The Word's the Thing : the Leslie Alexander Interview
Leslie Alexander is on the road with her buddy Jenny Allen and riding high in the strength of her latest album, Nobody's Baby
Leslie Alexander is originally from Alberta. Eventually, she ended up in Vancouver and last I heard she was back to living the rural life in central British Columbia around Ashcroft. She is generally known as a folk artist, but over time she has developed a rootsy component to her repertoire. She has put out a number of CDs over the years, with her partner John Ellis, who is both an excellent musician and producer. Her songs are often short stories and the words shine through. Like Leonard Cohen she writes about people who are down on their luck: bouncers, virgins and whores and lonely, insecure people, who will often surprise you with their inner strength. She is currently on the road with fellow performer Jenny Allen on their tongue in cheek titled Dirty Laundry Tour. I recently caught up with Leslie, who was literally on the road as we spoke.
JD: Hi, how are you doing, Leslie?
LA: I’m doing great, Jim, thanks.
JD: I hear that you are in the middle of a summer tour.
LA: I’m touring with my buddy, Jenny Allen, as Allen and Alexander.
JD: How long have you known Jenny?
LA: I’ve known her by reputation for a good fifteen-twenty years
and we’ve been good friends, obviously since we’ve been touring
together for the last couple of years. You know, we got to know each other
over the years at different festivals and wound up on the same bills a couple
A beautiful friendship: Leslie Alexander and Jenny Allen of times. We really just enjoyed each others energy. We got a chance to sing with Jane Siberry, when I was on tour with her and Jenny’s band from Alberta was also opening. So at the end of the show we were all on stage together and Jenny and I were standing beside each other and singing together and we kind of look at each other and go, “You know what? We sound good together (laughs). Maybe we should tour.” And that was kind of the beginning of it.
JD: So, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
LA: It was. Ya, the whole thing about this tour is that we’re both supporting each other on tour as we air our dirty laundry clean across Canada and we both have these new CDs that we’re releasing together.
JD: That’s a really good idea and it’s good having backup having both of you on the road, together.
So where will your tour take you from here?
LA: We have a whole bunch of shows in the interior and out on the island over the next three weeks. Just check out lesliealexander.com for more details.
JD: Ok, so let’s take you back a few years. Where did you grow up?
LA: I grew up on a farm in Alberta; a sheep farm just south of High River.
JD: Was there much music happening around your families home?
LA: We always listened to music while we were doing the dishes. Because my dad was the boss we got to listen to what he liked and he liked lady singers. At the time he was into country music, so he liked Dolly Parton and Crystal Gale and all those ladies from the 80s. So we had to listen to that. It wasn’t necessarily what I would have chosen myself at the time because I was young and trying to be hip and cool and to me country music was what my parents listened to. When I got a little bit older and started making music; I remember when I was making my first record with John Ellis. We were doing demos and making records and stuff and he goes, “I have a funny feeling that you got some country music in you.” I said (sounds horrified) “No-o-o! I’m not a country artist.” But that was before I discovered Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and all those cool, roots rockers with a twang.
JD: Well the twang is popular again and a lot of bands include roots music, as they seem to call it now, in their acts. Good thing they are doing it, as people like it. So was listening to the radio while doing dishes your first musical memory?
LA: No, my first musical memory was seeing Judy Collins in concert at the Jubilee Auditorium. I remember sitting there with my mother and going, “I want to do that when I grow up.”
JD: Wow, your first concert was Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. She would affect a lot of people that way. How old were you?
LA: I was four or five, maybe even younger. I don’t know.
JD: That’s very cool. Leslie, what do you regard as your central strength as an artist.If I have a bunch of guys in the band, no matter how you tell them, they just don't believe that they're too loud and it's a real insult to their manhood to try to get them to turn it down.
LA: I think any artist’s central strength is their willingness to communicate their vision. I don’t always feel up to that, but I guess where I feel most confident is in the arena of making words work together. Lyric writing, I guess. I did that before I learned to play an instrument or have any confidence in my singing. So, writing probably comes first for me.
JD: I love the composing of your lyrics in your most recent CD which is called Nobody’s Fool and in fact the lyrics really blew me away. So what happens in your composing process? Do you have structured writing habits or do songs just come to you or do you wake up in the middle of the night and start writing frantically ; how does it work for you?
LA: Well, usually I have to go through some really big emotional upset and then the song comes out, almost involuntarily, if I’m lucky, because if does come out involuntarily I don’t force it and I’m usually happy with the results. For me, writing is a way of figuring things out. It starts with a desire to communicate something and hopefully by the end of the song I understand the situation a little bit better because I’ve written it out. In the craft of writing, they used to tell me when I was in a creative writing class, that you have to wind everything up with some kind of a conclusion and when you start writing a song, even if you don’t know what that conclusion is going to be, sometimes the very writing of it helps you to understand your situation more fully. When you’re looking for that final statement sometimes you get the answer that you’re looking for, as well, in your own life.
JD: Ok. So, that’s how your writing affects you. What effect do you hope that your music might have on others?
