Li'l Mo: not your typical New York country/rockabilly diva

Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2000

Don't accuse Monica Passin of exactly being your typical singer. The country/rockabilly diva was born in Long Island, but did a reverse migration by moving to the Bronx at age seven.

With a long love of music, Passin, aka Li'l Mo of Li'l Mo and the Monicats fame, isn't going about a country music career in the typical way either of heading to Nashville. Nope, the diminutive singer, with two real fine indie albums under her belt, is staying put in the Big Apple.

Passin, who teaches music privately, hasn't gone very far when it comes to touring either, sticking to New York and Norway.

"The only place I've been outside of New York is Norway. I only play New York and Norway," jokes Passin, who acknowledges only to being in her late 30's.

"Here in America, I'm a country singer from New York," says Passin. "In Norway, I was a country singer from America. I don't think that anyone's concerned that I'm not the (usual) pedigree. I don't think I suffer from not being believable. I don't deny I'm from New York."

Passin's self-titled 1996 debut was more rooted in rockabilly while 1999's "Hearts in My Dream" clearly possesses more of a country vibe.

"I guess that's true on a couple of counts because I would say the second album is more country and less rockabilly," says Passin. "To me, all these different styles of country music are all under that umbrella. Then, it's just really a matter of mood. Rockabilly is usually fairly upbeat, and sometimes you have some things you have to say which work better in the country format or honky tonk format. It wasn't necessarily planned that way. It was just the flow."

"I see one's a good follow-up to the other. I think they do sound different, but I think that's a process of learning, learning to work in the studio, learning the sounds you want to create. That's all just part of the process. It doesn't mean I'm going to not play rockabilly."

No matter the style, Passin's voice is strong and commanding.

Passin sees growth between the albums. The new disc contains several songs recorded live in the studio on the first take - the cutely titled "Twice the Lovin' (in Half the Time)" and "Still Cryin'."

"That never would have happened on the first record," she says. "That's another thing you learn - the freshness of the first take. You're never going to top that - that energy and that feel. Sometimes you have be a little bit less precious. Maybe you didn't do all you wanted to do vocally."

"Nobody really cares about all those tricks," she says. "I don't necessarily like perfection in that sense. I'm human."

Passin isn't the kind of songwriter who does it by the clock. "I"m certainly not the kind of person that wakes up at nine in the morning, sits at the desk and writes songs, " she says. "I've never been that kind of person. Most songs have come to me kind of full melody, lyrics. There are sometimes when I haven't written for awhile, and I start playing guitar. They come in different ways to be sure."

As for "Still Cryin'," Passin says, "I was weeping over lost love, and I said, 'I can't believe I'm still crying,' and there's the song."

Growing up, Passin's house was filled with mambo music courtesy of her parents. She went through phases as a teen with punk and rock and a tinge of country.

"I was already listening to rockabilly music (as a) teenager working as a sound girl at a club in the '80's," she says. "I was with musicians all the time. I was turned onto rockabilly because there was sort of this neo rockabilly (movement) at the time. I went back in time and listened to the old stuff."

A friend gave her a copy of a George Jones album of Hank Williams songs.

"I literally stayed home for two years to learn country music," says Passin of the epiphany. "I started studying it - Hank Williams, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, early Everly Brothers, Collins Kids. I especially liked the artists who were doing the earliest rockabilly who were country artists anyway."

"For me, I always go backwards. If you like the Everly Brothers, you find they liked the Louvin Brothers. You find they liked the Delmore Brothers."

Passin was in a series of bands, including a musical comedy group, Lazoo, which she describes as "kind of weird."

"Once country music sort of hit me, I decided I wanted to have a country band." That led to The Twanglers, a New York, mainly country band, for six years as co-lead singer. For all that time, the band had a grand total of one single.

That band's demise quickly led into the Monicats ("I don't like to be without a band very long") about 1995.

Although realistic, Passin seems happy right where she is. "How many female rockabilly singers are there? You can count them on one hand. It's kind of a rarified little position to be in. (But) it doesn't guarantee that any of us are going to get anywhere."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •