Lea DeLaria on Bowie, Butches, and Singing Jazz

She takes the cigar out of her mouth when she sings.

Photo by Sophy Holland

Lea DeLaria may be best known for her role as Big Boo on Netflx’s Orange Is the New Black, but she has also enjoyed a long career as a jazz singer. In June, she released House of David, an album of jazz versions of 12 classic David Bowie songs. She is now filming Season 4 of Orange and touring on weekends. We spoke just after the album’s July 19 release party at New York City’s Cutting Room.

At the concert, I was really charmed when you explained how jazz works: what solos are and that people should applaud afterward.

When people come to see me live, it’s split between so many different kinds of fans that the etiquette of jazz may not be something that a lot of the people in the audience are familiar with. So I do that right off the bat, to let people know.

I always try to be funny when I introduce the band, or when I do anything, because I’m a stand-up. I’m not going to banter, I’m not going to have patter between songs. I’m a fucking stand-up, so when I talk between my tunes, even when it’s my David Bowie concert, it’s got to be funny.

Which of your many identities feels like more of a minority these days, butch dyke or jazz singer?

Jazz singer.

How did you get into it?

My father was a jazz musician. Singing jazz was the first thing I ever did in front of a live audience. I used to go into the clubs and sing with him when I was, like, 10 years old.

How did you get the idea to do jazz arrangements of Bowie songs?

The first two of my jazz albums are what you would call “odd contemporary jazz,” in that I’m not doing the standard fare that you generally hear a jazz singer do. I’ve always been odd in terms of what I choose, and there’s always a theme. On my first record, Play It Cool, I swung the Broadway songbook—in the old days, Broadway was how you got a popular song; in the early days of radio, and before, songs were created for shows. Who would think of doing a swing version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” or a boogaloo version of “All That Jazz,” or the other things that I did on that record. That was a very big hit for me. So I laid my footprint down: Lea’s going to do odd jazz. Then the next record was Double Standards, where we did college rock, alternative rock tunes like jazz standards. After that, Warner put out a best-of, and then I did my American songbook album, because everybody’s got to do that. Mine was a little edgier. It was live. It was in New York: The Live Smoke Sessions.

With this one, I wanted to return to the kind of craziness that I do, and I wanted to do David Bowie. I’ve been in love with him my whole life. He’s the man. When I wrote in my liner notes that he’s the definitive singer/songwriter of the latter part of the 20th century, I’m not kidding. He really is. The man has been putting out records for 50 years—five fucking decades. It’s insane, right? Why wouldn’t it be something that people would be interested in listening to? I had to convince the suits, and that was the issue. I never quite convinced them, so I went out on my own, did the crowd-funding thing, which was incredibly successful.

Were there any Bowie songs that you love, but you just couldn’t make them work in a jazz arrangement, or for your voice?

Yes, “Fashion” and “Scary Monsters.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t lend themselves to jazz. But there’s a fine line, and you’ve got to be really careful with this line, between lounge music and what I’m doing. I’m not Lounge Against the Machine. When you listen to my shit, it’s the real deal. It’s jazz. The cats on my album are well-established. The man who produced it has been a major influence on that industry for 15 years. We’re not playing around here. You’ve got to be careful, and those two songs kept turning into lounge music.

It’s really disappointing to me when singers change the gender of a song they’re singing. Ella Fitzgerald was a goddess, maybe the greatest of all, but “The Boy from Ipanema” was a travesty.

Yeah, whoever advised her to do that was wrong. You can find those songs in the early days of radio, where you were not allowed to change the gender—there was actually a law against changing lyrics. There are a couple of records out where they have men singing about men and women singing about women. I never change the gender. If you can’t tell by looking at me that I’m a lesbian, then you have a big problem. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Why did you sing that song to a man?” Because it’s written to a man!

Without making changes, the Bowie songs are full of gender commentary.

Yeah. That’s one of the reasons “Boys Keep Swinging” is on the album. Let’s just say that’s for my gay boy fans. I’m singing it incredibly ironically, and frankly, I believe that Bowie meant it that way in the first place. It’s just that when you add me to it, it adds another layer to the irony, and it becomes a pretty strong feminist statement—just like when you have me and Janis Siegel doing “Suffragette City,” it becomes a much stronger feminist statement.

When we spoke earlier this year, we talked about some of the premiums that were available for larger donations to the crowd-funding effort. Have you had to marry a couple or cook an Italian meal or …

I did the [tour of New York’s] dyke bars three times. For people from New York, people from Iceland, and people from England.

You’re filming Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black right now. Can you tell anything about it?

These are the two things I can tell you about Season 4: 1) I’m in it; and 2) it comes out sometime next year.

I’m so glad I asked!

This interview has been edited and condensed.