Denise Kaufman of Ace of Cups says “Put a woman in charge”
By Tom Reardon, October 2020 issue
There are certain people that when you listen to them, their world opens up before your eyes and, if you allow yourself to do so, you can almost get lost. Denise Kaufman is such a storyteller and her tale is one of balance, beauty, and an awesome soundtrack.
As a founding member of the band Ace of Cups, who achieved notoriety in the late 1960s and early ‘70s playing concerts around the Bay Area and beyond, Kaufman is, in many ways, a rock-and-roll lifer, but that is just one side of her story. An accomplished yoga instructor, whose client list included Madonna, Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Quincy Jones, Kaufman also helped found the Island School on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she lives part-time and still surfs. She’s also a mom and grandmother when she is not making music with her musical sisters in Ace of Cups.
On October 2, Ace of Cups releases their second studio album, Sing Your Dreams, on High Moon Records (reviewed in this issue) and Kaufman’s stamp is all over the record, which features friends like Jackson Browne, Wavy Gravy, and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna), among others. We caught up with Denise by phone to talk about the band, the album, and a few other surprises, as well. Here’s what she had to say:
Tell me about you … what brought you to music?
I was playing music at three years old. We had a piano and my mother had been a wonderful singer and pianist. My dad could not carry a tune, but he loved music. He had gone to Harvard and studied English Literature, so he was the word guy. He could remember every lyric, but the tune never quite worked. So, between them, I just started when I was a little toddler.
I was in the San Francisco Children’s Opera, which was a light opera company. I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so I was sort of in music and theater and dance from when I was little.
Opera is a big deal in San Francisco, isn’t it?
Well, yeah. The company I was in was actually a light opera company. It was a repertory company started by a couple who had actually escaped the Nazis and they were from Vienna (Austria). She (Hedwid Gingold) had numbers on her arm, so they hadn’t fully escaped. He (Dr. Norbert Gingold) was Bertolt Brecht’s pianist. He played piano in the opening of The Threepenny Opera. They wrote operettas based on the stories of classic fairytales. They were very imaginative, and they sort of went in their own direction. They had all these great characters and great music in the style, I would say, of Gilbert and Sullivan.
They had three repertory companies of kids. I think I started when I was seven or eight. We met twice a week and worked for three months on a play, but then you were also in the performances in the other companies if they needed performers for the chorus. We did the performances in the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco which is a really nice theater. I was in it for years. It was wonderful.
That is so enlightening considering the music you create with Ace of Cups. What a great way to learn about harmony and melody and weaving voices together like you do with your band so well.
The other thing was, I went to a camp in the summer in the Santa Cruz mountains that was really amazing. It was a girl’s camp and I went there for five summers. We sang all the time. That’s really a lot where I learned more and more about harmony. It was called Deep Woods Camp. Having those experiences as a child made me so love the experience of singing in groups because they were all really good teachers in those places. It made me appreciate the feeling and the sound of voices in harmony.
You started with piano. When you did pick up guitar or did you start with bass?
I picked up guitar when I was about 13 or 14. I was sort of rebelling against piano as I went to the Conservatory of Music two times a week for classes and I really didn’t like the classical recitals we were required to be part of. I look back and wish I could do that now (laughs). At the time, I was sort of over it. I think sometimes, with kids and music, I think a lot of children will rebel against lessons. Their teachers should ask them what they would really like to be playing to tune into the students and help them to get through those rebellious years. I didn’t have that.
My mother had started taking guitar lessons from a woman named Laura Webber in San Francisco who was a folk singer. It might have been on television, I can’t remember. My mother got this old Kay guitar, but she didn’t stick with it very long and I basically took over her guitar. I started playing in the folk music vein. I had an older cousin and her boyfriend was a really cool guy and he played all the Kingston Trio songs and I learned those. Then I really got into folk music and started studying some of the songs that came over from Scotland and the British Isles. I had friends at school that I would sing some pop songs with and I became the person who had the guitar who could play while everybody sang.
The pop songs of the day, some of them were pretty cool.
What was a song you were really into learning to play?
