Leah Callahan: “It makes me feel amazing to be recognized as a valid musician”

Leah Callahan interview

Singer-songwriter Leah Callahan

American singer-songwriter Leah Callahan might not be a familiar name to most of you, but she has a history in music that’s well worth taking the time to check out. She started in Turkish Delight an experimental rock band from Boston, MA, USA together with Dave Nelson, Carl Thien and Darryl Blood. After the band called it a day, Leah and Dave joined two members of fellow Boston band Bulkhead, Tom Devaney and Gordon Withers. Together, they founded Betwixt. Then, she went onto the band The Glass Set.

After many years Leah Callahan is back with Simple Folk, a new album as a solo artist. This is not her first one (it follows Even Sleepers, released in 2003), and we wish that not the last one. She made the decision to stay and I am happy for that. Leah sent me the album and allowed me to select which track Jungle Indie Rock could preview. This is the fourth track and titled A Woman of Few Things.

The musicians on this new work are Leah Callahan (with songwriting, melodies, words and vocals), Alex Brander (on the drums) and Alex Stern (on guitars, arrangements and piano). Richard Marr produced and engineered the album.


Question. – Why has it taken you so long in releasing your second solo album? Has the covid lockdowns stirred your creative juices?

Answer. – I quit music, so this was unexpected on my end. Covid lockdowns actually haven’t given me more time or energy for music. There are some stats out there that many people are working more hours, those with children even less time. What got me thinking about music again was the interest and support of a few small labels in the past two years. Custom Made Music, I Heart Noise and Reckless Yes (UK), along with journalist Andrea Feldman (who has written wonderful reviews about my music), they helped me out of my slump. This all started in late 2018. After this, I tried to get in touch with several old bands and collaborators. COVID made it impossible for us to see each other, and working virtually didn’t work for any of them.

My friend and producer, Richard Marr never stopped believing in me, even when I stopped believing in me. He hooked me up with two musical phenomenon, Alex Stern (guitars, keys) and Alex Brander (drums). They took my little pop songs and made them small symphonies. Those guys wouldn’t have been around had it not been for COVID, they are much coveted touring musicians. Stern has such an incredible ear he could do everything virtually.

Q. The song I selected to preview on Jungle Indie Rock is A Woman of Few Things. What track would you have picked to represent this album and why?

A. It changes every day, but I think that’s a close first. It talks about class, which has been really important for me to come to terms with these past three years. But, instead of preaching about it, I am just sharing my own experiences of it which no one can deny or disagree with. It’s also a really cool song musically and takes one on a great little journey.

Q. The two Turkish Delight albums, Tommy Bell and Howcha Magowcha, never got the praise they deserved when they were originally released but have since been recognized as great albums since their re-release, how does this make you feel?

A. It makes me feel amazing to be recognized as a valid musician. I wouldn’t have gone back to music if not for that recognition.

Turkish Delight Band

Turkish Delight

Q. Do you think that if success had happened at the time, your music career would have been different?

A. My career certainly would have been different. I would have been able to have actually have a music career if I had the money that comes with success. Or likewise, the success that comes with money. The cost of living is expensive enough, to add recording and all the admin fees around music. it is a challenge to survive financially. When you have to choose, pay your bills or pay for the recording studio, I am not 25 anymore. Bills come first. The emotional toll too is very, very expensive. I sing about that in “I Wish That I had never met you music”.

Q. Nowadays, with the internet and streaming services, you can listen to anything and everything. Do you think this is good or bad for bands and artists?

A. Technology serves those who can afford its benefits. Globally, the rich have gotten richer, and the poor have gotten poorer. The real world is going to be reflected in the music world. Economically, it’s harder every day to afford being a musician.

Q. You close the album with a cover version of the Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin’s worldwide hit from the sixties, Those Were The Days. It does seem to fit with the other tracks on the album. Why did you pick this track? Did you have some alternatives in mind?

A. I think you mean “doesn’t”, but great question. I was told I sounded like Mary Hopkin when my 2003 solo album came out, so initially this was going to be a more sparse folky album. That’s how my collaborator presented my songs in 2003. But the producer I was working with (Richard Marr) was not keen on that. The people who ended up working on the album with me translated my songs differently.

I actually had another idea for a second cover, a Bluegrass song which was vetoed by Marr. “Days” took a while to get there. Trying to make it not sound like the original was extremely difficult. But I like how it turned out, it’s moody, ambiguous. It can transport one into a strange new space, if you let it. I suggest playing it very loud, at night, with a cocktail or two or whatever you do. It doesn’t fit in a way, but I have never been about cookie cutter music.

Q. Yeah, I did mean doesn’t but I like your version very much. Is there plans of, maybe, a covers album at some point in the future?

A. So glad you like it! I would like to do that, it’s a fun and challenging idea. Nothing is definite for album #4, so maybe! I often tend to get inspired by interviews like this to make plans. One thing though, there is a cost for licensing, you pay a fee per downloads. So my album has to either not sell at all or sell lots and lots – for it not to be very expensive for me!

