►Original Musical Compositions and Select Covers
This edition we spotlight soulful "Nu-Jazz / Zouk / Zouk" artist LESLIE STEVENS and her band of Badgers, aka LESLIE AND THE BADGERS. The Badgers are L.A.-based avatars of a specific brand of "alt-country" that caught RAR's attention when they played a show at the Mint in L.A. earlier this year opening for the decidedly contemporary pop-country artist Elizabeth Cook.
Where do you start with Leslie and company? This is one of the more intriguingly enigmatic acts found on the musical spectrum today, an inspiring blend of intelligent and sensitive songwriting presented with vocal and musical virtuosity. Supported by a band of "brothers" - guitarist Glenn Oyabe, bassist Ben Reddell, and drummer Travis Popichak - who clearly "get her," and a couple "sisters" - singer Liz Buatti and violinist Charlene - who are perfect complements, Leslie casts spells with an earnest and reverent presentation of classic musical influences - country, jazz, blues - mated to the "nu" and even zouk, in some odd way, though maybe "zouk-love" would be the more appropriate reference.
Leslie the songwriter is deeply romantic and uncommonly bright. There is über-sophistication in her song construction and wistful, serene, open acceptance in her lyrics. Leslie's feelings are fully on display but not as open wounds. This is not angry cry-girl stuff, but something quite different. "Old Soul" maybe. Leslie has the disarming capacity of an ingénue coupled with a wise aunt's understanding and innate kindness. There seems to be no pretense with this girl or this band, no artifice, and in a business built around such she and they stand out. You get the sense you can trust Leslie and The Badgers - an odd thing to say, but such is the message.
This girl whose early training in opera had her singing in Italian at age 15 is one of the best things happening in "country music" today. RARWRITER.com is pleased to bring you Leslie Stevens and The Badgers.
Round the night grasses
where badgers sip dew,
I cut my heart open
a badger like you.
* * *
Where are you from?
I'm from St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis.
When were you born?
I was born in Chicago, Illinois.
What is your family background – ethnicity, etc? Working class? Daughter of privilege?
I'm a WASP-ha-ha- a white Anglo Saxon protestant. My father was raised in Akron Ohio, the son of an ice box ice delivery man and my mother was raised in an upper middle class household in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
My mother's grandparents (and my namesake- my great grandmother) crossed the central plains in a covered wagon. She lived to 103 and would tell me "When I was your age they sewed the money into the hem of my petticoat to hide it from the Indians." Her name was Carrie Lessley.
I went to a private prep school that made me want to learn for the rest of my life. I learned more in high school than I did in college. errr ha-ha so on that note I'll mention my college.....errrrr...I being a little sarcastic cause I was really happy to go to Occidental. It's my initial connection to Los Angeles. I have a Bachelor's in English Literature from Occidental College. It's a small Liberal Arts College in Eagle Rock. I did some post graduate work in Jazz Studies at USC. The USC study really solidified my music study and songwriting.
Are you married? Do you have a family?
What kind of a kid were you?
I don't know really. Precocious maybe. Busy. I was busy, always with something.
When did you start with music?
In elementary school my cousin and my brother and I created a made up radio station called WDUMB. We'd try to write top 40 songs and be the DJs. playing keyboard and using the Casio drum beats. we'd write songs about the orthodontist and Oprah and movies like Jaws 3. My radio (and TV too I guess) were the main sources I had for music so I emulated (poorly) what I heard. I also took piano from a very young age and sang in the choir at Church. (My favorite piano assignments were the assignments where we got to write our own music.)
Who influenced you musically as a kid?
Paul Simon. My parents played Graceland. I loved Blondie. I sang Hymns in Church. When I got into my teens I discovered Patsy Cline and music from the WWII era through acting in plays and musicals.
* * *
One might not hear it in her current incarnation, but Leslie Stevens is a classically trained opera singer. Noticed in grade school as a kid with natural vocal talents, she was ushered into formal voice training and eventually packed off to Italy to study with masters who had her singing in Italian by the time she was 15. She later did post-graduate studies in jazz at the University of Southern California.
When did you start to find yourself as a singer? How did that happen? Have you received any formal training?
