Whoever said absence makes the heart grow fonder must’ve been thinking about the relationship between Lita Ford and rock ‘n’ roll. The hard rock queen stepped away from her remarkable musical career back in the 1990s to devote herself to family and the surroundings of real life on a surreal Caribbean island, but with the call of the sonic wild getting louder and louder, she made the decision to dive back in at the deep end - only to find that she had every bit as much love for the heavy rock grind. And as it turns out, the feeling is mutual.
With Wicked Wonderland (2009), her first full-length offering since 1995’s Black, Lita shows that her flair for sexy, stomping, searing sounds has only gotten more vivid - which is mighty impressive, given a history that includes such classics as “Kiss Me Deadly” and the Ozzy Osbourne duet “Close My Eyes Forever”. The disc, created in tandem with husband Jim Gillette - whose own musical history is highlighted by his work with acclaimed metallurgists Nitro - is a hard and heavy affirmation of the sensuality and smarts that have carried her through three decades of action.
“It’s funny, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve only gotten freakier,” says Lita. “Yeah, I took time to raise my kids and by raising my kids, I mean really doing it - home-schooling them myself, growing our food, baking bread for dinner. But at the end of the day, when it’s time to go to the boudoir, Jim and I are super-sexual and that’s definitely reflected in these songs.”
It certainly is - in both the pelvis-pounding rhythms and lascivious lyrics of tunes like the appropriately-titled “Indulge” and the so-nasty-it’s-nice “Crave”. With Lita showing off her trademark ability to purr seductively through some tracks and deliver a well-placed knockout punch on no-holds-barred songs like “Piece (H*** Yeah)”, Wicked Wonderland showcases an artist who’s clearly got plenty to say and no shortage of ways to say it.
The 12-cut disc certainly touches on the sort of headbang-inducing riffage that gave Lita her start way back when, but there are also surprises aplenty - from the smoking slide guitar that punctuates the bluesy “Scream” to the psychedelic industrial swirl that envelops “Everything”. It’s a potent blend, propelled by in-your-face drumming and Lita’s effortlessly steamy vocals.
“We started working and the songs just started pouring out,” she says. “Honestly, there were times we started working on a song and ten minutes later and we’d be done. We’re so in sync that I’m not surprised it went smoothly. But I was kind of surprised about how intense the songs ended up being. It is definitely the heaviest thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s saying a lot, given the history of the gal who grew up in England wanting to start a band, not merely say “I’m with the band.” Lita started down that path in her mid-teens after saving the wages she scraped together from odd after-school gigs. Less than two years later, she was strutting L.A.’s Sunset Strip as a member of The Runaways, an all-female answer to the New York punk pioneers. As the chief sonic architect of that ground-breaking band - soon to be the topic of a much-anticipated Hollywood bio-pic, Lita birthed classic tracks like “Cherry Bomb”, but even more importantly, gave the world an attitude that would inspire countless girls to form bands of their own.
“I don’t know that I ever really thought about being an influence,” she says, self-deprecatingly. “But I get reminded of it all the time. People come up to me and tell me they named their kids after me or named their dogs after me or named their fish after me. But what’s really cool is when they say they picked up a guitar because of me. That’s so rewarding.”
Lita’s influence only grew stronger once she broke out as a solo artist with such still-scintillating discs Out for Blood and Dancing on the Edge. Through much of he 1980s, she was a huge presence on the metal scene, packing venues, earning Grammy nominations and collecting a passel of precious-metal certifications - not to mention the sort of fan adulation that resulted in her being honored with seven Metal Edge Readers Choice Awards and installation into the Circus magazine Hall of Fame, in which she was the only female inductee.
She scaled the charts with albums like the 1988 release Lita and Stiletto, which followed two years later - both of which showcased a different side of Lita the artist on songs like the moving “Lisa” (a piece dedicated to her mother) - and even crossed over to film with a prime role in the 1992 cult favorite Highway to Hell. But then, at the height of her powers, she opted to walk away.
“It kind of stopped being fun after a while, though, and when I met Jim, I knew it was time to take a break and get my priorities in order,” says Lita. For her, that meant getting as far from the glitz of Los Angeles as possible, moving to a small island in the Caribbean in order to raise sons James and Rocco.
Lita grants that her guitars attracted quite a layer of dust in the intervening years - she proudly points out that her sons, who’ll be joining her on the road later this year, have never had to spend the night in the company of a nanny or a babysitter. But as the balls-to-the-wall tone - and sharply-crafted melodies - of Wicked Wonderland prove, her instincts didn’t lose one shred of their sharpness along the way.
“It wasn’t a situation where I was writing songs and playing every day over the years,” she says. “But Jim and I are rockers and it’s in our blood, you know? Things built up and when they got to the point where they had to explode . . . we ended up with this album.”