Interview – Leslie Sisson
We are fans of Leslie Sisson. We found her lovely music when we reviewed one of the bands she is on, called The Wooden Birds. During the interview we had with The Wooden Birds, it was mentioned that Ms. Sisson had an album in the future. Lo and behold, the album is called Harmony (review) and it’s as sweet as the memories of those family road trips (to Seaworld, Tampico or Blackpool, you name it!).
We managed to get an email interview with the lovely Leslie Sisson and a lengthy interview followed. We didn’t have the heart to edit anything out, so here it is. Grab a cup of your fave brew and read on..
Thank you very much for taking our questions! We really enjoyed Harmony from start to finish! Love how understated but dreamy it is and makes me thing of long road trips with my parents as a kid.
1) You’ve played with some legends (Matt Pond, Andrew Kenny) in other bands. What pushed you towards releasing a solo album?
Well first, thank you kindly, that means a lot. I took countless long road trips with my parents growing up, so it’s nice to hear that this record paints such pictures for others. My folks are the reason I play music, and Harmony includes moments of my own family memories on it. I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember and was actively working on a solo project in Brooklyn, formerly called Aero Wave, during the inception of the Wooden Birds. Because I ended up touring nonstop for some years with Kenny and Matt, my solo stuff was put on hold.
Many of the songs on Harmony came before that and the rest were written in between tours, which sparked the first attempt at my Home Demos. It wasn’t until friends in Ola Podrida asked if I’d open solo for them in NYC a couple summers ago that I was inspired to start playing solo again. Then, many people, including my biggest fan, my father, encouraged me to take my songs into the studio. Kenny thought we only had a small window between tours last winter, so he recommended using that time to record, which I did, calling upon Aero Wave drummer, Jason Hammons, and Matt’s producer, Louie Lino in Austin. By then, I’d accumulated a few albums worth of songs to choose from, so getting at least some of them recorded was long overdue. Regardless of whether or not I found someone to put it out, the timing just seemed right… more than I knew.
2) What’s the story behind the colourful cover for Harmony?
One of my favorite painters and longtime best friends, Cristina Berretta, designed the cover art. She was my first roommate ever during my early college days in Denton, where we even had a little two-piece shoegazy music project together that we called The Velmas. She lives in Portland now and I’ve been waiting a long time to finally have a record worthy of her artwork. We’ve always wanted to collaborate in some capacity again, and it was such a pleasure finally working with her.
We toyed with some initial ideas until I asked her to come up with something that may have inspired her from listening to the record… which she nailed. The song ‘Harmony’ was her primary inspiration for the cover concept, made up of watercolor, charcoal, ink, decorative paper, and thread. Later on, we worked on tweaking the color a bit, adding some more contrast and mystery, and I asked her to create the girl in the boat, who ended up resembling a combination of her and me. Is she drifting towards the darkness or heading home? I ask myself that all the time, especially musically. I wasn’t sure what to title the record at first, but for so many reasons throughout the process, beginning with Cristina‘s amazing artwork, there ended up being no other name to call it but Harmony.
3) We really enjoy the slightly country sounds from Harmony. Is there any particular love for any country musicians amongst your influences?
Being born and raised in Texas, it’s kinda inevitable that I’d have some country in my blood. The soundtrack of my youth consisted of Loretta, Patsy, Cash, Willie, Dolly, Tammy, Waylon, Conway, Emmylou, etc… with fond memories of old country tunes while riding in my Pee-Paw’s pickup truck on the way to the lake. As a teen, I attempted steering away from the country side, including studying speech/theatre to ease my southern drawl. It wasn’t until I actually left TX for NY that I missed that element of my life, and thus, the country roots started creeping their way back in.
More and more I subconsciously sprinkle the twang on top of the indie, which wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, but now just seems to fit. Unfortunately, my mom passed away unexpectedly a few days after I finished tracking Harmony last spring, literally while I was on a plane from TX back to NY. Thankfully, I’d just spent a month with her in Austin during the recording, allowing her to see me play solo for the first time in ages at SXSW last year, and at least getting to say a nice goodbye, not knowing it was the last.
She was a southern queen and embraced her Texan pride more than anyone I ever knew. I regret that she didn’t get to hear the whole record from beginning to end, but what she did hear, including the song ‘Harmony’, which is partly about her, makes me feel more connected to her memory. Embracing the Texan in me makes me feel closer to her and the rest of my family too. Thus, I decided against calling the project a made up band name, and instead attempted to honor my family name, Sisson. For a brief moment, my roller derby name, Rolletta Lynn, was on the table, as a tribute to one of my favorite musicians of all time, Loretta Lynn. That woman inspires me to tears. I recently saw her for the first time in Austin, and I can’t express enough how impressed I am with her ability to keep hitting the road, no matter how old she is, still singing her heart out like she was a teenager, filling every seat in the house. What is it about these country musicians that enables them to keep performing until their last breath? You don’t see that as much in rock or pop. Maybe it’s just because they’re all timeless superheroes, but regardless, I hope to keep that fire for the rest of my life.
