Leah Callahan : Short Stories
DL | Streaming
Available from 31st October 2021
Bostonian Leah Callahan is set to self release her second album of 2021 on Halloween following Simple Folk which came out in the Spring.
Two albums in seven months may not sound like a big deal, but prior to Simple Folk Leah had taken a 12-year hiatus. In Short Stories you can definitely hear her confidence growing. The last album was quite insular and looking back at her career, which started in the ’90s, and questioning her place in todays ‘music scene’. The new album is outward looking, it’s still very personal but, as the title suggests, offers tales about friends and incidents over the years, or as she puts it, “batty bohemians and earnest eccentrics”.
From the stories she tells, Leah has certainly come across a few outsiders, misfits and iconoclasts in her time. We find her fortune teller roommates on Dawn And A Bottle Of Wine; fairy-godmother book store owners in Lady Of The Lake; intrusive oddball neighbours featured in Tom And The Dog and her hot mess bff, Neil The Dancing Girl. It’s not just about the people though, there are situations covered too, low paying jobs (Spirit Haus) and frenzied nights and misadventures with indie celebrities on Competitive Clara and the rocking Night At The Cooler. She even finds space for a cover of Robert Palmer’s classic tale of jaded bourgeois, Johnny And Mary.
My favourite track on the album is Party. I’m sure everyone knew of a house (or knows of one) where there constantly seemed/seems to be something happening. Remember the days before the real world and responsibilities kicked in? The track reminds me of a grown up/adult version of the theme from (Here Come the) Double Deckers but performed by Sonic Youth.
Short Stories, like Simple Folk, is indebted to indie-pop. It has so many songs which could easily grace an an American teen movie (if there is a new John Hughes out there they need to be listening.) Listening on this side of the Atlantic it completely fits with what I could imagine as being played in Trax (Pretty In Pink) or on US College Radio alongside the likes The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnymen, New Order and Tears For Fears.
Leah has again worked with multi-instrumentalist/arranger Alex Stern (The Sterns, Big D And The Kids Table, The Inevitables) and percussionist Alex Brander (Big D And The Kids Table, The Feel Goods) on the album along with and producer/engineer Richard Marr (Midnight Creeps, Pile, Toxic Narcotic).
I caught up with Leah for a chat about the new album and how her year has gone.
LTW: Hi, how are you? How’s Boston in the Fall/October?
LC: Fall is amazing in New England.
The last time we spoke you were about to release your first album in 12 years, were you surprised by the reception?
I would say the whole experience was a surprise. From trying to record an album that I never thought would come out due to constant delays, then realising it wasn’t going to happen with the original collaborator – to ending up recording with a songwriter/arranger I had never worked with before, where the music became a completely different genre than my original plan. I had actually researched folk and singer songwriter press and radio, even the name was “Simple Folk”. But at that point, I had done so much, the title, the cover, I kept it. All of this takes work, and when that work ends one is trying to promote it, so I had to keep moving forward.
As far as the reception, I had learned a lot from my 1st solo album in 2003, that small scale throwing money at something doesn’t work, so I skipped hiring the PR and radio promo to do it myself – and so the actual reception wasn’t that much of a surprise.
I knew a lot of the experimental noise fan writers who had reviewed the various Turkish Delight reissues from I Heart Noise or Reckless Yes would politely decline to review it, and then there were a few reviewers and radio DJs who embraced it who might not have liked it if it had a more noisy, experimental, Turkish Delight-esque sound. I was happy in general.
Actually – let me change that – I can say I am pleasantly surprised in 2021, because I feel like reviewers, who tend to be primarily male, are getting a lot better at reviewing women, although they can still be at best lazy, at worst offensive. In the old days, even in the ’00s, there was still a weird sexist vibe. As one of my musician friends said, bands he was in with women in the ’00s, and reviews often were thinly veiled excuses to ask “who does this (fill in a slur) think she is?” But for the first time people are talking about my lyrics, instead of talking about the sound of my voice or how I look or other random things.
You sounded at home being interviewed on radio shows about your ‘come back’. Did it feel natural for to be back in that environment?
It’s not quite going to feel “back” til I’ve played some clubs, but yeah talking to people was fun and very natural. So much time has gone by, I’ve learned so much since I left the music scene, much of what I’ve learned is spurring me on, giving me energy. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so I am pretty strong now and ready to be “back” for sure.
You’re getting ready to release your new album on Halloween, have all the songs been written since Simple Folk was recorded?
Yes they were all written after I sent a demo of Simple Folk (so I was mostly done with writing) to Alex and Richard, and they came out of that feeling of happiness and relief to be writing again and have someone who is ridiculously talented to write with.
I feel that Simple Folk was quite insular, you looking at your life, career and questioning your return to music. Short Stories is still a personal record but mainly looking at friends and people you’ve come across?
Yes Simple Folk had to come but I have really moved on. I don’t want to play that or any old material I just want to perform these new songs and keep building in this style, whatever it is! It has great energy, it feels theatrical and fun.
You mention Elliot Smith in Neil The Dancing Girl, and ‘immersed’ yourself in him, Daniel Johnston and Biggie Smalls leading up the writing the album. Were you a fan of this unholy trinity beforehand?
