When we asked the young musician about her work, she took us back to the very beginning, “I grew up playing classical piano, my mom played classical piano so she got me started when I was like 3 years old. We used to have this big grand piano and we’d have to stack up all the books so that I could sit up there and play. And then I would need help coming down so I wouldn't fall off of the phone books so yeah that was quite a thing. I played off and on, you know I was a kid.
“I didn’t always love practicing but eventually when I was in middle school, I think I was 13, I started trying to play some covers. I think my first cover was a Coldplay song...that was my first time playing pop music on the piano, and I could just easily sing and play at the same time and I just started writing. It was like the first time I sat down to play a cover, I tried to write my own song. And then it just snowballed from there.”
Once she fell in love with this new kind of music, Lavigne began performing almost immediately.
”I started songwriting and playing the open mic circuit in Detroit, playing some bars and some street festivals and just trying to build up my chops. I found out that I really loved performing and it was just like coming upon a huge pot of treasure. I was like, Wow! My passion! You know when you’re 13 and people are like “Follow your dreams”, I’m like “I follow my dreams!!” But anyway so that was really cool and so when I was only 14, I had written a notebook full of songs and my mom was like hey you’re pretty damn good kid, let’s take you to the recording studio. So we had a friend of a friend who had a studio down on 8 mile and he was like yeah come on by, I’ll give you guys a good rate. So I showed up there in like my pink juicy couture sweats, and that summer we laid down 6 songs for my first EP which was self-titled “Leah Lavigne”. Still on Spotify.”
Comparing her experiences playing music in Detroit with New York, Lavigne says, “I think when I was based in Detroit, I felt like a pretty big fish in a pretty little pond. Like people in my community knew me. Once you play the Birmingham Street Fair three years in a row, people in Birmingham start to recognize you. That felt great. And then I moved to New York where I’m like the smallest little fishy in the hugest sea and that was a huge shock. I mean I was prepared for it but it was compounded by feeling isolated. I was the only person from my high school that moved out here. I didn’t know anybody. I just jumped...So I was trying to navigate that, like, Oh yeah I’m cooking for myself, oh yeah, laundry, oh yeah dad’s not gonna yell at me if I oversleep my alarms, that sort of thing. But also music too. Of course the first way I tried to start integrating myself was by playing open mics around the city. Open mics are easy, they’re normally so casual, most people that go to them are super nice and chill.”
“It was interesting because I’ve primarily played as a solo act, and when I got to New York I started to feel like I wanted a band because at a lot of venues it’s hard to hold an audience’s attention unless the energy level is at a certain level. So, I played a few gigs around town my freshman year and stuff and I just like wasn’t really loving the feedback. I was having a hard time having people come out to them, you know because it’s a bunch of freshmen, so half the time they couldn’t get into the bar, second of all, they wanted to go out go out, and I was like fuck how do I make my music going out going out music and then I was like no I don’t think this is gonna work I gotta figure something else out. But that took me a couple years.”
Those struggles brought out questions that Lavigne had never considered before. “I never really thought about production, trying to figure out what is my voice actually, What do I want to sound like? How should I be produced? How would I build a band around this? I’ve been grappling with questions like that throughout college, and I do have a band now, we’re working on getting a live set together so we can gig this summer.” And yet, Lavigne still holds onto her unique, personal identity as a musician. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that yes sometimes I am just a solo artist and that might put some people to sleep or some people may think my music is sort of sad but I love that kind of music so at the end of the day I still want to make that Leah Lavigne sad girl mellow music because it makes me feel good and I think it’s important.”
She sees real value in that “sad girl, mellow music.”
“We live in a society where everybody wants to be happy all the time. And we live in New York, where everybody wants to be efficient and getting a lot done and stuff but I think there’s so much value in slowing down once in a while and being sad and feeling out all those emotions. That’s so important to living a healthy, holistic life and I think coming to that realization just as a human being, just trying to figure out how to manage my life and my emotions, has also helped me understand that there can be a place for my music. Maybe not on top 40 radio, but still on somebody’s Spotify playlist. And that took me a while, but I’m feeling confident which is nice.”