When I think of early songs like that, I think of the Shangri-Las and some of the girl vocal groups. Brenda Lee. There was also The Coasters. I liked a lot of doo wap. As I got older, I definitely rebelled against the sort of songs like Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and that stuff. That teenaged angst songs were too demeaning to me. I just didn’t like them.
Ever since those days, I’ve always really listened to lyrics. I always played with gender and lyrics. I would hear a song like “It’s My Party” and I would think, “What if a guy was singing this song.” There is something I don’t like about the gender roles in these types of songs. I was always switching gender. I would try and sing some song that a guy wrote. Later, when I had my own bands, I had one band where we took “The Spider And The Fly” by Rolling Stones and we had our drummer sing it and it was a really different song when sung by a woman. The song is about a guy who goes into a bar while he’s on the road and even though he promised to be faithful, when he goes into the bar, there was this woman. It was sort of a whole different when we switched it around and sang that song.
Some of the songs from the early days seemed so wimpy to me and I wondered why woman sang things like “It’s My Party?”
That’s really cool that you were looking at these types of things in those days.
Those times (early-to-mid 1960s) were really challenging for people who were awake to the language and the patriarchy of the culture. In those days, they only used male pronouns on school forms, for example, and I would say, “Why? Why don’t they use male one day and female the next time?”
I fear we are living in a time when some people would like it to go back to that.
Right, right. There was a woman who spoke at the RNC (Republican National Convention) who said that households should only have one vote and it should be decided by the husband. Did you see that?
I’m guessing that statement didn’t jive well with you and the band?
No. (Laughs) I’m probably the most political person in the band. Actually, our newest member, Dallis (Craft) who joined us this last year, she is. Our drummer Diana (Vitalich) is getting more and more political, which is really fun.
It’s a hard time not to be political if you are an independent thinker.
Talking about playing with gender, I’m thinking about your song, “Boy, What’ll You Do Then.”
It’s a perfect example of what you were talking about and how crazy is it that the original 7” of that song is for sale on discogs.com right now for $6,000?
Right. That record has had an interesting life. I had one copy and that got lost in my travels at some point. There were only 100 of them pressed and they were stolen from the car of Lonnie Hewitt who was the producer of that session and owned the record label (Wee Records). The masters were burned in the Oakland fire where he lived. That song has had an interesting life. I think there are three known 45 and one sold for $10,000.
It’s a killer song. That pre-dates Ace of Cups, correct?
Yes. I wrote that song when I was 18. Ace of Cups never did that song in the old days. It’s on our new record and we played it live this last summer when we toured and it was really fun.
Why did you not play that song at the time?
When Ace of Cups got together, we were writing our own material and that was a pretty punky, angrier song and it wasn’t quite what we were writing as a band.
It’s definitely a musical sibling of “Put A Woman In Charge.”
It totally is. I think the way we played it on the record is sort of a different style from what Ace of Cups had when we started. We were all writing new songs.
You play both guitar and bass, as do I, although bass is my primary instrument. Do you have a preference when it comes to playing with Ace of Cups?
I think I like guitar played like a bass player more than I like bass played like a guitar player.
It seems like it is difficult to do both well, especially for those who are primarily guitar players. I’m lucky enough to play music with one of my bass heroes growing up (Michael Cornelius) who also is an awesome guitar player.
When you hear that, I’m always in awe of people who can make that switch and drop into playing bass and not have you know that they are usually a guitar player.
You’ve gotten to play with quite a few folks who fall into the category of musical heroes. There are some great guest appearances on your records who are probably friends of yours, too, right?
Yes. Pretty much everyone on both of our studio albums, with one exception, is either someone we played with in the old days or are one degree off. Baghiti Khumalo, who plays bass on “Jai Ma,” played on Graceland with Paul Simon who is an old friend of mine. Paul and I go back, and I’d always loved Baghiti’s playing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo so I reached out to him because we had Paul in common and I’d always loved his playing.
The bass on that song totally jumped out to me. It’s a really great song.
Baghiti will just call me up and say, “How are you doing, my sister? Let’s facetime.” We have heartfelt relationships with people who are playing with us on our albums.
That is so clear when listening to it. I wanted to ask you about that because you have such a deep background in yoga on the other side of your life. How does that impact how you make music? Balance is so huge in your songwriting.
