Known by the public at-large primarily for her 1970 best-selling book, Living on the Earth, and her other writing and illustrating projects, Alicia Bay Laurel also established a fascinating musical history long before she finally made it onto a recording. Laurel studied piano and clarinet as a child, gravitating toward pop and boogie-woogie pieces, but it wasn't until seeing Bob Dylan in concert in 1961 that she became enthralled by music and performing. A brother taught her basic folk guitar not long after, and by 1964 she was learning open-tuned guitar from John Fahey, who was at the time married to her cousin Jan Lebow. Laurel listened to and studied Fahey's recordings, as well as folk, world, ethnic, and jazz records, and particularly the work of Mose Allison, the Swingle Singers, Barney Kessel, Kimio Eto, early Dylan, Donovan, and Judy Collins. She also heard much of the great West Coast jazz on the radio. When she gravitated to San Francisco in 1966 as a 17-year-old, Laurel made the rounds of coffeehouses and small clubs and played wherever and for whomever would have her, everywhere from in the park to playing privately for friends, writing her own original material all the while. In the late '60s, she joined the Wheeler Ranch commune and played in a group that became the Star Mountain Band and eventually had its own commune next door. It was in 1970 that her book, Living on the Earth, was published to widespread acclaim and found its way onto the best-seller list, but the book was always a part of grander project that included Laurel's original songs as a soundtrack. During the television and radio rounds to promote the book, she would frequently perform some of the tunes, included in a KQED-TV special made about the book.
After leaving Wheeler Ranch, Laurel spent two years traveling with avant-garde composer Ramon Sender, one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s along with Mort Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. Laurel learned a lot about scales, modes, and tunings from Sender and created a book with him in 1973 published by Harper & Row, Being of the Sun, which included a lot of that musical information. Sender was also one of the inventors, along with Subotnick and audio engineer Don Buchla, of the first synthesizer on the West Coast, the Buchla Box.
In 1974 Laurel moved to Hawaii, where open-tuned guitar was a traditional part of the national ethnic music tapestry. She learned to play and sing Hawaiian music from numerous teachers, including Auntie Clara Tolentino, slack-key guitarist Uncle Sol Kawaihoa, twelve-string player Wesley Furumoto (with whom she played in a duo for two years), and jazz guitarist Sam Ahia, and learned nearly as much by seeing the live performances of Auntie Alice Namakelua, who was the court musician to Queen Liliukalani as a teenager, and listening to the early recordings of Keola and Kapono Beamer. During the 1980s Laurel spent three years in California studying jazz guitar and, with Pamela Polland, vocal technique, while teaching at the Los Angeles alternative school Hearlight. She fell in love with the early music of Michael Franks and Brazilian pop, and built up a repertoire of jazz standards and Brazilian tunes in addition to her Hawaiian songs. Upon returning to Maui, Laurel continued to study vocal technique and taught at Haleakala School. She returned to California for a year in 1984 and began gigging in restaurants all around Sonoma County before returning again to Hawaii and continuing to perform constantly as well as opening and running a full-service wedding business for 11 years.
In 1996 she teamed with avant-garde drummer/composer/synthesizer player Joe Gallivan, the test driver of the first Moog drum, and they developed a long-term working relationship. Laurel aided Gallivan with his company and label, newjazz.com, and thereby learned how to put together and release her own CD. In 2000 she recorded some of the original folk songs that she had written during her commune days in the late 1960s and early 1970s and released it independently as Music From Living on the Earth, supporting the album by playing more than 70 shows over the course of the year in 25 states across the country. She also developed a one-woman, one-act play called Living on the Earth-The Musical based on stories from her best-selling book and those songs, and began discussions to turn it into a screenplay as well. The following year, Laurel set to work recording Living in Hawaii Style consisting primarily of her original Hawaiian slack-key pieces, and made plans to work on a jazz and blues album, What Living's All About, produced by Gallivan.