A big band singer talks about heartbreak, the best place to write a song, and why it never hurts to read yesterday’s paper.
When Leslie walks in a room, you can feel a change in atmospheric pressure. Eye contact with her is like the opening page of a novel you’ve sat in line for all night. You can feel that she’s a magnet for stories, that you might end up anywhere, doing anything, by the time you leave her company.
Elderly New Yorkers buttonhole her to share their life histories. Parisian passersby are drawn to embrace her like flies to honey. The Colombian drug dealer in her neighborhood has proposed to her more than once.
Personally, this magnetism made me kind of hate her. Or would have, anyway, if I’d hadn’t met her as a journalist on assignment, and if Leslie weren’t the kind of person who immediately makes you feel like you’re co-conspirators in a pre-teen spy novel.
We bonded over the fact that we were raised in religious ghettos. That our moms hate it when we swear (and that’s part of what we enjoy about it). That guys make no goddamn sense.
And then I proceeded to waste the first hour of our interview talking not about her upcoming memoir, The Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce, but about how she scored a job as a backup singer for my high school idol.
In 2006, Leslie was just back from New York City, where she’d left her starring role in an off-Broadway musical to mollify her then-husband. (The one who would inspire her blog and book a few years later.) She was beating the pavement of Los Angeles, looking for a job, and found an ad in the final page of Backstage West for a gig as a Vixen (i.e., backup singer) in the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Leslie had grown up hearing her brother blast the Stray Cats on vinyl, and had spent her high school years swing-dancing to Brian Setzer’s big band comeback. Undeterred by the paper being long out of date, she sent her headshot and resume to the email address listed in the ad.
Almost immediately, she got a response, asking if she was available the next day for an audition.
“I wore the wrong dress and sang the wrong song, but I could read music and harmonize very easily. I met Brian; he was extremely friendly and nice. When the music director asked me what I had been doing lately, I answered honestly: ‘Absolutely nothing!’ Julie, the other Vixen (and also Brian’s wife) says that was the moment she knew she really liked me.”
Within a day, Brian’s manager called to tell her that they’d hired another girl, someone who had been recommended by the outgoing Vixen. But they wanted her to be on call as a sub.
A few weeks later, Leslie was teaching a piano lesson when she got another phone call. It was the manager. He asked what she was doing in two days. Once again, her answer was “Absolutely nothing.”
With one day to prepare, Leslie started watching the DVDs she’d been sent, learning the songs and their accompanying dance moves for the San Francisco show at Bimbo’s 365 Club. The show seemed to be going well, until at one point, Brian called a tune that she didn’t know.
“Terrified, I looked at Julie. She smiled and said, ‘Just follow me.’ So I did.”
They were taking off their makeup when a knock came to the dressing room door. Brian Setzer poked his head in.
“Great job tonight, Leslie! Would you like to go on the Christmas tour?”
I left with something way better than an article to file. I left with a feeling that somebody else had lived my own recent heartbreak story a little better than I had.
I hadn’t been almost married, or even close to it. But when she said he’d spent the past two years of their happy marriage fucking his barely-legal-age student, that he sold the house they’d bought as newlyweds and kept the money, that he didn’t even wait until their divorce was final to remarry and have a baby, I felt my own righteous outrage vindicated.
It’s the galling specifics of heartbreak that take the longest to heal. It’s why we tell the same stories over and over, knowing our friends are sick of hearing them. We know we’re not the only one to experience heartbreak, but we are the only ones we know who experienced it in our specific way. We don’t want to be told we’re special; we just want somebody else to give us permission to express our feelings as if we were. Somebody to cue the guttural howl, the teeth-gnashing, the breaking plates.
Leslie’s story was that cue. Life pushed her to the brink where she could express the outsize feelings that we all have but don’t feel like we deserve to vocalize. Sharing her story, with all its incredible details, brought me together again with friends who were sick of listening to me lament. Her epic travesty was the campfire around which everyone can warm their cold, cold heart.
But it still sucked, in my opinion, that we were both so voiceless in the face of those circumstances. She was writing a book and I was living on the road and that was cool. We were doing good things with our pain, using it to self-actualize and serve other people.