And I’m a libra (laughs). That’s interesting. I have never thought about it. I’m curious what your thought is there?
I feel like everything in your songs is just right in its place. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like everything and everyone’s playing is right where it needs to be. No one is stepping on anyone else’s toes if that makes sense.
Some of these songs, we’re doing pretty much the way we did them in the 60s and some of them are very different for many reasons. Some we re-wrote and some we added a new part or changed the bridge, so there’s that, but I think what you are talking about, I have to give credit to our producer Dan Shea and also to our engineer, Ari Rios, who owns Laughing Tiger Studios in San Rafael, California.
We all came into the first album (2018’s Ace Of Cups) with little or no studio experience. I had the most, of the original band, because I had recorded on people’s albums in LA, but recording has changed. In the old days when we sang back up for Mike Bloomfield (The Electric Flag) or Jefferson Airplane, we all just stood around one mic and sang, and it was on (analog) tape. Everything about recording now was new to us and Dan Shea really brought us into the process in a very kind and understanding and patient way.
How did these records come about?
Our record label, High Moon Records, said, “You need to record an album because you never got the chance.” Mary Ellen, our guitarist, Diane, and I had just been meeting every six or eight weeks for four or five days, and George (Wallace) who owns High Moon Records was helping us finance that because he loves our music and wanted to give us a chance to play together again.
As soon as we started playing together, we started writing again and we started sending each other little iPhone voice memo recordings of what we wrote. We wrote the song, “Mama’s Love” that way. Pretty soon we had a bunch of songs. When we started doing that, we didn’t think we would be recording. We just thought maybe we would get to play more together and maybe play live, but it turned into more. He (Wallace) asked us to find a producer and we looked for a woman producer, but we just didn’t find anyone. Diane reached out to Dan Shea, who she had played in some casual bands with and he came out and he said everything we wanted to hear. He brought some of our old music that he had listened to and showed us how he would approach them. We said, “Yes” and we feel really fortunate to find Dan. He’s really been like a sixth member of our band.
We had a fifty-year hiatus, basically. We got together occasionally, but we hadn’t played as a band together for a long time. We didn’t have the advantage of having years of live time with these songs.
For you, from the time the band stopped until 2011 when you started getting together again, did it always feel like unfinished business to you?
Yes. In a certain way, yes, because we loved our songs and it was hard to play those songs with other people because there are harmonies where you just want that one particular voice singing that part or that harmony or melody. I didn’t ever play in any other bands that were suitable for bringing that material (from Ace of Cups) in. There were songs that expressed our hearts that we didn’t get to play with other people all of those years. The whole body of work, we didn’t get to play with other people. It was sort of like raising children that never got to play in the world. We just wanted to put them out there and reach the hearts they wanted to reach.
With the advent of the internet and that first album of ours that was put out in 2003 (It’s Bad For You But Buy It) that was culled from live and rehearsal tapes from the 60s that Big Beat Records put out, that was the first time that anybody who hadn’t ever seen us in person got to hear us. They may have heard us singing a background vocal on a Jefferson Airplane record, but that was it. A lot of people that were aficionados of the 60s would look at the posters and they’d see that we opened for the Band on their first ever show and things that we were on. We were on some famous posters, but nobody had really heard our music.
People like a certain sound and Ace of Cups is not just one sound. That may have also made it difficult for people to latch on, right?
We have five lead singers with five different musical influences (or more). Everybody wrote and we wanted to support all the different threads in the tapestry of each person’s musicality.
On the new record, Sing Your Dreams, you definitely have some songs that vary in style quite a bit. “Dressed In Black” is very garage rock…
Right, that’s an old Ace of Cups song that is from the 60s. Mary Ellen (Simpson) wrote that song originally about a romance that was a challenging thing for her that was with one of the guys that was in the band, Blue Cheer. She wrote a couple really good songs out of that relationship. We played it in the old days, and I wrote some of it with her. When we resurrected it and started playing it again in 2011, we wrote a new verse and changed the bridge and kind of evolved it to where it is now.
