherics and cool authority that is downright mesmerizing. Finnie's smoldering, expressive vocals and painstakingly crafted, song-redefining arrangements infiltrate a listener's mind with sinuous ease.
Exhibiting both an intimate familiarity with the blues and a cerebral, natural grasp on jazz exploration, her sultry, languid approach has established the singer as a powerful local force. At her weekly residency at Glendale's Red Carpet Wine bar, Finnie pulls in a crew of acolytes who not only bask in her luxurious music, they also often participate, courtesy of accompanist John Palmer, who totes a suitcase full of exotic percussion instruments, which he passes out to the crowd.
There's an irresistibly organic, spontaneous quality to her performances, but behind the scenes, Finnie's intense devotion and meticulous attention to every detail are acute.
“I just hope that everything's in tune. And melodic and rhythmic, those are the two most important elements,” Finnie said. “I find it difficult to describe my music, but what I can tell you is I really love songs, so it's important to attempt to deliver a song in the most potent way, so others can really enjoy it. Sometimes you tie that into the sound itself. I do play very quietly, whether solo, in a duo or with a larger combo. I always want to make sure that all the instruments are being heard, are audible. Well, that isn't the right term — it's like the way you feel whenever you hear a Willie Nelson guitar solo. It's distinctive, clear, obviously him. That's the goal when I play any gig.”
The decidedly unconventional Finnie, who gave this interview while taking a bath and drinking a vodka martini, has an almost alchemical skill. She'll transform the Velvet Underground's twitchy rock anthem “Waiting For My Man” into a hot hokum-trimmed jazz romp or Elvis' overstimulated bedroom war cry “A Big Hunk O' Love” into a dreamy, low-lit reverie. This knack for reinvention also extends into her off-stage life, unexpectedly winning her a brand-new role, as on-air broadcast host of “The Dylan Hour” on KCSN-FM (88.5).
“I was performing at Viva Cantina around Christmastime 2006. It was a big benefit show,” Finnie said. “I sang ‘Buckets of Rain,’ the Dylan song, and I came off and Les Perry” — the “Saturday with the Beatles” show host on KCSN — “was there and he greeted me with, 'Hey, you did that Dylan tune, are you a fan? Have you ever wanted to work in radio?'“Of course I wanted to. I've been a club DJ, I do voice-over work, and he said: 'The host of our Dylan show is leaving town and if you want to do it, come in and pitch it to the manager.’ So I did just that, and he gave me the job. I just celebrated my five-year anniversary.
Her ongoing residency at Red Carpet Wine came about in a similarly random fashion. “I just went into the bar and kind of inserted myself in there,” she said. “At first they were perplexed, because they'd never had any music there [regularly]. But it's turned into a really nice weekly thing. I've been playing it for about a year and a half. It's very community-spirited. We've got some great people who come in every week. It's a lot of fun.
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”
Lisa Finnie appears at 7 p.m. every Wednesday at Red Carpet Wine & Spirits, 400 E. Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale; (800) 339-0609. Free admission. She also hosts “The Dylan Hour” every Sunday at 3 p.m. on KCSN-FM (88.5).