Leiana - Kick Ass or Die Trying
No, that's not the name of rock singer extraordinaire Leiana's newest CD, but it could be - with no apologies to 50 Cent, who could learn a few things about lyrics, power and pain from this lady. This will come as a shock to those who think that someone blond and beautiful has it made and that a brother from the ghetto who got all shot up has a corner on the harshness of low level life and survival, a/k/a "keepin' it real."
Ever see the move "Ordinary People?" Madness, pain and death spare no one; they do not respect city limits. No wonder hip hop sells the most in the artificial hinterlands of Mallville, USA. From that manicured hell comes Leiana. Her music, like the punky predecessors that were her solace and influence as a kid, speaks of this world and with more craft, passion and imagination than most.
What was your early musical life like? What did you listen to growing up?
"My early musical life was pretty white bread - the Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, Anne Murray - until my father joined the Columbia Music Club. I picked out Blondie Eat to the Beat, probably because I liked the way it looked. I had an older brother who was also a saving grace and made me put my allowance into an eight-track tape of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, which cost a lot because it was a double album. He would always talk me in to buying things. But they turned out to be pretty cool, like Elvis Costello's My Aim is True etc."
When did you decide that music would be your main pursuit?
"I remember drawing pictures of me and my friend singing when I was a toddler. I would put on performances early on-and then as I got older it got to be more difficult as the depression set in."
What is music to you? Why go through all the hardship and frustration when your looks and brains could take you down the path of least resistence?
"Wow. That's an interesting question. Music is something that should have meaning. It should bring something to the table. By the path of least resistance I think you mean why didn't I just let someone mold me into a pop star? Much of my teenage life was spent living off of music. The words got you through. The hardship and frustration are worth it if you don't have to sing crap or be a puppet."
When did you first start to play? What were your first bands like?
"I started the guitar at 12, piano at 15, and drums a little later. But at one time or another I stopped all of them. I really wanted to sing but could not let myself do it. It wasn't until I was 19 that I could actually sing in front of another human. I had issues. My first gig was standing in with a cover band and doing Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane covers when I went to Penn. From there I moved to LA to go to Musicians Institute. My band there was heavier."
The fact that she works with vocal coach Katie Agresta (Cyndi Lauper, Anne Lennox, Bon Jovi) shows that Leiana is focused on the craft and technique of music. The songs on the CD are tight and focused nonfat little ditties. They are well played and well sung. I hate to burst bubbles, but the Beatles, to name one group, paid dues and learned their shit about singing technique and chords and all that. The innocence of punk is dead, purely a front for the mediocre. When you can't or won't be in the position to be molded and backed by the corporate music machine then the only things you have going for you are talent, inspiration, and hard work.
What are your influences?
"I listen to a lot of stuff, so I have a ton of influences. I like the underdogs, the ones that no one else may know. I am a huge Hazel O'Connor fan. I have a napkin that she signed for me framed on my desk. Penelope Houston (singer/founder of The Avengers) of course. Nina Hagen. The Pretenders. Poly Styrene (circa 1978 fifteen year old warbler of the brilliant X-Ray Specs) wrote some of the best lyrics ever. I like strong women.
"I also like late 70's punk, especially British. I like the Ruts a lot and I like the hardcore that was around when I grew up in Southern California - Black Flag, Social Distortion. These bands spoke to me. And as time went on and pop music got more and more horrible, I would dive deeper into a particular scene from days past."
The first cuts on the CD, "Surfy Punky Joint" and "Follow Blind," remind this old timer of music heard on the radio when house painting in San Francisco. The local rock station played the Pretenders, the original riot girls, Frightwig, and the Avengers. These women had punk rock energy, but also a tunefulness and bitchy sweetness that blended with the power of their spiky groove.
On Leiana's CD, this is provided by all-instrumentalist Chuck Treece's searing, lush guitar, phat drums and rock solid bass. That's what makes these songs slay - dynamics ala Chrissie Hynde, and the Avengers' edgy, buzz saw attack, over which ride her strident vocals: "Made a fool again/leave me alone/do me a favor/go get someone/ reasons i can't find/you keep wasting time/but i still follow/follow blind."
It is to the SoCa punk of the '80's Black Flag (with Henry Rollins and Kira on bass) that is the most recognizable influence on the slow grind cuts "All Over," "Dirty Car," and "Miss You." The song "All Over" is particularly powerful with the recorded voices of women - well, I won't give it away, but it dramatically illustrates a serious, societal problem.
In your press kit you mention being influenced by the Avengers. I saw them in San Francisco back in the day. How did you discover them in suburban Philadelphia?
"Wow! How were the Avengers live?"
Awesome. Tight and with a lot of energy. I saw them at the People's Temple which was made into a concert hall after the Jonestown Massacre.
"I used to collect tons of albums, and back then you would get catalogs from the cool record places and labels. I think I first heard of them through the Rat Music for Rat People compilations. I used to buy the comps and then if I liked the song I'd buy the album. And then if I liked the band, I'd find out their influences and buy those albums. I had ins at the used record stores who would put stuff to the side or make deals for me."
How did you meet Chuck Treece? How did you connect with someone who's worked with such diversity of talent as Bad Brains, The Goats, and - gasp! - Billy Joel?
"I met Chuck through a mutual friend who is in the industry. I had been looking for a band and my friend suggested that since I write my own stuff why don't I go solo. He hooked me up with Chuck to help me write some tunes and we clicked really well. I was pretty intimidated at first - he has and does work with a bunch of big names - but we are into the same things and just connected."
In light the stultified state of the music industry and major record labels (even indie labels) how are you planning to get your music out in the world?
"Yes the industry sucks and it always has. I don't know why people are all of the sudden bitching about it now, because this is not anything new. I used to read all of those music business books as a kid and think, 'How the hell am I going to do this?' Well that really has not changed.
"My tactics change from month to month. Luckily I am around a lot of people who have been doing this a long time. Chuck had his own deal at one point. You talk to people and try to make calculated moves. It's all a positioning plan to release my album myself and hire people out to do the work that has to be done to get it out there. I don't think at this point there is much that a label can do for me that I cannot do myself."
That is the mantra of the day. That is why you are reading about this via the world wide web. Leiana's self-titled EP is a preview of her up coming full-length CD. Vive la underground.