Then you have “I’m On Your Side” with the horns. That’s Marry Gannon. That’s a really Mary Gannon feel that she brought in and she and Dan Shea finished it. That feel, Mary’s background was church music, she was raised in the Catholic church, and Broadway. She was raised in theater in New York before she moved to California. Mary Gannon was a music teacher during the years away from Ace of Cups. Someone said to me that song should be in a Disney movie and that’s a very Mary Gannon expression, real authentic to her heart.
It also kind of reminded me of my dad’s old Leon Redbone records.
I was listening and wondering if I had walked into one of those joints from the movie, The Sting.
It’s a really cool blend of sounds that you have.
We never felt we needed to be in a box in terms of what we played. Maybe that was to our detriment. It didn’t seem to be live, but when people ask us why we didn’t get a record people back in the day, maybe record label people who heard us thought we were all over the place. I don’t know. We never felt like we couldn’t explore different areas and live it always seemed to work. We still feel that way and luckily, we have an amazing record label, so they don’t ever try and say that we should stay in this genre or that. They would never say that to us.
I read something that you wrote where you said that you never thought, growing up, about being in an all-woman group.
I never thought of it before because I had only ever played with guys. I didn’t know any women who were drummers (before Ace of Cups). I’d never met one or seen one live. Later, after Ace of Cups had started playing, we learned of others. There was Phil Spitalny’s Jazz Band (in the 30s and 40s) that we read about and heard some music from. In our little bubble of San Francisco, we didn’t see that or know that. The band I played with before Ace of Cups was with the guys who became Moby Grape. We had a band for some months together and then I left that band and we moved to Haight Astbury where I met Mary Ellen and then the next week, we met the rest of the band.
When I met Mary Ellen, she said to me, “We’re starting an all-woman band,” and I thought, “Wow.” Well, my first thought was that they probably weren’t going to be very good. I had just never seen women rocking out as players. I really didn’t know who Carol Kaye (famous session bassist) was at that time and (female musicians) were few and far between. There was no internet where you could look up women drummers, you know?
Right. Your quote stood out to me because I just watched the new Go-Go’s documentary (which is great) and they said the same thing early on in the movie. It seems so strange to think that it didn’t occur to you.
You have to remember that when we were growing up, women could not have their own credit card unless their husband signed for it. Women couldn’t run in marathon or be in jury. Rock music felt like it was a man’s world. Diane, from the time she was in grammar school and saw a marching band and fell in love with the bass drum, all she wanted to do was play drums and her teacher in grammar school told her that girls don’t get to play drums, you can play tambourine. In high school, she went to the orchestra teacher and said she really wanted to play drums and they said “No, girls can’t play drums.” So, she never got to start until she was out of high school.
Tell me more about your bandmates…what makes your band the perfect mix or perfectly imperfect mix of people?
That’s probably what it is. Our drummer is Diane Vitalich. She was born and raised in San Francisco. I think I told you about her being told that girls don’t play drums. She’s the eldest of the band, but you probably wouldn’t know it because of spirit and her smile is so young. She just turned 77 and she kicks butt on the drums.
Yes, she does.
She is a really deep, warm kind of person. She’s the only one of us that didn’t have children. She loves animals, she loves plants. She’s a really sweet, kind, and tender person and unfailingly generous and thoughtful. After Ace of Cups, she never stopped playing. She was always working on her musicianship. She also created a livelihood for herself doing massage therapy because you can never count on paying the rent playing drums, but she was always in bands or doing some kind of musical thing.
Mary Ellen Simpson-Mercy lives up in Weaverville, California near the Oregon border. Her livelihood was working in the mental health field as a case manager and she retired from that. She lives with her husband who is a Korean war vet. She’s got a couple of kids and three grandchildren. The thing about Mary Ellen is that she gets really into a guitar player for a while. She’ll read every interview, listen to every recording of whoever that guitarist is. There was a period where she was really into Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and that’s when she wrote the majority of the song, “Lucky Stars.” (Kaufman is also a co-writer on “Lucky Stars”) His music inspired her, and it took off into the song. Now she’s really into Stevie Ray Vaughn, so if you ever want to talk about him, she’s a really good person to do that with.
In the early days, you and Mary Ellen were sharing guitar duties?
Yes. In the early days, I played rhythm guitar and harmonica and she played lead. I played a little bit of lead, but she was the main lead player. I also played sitar on a few songs because I was studying that in the early days.