Yeah. I guess I wanted to challenge myself. I want to be better, and try out new things, not sit back and do the same things I have done for years. So much songwriting in the past just came out. I wanted that inspiration to come like that of course still but I also wanted to have some great guidance or education to craft these songs with.
So while I sound nothing like Elliott Smith, you might pick up that I do some interesting chord changes on the song Tom And The Dog. And same with Daniel Johnston but I like that he never limited himself, he sung words like a string that didn’t have a traditional structure. Almost like rap or hip hop there’s a craft to it, but I guess I had a rigidity around words and structure I wanted to lose. If I feel like it, I end a word at the beginning of a phrase now and do things like that. I use the incorrect grammatical emphasis on words, especially in the song Spirit Haus. And even more so influenced by Johnston, the writing in Palm Of Your Hand, it is what some people call “schizophrenic writing”. Word associations that sometimes one might think, but not out loud, I don’t know how to explain. But if you hear the song you might hear something different than how my other albums sound.
I only liked really noisy music in the ’90s, so these ’90s guys, Johnston and Smith, are sort of new to me although they were ubiquitous on college radio so of course I heard them. By the same token, I wasn’t knowledgeable about ’90s hip hop then I watched the film All Eyez On Me about Tupac Shakur. I was very moved by stories about Biggie Small’s funeral, I can’t remember if it was in that movie or another one I watched, so I just started listening and reading as much as I could of this era of music. And fell in love with it, 30 years late. I think some hip hop lyrics are akin to great literature for sure, moving and absolutely beautiful. Even Eminem, I mean his stuff can be awful, nasty, just horribly offensive, but some of it is so good. I relate to it in my own way.
Did the songs flow naturally once you’d started writing?
How did the Robert Palmer cover come about, was that something you always had in your mind?
My friends said “Hey Leah why don’t you promote women and do something by an obscure all women band” and I tried a song and it just wasn’t working, it was a no-wave cover which I had presented to Alex, my collaborator, and said have fun with it. But I was banging my head against the wall trying to make it my own. Then I had sent my friend Chris of the band The Sterns a bunch of dance minimalist electro from like 1980, that song was on it, we were working on a project and at the last possible minute to make it on the album, I sent the song to Alex. He had never heard it, he loved it. I told him to be true to it. When he sent me his version I was surprised, thought it would be more keyboard-y but I loved it. We are true to it but we make it our own.
I really like the song Party. It’s quite a fun track that makes me think Kids TV Show theme…
I don’t know what it is, with anything I do – Turkish Delight got called Emmet Otter’s Jug Band once. And a really nice blogger recently said Neil And The Dancing Girl sounds like Sonic Youth at Disneyland, so again there’s that. I don’t know if it’s the innocence of youth or the lack of seriousness that is borderline crazy. Like kids walk around dressed as superheroes or have teddy bear picnics – if I did that I would be recommended to a therapist. But that energy, or I guess the easiest thing to call it is eccentricity, it comes out in my music.
Are you planning a next album?
Right now I have in mind to continue writing for 8 more in the next 8 years. But unlike this time in my writing cycle last year, I got nothin’. So I really just want to focus on getting this album out there which I have spent a great deal of time and energy on – seeing if I can get some distribution, some write ups. Hopeful. Then I want to tour a little bit. I am excited to create a live show from this material it will be fun.
Bandcamp recently did a feature championing bands to come out of Boston in the mid ’90s, post Pixies, Throwing Muses etc and includedtwo of your previous bands, Turkish Delight and Betwixt, in the list. That must have been a thrill?
I feel vindicated, for one to be included in a list of greats. The Boston music scene has its share of snobs who have snubbed me, as snobs do. Add to that, open any large music zine, or college radio list, it can be 1998 or 2018, you see the same 10 labels, the same 10 or 15 bands. Some of these people you read about again and again can fart and it will be written about in a magazine. There’s not a lot of room for anyone else. And it’s chicken and egg, you can’t get a label (or sync deals) unless you get press and radio and you can’t get press and radio (or sync deals) unless you have a label.
I feel like there’s a sea change here, as there has been with, say, the new lack of sexism from male writers; there is a new lack of snobbery or exclusion towards appreciating bands not because they were on such and such label, or had such and such producer or whatever, which really doesn’t make a band any better or more influential or important. So Bandcamp here is to the (not very) “indie” American press, like American college radio was (and still is) to commercial radio. It’s writing about people who don’t know the right people, and letting people write about music they love, with real passion and research behind it. So I am eternally grateful to both Bandcamp and Erin Margaret Day, the writer.
I believe Betwixt are reforming for a couple of dates during November. Are you looking forward to it?
Yeah, Boston and NYC. It’s weird, because I am super focused on my new material, but it’s a blessing because it can distract me from it too. I just found out the guys want to do this particular cover and I am so excited I cannot sleep. Which is weird. That article which included two of my bands of 14 “influential” bands in the Boston indie scene, and this cover is making me totally wired.
How have reheasals been going?
No rehearsals till the day of for me, but I am going to rehearse on my own a million times so no one will be able to tell we haven’t played in 20 plus years. I did the same thing with Turkish Delight.
Are things opening a lot more now travel wise across the US?
It’s hard to tell, actually things are closing up a bit. It’s all very unsure and weird.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021?
Well, have some fun things hopefully, get lots of press and radio, get a label to distribute this so I can get booked at some music festivals next year. I mean this sounds insane, especially at my age, but why not?