Leah Callahan: Simple Folk – album review + interviewLeah Callahan

Simple Folk

Self Released

DL from 22nd March

Leah Callahan self releases her second solo album of the century on 22nd March. Simple Folk is an album she never expected to make, 12 years after going on hiatus. 

Leah enlisted the support of Britpop influenced multi-instrumentalist Alex Stern (The Sterns, Big D and the Kids Table, The Inevitables) to deliver an album that bears influences from a number of British Alt-Pop acts such as The Style Council and The Sundays (plus many more)

The world of music is a fickle one. How often do people fall out of the public eye, especially with the limited non-commercial radio stations or music programming on TV? How many acts cease to exist after their 15-minute brush with fame or major label push accompanied by magazine exposure is over? Some acts keep going regardless of mainstream commercial success, such as The Wedding Present, while others repeatedly cash in on a nostalgia ticket.

Leah Callahan is a different case. Although many outside of the US may not be familiar with the name, the Boston based indie vocalist and songwriter originally came to prominence as part of the cult band Turkish Delight, a favourite of Thurston Moore and tipped as the missing link between Belly and Sonic Youth (with The Pixies thrown in for good measure). In 1996, award-winning US journalist and author Laura De Marco asserted that Turkish Delight would “give new hope for indie rock”. Sadly as sometimes happens, the band split in 1997. Leah moved onto form Betwixt and later The Glass Set, to much acclaim over the next decade or so before leaving it all behind in 2008. 

Betwixt
Betwixt

When invited to listen to the album I was intrigued to find out more about Leah’s story, and understand ‘why now?’. I caught up with the talented songstress to cover this and a number of other subjects, but first what of the album?

Over 10 songs it tackles over-consumption, environmental ruin and elitism as well as questioning and examining her motives and failures. The opening line to the album is “Do I really want to do this, go back into the ring of fire’ and later in the same track, ‘Would I rather not have a watered-down life, instead of singing here for you”.

This is quickly followed up by 1997 Again, Leah’s breezy ode to coming of age in the bustling 90s Boston indie rock scene which wouldn’t sound out of place in a musical or cabaret, which is pretty much how the album continues.

There are dark edges and barbs to the lyrics, which are upfront throughout, however, these are often accompanied by uptempo or slightly saccharine tunes to draw the listener in, for example, Bitter, which reminds me of Amanda Palmer; and the duet with Chris Stern, Throwaway with its lines “I wish I could forget, I wish we’d never met” cutting deep.

The album is a really strong set of well-crafted songs that definitely rewards repeated listening. This record couldn’t have been made anytime but now, with Leah bearing her soul and being completely transparent in her lyrics. It closes with a slightly edgy Those Were the Days, a cover suggested in a review of her 2003 album Even Sleepers which compared Leah’s clear, bell-like voice with that of the Welsh chanteuse Mary Hopkin. 

It’s a fitting end to an album grounded in a number of years of reflection.

So…. why now?

Leah Callahan
Leah Callahan, Turkish Delight 1995

LTW: How are you? How is Boston in March?

Leah: “Eastern MA is cold and raw now, on average 1.6 degrees. I’m not a winter sports enthusiast so the cold is lost on me.”

LTW: Thanks for giving Louder Than War an advance copy of your album. Are you glad it’s almost out there for everyone to hear?

L: “Thank you for covering my music! My biggest pleasure was hearing my songs in their arrangements by Alex Stern for the first time back in October; that blew my mind. In my mind have already moved on to album #3 (or #10).”

LTW: It seems most albums are released on a Friday now (in the digital world of iTunes and Spotify). Was there a specific reason for Simple Folk to come out on a Monday?

L: “I always think Fridays are the worst time to do anything because people are on holiday. Then again with COVID, no one is ever on holiday anymore. My reasoning was loosely the pagan holiday of Spring Equinox, the earth is having a rebirth – and I am having one too. But I am not good with following any sort of organised religious plan, half the time I am not even sure what day it is, but it’s close enough.”

LTW: Your last solo record was 2003’s Even Sleepers, and then you went on ‘hiatus’ in 2008. Was it a difficult decision to step away from music?

L: “Day job paid the bills, music did not, wasn’t really a decision, it was a reality I had to face. I couldn’t afford to be a musician, nor could I afford the late nights physically or the emotional tolls mentally.”

LTW: How does it feel getting back into doing interviews and promoting Simple Folk?