You’ve opened a can of worms here asking me about covers. During my long 13 or 14 year period of not being a musician and sort of avoiding anything to do with the music I’d been immersed in for so long, I became very enamoured of female Brazilian singers and songs. Mostly during the 60s and 70s, but there was one obscure singer (at least to us) I really liked from the 90s. Just for fun, I looked into English translations, but the translations just weren’t as good as the originals. The rhythms are amazing, the melodies are gorgeous and haunting – sad songs you want to dance to basically.

In my fantasy world I am going to do that album! It would take musicians who can play these incredibly complex songs. I have seen a couple American musicians try playing Brazilian music on stages recently and they just don’t get it. Some things cannot be learned. And yes I am going to butcher the Portuguese accent. No matter how hard I work, so there’s that. But this is a ten or twenty thousand dollar album, multiple times more than I have right now to spend.

Q. Who are your musical influences?

A. Too many to mention. Lately I have been listening to a lot of David Bowie, for the 1st time in many years. My stepfather and uncle had Bowie and Roxy Music 70s albums when i was growing up as a preteen in the early 80s. I was the only kid I knew who listened to “old” music or non-top 40 music. Thinking that will influence solo album #4.

Listening to music during 13 years , as a non-musician, influenced this album – if that makes any sense. I tried to avoid music, I was sad about quitting, but I could never get away! It’s like running into your ex-lover in the pub breaks your heart every time. But who wants to stop going to the pub?

Working on my next album, coming out late this year, I listened to the poets of 90s hip hop, and Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston, so you may hear the phrasing on my next album changing a bit, away from some of the more traditional pop phrasing.

Betwixt Band

The band Betwixt

Q. If you could have a virtual gig with three bands playing, what venue which three bands and what era of the bands history would you choose? They don’t have to be bands you have seen. Just any three and why these three bands and which would be the headliners?

A. This is difficult, but a small venue, a beautiful old theatre that seats 200 people. I never liked large venues where you need a screen to see the act. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 1972; The Jam and X Ray Spex in 1979, (“Start” is playing repeatedly in my head these past couple weeks); Sounds like an amazing night!

Q. It certainly does. Small venue for me every time. You have picked three English artist, are you more influenced by UK music than your native American bands?

A. Yes at least in my formative years. When we had that 2nd British music invasion in the US in the early 80s, where there were British new wave artists in the top 40. That made me curious. As early as junior high I was slowly starting to go against what was considered popular, at least in middle America. While the other kids gravitated away from that music when it became out of fashion, I gravitated towards it.

By the time I was in high school, I had become an anglophile. Anything British was cool while I kind of turned up my nose at American culture. It was probably my way to differentiate myself as an adolescent. But also I was from a different, lower social class than the kids in my school so it was probably a lot of coping there too. I wasn’t going to fit in anyway so might as well develop my own tastes and ideas.

A lot of UK artists who were heavily marketed by major labels to a US audience ended up in what’s called the “cut out bin” – where, in some cases, a piece was actually cut out of the album cover or other media. Mall chain stores discounted them and put them in bins in the mid 80s. I bought too many cassettes to mention that way: Echo & the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Squeeze… then I found out about alternative record stores, like RRR records in Lowell.

Going into a record store was in itself an event. You’d want to dress up in your finest anti-establishment outfit and hope there’d be some interesting people you could check out there. Sometimes it was college radio where I learned, sometimes it was a review in a now defunct arts paper called The Boston Phoenix or a really progressive station we had in New England called WFNX.

Q. Can you recommend any new American bands that I should check out?

A. I have seen some amazing musicians who, in some cases, have been playing for years and will probably will never see the light of day. I just think it’s so hard to break into the industry, unless you know the right people, move in the right social circles, or even have the ability to access those circles and people. When I have time and energy, I will build a playlist of recommendations.

For now, my request to editors, reviewers and college radio is to give musicians without label backing a chance. Slot at least one of your picks to play. Write about every month someone who is obviously not connected, does not have a slick PR agent, videos and an obvious massive machine behind them. Once a month, dive into your email inbox, look at the 300 emails you were going to delete, even randomly pick 20 to open and listen to. If they all suck, go ahead and skip that month and write about that artist with the 30K PR campaign again.

I am not asking for much here, just to give people the chance no one else is giving them. It means you are going to piss off those large indie labels that dominate the media and you won’t get SEO from that article, or whatever advertising your mag gets. But ethically it’s the right thing to do. Stop ranting about how much you hate right-wing politicians and how we should have better aid for the underclass on social media and really, actually do something for people without financial means. Charity begins at home.

The defunct Boston Phoenix had a “Demo Derby” years ago. I gave the writer of that my demo tape when he came into the retail store I was working in at the time. He listened to it and featured my band at the time. But those opportunities for working class musicians are few and far between.

Q. Will we have to wait another eighteen years for your next solo album?

A. No one will even have to wait a year. Album is written. I am going into the studio in 2 months!

Q. That’s great news. And I can see you’re already thinking about your fourth solo album, will the third album be with the same musicians? I googgled them and, from their past bands, can see where your sound of the album comes from and producer as you worked with on this album.

A. Yes the next album, my third solo album which is in the planning stages, will be the same people.

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