When I was about 11 my music teacher had us all sing a solo in class - and I remember thinking as I was singing this isn't very good, But the teacher asked me to stay after class and suggested I audition for a child's solo part with a high school choral production. It was a few years later I started lessons singing classical pieces and show tunes with professional vocalists. (Before that I always sang to the radio - I was always begging my mom not to turn off the music. I don't think my mom was ever impressed- I would look at myself in the passenger seat mirror and sing WD40 or Wham! to my reflection. I can't blame her for being unimpressed)
How do you rate yourself as a singer?
Oh again, I am very self critical but I'm also forgiving of myself. I love to
sing. Singing is fun. My singing depends on the day. Some days I'm good, some
* * *
Leslie is sweet but tough. In conversation her tone is kindly, but her laughter reveals a bit of grit. She is an outdoors type, which partly explains her shifting associations with some of the wild's most formidable critters. The badger, of course, is downright ill-tempered and ferocious, a creature that burrows deep into the earth and emerges snarling and snapping (and there might be a metaphor in there somewhere for her band, discussed below). The hummingbird, on the other hand, seems so ephemeral, flitting into sight like a fairy, doing its rounds at hyper speed, then suddenly being gone. It is almost other worldly, just don't piss it off.
You have a pair of hummingbird earrings, which I read about on a jewelry maker's site. Any significance to this hummingbird theme? Or do you just feel like a hummingbird?
Yeah it wasn't intentional but the hummingbird thing kind of has become our Leslie and The Badgers symbol. For the moment anyway. Hummingbirds are fierce but nobody expects them to be. So yeah there is something there - the strength, the ferocity, in an unassuming package.
My own connection to hummingbirds happened when I spent 3 days alone in the woods (without food and without a tent) as part of a challenging Outward bound school solo expedition in Montana. A hummingbird kept flying up under this tarp I had suspended from the trees for rain protection. I had my sleeping bag under it and this hummingbird would fly right up in front of my face. I decided that I would think of the trip to Montana when I saw hummingbirds. My friend Katie is working on a children's book that involves a hummingbird that wears a black leather motorcycle jacket. She says I influenced the idea by being tough but kind.
You spent 2002 to 2006 as rhythm guitarist of Zeitgeist Auto Parts, and then left for your present musical direction. Can you describe that band? Your Role?
Some folks are surprised that I played in a punk band (and especially that I played a Fender Telecaster in a punk band ha-ha) because it seems incongruent given my current rootsy - alt country style of music, but I see the two genres roots as similar in many ways. They both have roots in disenfranchised groups. Often they both have simple direct folk song structures. Sometimes the song itself is more important than the quality of the delivery.
Can you describe your vision, i.e., what it is you want to do that led you to leave Zeitgeist and strike out in your own direction?
Time really. You have to pick your battles. I had a job and two bands and I could not make all 3 happen while trying to hold the rest of my life together. I'm hoping that Leslie and The Badgers is really just beginning. I hope to be a writing songs for us for a long time.
I write everyday. I try to write everyday, I had a songwriting teacher tell me to write something everyday no matter how small and I took his advice. I write my best stuff in the morning. If it's not morning I write my best stuff after a few drinks. or I think I do anyway.
Your music sounds sensitive and smart, like it has an intellectual center. Are you an "intellectual?" Or so inclined? Are you a big reader?
I read books and publications that could be considered intellectual I guess - The New Yorker and Bitch magazine. I try to keep up with what is going on in the world as hard as that can be. I had the privilege of a great education. A good education is vital to continuing to educate oneself as life goes on.
Sincerity is important to me. I want to be understood in my songs. There is nothing like having someone relate to one of your songs, even if, in your opinion they have completely misunderstood it's meaning. Once you write it, it isn't yours to say anymore, it doesn't belong to you. At least that's what I believe, and thank god for that. If it's not yours then you can't be judged by how inadequate it is...ha-ha
You are achieving something that feels truly authentic and original – a kind of a blend of influences ranging from classic country to Edith Piaf. Is my characterization anything near to correct in your estimation? How would you describe your sound?
Thank you for saying you think so. It's been said - better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. I hope that what we are doing is original. Art begins in imitation more often that not. Mine does and did. Hopefully it can get far enough away from it's origin to seem truly authentic and original. We are striving to make something new certainly. Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Emmy Lou Harris, Neko Case, something sincere and heartfelt.