Mary Gannon Alfiler was the bass player. She was from New York. A place called Pleasantville, New York. Her mom was an actor on radio shows and things like that. She was kind of raised with the theater. They moved to Monterrey, California. She was actually Miss Monterrey. She moved to the Haight Astbury and she started to play bass. With Ace of Cups, that was what was needed, and she jumped in. She was really musical and could sing and had some background on keyboards, as well.
We had a lot of great bass players around and Mary Gannon was always watching and learning from the people around us. Mary had Thelina, her daughter, during the Ace of Cups years. She was born in 1969 and I wrote a song about her that is on Ace of Cups. When I moved to Kauai in 1972, Mary Gannon followed me and she met her husband, Andy, here and they had five more children. She’s got children and grandchildren galore and she still lives her on Kauai with Andy. She and I have been in bands here with a lot of different people. I started a school, Island School, with a lot of women that I worked with and she was the music teacher her for 20 years. When she retired, her daughter, Rose, took over as music teacher.
You’ve been playing more bass since the band got back together, so what has Mary Gannon’s role been?
I shifted to bass in about 1980. I went to LA and went to music school at BIT (Bass Institute of Technology), so when the band started to reform, it was the just the three of us. Diane was playing drums and Mary Ellen was playing guitar and I was playing bass. Then when Mary Gannon came back into the project, she played some ukulele, sang some, played some percussion, and started playing some bass on some things. When we started touring live, we kind of shared the bass. I’ll play harmonica when she plays bass. When this all ends and we can go out again, she will play some bass and I’ll probably play some guitar, too.
If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re all the type of musicians who play because you have to play, not because you need your ego stroked.
Yeah. That’s true. Those us of that have children, we’ve played with our families our whole lives and all of our children play. One of Mary Gannon’s daughters is an amazing pianist and all the kids play and sing When her family gets together, they have one of those family harmonies and it is just wonderful. My daughter is a wonderful jazz singer and my ex-husband is a well-known jazz player in the bay area and they made an album a few years ago. My grandson, Eli Smart, just graduated from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts in guitar, guitar production, and songwriting. He’s got a new video that just came out that was song of the week on Spotify in the UK. His newest track is called, “Cruella Deville.” He’s wonderful.
And then you have a relatively new member of the band…
Right. We didn’t reform with our original keyboardist (Marla Hunt) in 2011. When we recorded our first album, Dan Shea, our producer, is a wonderful keyboardist so he played some of the keys and our other friends, Pete Sears (Jefferson Airplane/Rod Stewart) and Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band). When we recorded our new album (Sing Your Dreams), Dallis (Craft) hadn’t joined us yet, so all of the keyboard parts we either recorded by Dan or guest keyboardists. As soon as we really started going live, we invited a friend of mine from Los Angeles, Giovanna Imbesi, to tour with us. She toured with us and played shows with us from the end of 2018 and the spring of 2019. She had, in 2012, a particular kind of cancer that was not curable so she could not commit to joining the band. Her health was starting to be more precarious. She sat in with us at a show last October in Mill Valley (CA) and she died in November so this (new) album is dedicated to her.
When Giovanna couldn’t do our spring tour with us, we were looking for the perfect person and Dan introduced us to Dallis. She’s an amazing keyboardist and singer and is such a trooper. She’s totally cool on the road. You can be a great musician, but if you’re hard to travel with it is not going to work out. Dallis really wonderful, though, a really wonderful addition to the band. She sings the lead on “Put Woman In Charge.”
How did “Put A Woman In Charge” come about?
We were playing last summer (2019) and she (Dallis) was driving in the car and the song came on. Keb’ Mo’ was the one who did it originally and she thought we should do it. It’s so great. Dan said, “What if we do it in 6/8” and that made it so rockin’. We changed some of the form of it (including a few lyrics to make them more powerful). We loved rocking that song.
It’s a rocker, for sure.
On each of our albums we do a cover. We have Wavy Gravy on the new album. On each of our albums we have one song that wasn’t written by someone in our circle. On the first one we did Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.”