LA: Well first of all I hope it won’t irritate them (both laugh). But I guess the best thing any artist can hope for is that somebody out there is going to go, “Hey, I feel exactly like that and she was able to put into words, what I wasn’t unable to myself, and know I understand,” or “I feel more understood and not so alone.” That’s the ideal response, that I’m looking for.
JD: So do you write the music first, or the lyrics, or both at the same time?
LA: Quite often I hear the lyrics to the chorus and the melody in my head and it’s kind of like mining. You start with this germ or seed or something and you start nurturing it and it turns into something. Quite often I’ll hear it in my head. I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden something will just pop in and it won’t leave me alone. Then I know I really have a song.
JD: The music business is a pretty rough business. Are there any advantages or disadvantages of being a woman in the music business?
LA: Gee, you know, I’ve been reading some feminist stuff actually, and I just started reading it out of curiosity, because I never felt that I was discriminated against, really. After reading Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, I’m being discriminated every day. But no, there is one area that irritates me. If I have a bunch of guys in the band, no matter how you tell them, they just don’t believe that they’re too loud and it’s a real insult to their manhood to try to get them to turn it down. Don’t you agree, Jenny? (laughter, ensues from the car). Jenny’s driving, next to me, here.
JD: I understand what you are saying about guys?
LA: When you are a gal like me who considers the words to be the most important thing, it might not be the same as the guitar player thinks, who might consider that his guitar playing is the most important and maybe it should even happen over top of my words, so I don’t know (laughs). Mostly, I’ve been very, very lucky, as for most of my career I’ve been playing with John Ellis by my side. And, ok, the guys a fantastic player and sometimes he might not turn down to my satisfaction, but at the same time I’ve been very, very fortunate to have him by my side and he’s only forced me to be a better singer as a result.
JD: I do enjoy John’s work on all your CDs and other ones, too. I saw him live a few times; once with you.
LA: He’s a great player.
JD: He’s amazing. I saw him at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival a couple of years ago with, I think, James Armstrong.
LA: He, also played with Ridley Bent and did a lot of jamming at that festival. I remember his telling me about that.
JD: It was very, cool. I’ve seen him with Ridley, too and you, of course and Rob Hall’s band. Lot’s of fun seeing you guys play. Let’s talk about your new CD Nobody’s Baby. I really have enjoyed this CD. Your words stay in my mind and basically, blow me away. I sort of think of you as a female Leonard Cohen.
LA: Oh, come on!
JD: No, really. I just love the words.
LA: That will be ringing in my head for days.
JD: Well, I couldn’t help but say it. That’s what I thought right away when I really started listening to the words.
LA: Well, gee man, thank you. That was the biggest compliment that anyone’s ever paid me. Thank you so much. I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan.
JD: I like the women characters in your songs. They are so strong. Are you writing about yourself or friends or just women you are inventing?
LA: Well, if the song is coming from a first person perspective it’s about me. If it’s not I’m probably writing about somebody else. Ya, like I told you I write to figure stuff out and I need to write to figure out stuff, so I do.
JD: Do you have that can of mace in your car tonight? (referring to a line from “Save the Last Dance for Me,” she states, ‘I’ve got lines on my face, I’ve got a fresh can of mace.’
LA: (Laughs) That’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more of a metaphor. You walk around with your defences on you all the time, even though you’re seeking love. That’s what that tune is all about.
JD: I did catch that. Those words just seem to fit so well in that place in that song. That’s just so good.
JD: Where can we get your new CD Nobody’s Baby. It’s available on CD Baby and you can get it off my site. I have a little store. If somebody is interested in getting a signed copy I will put one in the mail for you with a nice little note. Go to lesliealexander.com for that. I can also be found on I-tunes and the usual places you can download digital music.
JD: You are touring with Jenny Allen. Does Jenny have a CD out, now, too?
LA: Yes, Blanket is the name of her CD and it was recently reviewed in
Roots Music Canada, very positively. They also talked it up in Now Toronto.
(They will have both CDs available at concerts during the tour).
JD: Now I’m going to find out what you listen to, other than your own music. What’s the last CD that you heard?
LA: We were just listening to Ricky Lee Jones, just half an hour, ago.
JD: Awesome. What’s the greatest live act that you attended?
LA: Bruce Springstein, hands down. Another, great one was Wilco, and Lucinda Williams was right up there and geez, c’mon, Emmy Lou Harris and oh Christ, Neil Young as well. I’m going to stop now but Bruce Springstein was at the top of the list.
JD: Ya, I had a great time at a Springstein concert in Vancouver. He played nearly for hours and the last song they did was “Twist and Shout.” He said that they were literally out of songs (that they had rehearsed, I assume). Thanks for talking with me. Good luck with the tour. Love the CD and I’ll see you in Kamloops.
LA: Thanks, Jim. See you.
You can find more about Leslie Alexander at her website: http://www.lesliealexander.com/
And more about Allen and Alexander on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jenny-Allen-Leslie-Alexander-Tour/