Family affair: Tori Roze and The Hot Mess turn 13. Her mom is the band’s flutist: ‘It’s like two friends’

Tori Roze and The Hot Mess
Tori Roze, seated at front, formed The Hot Mess in 2008. The band’s members are, from left, trombonist/keyboardist Jordan Morita, flutist and harmony singer Lee Clark (who is Roze’s mother), drummer Rashaad Graham, guitarist Johnny Alexander and bassist Harley Magsino.
(Sandy Huffaker / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego group, which has released three albums, performs a free livestream concert Wednesday at The Casbah


Some veteran musicians spend years — or even decades — trying to earn parental approval for pursuing a career in such a challenging and competitive field.

But when San Diego singer, songwriter and trumpeter Tori Roze needs some motherly affirmation at concerts with her band, The Hot Mess, she only needs to look a few feet to her left on stage. Her mother, Lee Clark, plays flute and sings harmony vocals in the group, which celebrates its 13th anniversary with a free Wednesday livestream performance at The Casbah.

“My mother has been doing music her entire life, from bands to orchestras, and she was also a talent agent,. Being in this band keeps her chops up,” Roze said of Clark, a special education teacher at Granger Junior High School in National City.

“Having been a professional musician since I was 14 — I’m now 37 — I hope I can make informed decisions. But I can depend on my mother if there’s anything I don’t know or can’t do, because she’s been doing this a long time. “

That is a definite benefit for Roze and her band, whose well-crafted songs blend elements of soul, jazz, rock, reggae, ska and Brazilian music. It’s rewarding for her mother as well.

“There’s no better parental support I can give Tori than being on stage with her,” said Clark, 69, in a separate interview. “It’s as simple as that.”

Having two generations of one family in the same band is not unheard of. But it’s far from the norm.

Willie Nelson’s touring group includes his sons, Lukas and Micah. The final edition of Van Halen featured Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, on bass. Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy‘s solo band includes his son, Spencer Tweedy, on drums, while Cheap Trick’s drummer since 2010 has been Daxx Nielsen, the son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.

Closer to home, the late Indian music legend Ravi Shankar — a former Encinitas resident — spent more than a decade touring with his daughter, Anoushka. Their instrumental exchanges on sitar were frequently dazzling.

But apart from country-music duo The Judds, it’s difficult to cite many veteran music acts that feature a mother and daughter. It’s even more difficult to cite one in which the daughter is the leader.

Tori Roze and Lee Clark on Saturday, May 8, 2021
Tori Roze (left) and her mother, Lee Clark, have been band mates in The Hot Mess for the past 13 years. Roze is the band’s leader and lead singer.
(Photo by Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Musical telepathy’

“I have to admit that, at first, I thought it was kind of funny Tori’s mom was playing in the band,” said Hot Mess guitarist John Alexander, who joined not long after the group started in 2008. “But Lee is an excellent flutist and very good at doing brass and wind arrangements with our trombonist, Jordan Morita.

“And I really like the way it sounds when Tori and her mom do vocal harmonies, because they are blessed with musical telepathy. Tori’s mom is Tori’s mom, but it’s not like mother and daughter very much — it’s like two friends. Lee is definitely in a supportive role, and Tori is definitely the leader, but she’s so easy to get along with.”

Roze and her mother are the only two Hot Mess members who have been on board for each iteration of the band since it debuted 13 years ago. Roze, who also works as a reiki therapist, has been a featured singer for the past decade in commercials for Kellogg’s, Lipton, Target and — most recently — the software company Malwarebytes.

Mother and daughter each started performing music professionally as teenagers — Roze in San Diego in the late 1990s, Clark in San Bernardino in the mid-1960s. Both share an abiding passion for performing.

So does Roze’s father, Christopher R. In the early 1970s, he founded the pioneering local street theater troupe Indian Magique, then went on to direct the award-winning 1980 production of “The Lady Cries Murder” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. He later became the director of the All-City Free Shakespeare Festival here.

“My parents were hippies to the max. Super-duper hippies!” said Roze, who lives in University Heights with Jody Smith, her wife of four years.

“As a kid, we didn’t have food in the house,” Roze continued. “We had ingredients, and we had to make everything from scratch, nothing processed. Once a year, we had ‘birthday cereal.’ We could pick out a box of sugar-filled cereal and had to share it with our siblings.

“Because of our parents, we genuinely care about the well-being of other people and have a very strong sense of community and of standing up for things when they aren’t right. We all have an extremely strong sense character because our parents knew who they were — and that helps you grow up knowing who you are and how you want to fit into the world. My parents say they raised four ‘only children,’ not one only child, because we are each so different.”

Asked to recall her first musical memory, Roze immediately cited hearing her mother sing and whistle at home, sometimes in unison with the family’s Harz Roller canaries.

“Music was always there,” Roze said. “We used to go to church when I was growing up, but we didn’t go for religion. We went for the music, community and food.”

Her mother realized music was her daughter’s destiny when Roze was 4 years old.

“We were living in Clairemont,” Clark recalled, “and someone a few blocks away was having a party with music in the street. Tori heard it, opened the screen door, followed her ears and went to the sound. Tori heard the music and followed her heart and soul. The music is her muse.”

When Roze’s brother, Cheyenne, became the lead singer in the San Diego ska-punk band Top Dead Center, she started going to the all-ages music venue SOMA to hear them perform. Roze was 11 and had taken up trumpet a year earlier. Even at such a young age, music gave her what she now describes as a “natural high.”

Within two years, Roze had co-founded her own band, the 11-piece CarniaskaTta. Their first gig was at the Adams Avenue Street Fair. The group performed on a stage sponsored by Ruse, a now-defunct downtown theater that her dad ran.