Diversity in genre is important, but so is diversity just in general.
“I think something personal that I’ve struggled with is the fact that… so I identify as an Asian American woman and I grew up not really seeing that many people that looked like me in the music world and I grew up being afraid that I could never make it as a pop musician because I’m not tall and blonde and white. Which is like a horrible thing! Like, Oh my gosh you poor 15 year old! Can I give you a hug! But anyway, she’s long gone. It’s been really interesting coming to terms with my own identity and seeing how that manifests in my own music and learning how that makes my music special and just different, you know the value of having a slightly different perspective, perhaps.
But I also think that Asian American women are like, there’s a wave of them, like they’re coming up, you know. Artists like, Mitski, and Jay Som, and Japanese Breakfast, first of all, women-led indie rock bands. Like Angel Olsen, Big Thief, like all of these indie rock bands with really strong female leads are rising to the top right now which I absolutely love, everybody I just named I absolutely love. And so that’s been really inspiring for me, but also seeing the representation of Asian women. Maybe I can ride that wave!
A lot of artists I admire are coming from very DIY, grassroots, indie backgrounds so social media is like a huge tool. It’s enabling them to get their music out across a nation, across the world, which they otherwise would not be able to. I think that’s also very important. The fact that all these artists, a lot of the ones I just named are sort of taking an indie route. None of them are signed to major labels and I think that’s really interesting because historically, labels have been really discriminatory about the types of women they’re going to sign and it’s awesome to see people just do it on their own. Also the music industry has so much change happening....Five to ten years ago when I was just starting out, I thought that success was signing to a major record label and my thinking about that has completely changed where it’s like now I understand how you can make money, how you can survive without that, and the benefits of that.”
Some of the most memorable words of encouragement came her way when she was still in Detroit, in a particularly memorable scene.
“When I was in high school, I got the chance to meet Don Was of Was (Not Was), a band from back in the day—and he had just become the president of Blue Note Records--and we met through a friend of a friend...so this parent from the school knew about my music and was like, ‘Oh! You know, I’m having dinner with Don Was...maybe you should bring Leah by,’ and my dad was like, ‘Yeah let’s do it.’ And so he played Don my music and he was like, ‘Yeah bring her by.’ And so I show up, it’s like the fanciest restaurant in downtown Detroit and Don Was is sitting there at this table with a white linen tablecloth with his shoes off, because that’s the kind of person Don Was is. He’s got like dreads and this big brimmed hat and barefoot. In a fancy seafood restaurant. Like that’s cool, you can do that.
I was like, ‘Hi! Nice to meet you,’ and we were talking about my music, talking about my goals, and he was like, ‘So are you going to college?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah I think so.’ And he was like, ‘You should definitely go to college.’ And he said, ‘Are you going to study music?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really know.’ I’d taken a summer class with Berklee and not really liked it, just felt like, why are you telling me how to songwrite? Like I know how to do this...like get out of my head. And he was like, ‘That’s fine, you don’t have to study music.’
“What you need to do as an artist is live your best life. The best thing you can do for your music is do whatever the hell makes you happy and inspired and makes you want to keep writing and that can mean whatever it means to you.”
– Advice from Don Was
And so I really took those words to heart and I’m so glad I did. Like moving to the city and studying sociology and art and museum studies and all this stuff, over the past four years in college I have done exactly what Don said, I feel like I have grown so much as a person and it’s definitely reflected in my art. So that’s why I’m so excited to finally be releasing new music again. And now it’s been four more years. I sort of have this pattern going, every four years I release something.”
Lavigne’s past four years in New York have exposed her to a wide spectrum of art in every genre.
