Leah James has a unique musical gift: that her vocals and melodies contain a beauty not often found without enhancement in today’s modern music world, where over-the-top chanteuses prefer the outrageous over the intimate. It is a natural beauty that emanates from the vocal cords of James, whose first solo album, While She Sleeps, came about following the birth of her now almost three-year-old daughter, giving the songs an ethereal illumination.
James, who is the female part of the duo Brandon & Leah with husband Brandon Jenner and the daughter of former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, is not a virgin to finding the elegance in her vocals. Even when percolating up the reggae rhythms of a song such as “Showstopper” from the duo’s 2013 Cronies EP, James never falters from her core of rose petal vocal softness. And on While She Sleeps it has never sounded more beautiful.
A collection of ten songs, While She Sleeps, has been a loving walk through heart and soul and earth mother femininity for James. “Love Me With Madness” is a song “of deep longing for someone I had lost at a young age,” James confessed upon the single’s release. “When I close my eyes and listen to this composition, it is as if I can almost feel that person close again.” “Wildfire,” on the other hand, is about the birth of life and new energy and excitement for what the future can hold; it was inspired by and intended as a paean for daughter Eva. “New Moon” has an edge, albeit a softer, rounded-corner one, that teeters on the precipice of sass, while “That Fateful Day” personifies enlightenment, the opening lines strong – “I always believed that fate was for the weak, For the ones too afraid to chase destiny” – before succumbing to the realization of that harmonic predestination. Overall, the album is like a painting forming before your eyes.
While James was enjoying a “cold, crisp, refreshing” California day following a nighttime shower – “I love it when it rains because it rains so seldom here” – she talked to me about the music of her new album, the femininity in her songs and the inspiring sounds of a theremin.
Oh, he is such a good man. You know, out of everybody in my family, he and I are the closest. I feel like I really won the lottery with dads. He’s just so kind and loving.
He certainly turned himself into a silver-haired fox, didn’t he
(laughs) I know, it’s so funny
At least you have something to look forward to when you get old, to have that beautiful silver hair
(laughs) You know what, I actually love grey hair. I think long grey hair on women is so beautiful and I wish that it was more predominant in our culture because you don’t ever really see that and I think it’s so beautiful. I actually feel like I’m going to let my hair go grey when it turns. I’m going to let it go and just have long grey hair.
There is a wonderful softness to your album. In the past you’ve played around with some of that reggae pop but this record really focuses on these lovely melodies and this lovely voice of yours. Was that intentional to let your voice speak like that?
You know, I think that the music is an expression of where I am at in life. When I found myself in the place writing this record, I had just become a mom and my femininity had just fully blossomed and bloomed and I feel like that’s where it came into the music. I feel like it’s just a feminine sound and I couldn’t help but put those sounds in the songs and in the music. I think it’s just part of becoming a mother, and it sort of changed my music a bit, you know.
How would you describe femininity? What does that word mean to you?
That’s a really good question. I would say femininity to me means strong and merciful, powerful and wise, in equal measure; loving and potent with temperance. That’s what I think femininity means.
But I don’t feel like becoming a mother has made me a woman. I think that just the journey along the trajectory of my life has sort of had me sit down in my femininity. I’m not saying that anybody who is not a mother isn’t a woman or feminine, it’s just the experiences that I went through in giving birth to my daughter and raising her, you know, the amount of growth and the opportunity and the things that life presents you inevitably leads you to change and strength. So I think that becoming a woman didn’t connect me with my femininity as much as just the path in life has.
Absolutely, without a doubt. She was the catalyst for so many of the songs and the meanings behind them and I am very much looking forward to having her listen to them when she’s older; and even after I’m gone, to live as little moments. I wrote this one thing and I want to read it. I wrote the song “Wildfire” for her and it says: “If there is one thing I hope to accomplish as a mother it’s to encourage Eva to walk through life with honor for herself, reverence for the world around her and an unwavering knowingness that she is a mother f’ing wildfire. Her power, her compassion, her ability to love and forgive, to peacefully rage in all her glory without the need for anyone’s permission but her own; to honor who she is at her core; who we all are, deep down as women, regardless of what the world tells us we should be.”
And for all of the songs I write for her, I wrote: “I hope this song speaks to Eva when she’s older and will one day exist as a letter from the past where the echoes of her mother’s love continue to comfort her even after I’m gone.”
And that’s kind of how I feel about the music. It’s an embodiment of my love for her and sort of like a time capsule that she can always look back on and that will outlast me.
Now what song is about the terrible two temper tantrums?
(laughs) I haven’t written that one yet. There could be many.
To express love as vividly as you do in your lyrics, is there room to be self-conscious?
I finished this album in the summer and then when fall came I had found myself not wanting to release it because I had written it by myself, produced it by myself and it really was such a painting of the inside of my mind that I was hesitant to share it with the world. It wasn’t until I had to step back from the album itself and recognize it as it’s own entity that while it was in my brain, while I was creating it and writing it, it was my own; but after I had completed it, I had to observe it and respect it as it’s own entity and remove myself from it. So therefore it could live in the world on it’s own as just a creation. So yeah, there is a hesitancy that I feel in being so open and vulnerable and expressing how I feel. But that’s how you complete the circle of art, is by expressing it.
When you first started writing songs, were they emotion-based as well?
I think over the course of many, many years and my experience in writing, I have definitely honed it in to more of a personal expression; whereas before I was just kind of finding my footing. Now I feel it’s a deep form of honest expression and self-reflection.
How did you compose these songs?
