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'Orange is the New Black' actress Lea DeLaria's other career: Jazz singer

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Lea DeLaria performs during the 4th Annual "Home For The Holidays" Benefit Concert at Beacon Theatre in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Lea DeLaria performs during the 4th Annual "Home For The Holidays" Benefit Concert at Beacon Theatre in New York City.

When "Orange is the New Black's" Lea DeLaria's not spending time in TV prison, she's singing jazz. DeLaria talks about her new David Bowie cover album, "House of David."

Lea DeLaria is best known as one of the stars of “Orange is the New Black,” playing the larger-than-life lesbian prison inmate "Big Boo."

Big Boo Orange is the New Black

DeLaria is a veteran of Broadway musicals and stand-up comedy, but what you might not know is that DeLaria is also a jazz singer.

Lea DeLaria - Modern Love

DeLaria's new jazz David Bowie cover album, "House of David," is set for release July 24 and is already available digitally. It's her fifth album. Jazz singing is something DeLaria says has been with her since childhood. She cultivated a career in jazz by marrying it with activism and stand-up comedy while performing.

In 1982, DeLaria was initially attracted to stand-up because she saw it as a mechanism for getting her opinions heard. While an active part of the cultural and political movement advocating for queer rights in the '80s, DeLaria was not impressed by many of the more "standard" means of artistry in activism. She started utilizing her talent for stand-up as a means of advocating for equality.

"That cultural movement was mostly, I have to say, lesbians with acoustic guitars," recalls DeLaria. "I wanted to punch myself in the face anytime I heard them. I heard these things and thought, This is the end of the world. I want to do something different." She noticed a cultural movement in stand-up comedy and decided to make an impact with it.

DeLaria not only joined the movement in a unique way as a comic — she was loud about it.

Lea DeLaria Ted Talk

"Now the thing about my stand-up comedy at the time when I started — I literally did not perform as Lea DeLaria. I performed as the Dyke," says DeLaria. "I was so rageful, but I was also funny. So this crazy wild rage would be coming at people and after about five minutes they'd be like, Mommy make it stop!"

When DeLaria was pondering ways to perfect her rage-fueled performance, she turned towards other talents she developed growing up.

"I figured out I could sing. I knew I could sing. I'd been doing it as a child with my father for years. So I would bring a little trio on stage with me and I'd be raging at them and then I would kind of sing a standard. I'd just sing a standard and it would lull the audience into sort of a false sense of security. Then I would start screaming 'dyke' at them again."

DeLaria's interest in singing was something that she says was encouraged by her father, who himself was a jazz pianist. At the age of 5, DeLaria would sing for her father, who proceeded to teach her about jazz music. By 8, DeLaria had learned more of the intricacies of of jazz and began performing at nightclubs with her father.

"Let's face it, I was like the bearded lady. It was a circus act thing," DeLaria says. "It was a way for the cats to get a break and go off the bandstand. Then I would sing a duet with [my dad]. Eventually the trio would join sometimes. It worked so well — people loved it— that he kept doing it with me."

After performing and training, DeLaria discovered that singing was her passion and that she wanted to pursue it as a career. After telling her father, DeLaria says he had guidelines for how DeLaria should pursue jazz.

"He said, Look, that is OK with me, but you can't be just be a pretty girl with a pleasant voice. You need to understand music and learn the language of jazz. He really taught me to sing from my balls. He encouraged me to really sing like a horn player. Like any good horn player, I know when to be soft and I know when to be loud. It's like making love to a woman — sometimes you want a nice light touch and sometimes you got to bang."

David Bowie, like singing, was something DeLaria discovered in her youth. DeLaria pins the origins of her love for Bowie on the moment she first heard the guitar riff on "Fame." Admiring Bowie for not just his music, DeLaria says that, when she was growing up, Bowie was hugely responsible for inspiring her to be herself.

David Bowie - Life on Mars

"One thing that I learned from him I think more than any other performer is his insistence to be exactly who he is," says DeLaria. "That is fascinating to me. As a little girl, I have to say as a little bull dyke, growing up in the Midwest thinking that I was the only one — didn't know that there were other gay people even out there — having this man be who he was was a terrific lesson for me."

After a long period of cultivating skills in various performance fields, DeLaria still feels as though all her talents make up a part of her true self.

"It's really hard for me to determine where my true self lies in all the things that I can do," says DeLaria. "I can do a lot of things. It's that simple. I'm really happy when I'm filming 'Orange is the New Black.' I love being down stage center at a Broadway show and belting out a D sharp and hearing that audience applaud. When I'm in a little smokey jazz club at 1 o'clock in the morning, and I am blowing over changes with the cats, and we are digging it, and we are creating this art all together at the same time, I love that too."

After a long history of being engaged in the movement for queer rights DeLaria's work and the working of many others is producing results. The social atmosphere due to the United States Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality has provided DeLaria with a sense of accomplishment.

"I personally feel that I've worked very hard for this, and I have a lot of friends who have worked very hard for this, and the community itself has been out there banging on doors doing everything that we can [to] affect this change. We are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us — that were banging on the door saying let us in, let us in."

DeLaria's jazz cover album "House of David" will be released July 24 and is currently available digitally.

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