4) You are in your own project, The Wooden Birds and Matt Pond PA. How do you manage to be on all three and what’s the plan for this year?
If I’m not playing with someone else, I’m doing my own thing. It’s just what ends up happening whether I try or not. I somehow find a way to make it all work because playing music is what gets me out of bed every day. I haven’t been as busy with Kenny and Matt the past year, which has allowed me to focus on solo stuff more. I also haven’t caught wind of any upcoming tours with either of them, or myself, so it’s uncertain what’s ahead. I’d love to tour again in any capacity, either in my band or theirs, or anyone else’s for that matter, but tour planning isn’t easy. It took me months to book my own tour last fall, which was a ton of work without a booking agent, but it ended up being more than worth it, with some tail end dates tagging along with Tapes n’ Tapes.
I’ve put my feelers out for tour support slots this year, but I seem to be a little behind the game. A label would probably help. I’d love to find one to help get this Sisson rock going. Other than reaching out to those I know, I’m still trying to figure that part out. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do I need a label to get tours or do I need to tour to get a label? All I really want to do is tour, so I’m doing whatever I can, playing as many shows as I can, to make that happen… trying to stay optimistic and continually push forward.
5) As an artist, do you feel being in different musical projects helps to diversify your own range, i.e. you get to express yourself differently with various genres?
Absolutely. If not only because of the inspiration from those I play music with, but also thanks to the music and stories I hear along the way. On tour, you do a lot of listening… or at least I do… in the van, in the audience. I see similarities and differences in my music versus everyone else, so it’s nice to break away on my own, taking with me what I’ve learned, positive or constructive. I’m always changing as a musician either with how I approach my playing, to songwriting, to even how I use my voice. I hope that what I’m doing isn’t too far off the map from projects I’ve contributed to, who I’d note as influences (and being a fan alone is sometimes why I work with them), but I also hope that whatever I’m doing is doing it’s own thing as well. Either way, music is therapy for me, so as long as I have an outlet to express that, via mine or someone else’s, I’m doing okay.
6) We noted that you’re playing at SXSW. What have been your experiences with the festival?
It seems like I’ve played SXSW almost annually for at least a decade with my own projects or others. It’s changed immensely over the years, especially since I last lived in Austin. I remember when the only day shows were random in-stores and everything was pretty much contained within walking distance of 6th Street. Now there seems to be more unofficial events than not and driving around town has become a necessity. It can be overwhelming with so many bands to see, sets to play, and the bazillion more people in the city at once, but it’s almost a reunion of sorts with music peeps coming together in one place for the week.
Aside from being able to throw a rock and see a show, you can walk down 6th Street and not be bombarded by the usual agro drunks (who left for spring break) but rather pass more like-minded souls you may or may not know from around the world (and occasionally an Aqua Teen Hunger Force costume character, if you’re lucky). I guess the music also serves as a networking backdrop, if you’re into that sorta thing. I don’t consider myself much of a ‘networker’, but I’ve met some amazing people at the festival, like even accidentally bumping into someone at a bar and finding out they used to be in one of my fave bands growing up… who knew?
I’ve heard of new bands gaining opportunities because of the festival, but those that I’ve personally witnessed haven’t seemed random. It’s good for those who may already be in contact with someone who happens to be in town, with easy access to see their band or meet for a drink to talk rock. Perhaps I’ll figure out that part of the puzzle someday. Playing the actual festival, however, is an entirely different experience, which can depend on when/where you’re scheduled.
One of my earliest shows with Matt was at SXSW a couple years ago. The room of this makeshift bar on 6th Street was practically empty when the band before us played. However, in literally the amount of time it took us to set up our gear with our backs to the audience, we turned around to play and the room was over capacity. I’ve been on all sides of that coin, from to not being able to get in to see a band, to playing after a band whose room-packed crowd all left when they finished, to playing in the middle of a bunch of great bands in a packed house. All in all, regardless of the outcome, I always have a good time and keep coming back… SXSW is tradition now.
7) Physical sales seem to be dwindling and a lot of new bands are gearing towards singles or EPs. What gave you enough confidence to release a full album?
I’m not sure if it was confidence or the fact that I have a ton of songs waiting in the wings to record and decided to just go for it. I actually originally intended on only doing an EP, like a stripped-down five song dealio with guitar, drums, and keys. As my drummer and I got together in Brooklyn to rehearse (trudging through endless feet of snow in the dead of winter), we flew through the initial song list and just kept adding more. Before we knew it, we had ten songs to bring to Austin, not knowing which ones we’d actually have time to track.
If we got an EP out of it, so be it, but it seemed like all the songs worked well enough together to just keep going in the studio to get them all down if we could… and we did. After making a few self-released EPs over the years under past solo monikers (Aero Wave, Tanworth-in-Arden), it felt like time for a full length, especially since I had so many songs to choose from, it was hard to narrow it down to a few. The idea of sales hadn’t crossed my mind since I didn’t have a label backing me or anything. Sure, studio time might have been cheaper with an EP, but since this was my first real, professional recording to introduce myself and put my ‘name’ out there, without being inconsistent or stereotypically “singer-songwriter-y”, the ten songs we finished flowed better together than anticipated and had a little something for everyone… and so became Harmony the LP.
