People recognize Monique Lanier, but they don’t always know why. Maybe it’s the starlet-blonde tresses and the sunglasses she has to wear most places these days, giving her the aura of a Hollywood actress. Maybe it’s the fact that she was a Hollywood actress in another life, one she left behind years ago but television reruns won’t let rest.
Her biggest starring role was in the 1989 series Life Goes On (you know, the show with Corky that critics loved), but the one Lanier can’t shake is It Was Him or Us, a 1995 TV movie-of-the-week she headlined as a battered girlfriend. The melodramatic trailer-park epic runs perpetually on Lifetime, cable’s battered-girlfriend movie afterlife.
“I’ve heard it’s on a lot—I don’t have cable, so I don’t know,” Lanier smiles, taking off the sunglasses and rolling her eyes. “I don’t get recognized as much as I get, ‘You look really familiar.’ I’m afraid if I say I’ve been on TV, they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not it,’ and I’ll feel dumb. I don’t really like to be introduced as a so-called ‘TV star,’ because I’ve noticed it changes people’s demeanor. I’d rather just be taken for me, you know?”
It would have been easy to take Lanier for a rock star at a February performance in the First Unitarian Church’s coffeehouse. With members of Gearl Jam and friends tending to her every need, helping set up her gear and asking if she’s feeling OK, it was as if a VH1 diva had brought an entourage and roadies for an impromptu, intimate coffeehouse show.
Far from it: Not only was it the former Mary Monique & the Trip and Gearl Jam back-up singer’s debut as a solo performer, but her first time back on a stage in over a year after being stricken with a debilitating brain hemorrhage. Once she began singing, Lanier was transcendent, too strong to ever be hurt by anything.
“That was my first time alone—ever. I thought I was going to be really nervous, but I felt really calm about it,” she recalls, still the picture of serenity. “It was just like, ‘Here’s what I’ve written, hope you like it.’” The small-but-rapt audience did, and the quiet coffeehouse atmosphere suited her fine. “I wouldn’t want to do the whole bar thing again, I’m not interested in it—I don’t think my music is bar music, anyway. Nobody wants to get laid to my stuff,” she laughs, “more likely break up, or mourn something!”
Lanier’s music comes from Your Mouth (Pasilay Productions), an 11-song CD written and performed mostly by her, with helping musical hands and occasional songwriting assists from Gearl Jam matriarch Megan Peters, ex-Trip partner Mary Tebbs and engineer-guitarist Sean Halley. It’s a gorgeous pop album, draped in black and blue shades of sadness and hope, breathed to life by Lanier’s pretty-to-jarring piano stylings and rich, Rickie Lee Jones-influenced vocals. Tracks like the soaring “Fortune Teller” and the bluesy “Count on That” could sit comfortably on the radio next to the likes of Sarah MacLachlan and Sheryl Crow; chilling tomes like “Last Night” and “Not Him” are more the dark personal stuff of mourning Lanier jokes about.
While Your Mouth could be the soundtrack to a movie-of-the-week, just getting it released became a drama-loaded story in itself: Her sudden illness, coupled with an almost pathological aversion to self-promotion, has kept the disc on ice for two years. Yes, one of the leading nominees for best local CD of 2001 is actually dated 1999.
“This was my first recording experience, and it was amazing,” Lanier says happily. “I was just in ecstasy most of the time, finding cool harmonies with myself and hearing them back. Making it was great, but then it was like, OK, now what? The next step after you record a CD is to take it out and shop it or whatever, right? I just kept boxes of them in a closet in my apartment. I had visions of my grandchildren digging them out someday and saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do with all these?’
“The idea for me to record my own CD came from Megan. She’s been phenomenally supportive of me, and she pushed me to record, even though I had no money and no confidence in my material. Everything I’d done before was back-up for other people; I’d never really taken my own stuff seriously.”
But, not long after Your Mouth was finished—as they say on Behind the Music—tragedy struck. “I thought I was just going to be playing with Gearl Jam for awhile, but then I got sick,” she begins in an almost clinical manner. “I have what’s called a cavernous angioma, a congenital birth defect. It’s fairly common—a lot of people have it and never know. One in 10,000 will bleed, and mine bled. I was lying in bed one morning, waiting for the alarm to go off, kind of half-awake, half-asleep. Then, there was a big ‘pop’ and a flash of light. I thought it was just a weird dream. I got out of bed, and then started bumping into things. Hey, I’m blonde—it fits [laughs]. I got really sick after that, and had to be taken care of. I couldn’t walk or talk very well, and I was in bed for three months. I had to learn to walk again.
“I feel good now, but I can’t drive at night because the headlight flashes trigger my senses, bringing up rage, sex, fear—all those basic animal emotions, and I get really pissed off. It’s real road rage. The sunglasses help with my light sensitivity. When I wear them in the grocery store or at school, people wonder if I think I’m some kind of celebrity. I feel stupid, but I’d feel more stupid if I was falling over.”
If there’s one thing that appeals to Lanier less than promoting herself—which she’ll do, live, with back-up help from Gearl Jam pals and Lisa Marie of the Codependents—it’s the idea of returning to Hollywood.
“It wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to live,” she says. “It was really overwhelming and scary, the way people in the business treat you. Acting wasn’t something I went out and worked really hard to achieve—it fell in my lap. I feel kind of embarrassed, because it’s something people work and struggle for, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful. It’s just something I didn’t want to spend my life doing—although I’m broke now, and I’d like the money back [laughs]. If I were to go back to it, I’d like to do an independent film, something with a little more vision …”
She catches herself and smiles, eyes widening in realization. “Wow, that sounded really Hollywood of me, didn’t it?”
Monique Lanier: Your Mouth CD release. The Dragonfly Café, 1698 S. 500 East (474-2241), Saturday April 28, 7:30-9:30 p.m. Free admission. Your Mouth available at the show, or through Salt City CDs, MARS Music and www.mp3.com/MoniqueLanier.