* * *
In The Badgers, former punk guitarist Stevens seems to have found the perfect complement of musicians who seem not just to play her music, but to explore and expand upon it. One wonders how Leslie built this mean machine of alt-country pickers and crooners.
How did you go about putting this band together?
Oh larwd, it wasn't easy. A lil of the ole Craig'sList - a dash of who you know around town, a bit of who you know around town through your boyfriend, and your boyfriend. (True actually, he's no longer in the band, my old boyfriend Brandon Goldstein, but he played drums with us initially. And then we errr - we broke up. Live and learn, that's all I can say about that. ha-ha)
Your band seems to be a sensitive lot. I am particularly taken by your guitarist "Ghost," who puts me to mind of Hershel Yatovitz of Chris Isaak's band. Tell me a bit about your band. How do they contribute to your creative process?
Yeah. They are a bunch of sweethearts. yeah. hahaha. we are so lucky. Ghost (aka Glenn) is particularly influenced by the former guitarist "Jimmy" or James Calvin Wilsey of Chris Isaak's first band Silvertone. Jimmy left the band in 1993 and Jimmy is really Glenn's inspiration.
Ghost has an uncanny knack for playing the most tasteful guitar line possible while being in the best mood possible. I'm really grateful for his contributions to the arrangements we perform, and he is so knowledgeable during recording sessions.
(He used to play in The Moberly's btw) Ben plays bass and has amazing ears as well. and then there's Travis the drummer. Travis can play anything you want. He and Ben play together really well. Travis is just a plain old mean and dirty dawg, (not really- he's 22) but all the ladies love him. Charlene plays fiddle on several tunes and is a more recent addition.
It seems to me that the contributions of Liz Buatti and her beautifully resonant high harmonies are part of what makes your sound so pleasurable. Can you tell me a bit about her? How did you come to this union of complementary voicings?
Liz was wooed via internet to become a Badger. I wanted a vocalist to sing harmony, so I wrote up an ad on Craig'sList, and she responded. She came over to my apartment (I had a place then, all my stuff is in storage currently) and we sang a little bit together on the couch and piano and I called Glenn (guitar) to tell him I found her. She has amazing ears. We call her "lighting." She can hear a part twice and sing it perfectly. She also plays a mean piano... so more on that to come we hope. She's a graduate of The Westminster Choir College.
You also work solo. How does the experience of working solo feel compared to working with your full band? How does your approach differ? Do you enjoy one over the other?
I only "work solo" out of necessity. Because I don't have the means to bring the entire band with me. As Ben the bassist once said referencing Japanese anime - I go like the head of Voltron out to represent the entire band. It's not as rootsy when I play solo and it's a lot quieter. I've spent 14 weeks of this year on the road. And I have to say, I like it. I like playing solo, I may do a solo album someday. I love the southwest, and the northwest and driving and traveling clears my head and gives me song ideas. It feels really free and spontaneous to be on the road.
* * *
Earlier in 2007, Leslie hit the road in the company of another folk singer, Kristy Kruger. Kruger, who lost her brother to the Iraq War in 2006, was on a 50-state tour to honor the memory of her brother, killed in Iraq (see side panel). Though not a political statement, it was also not a crucible without controversy, as Kristy and Leslie reached out to music fans from the full spectrum of opinions about the Iraq war. Their message was one of celebration of a life lived courageously, along with a call to recognize the humanity behind the accounts of violence and personal devastation.
Tell me about touring with Kristy Kruger, and what that is all about.
Touring with her was a highlight of this year so far. Kristy is an accomplished songwriter and friend. Though I didn't really know her personally before going on the road with her. Her brother was killed tragically after one day in Iraq, it happened last November so she was doing some memorial shows in his honor, and it was an honor to tour with her to 10 states. It was non partisan. But it was incredible how much controversy a non partisan tour that only honors someone's memory can be.
It was very interesting how divided we are about this war. So much so that anything having to do with it was assumed pro by those against the war- and anti by those for the war. Everybody swung away from their own belief to the opposite camp and came with defensive questions it seemed. Though there were amazing moments of course. Sometimes we'd get both viewpoints in one room without attacks of panic and just some time bonding and listening to music. Kristy is hilarious.
Are you of a political nature? Democrat? Republican?