L: “There are very high, highs – like dancing around the room can’t get the stupid smile off my face highs – and the lows are a bit cuckoo, I am working on trying to avoid the lows but I will keep the highs.”

Turkish Delight
Turkish Delight

LTW: Was it a surprise to you in 2018 when labels began to show interest in reissuing the Turkish Delight albums? Listening to the albums Tommy Bell and Howcha Magowcha now, they fit well alongside what was happening at the time with the US Alternative Scene, Belly, Sonic Youth and The Pixies.

L: “You know when people come out from behind the furniture and yell “Surprise” when It’s your birthday or you have some special occasion, that’s exactly how it felt. A party with cake.”

LTW: Did it take long from that point for you to start wanting to write and record again?

L: “Well we had a reunion for my band right after that label interest, and then I suddenly had sort of become a musician again, at least one night a week rehearsing for that. So I said to myself, maybe I should continue to do something not related to my corporate job one night a week, it was kind of nice.

Especially since my corporate job had become very demoralising. I had left music because that was demoralizing, but suddenly my day job was more demoralising than being a musician.”

LTW: Simple Folk is quite playful at times, on tracks such as 1997 Again, but soul searching on like Borrowed Time, in which you question your decision to venture back into music. Did you find it a cathartic/therapeutic experience writing the album?

L: “100% yes. I have more of a sense of humour, I am less bitter. It all makes absolutely no sense. Because I am back to doing something that caused me so much pain; I guess now I have learned certain things to avoid.

LTW: There are a number of styles on the album which changes from track to track, the aforementioned Borrowed Time has a Fun Boy Three feel to it, while a piece like Bitter feels like a cabaret piece. Did the sound of the album develop during recording or was it all planned out in advance?

L: “Awesome Fun Boy Three reference. We simply didn’t have the luxury to develop songs in the traditional way, jamming with each other, prior to the studio due to Covid restrictions. We didn’t have the luxury of time to develop the songs in the studio. 2 times a year I get 3 paychecks in a month instead of two. That was what I had to spend, so that affects when I go into the studio and for how long, and I appreciate that Richard Marr was able to do everything very quickly and as cheaply as possible. 

Any development came from waaay before the group getting together. Richard, for example, tells me he’s been developing his engineering skills with classes during Covid and of course, has over 25 years of recording and engineering under his belt. 

I have been developing my writing skills for 25 odd years. When I wasn’t writing songs I was writing for my job. I had a ton of material from writing a (bad) novel which was so present in my head as stories wanting to come out and be told. I came in with vocals which were not changed in the studio, I sang them to a click track, sent them to Alex, and Alex wrote guitar and keyboard parts around them. The keys stayed the same, the rhythms did not change.

Alex did a lot of work on his own at home, but he did it very quickly too. I think that comes from his years of experience as a songwriter, and as a session musician and a touring musician. He admitted he had to go back and listen to the demos before the studio, I think he was like “wow I wrote that guitar part, cool where the heck did that come from?” so the magic of the muse had a part in the development of these songs – it wasn’t just all skill and experience. Although of course, that experience helped to facilitate this album.

The Glass Set
The Glass Set

LTW: The almost ABBA-esque (with it 60’s Shadows guitars) I Wish That I’d Never Met You Music suggests you have regrets (although you are certainly not a failed vocalist). What aspirations did teenage Leah have if not the singer in a band?

L: “I had no other aspirations other than to be a singer. I was told that would not be a possibility for someone from my social class back then, I was told to get a real job. They should not have teased me with music lessons, however. That gave me a taste for something outside of my predetermined station in life.”

LTW: Listening to the track I Don’t Relate I’m guessing it’s about your teen years? 

L: “It’s actually about both my experience meeting people from a different social class than I came from in the music scene (“Daddies bought them cars, mommies tried to make them stars”) and then when I left it, I had a very similar experience in the corporate world.”

LTW: I feel like there is a coming of age movie there waiting to be told. Who would you cast to play the 1997 you?

L: “I think my story is quite unique. I have had a lot of adventures, so a movie would be a good vehicle to tell the story. As far as who would play me I don’t have an opinion. But I do have 93 songs, plus so many songs I have loved and experienced life with written by others, to use in it!”

LTW: It was interesting to hear you being interviewed on a couple of podcasts about how things had developed with Turkish Delight, playing to packed crowds on one night and one man and his dog the next. That must have been frustrating.

L: “All bands start out with empty rooms, that’s pretty normal. I can attest to that because in Boston Turkish Delight was often used to draw a larger crowd for bands who were signed and had the label and management to put them on tours and get them better known.

