Meet the Beatle
|Photo by Kim Grant|
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In the winter of 1964, a four-year-old Lauren Passarelli saw something that changed her life forever. It was the image of John, Paul, George, and Ringo appearing on her TV one Sunday night. "I knew right away that I wanted to be a Beatle," she says in her Berklee office. "To me, that was the word for being a musician."
A few short decades later, Passarelli is not only the school's resident Beatles expert (and in all likelihood, the faculty member who can do the best Liverpool accent), but she's also a Berklee trailblazer. In 1982, Passarelli became the first female guitar Performance major to graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree, and in 1984, she was the first woman to join the Guitar Department faculty. She's an indie-label maverick who fronts the progressive pop group Two Tru, releases their music on her own Feather label, and handles all of the engineering and production. Meanwhile she honors her first love by playing the George Harrison role in the tribute band, All Together Now. So to a large extent, she's done exactly what she resolved to do in 1964.
The walls of her office are like a small rock 'n' roll museum, covered with photos of the musicians she's worked with and the ones she's admired. Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor are up there along with the Fab Four. It bears out her instincts as a guitarist; she's into the song rather than flashy solos for their own sake. In classes and workshops, she aims to demystify the songwriting process, showing how a song is formed from connected riffs and ideas.
During one recent guitar lab, she had the students jam on a rough-sounding blues lick, then revealed that it was the foundation for the Beatles' "Revolution." As one of her students said after the class, "She shows us what the person who wrote a song was doing, and gives us things we can apply to our own songs." Another noted simply, "She takes this complicated thing and makes it fun. She's cool."
"A lot of kids who come to Berklee are struck by the magic of the songwriting process," she explains after class adjourns. "So I feel like I'm showing them how the trick works. And the magic always comes back when they get into the emotional side of things, because they're putting their heart and soul into it."
Her own heart goes into two very different projects: playing her own music with Two Tru, and doing letter-perfect Beatles covers with All Together Now. As the world's only female George, she's performed all across New England at summer festivals and townhall events. And she's the first to admit that it's an odd sideline for a Berklee professor.
"You're supposed to be finding your own voice, so how can something like that be beneficial?" she says. "For me it's like taking a classical approach to rock 'n' roll. You're getting inside the shoes of another composer, getting a feel for how they approach their instrument. If I can make it sound exactly like the original, I would call that a huge compliment. And of course, Beatles music still brings out a lot of magic in people. They love the songs so much that you don't even have to play it right, but I think they get a kick out of the fact that we're doing our homework.
"In some ways I thought of the Beatles as my uncles. They always had a 'do your own thing' message, and that gave me a new way of looking at life."
With that in mind, she went the do-it-yourself route with her own music. Her Feather label has so far released discs by Two Tru (built around herself and keyboardist Cindy Brown) and Sarah Burrill, both sophisticated, lyrically strong singer/songwriter discs. Both came out in 1993, and she admits it was an uphill battle to get them heard.
"We had something we believed in, and felt we should put our money where our mouth is," she says. "We wound up spending $20,000 to promote them. It was hard in some ways. We wanted to play more shows and I was always told we were too rocky for the folk clubs, and vice versa." But she's planning to gear up again with a second Two Tru album this year.
Getting her first guitar-an extremely low-tech plastic one-at the age of two, she found herself giving her first lessons at 14, to a family friend 18 years older. Female guitar players were still in the minority when she came to Berklee as a student; though one of her friends and classmates at the time was songwriter Melissa Etheridge.
"I had two sentences in her VH1 'Behind the Music' profile," she notes. "My being the first female guitar major was just the luck of the draw; in fact I only found out two days before I graduated. And I was a little shocked to find out I was the first female guitar teacher here. You mean there wasn't one before me? It's always interesting when you accomplish something that you didn't even set out to accomplish."