8) A couple of years ago, it was only necessary to have a Myspace. Now it’s Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, the whole shebang. How beneficial (or detrimental) do you see this tendency to rely on more Internet tools for promoting your music and interacting with fans?
Early on, before Myspace, before any of these networking sites, I learned how to make a basic html website myself, back when band websites were rare (I shoulda racked up on URLs when I had the chance). Once those sites took off, they proved to be useful tools for reaching out to friends and fans about promoting shows and whatnot. However, with the number of ‘fans’, ‘likes’, ‘plays’, ‘views’, etc, does it make it easier for labels, promoters, booking agents, etc, to pick out those with the most ‘hits’?
Viral YouTube sensations aside, I wonder if those who don’t have the higher stats might be overlooked. Are labels less willing to take a chance on a band because don’t have the ‘likes’ and ‘plays’ yet, rather than the old days when perhaps things relied more on a decent demo and local following. On the other end, if bands are able to self-promote themselves online, are they less in need of labels now? I really want a label to put out Harmony and more, but I’m honestly not the most amazing at self-promotion, especially when I’m putting myself out there under my own name.
Admittedly, the social networks, especially Facebook, do help with that. I don’t have to bug people, but I can send them event invites and post updates about what’s happening musically without being too intrusive. It also saves having to print flyers that’ll eventually end up in a landfill. Man, I remember in high school actually physically mailing postcards to people about upcoming shows. What a waste. There can be tricky interweb ‘friendship’ reality lines that sometimes have to be carefully drawn, but in general, it’s a good way to keep in touch with people other than just sending them mass emails. It might be hard to keep up with all of these sites and the friends on them, but they seem to be helping on some level… right?
9) Finally, the Home Demos at your website are a real treat. Starting from the initial composition, when do you know that the song is “finished”?
Oh, thank you, again, that’s too kind. Those tracks have come a long way from quietly recording them in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, trying not to disturb the neighbors through the paper thin walls. The Home Demos were intended to get some ideas down in-between tours and to have something to share when asked if I had my own music. I don’t know if a song is ever completely finished for me. I’m constantly working to make songs better, from melodic tweaks, to structural changes, to instrumentation, to vocal treatment.
Some of my live songs are different than recorded versions and are forever changing. I’m still figuring out my ‘sound’, from the Home Demos which were more of a consistent, stripped-down delivery, to Harmony which had layers upon layers of ideas and instrumentation, to whatever comes next. Back in the day when I began playing in bands, we’d practice our songs for months, sometimes years, before ever putting them on tape. Nowadays, we’re seeing more and more bands begin with recordings, followed by their live sets.
It’s important for a musician to test their songs live to flesh out what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps what you do in the studio might not come across live, but sometimes, that’s a good thing. If the live set sounds just like the record, then what’s keeping people from staying home instead of coming to a show, especially lately when touring seems to be what keeps bands afloat. However, if the live set sounds a little different, perhaps even better than what was tracked, I’m totally into that. Thus, even after a song is recorded, to me, it’s never finished.
Just as I’m never finished learning as a musician, my songs are sometimes never finished developing. That could be due to the tinge of ADD in me, but whatever the reason, it keeps me on my toes. If I’d had more time and money when tracking Harmony, I probably would’ve kept going further adding more ideas to the songs. It’s a good feeling knowing a song is ‘done’ though. I have to give myself deadlines or else I’ll never finish. Harmony’s deadline helped to have something at the merch table to share on the first tour.
At the last minute, my friend Lisa Lobsinger had a small window to send in some vocal tracks on a few songs (‘Harmony’, ‘Worth’, ‘Win’) that she was able to fit in between her busy touring schedule. Her additions helped so very much, and I’d love to have more of her in there, or maybe add more bass, or more keys, or ask fellow bandmates (Simon Flory, Jody Suarez, Rachel Staggs, Bill Brown) to add some live touches… but at some point you have to know when to say when.
Harmony isn’t professionally mastered yet, so there’s still that option to add more until I find a label to put it out. I didn’t have much time to shop it around before my fall tour and since Harmony’s already floating around out there, I’m unsure if a label would want to put release it now or not. However, if someone does happen to pick it up, it’s nice to have the option to add more, or at least the option to properly master it, presenting something different verses what’s already out there. I may have unknowingly gone about this a little backwards, but it’s all been in an effort to move forward, which has to count for something.
To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I’m not sure how that relates to this, but I just love that line.
Thank you very much for your time answering our crap questions, feel free to add anything you want to plug and really looking forward to listen to more of your stuff!
These aren’t crap questions! I may have rambled a bit and could actually go on and on about so much more, but that whole “when to say when” thing might be good to get ‘er done. Feel free to edit any of this and/or ask me more questions any time. Look forward to sending you more stuff. Thanks again! You rock!
Words: Sam “No, it’s you who rock! Thanks!” Valdes Lopez