My frustration was never getting that label or management or having the money to continue touring that I saw other bands get. I couldn’t attribute it to the type of music, I saw bands doing noisier and more experimental music getting signed. So when small labels began taking notice around 3 years ago after I had quit for over 10 years, I started to question that maybe I was good enough.

I began to think differently about my lack of success between 2017 and 2019. I was pretty angry with my lack of opportunities and began to attribute it to coming from a poor family, and never having access to the right social circles and saw similar things happening in the corporate world.

LTW: Why did you think that?

L: “I will give you the stat that 80% of jobs are not advertised; these jobs are going to friends, colleagues in some cases family of current employees. They tend to be from the same social class. You don’t see recruiters looking for their next C Suite employee at the community colleges or asking blue-collar folks to apply (I mean they should, those are the places you find people who have really worked to get where they are).

I saw this in my experiences and wondered what the stats would look like if you took all the bands that got signed. How many of them were acquaintances, colleagues or families of the labels that signed them? There are no stats out there about that. However no one I’ve mentioned this to seems to agree with me, all of my acquaintances say that success in the music industry is not driven by talent, or knowing the right people, but by luck.

So it follows then, if they are indeed correct, that I have had a great deal of very bad luck, for many years. Kind of funny that I was a musician for 13 years and then wasn’t one for 13 years.  If it’s all about luck, as everyone seems to say, perhaps now is my time. My luck seems to have turned around.

LTW: How difficult was it to promote yourselves at that time, was 90% reliant on college radio and word of mouth? (In the UK I guess that 90% would have been made up of the national music press such as the NME and getting played on John Peel etc on night time Radio 1)

L: “In the 90s, in Turkish Delight, being in a band was 10X easier to promote than now. We were young, there were 4 of us equally doing the work, we had access to friends who were also young and in some cases had the money we didn’t and time to help us. All that is gone now. It was all word of mouth, and lots of hard work, although sometimes a small label would spend a few hundred dollars here and there. College radio loved us.”

LTW: Are you finding it easier to reach out to people and find an audience now with the uptake in social media over recent years?

L: “Technology serves those who can afford its benefits.”

LTW You make no secret of your love of the British New Wave bands such as The Jam, X Ray Spex, Squeeze as you were growing up.  Actually, a quote of yours “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,” takes me straight to ‘Pretty In Pink’, which has a nice synergy as I believe some of the best American films of that era were the John Hughes movies which heavily featured British ‘alternative bands’.

L: “That’s so funny that you mention Pretty in Pink. I just read a story that Duckie originally got the girl in the film, but the audience of teenage girls booed, they wanted the girl to get the rich boy. That makes me want to resuscitate my deleted Medium account and do an essay analyzing that film and discuss what it means in reference to social class in America!”

LTW What are you listening to at the moment?

L: “My friend Chris Stern, who has the lovely vocals on the song Throwaway on the album, sent me a new song he’s begun. We have plans for an album. So this would be album #4. (or #11).”

LTW: I’ve heard that you’re not leaving such a gap before your next album. By then hopefully, the world will be in a better place. Would you look again at the logistics of touring outside of the US?

L: “Yes I would love to do that. Sign me up. I love the UK, I love Europe, I love the people I have met there, I love the bars, the music.”

LTW: What have you considered, or are you planning to promote the album? Maybe a live stream?

L: “I spent a ton of time researching radio and press for this album. Hours and hours, months and months. And I wrote and rewrote press releases and made plans. I have sent it out to a ton of people, press and radio, fingers crossed, got my 4 leaf clover in my pocket and all that, hoping something in my press release will intrigue them like it intrigued you. Hoping and praying not everyone deletes my email, and finally, that a few more people listen to get it heard by people outside just those I know or who know me.

I think at this point, if I do a CD release party in a bar, which would be super fun. I think I will do it when I have material for 2 albums in my pocket. I’m not a big Zoom person, I prefer the in-person thing.

LTW: Finally, the easy question. What are your Top 3 bands of all time?

LEAH Ugh that is not easy at all. I am speechless right now. I haven’t listened to much rock music, or much new music in 13 years. That has slowly been changing. Maybe my top 3 bands of all time are bands I haven’t heard yet.

Leah Callahan
Pic : Joe Navas

For more information on Leah, you can find her on Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

~

All words by Iain Key. See his Author Profile here author’s archive or on Twitter as @iainkey.

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