Still, there was no doubt that we both felt the pain lingering. For my part, the pain lingered throughout that year and into the next. I looked for lots of ways to fix it, but even fixing it never seemed to really relieve it. It turns out that you can’t relieve past heartbreak by maneuvering around it in the present.
I’d kind of accepted that it was just going to be sitting in there, like a head cold that lasts all summer.
And then I heard Leslie sing.
Let’s talk about Leslie’s voice for a minute.
It has the horsepower of Aretha Franklin, the wiseass twang of Anita O’Day and the velvety sting of Peggy Lee. It’s the kind of voice that you keep thinking about, long after you’ve forgotten the song. And when it comes to the “he done me wrong” tune, her voice is like taking a baseball bat to a picture frame. You feel the vicious delight, the forest fire of anger and yes, the orgiastic relief.
But the more I listened to her perform–whether it was as the backup singer for BSO, the front woman of the Louis Prima, Jr. band, or even her early years in the off-Broadway musical scene–I found myself feeling less and less satisfied.
The thing with Leslie is that she’s a singer of an older archetype, the kind that used to be called a chanteuse, the kind that turns drunks into poets. Her voice’s power isn’t in its trained perfection (which is certainly there) but in the palpable, personal emotion it conveys. In the vein of Edith Piaf or Joni Mitchell or Nina Simone, she’s a singer whose own story brings something to the music that no perfect training can supply.
What was bothering me was that she was always singing other people’s songs. I’d come to depend on Leslie’s pipes to help me vocalize my own pain, but now it was like we were both trying to vocalize a song that didn’t exist. Without hearing her sing her own story, I felt frustrated in expressing my own. The closest thing I could find to what I was looking for was her recording of the Louis Prima, Jr. song “Someday,” which she was presented with on her very first day working with the band.
“That song was written by Ryan McKay, our guitar player. He had written the melody but when I went into the studio, they handed me just a lyrics sheet. I said, ‘Where are the notes?’ and they said they wanted me to find something that fit the words.
“I read the words and I was like ‘Oh my gosh–this resonates with me.’ It’s a break-up song, very hopeful but very realistic. So I just sang it from the heart. It really felt like my song. And everybody was like ‘Holy shit.'”
I love that song. I love Leslie singing that song. As fans do, I wanted something more. I wanted that voice combined with the open-vein storytelling of Christian Girl’s Guide. I wanted something that came unmistakably from Leslie herself.
I should have known better. When the subject of your wish is a torch singer, you have to be extra careful what you wish for.
The good news is really, really good. Leslie is making a record of her very own.
The bad news you can probably guess: it’s a heartbreak record. This highly anticipated artistic venture is the result of a highly unanticipated breakup of the most healthy relationship she’s ever had in her life.
“Last Thanksgiving, I was lying in bed in New Jersey. I could see New York City twinkling across the river. I had all these words in my head, so I finally picked up my phone and started writing them down. And I just kept writing them.”
In secret, Leslie has always been a songwriter. From childhood on the family upright to the digital piano in her tiny apartment, she has always had something handy to bang out a little melody and fit it to words. But in the past, once the song was written down, she would put it away.
“I had to get it out, but it was too vulnerable to share with people. I didn’t want to be judged, or pigeonholed.”
The irony, of course, was that by putting them away she was pigeonholing herself. She was staying nice, being supportive of the big players in her life, not asking for extra attention, waiting for the right man to come along and let her express the huge affections she was capable of.
We tend to think of heartbreak as the generator of pain, anguish, confusion. It’s actually just the catalyst for those things to come out.
For Leslie, they came out as if fired from a cannon. She was composing music in her sleep, waking up with fully formed melodies that she’d sing into her phone’s voice recorder. Her morning showers were accompanied by bass lines. Her walks to the subway were tortured by lyrics.
She kept writing it all down, but it was more than she could handle. Finally, she reached out to BSO bandmates Kevin McKendree and Noah Levy and asked, tentatively, if they would come over and help her work out some tunes she was writing. Then she immediately tried to talk them out of it.