Democan or Republicrat - whatever they are just somebody else for president. To quote Garrision Keillor's on this week's Prairie Home Companion - A brand new book about Fidel Castro says that he is terribly sick but determined to outlive the George Bush presidency. Keillor's response was "Welcome to the club."
How do you transport yourself? Bus? Car? Private jet?
Car. Jet propelled car. Kidding.
* * *
Is L.A. receptive to you and your music? Are there other good locales for your type of alternative country? And did I "pigeonhole" you correctly (and apologies for the act of "pigeonholing")?
Chris Morris has an excellent show on Sunday Mornings on Indie 103.1. called Watusi Rodeo. I found out about some great bands in town through him. Like Mike Stinson. The Happy Bookers book great alt country shows at the Echo, calling it "The Grand Ole Echo." There is a real scene in this town. Bands like Merle Jagger, Los Duggans, WellDiggers Banquet, Old Bull. This town is so big it has everything, I suppose, if you look hard enough.
Who do you see as your core audience?
People that like heartfelt music I suppose. I try to make my lyrics sincere. There is no target demographic of males 15-22 you know? like a video game or something. We are going for music lovers. Maybe they love Patsy Cline, EmmyLou Harris, Johnny Cash. Or maybe they love Snoop and Tupac. hahaahaha. But I personally actually love all kinds of music, as long as it is sincere. Hip hop included. Polka. Country. If I could understand death metal lyrics I would say yes even some of that.
What is your greatest talent?
My talent is editing. I'm a great editor. I try to put down as much as possible and then trim off the fat. ha ha. I am very self critical when it comes to lyrics and songs. I'm also forgiving of myself (thank god).
Would you describe yourself as happy go lucky, nervous and edgy, energized
and ambitious, deep and sullen, the life of the party? One
Oh all of them. I have to admit I am all of them. Even ambitious but maybe not in the usual way. I want to be known and supported by this as my living. I want to survive as an artist but I don't seek fame if that makes sense. I met with a manager in Beverly Hills who offered to put me on American Idol. He actually said - I'll call Simon right now.
But I said, with all due respect I don't think that is the right path for me to take. I am a songwriter and those artists are singers. I said, I would rather take the stairs instead of the elevator. I just don't want to be known for winning a show on TV. You just end up as some body's money machine. They hope you pay out for them and if not they just move along to the next slot machine. I'm deep and confused, but I'm smiling through most of it. Life in LA can be dangerous! I could have almost been a cog in the machine.
Do you have obsessions? What are they?
I don't know if it's an obsession but I think too much. I like to ponder. I love the idea that everything you need to be happy is already contained in your person. I am obsessed with thinking, living, trying to grow and keep open my mind. I like the idea that to every question there is a very simple answer, and that simple answer is usually wrong.
I love poetry and philosophy. I love to drink and think and write.
What instruments do you play?
Piano, guitar, kazoo. :) working on some banjo and someday I hope to play drums. I think I would have been a great drummer.
Would you describe yourself as a "feet on the ground pragmatic type?" Or a "dreamer?" And if you are a dreamer, what do you dream?
If I had to choose non-dreamer or dreamer, I'm a dreamer. I'm an idealist. I can't believe how people ignore each other- first world to third world. or neighbor to neighbor. People can be so afraid to offer compassion, or even talk to somebody. A friend and I went hiking last week in a very remote area of Colorado and he got hurt. I left him barely conscious - I was so afraid to leave him but I had to try to get help. I ran to a nearby trailer. There was nowhere else to go and we were a very long drive down a dirt road to the closest hospital. At this trailer there were shoes covered with wet pine needles on the porch and I heard someone inside. But when I knocked and called out and said please help me it's an emergency - The noises stopped inside and I was ignored. I knew someone was inside and they were ignoring me. That someone would ignore cries for help baffles me. Thankfully my friend ended up being OK.
Who, to you, is the most appealing person you can think of (however you define "appealing")? Who is cool?
I admire lots of artists and thinkers but those who most prominently come to
mind would be Gandhi. Mother Teresa. Thich Nhat Hanh. Jesus. Martin Luther King
Jr. to be
able to see - to be able to help. I admire people who have a vision of how to
live a life that can change the way people live and think. I can't even begin to
There is so much more I wish I could say with lyrics and with music. It just takes time and I have to be patient about it. I want to delve more deeply into everything.
Learn more about Leslie and The Badgers by visiting their MySpace site.
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