“I’ve always loved museums… and since I’ve been in the city, I’ve been really interested in other types of art. In performance art, in visual art, and doing collaborative multidisciplinary pieces myself. Last year in the Gallatin Arts Festival I did a video installation. And that’s totally new to me, but exploring has been really awesome...Even if it’s not consciously—even if it’s not like, oh I learned about this, let me implement it. It’s always affecting who I am and the work I’m creating and so being in New York, somewhere that’s so lively, somewhere where there’s so much art of all kinds going on and really making connections and getting to know different artists with different disciplines and backgrounds has, really first of all enriched my life, but also impacted the music I’m making too.”
The people she’s met here in the city are clearly important to her process and her life. As we talk, she mentions dozens of friends who have had a lasting effect on her.
“I have a friend named Alex, he plays in a hard core punk band, and that’s like the opposite of my music--but Alex has taught me how to appreciate his types of music and we’ve had discussions about different ways of listening, and what’s actually going on when it just sounds like a wave of noise. I’ve come to appreciate that and that’s changed the way that I’ve come to think about music and something like that is just so rewarding to me.
“They originally met in a class taught by another musician who would be influential in Lavigne’s works, and who is featured on her single “Setting Sun” (release date March 23). “Roy Nathanson... a saxophonist who helped found the band Jazz Passengers which is still around today and is a really amazing musician and poet, Roy’s done a lot of improv work and a lot of jazz work and he’s sort of been mentoring Alex and I, which is great, because he also brings such a different perspective to the table. Maybe my classical piano training is making me think in a structured way, in a very specific way, and he coming at it with his jazz improv background is thinking about my music in a different way and he’s teaching me how to play with things and you know have fun and just all this crazy stuff.”
Also mentioned is artist Ryan Egan, who’s band Lavigne plays in.
“I play the keyboard and the synth and I sing. Normally throughout my musical career I have been the frontman, I’ve been either alone or just the person in front of the band and it’s actually been a really amazing experience being more in the background and I think it’s helped me understand more what that’s like so when I’m working with my own band I can understand the positions that they are in.”
Lavigne fondly remembers the friend from her freshman dorm who helped her throw the launch party for her last album, Peripeteia.
“My friend Jeremy Truong, lived across the hall from me my freshman year, and we would make monthly update videos and post them on YouTube and he helped my film my first music video and he helped me throw the Peripeteia release party. I was so grateful to happen upon these people who would support me and help me pursue these dreams...that’s what I really loved, what I still really love, about being in New York. Being around a bunch of young creatives and us all being able to help each other reach our goals I love that about New York.”
When we asked Lavigne what taking a break meant to her, she lit up.
“I’m pretty busy, I’m a full time student and I’ve been working this whole time I’ve been in college so sometimes a break to me means sitting down at the piano and just fooling around, letting some stuff out, playing an old song, for me that’s like an emotional release. But also sometimes I need a break from that, sometimes sitting down at the piano makes me think about my musical goals and pressures I put on myself. So when I need a break from even all of that, I like to go for walks, I love to cook, and yoga is super important to me. Yoga. All the way.
“I try to do yoga a couple times a week, it just gives me so much clarity which is also really important for me to feel inspired and to have the energy to create. It’s really interesting because you might think that oh if there’s a lot going on in your life, then you’re going to have a lot to write about, but I actually think most of the time, for me to create, it takes a little bit of distance.
“So like when I’m in the thick of it, I can’t get anything out because there’s just too much going on. But once things settle a little bit, that’s when I’m able to take that birds eye view and write about it. And so yoga, a lot of the time, helps me achieve that distance where I feel like I’m in control of my life, I’m in control of my emotions and my feelings, and then I can use that to create. I was just picturing myself wrapped up in a bunch of different colored cloths and I’m just like, Oh I can’t create anything with this, but then when I do yoga it all unravels. And I’m like, Okay now I can weave these all together. I can paint with this, that’s what yoga does for me. A lot of times I get out of my savasana--and my head’s just like poof! Oh my god! I just have all of these ideas, I write songs while I’m walking home and start singing them into my voice memos and then run to my piano and start like trying to figure them out.”
Learn more about Leah and her music at leahlavigne.com.