“I had sweat rings down to my waist, because it was so scary to share these lyrics with them.”
She sang the melody and Kevin sat down at her piano and changed the melody from a plaintive ballad to a blues. They helped guide the song into her true identity as a singer–powerful, vulnerable, bitter and hopeful. Her voice, her personal identity, made the songs more than the sum of music and lyrics.
“I used to have this idea that in order to be a successful singer/songwriter, you have to come up with all the ideas on your own. But actually, kind of like in life, it’s better to have partners. It’s not I have this song all written out and I need your approval.’ It’s ‘Let’s do this together.’ You can just have an idea, a hook, something that sounds cool. You don’t have to have everything polished or complete in your mind to get started.”
They just talked about stories and evolved them into songs. Taking the funny ideas, the fragments of stories, the true thoughts, and finding ways to make them into a complete musical thought.
The process continued over a two-week visit to Nashville, where Kevin enlisted other songwriting pals (Gary Nicholson, Johnny Few, Mark Winchester) to collaborate. Leslie herself began to believe in the process a little more; when a high school friend/current member of the Zac Brown Band looked her up and suggested a coffee date, she came back with, “How about we get together and write a song, instead?”
The process has been cathartic, she said, in a way that even surprised her. Only a few months after her breakup, a friend told her on the phone, “You sound happier than I’ve seen you in years.”
The reason might be cliche, but only because it makes so much sense. She’s not trying to fit her outsize life into a small container anymore. She’s living the fabulous story life has always been trying to persuade her into.
“I don’t know if I was holding myself back or what. It’s kind of a shame that heartbreak has to propel you into more creative parts of yourself.”
For nice girls, heartbreak is the only thing. We wait so patiently, so obediently, for the best thing to come along, the thing that will come and save us. Only much later, if we’re lucky, do we find out that the thing that really saves us is the thing that makes us save ourselves.
The worst thing heartbreak can do is rob you of your voice, leaving you with pages of words that you never get to say or, even if you do get to say them, that never come out quite right.
For girls who did their best to do everything right, that’s usually how it remains. And with all apologies to Adele, et. al, the Billboard heartbreak offerings feel so two-dimensional. They’re fine when you need to wring out a good cry, but they’re not songs you can live in. Like sample size clothes, they don’t fit a real person right.
That’s what I’m looking forward to, when Leslie’s record comes out. Knowing her and her work, I know it will be sour, bitter and sweet in perfect proportion, like an old-fashioned made right. It will be sharp enough to cut the one who done you wrong, gentle enough to soothe your wounded soul. Her poignant insight will be a hand on your hair, her wicked humor a needed slap on the ass. It’ll be bitter and hopeful and satisfying as a plate hurled against the wall.
Best of all, Leslie’s record will give you not only words, but the wherewithal to howl them the way you’ve longed to do. Hers is the big, bad, “you can’t ignore me now” voice of the woman who really tried to do it all the nice way, and is finally going to speak her mind.
I hang up from our conversation fully knowing that I held back from asking her the last question.
It wasn’t the question that everybody asks of artists from Joni Mitchell to Ryan Adams to Bruce Springsteen:
Was it worth it?
I wouldn’t ask that question, first of all because I’ve never heard a good answer to that question. Moreover, I don’t think it’s a question that real artists have the luxury of asking. Heartbreak isn’t a result of something. It’s a gift. It’s a souvenir of the journey we’re about to embark on. It’s a sign that we’re not just alive, but living.
But later, as I’m watching the “Someday” video again, I hear the question I was going to ask her. It’s posed to her by her bandleader, Louis Prima, Jr., after hearing her first earth-shattering belt of the lyrics.
As everyone else in the Capitol Records studio nods approvingly, her boss asks,
“Can you beat it?”
Leslie looks through the recording booth glass, probably judging whether he’s serious. Then she purrs back,
Leslie’s campaign totally made her goal! It was easy, really. Thanks to all of you who kicked in to support this amazing, real-AF artist. Now it’s on to the studio!
(I’ll post more updates as the album progresses.)