After making her name as the gritty, soulful lead singer of roots rockers Lone Justice, Maria McKee embarked on a solo career that often reflected the country and blues accents of that band’s work while also taking on a more eclectic and personal outlook, both in lyrics and music. McKee’s voice is a powerful instrument that packs a punch despite her high register, and her songs are capable of expressing universal emotions as well as more inward-looking themes from within her own soul. After the sophisticated pop of her self-titled 1989 solo debut, McKee dove deep into expressive Americana on 1993′s critically celebrated You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, next picking up an electric guitar and exploring more experimental paths on 1996′s Life Is Sweet. After breaking ties with the major labels, McKee was able to follow her muse without compromise with the sophisticated and impassioned pop/rock of 2003′s High Dive and 2007′s Late December. After a long layoff from recording, McKee returned in 2020 with the deeply introspective and poetic La Vita Nuova.
A native of Los Angeles, Maria McKee was born in 1964; her half-brother was Bryan MacLean, the guitarist and sometime singer of the groundbreaking psychedelic band Love. After studying musical theater as a teenager, McKee started performing on the L.A. club scene in a duo with MacLean and also teamed up with local blues singer Top Jimmy (who inspired the Van Halen song of the same name). A roots-music scene sprang up in L.A. during the early ’80s, and McKee — a country music fan — met like-minded guitarist Ryan Hedgecock; the two co-founded Lone Justice in 1982, and with McKee often composing material, the group became a local favorite. They signed with Geffen on the recommendation of Linda Ronstadt, but in spite of highly positive media attention, their two albums — 1985′s Lone Justice and 1986′s Shelter — failed to sell well, hampered by slick production and a sense of not-quite-fulfilled potential. McKee went solo after the latter record and released her self-titled debut in 1989, with Mitchell Froom producing. In 1990, she contributed the song “Show Me Heaven” to the Tom Cruise stock car racing drama Days of Thunder, introducing her to a mainstream audience previously unfamiliar with her work.
McKee scored a critical breakthrough with her second album, 1993′s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which was helmed by Black Crowes/Jayhawks producer George Drakoulias. Its rootsy, countrified rock and McKee’s ever more powerful vocals led many reviewers to call it her most fully realized work to date. She went on to contribute the song “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)” to the hit soundtrack of Pulp Fiction, and in 1996 she released a third solo album, the much artier Life Is Sweet, on which she played all the guitar parts. McKee subsequently took a hiatus from recording, during which time she extricated herself from her deal with Geffen in search of greater creative control. She finally returned in 2003 with another ambitious record, High Dive, with McKee handling much of the instrumental work alongside producer Jim Akin (who is also her husband). In 2004, McKee issued Live in Hamburg, her first official concert outing, recording during her European tour in support of High Dive. McKee and Akin reunited in the studio for 2005′s Peddlin' Dreams, with another concert recording, Live Acoustic Tour 2006, appearing later the same year.
Late December appeared in 2007 from Cooking Vinyl Records. It proved to be her last album for quite some time as McKee pursued other creative media. She published a short story, “Charcoal,” in the 2009 anthology Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians. McKee also collaborated with Akin in the production of two independent films, 2013′s After the Triumph of Your Birth and 2015′s The Oceans of Helena Lee; McKee acted in both movies as well as partnering with Akin to write the scores. McKee was semi-retired from music when, in 2018, she came out as queer with a series of social media posts (in one she wrote, “I suppose ‘technically’ I’m BI/Queer/Pan but really just enjoying my Dykedom right now”). The changes this brought to her life, as well as her rediscovery of the romantic poets and her relocation to London, inspired a new collection of songs that cohered into her 2020 album La Vita Nuova. ~ Steve Huey & Mark Deming