Well, I discovered the tenor guitar and it has blown open the doors of songwriting for me. It wasn’t until I discovered the tenor guitar was I able to write solely on my own and use it as the tool. I wrote all of the songs on this beautiful old tenor guitar that’s a Martin from 1938 and I am in love with her and her name is Doris after my grandmother.
You put a lot of enhancements on these songs. Did you know you wanted to add a lot of embellishments to the songs and not make it so bare bones?
Absolutely. As I was writing these songs in my head I envisioned the atmosphere around them, because I wanted them to have a romantic quality and a dream-like quality.
Of the songs on this record, which one would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to the final version you put on the record?
The song “That Fateful Day” was the naughtiest of the children and it almost didn’t make it onto the record because it was being so naughty (laughs). It wasn’t until I muted many, many things, many tracks in the session and then added them around, did it actually start coming to light; and adding reverb onto the track and making it sound more like a dream rather than anything else. Once it had a soul to it, I fell in love again and now it’s the first track on the record. So even though it was the naughtiest, it turned out to be one of my favorites.
What about “The Desert”?
“The Desert,” I really like that song too. I think it has a powerful message of connection and relationship and the strength of relationships, and that is a very personal song for me and how I hesitate to get close to a lot of people. I really am kind of a loner and I only have very few relationships but those relationships are deep and strong, and that song is about those few people in my life that I love so deeply. I’m so happy with how that one turned out.
I found that “New Moon” is a little bit sassier than the others
I don’t want to give up the meaning behind it but I have three tenor guitars total, and one of them is this beautiful electric Gretsch from the fifties, and I was just messing around on it one day. I had this pedal with all of these ambient sounds on it and it just made it really spacious and beautiful. Then all of a sudden it just came together in like a matter of ten minutes. It was like magnets attracting each other, the words and the chords came together and I had a song out of the blue. I’m super inspired by songs that make me feel the way I feel when I’m meditating or in a peaceful place or walking on a beach or something like that. And I wanted to write a song that resonated with people in that same way, where they felt inspired and peaceful at the same time.
So how do you stay calm in a crazy, chaotic world and crazy, chaotic business?
Well, you know, I think life in general is chaotic and certainly like going to the market can be chaotic or being in traffic or having a two year old. Life is chaotic for anybody but I’d say the number one thing is playing music helps to center me. But also when I do find myself in times of an unbalanced state, I can close my eyes and feel my energy and just feel my body and the resonance in it and I think sometimes connecting with it can kind of rebalance you, because there can be chaos everywhere and being able to step out of it at any place is an important thing to have, a tool to use.
Was it singing or guitar that interested you first?
Definitely singing. I started taking singing lessons when I was seven from this man in North Hollywood. I would drive out there once a week and he was a spectacular teacher. It wasn’t until my teens that I started playing the guitar and then my twenties when I started playing the tenor. So it all began with the voice for me.
What did he try to work with you on the most?
He was very technical-based and he used to have me sing Italian opera and he was very strict and deliberate in his teaching and required precision from me. I really appreciate that now.
Being that you are a daughter of a musician, did you have a lot of music around you when you were growing up?
Oh absolutely. There was an acoustic guitar in every room of my house and my dad would always, always have one in his hand. It wasn’t a lot playing through the speakers or other people’s music but he would play all of the time around the house and we’d play together. It was very predominate in our house.
You produced this record by yourself. How hard was that to be everything?
It was extremely challenging getting over my own self-doubt but it was incredibly wonderful not having to answer to anybody (laughs). And having the opportunity to create exactly what I heard in my mind. I think when you’re creating anything, your biggest competitor or your biggest roadblock can be yourself and that’s what it was for me. Getting over those humps and getting over those hurdles of self-doubt was liberating and exciting. I felt so much more proud of it when it was finally finished knowing the process that it took to get to the finish line.
And you’ll do it again?
Oh yeah! (laughs)
Who were your earliest musical heroes and how did they influence you?
I have three artists that I have been deeply influenced by and one of them is Clara Rockmore and she was a theremin player. She was absolutely spectacular. She is so phenomenal. Google “The Swan.” There is a YouTube video of her playing “The Swan” and it is my favorite song of all time. She was a prodigy violinist from Russia and she couldn’t play a violin anymore because she got carpal tunnel in her elbows so she took to the theremin and played the theremin like a violin. You should definitely listen to “The Swan.” I have always idolized Nina Simone and also Edith Piaf. Those three have been huge influences to me and for me.
That’s quite a spectrum. Did you discover them early in your life?
I discovered Nina early, early in my life and then Edith was in my teens and Clara was in my twenties.
What do you have planned for this year?
Well, I have two release shows. I have one in New York on March 26th at the Rockwood Music Hall, and then I have another release show in LA on March 31st. Then I will probably do a little West Coast tour and work on a Christmas album that I’m going to be putting out at the end of the year; or a holiday record. I’ll call it a holiday record. All this while writing my second record, which I almost have finished.
How are you seeing that new album coming along?
You know what, it’s evolving, it’s definitely evolving. It’s along the same path as the first one but it’s more evolved but with the same femininity and dreaminess and atmosphere and haunting melodies.
It’s so nice to hear a focus on positivity cause there is already too much negativity.
I think that it’s so important. I feel like if you have a platform to stand on and it’s your responsibility to spread goodness, that’s my goal, to just spread goodness to people and help them feel good about themselves and the world and the people around them. I feel that’s my responsibility as an artist with a voice to do that.
Photographs by James Theodore