Wavy Gravy has got to be getting up there, right? I lived in the Bay Area in 1991 and I saw him at a few things, and he seemed pretty old to me then. Of course, I was only 21 at the time.
Yes, he is. If you look on YouTube, you’ll see the video we made for “Basic Human Needs” and that was just two years ago, and you’ll see him singing that song. The way with Wavy, health and well-being were not exactly his front burner activities, you know? There is something that carries him forward, though. His spirit is so amazing.
That’s awesome. What led you to leave the Bay Area and head to Kauai in 1972?
I came to Kauai when I was 15 years old to a summer program because I really wanted to learn to surf. In 1972, when the band went in different directions, I packed up my daughter and my friend Merlyn Wenner and we came to Kauai. We really thought we would just be here for a month or two. We brought a tent and thought we were going to have an adventure, but we really just didn’t want to leave. Eventually Mary Gannon came over a few months later and then I lived for the next 11 years before I went to LA for music school and I’ve sort of being going back and forth ever since.
I read that when you are in LA, you live in the Venice area? Did you fall in love with Venice in the '80s?
Yes, but I didn’t really (fall in love with Venice then). In the '80s, I was going to music school in Hollywood and I was living on the east side, always feeling displaced. Musically, LA was pretty amazing. There were a lot of people to learn from and hear, but I never got into that beach culture in L.A. until another ten years later.
I moved to Santa Monica in about 1991. I was doing a lot of yoga in those days. First with Bikram and then was practicing some real strong yoga practices and I was teaching a lot of yoga in those days. My daughter was a teenager and I couldn’t be out all the time at night playing music. It was hard to get gigs playing music in L.A., that was one thing. There was a lot of pay to play (in Los Angeles). It was such a center, like New York, there were so many great musicians that were there. Unlike Kauai or even the Bay Area, they still had, at least, music venues where bands could get paid to play, but in L.A., it wasn’t happening.
Luckily for me, yoga had always been my personal practice but I was going to Bikram schools just practicing and I was asked to start teaching classes, so I started teaching and then teaching a few other places and I started getting recommended for work with private clients, so I started teaching (private) yoga (classes) which really worked with my daughter being in school, so I could go out and work in the day time. I did that for a number of years.
I saw that you worked with Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Growing up a Suns fan, I hated him, but once I started reading his writing, I learned to really like him.
He used to live on Kauai, too. He had a house here. We did yoga together here and in LA. He’s a good guy. I worked with Madonna and Jane Fonda…Sting and Trudie (Styler). I worked with a lot of (famous) people.
When I read about your work with some of these very famous people, I was curious if it was not a big deal for you after having played with many really famous musicians in the 1960s?
You know, I basically have never had a television since I left my parents home. Of course, now you have the internet and you can watch stuff here, but I didn’t have a TV and I wasn’t a big moviegoer or pop culture person, so I really didn’t have a lot of pre- (pauses) … I wasn’t a fan of anyone, really. I don’t even know if I would have recognized Madonna. I knew what she looked like when she was a young girl, but I hadn’t been following her.
I used to work with Jane Fonda when she was married to Ted Turner, but I didn’t know who Ted Turner was. They would fly me to their ranches in Montana or New Mexico and I would stay with them. We would hang out and talk or go on walks, but I didn’t really know what CNN was. I think the only person who I was totally speechless when I met him, and it wasn’t through yoga, was BB King. I was like, “Oh my god, I’m with BB King.” That was being with one of those people who were your star heroes, but that didn’t happen with all the people I did yoga with because they were just such wonderful people and we were doing something that was lovely together.
For me, every single one of those folks were just people that I learned things from, and it was really interesting to talk with them. Everybody is a human being. We all are. That’s the place that I try and relate from and to, so …
One of the first things I thought was that maybe some of your famous yoga clients would want to hear your stories about all the cool shows you played with Ace of Cups and the musicians you knew.
I didn’t talk to everyone about that. Madonna liked the fact that I had been in music, one of the first all-woman bands, but in those days, Ace of Cups didn’t have any music, so it was just a story. There wasn’t anything anyone could hear. I couldn’t give them a cd. It was some interesting history, but that’s what is so satisfying about getting to record our music. It’s not just this thing that happened a long time ago and you just have to take my word for it that we had something to say.