“Then I saw Lisa Loeb in concert and Alanis Morissette, right after (her 1995 album) ‘Jagged Little Pill’ came out,” Roze said. “The two of them made vastly different music, but it lit me up. I just felt alive. I thought: ‘This is what music is about!’ ”

Tori Roze and The Hot Mess, May 8, 2021.
Tori Roze, at right, credits her mother, Lee Clark, seated, as her earliest musical inspiration.
((Photo by Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Run naked through the woods’

After graduating from Point Loma High School, she spent a year studying musical theater at the Boston Conservatory (now known as Boston Conservatory at Berklee). Because the tuition was too high for her, Roze transferred to UC Santa Cruz, where she earned a degree in theater in 2005. The school’s freewheeling, peace-and-love ethos struck a major chord with her.

“Coming from hippie parents and ending up in Santa Cruz made me feel like I finally got to a place where I understood them,” Roze said. “If I had gone to UCLA, I would have been a completely different person. Angela Davis taught at UCSC. Alma Martinez, who had done theater for the United Farm Workers, was one of my teachers.

“Instead of calling it UCSC, we used to joke and call it ‘UC Summer Camp.’ Everybody would run naked through the woods on campus. Why? Because we’d just had the first rain of the season, and it was a campus tradition!”

Roze considered relocating to Los Angeles after earning her degree. Instead, she returned to San Diego to help her father take care of her older sister, Autumn, who was born with special needs. Roze subsequently worked with various theater companies in town, including Diversionary and The Fritz.

It was while singing at karaoke night at Bourbon Street in University Heights that Roze was invited to do a weekly Sunday residency at the Brass Rail in Hillcrest. She invited guitarist Mike Ruggirello — whose band, Huge Rooster, she had performed with — to join her at the Brass Rail.

As the duo evolved, Roze decided to broaden its sound and invited her flutist mother and drummer Dusty Norberg to sit in. The seeds for what soon became The Hot Mess had been planted. The current lineup teams Roze, her mother, guitarist Alexander and trombonist/keyboardist Morita with drummer Rashaad Graham and much-in-demand bassist Harley Magsino.

“What inspired me to start the band is that, in 2008, I had finally got to a point where I was writing music and thought: ‘I need to be collaborating with other people’,” Roze said. “Prior to that, I was ‘The girl with the guitar’ or ‘The girl with the keyboard’.”

The first album she made with The Hot Mess, “From the Hip,” came out in 2011. It was followed by two increasingly more assured albums, 2013’s “Turbulence” and 2018’s “Baggage Claim,” which features a striking jazz-funk version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Roze’s heartfelt, well-calibrated singing and her band’s skill and poise have earned a loyal following, although — because of the pandemic — their free Wednesday livestream concert at The Casbah will be an audience-free event. Their following performance, also free but for an in-person audience, will be July 11 on the patio of Sycamore Den in Normal Heights.

“It’s been my pleasure to work with Tori and her band many times over the past 13 years,” said Casbah co-owner Tim Mays. “They always deliver a really intense, strong performance with elements of blues, rock and soul combined.”

Roze’s singing is the sum of her influences mixed together and reconfigured, as she happily acknowledges.

“I like to call it ‘the vocal funnel’ when I’m giving singing lessons to my students,” said Roze, who has been teaching online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You take all your favorite artists, funnel them down, and there’s your own unique sound. My favorites are Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Gwen Stefani when she was with No Doubt, Bjork and Whitney Houston. Those are the people who changed my life and each of them brings something different to the table that informs my vocal choices. If you listen to my music, you will hear every single one of them inside it.”

The pandemic has prevented Roze and The Hot Mess from doing live concerts and from working on a new album together. But they have released a number of new songs and videos online over the past year, with each band member recording their parts separately, including the torch ballad-styled “Slow Down,” “My Life” and an updated version of The Specials’ 1981 classic, “Ghost Town.” Their latest song, the uplifting “Seek Your Sunshine,” is now being completed.

A safe return to normal will see Roze and her group become more active. When they do, her mother will be on stage to provide both musical support and, perhaps, some parental supervision for her daughter.

“If a piece of clothing Tori is wearing for a concert is not right or too short, I’m there to yank it or pull it down,” Clark said. “So, there are two sides to the coin. I’ll always be there to monitor what’s inappropriate. And I’m there to let my her be her authentic self.”

Told of her mother’s remarks, Roze laughed heartily.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I feel like my clothing has always been an active conversation point for my mom! Ultimately, I’m going to wear what I want and go where I want to go.

“But as I get older, I find I class up the joints we perform in and stop wearing clothes with holes in them.”

Tori Roze and The Hot Mess livestream concert

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Online only:

Admission: Free, but you must pre-register in advance

Tori Roze, at right, with her mother and Hot Mess band mate, Lee Clark
Tori Roze, at right, with her mother and Hot Mess band mate, Lee Clark.
(Sandy Huffaker for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What’s in a name?

Names can be fluid for Tori Roze and her parents, who named their other daughters Autumn and Somer, and their son Cheyenne.

“My mom never identified with her birth name,” Roze said. “She had changed it from Nancy Lee Snyder to Lee Carpenter before she even met my father. His name is Christopher R.”

R? Why just R?

“I don’t know,” Roze said with a laugh, before shedding more light on the matter.

“Once upon a time, my father ran away to Canada,” she explained. “Then he went to Washington and was telling people his name was ‘Christopher Robin O’Donaghue.’ When he got into doing theater, he legally changed his name to Christopher R.”

Where, then, did the name Roze come from?

She laughed again.

“When my mom and dad got together, my grandmother said: ‘Christopher, you better think fast for a name to go with Christopher R, because my daughter is not marrying a letter!’ So they made up ‘Roze’...

“And they named me Victoria because I was a victory for them.”