by Rebecca Honig Friedman
According to her bio, Leah Siegel is “a seamless powerhouse of contradictions: at once hopelessly raw and yet elegantly composed, bombastic while intimate, contemporary and classic. She is blessed with a voice that whispers in your ear one moment and rips the roof off the next.”
It’s a good bio. And it’s pretty accurate.
I first encountered Siegel about four years ago at an open mike in a now defunct coffee house on the Lower East Side. I was there to see a friend play, but Siegel was leagues beyond my friend or any of the other performers.
She played two songs: a soulful cover of Lou Reed’s “I Found a Reason” and a sultry original, “How Do You Take Your Coffee?,” inspired, she explained with her signature wit, by her day job as a barista.
Siegel’s powerful voice and smart lyrics impressed me enough to sign up for her mailing list and to bring all my friends to her next solo show. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Turns out, even then, Siegel was pretty much over the open mike scene, but lived across the street and had decided, lucky for me, to perform that night on a lark.
Since then she has been playing frequently in clubs around Manhattan and Brooklyn - which she now calls home - sometimes solo with just her guitar, sometimes with her absolutely rockin’ band (consisting of Steve Elliot, Brian Wolfe and Tim Luntzel).
In December 2006, Siegel released her first full-length album, “Little Mule,” and its critical success has earned her an ever-expanding fan base, a slot at CMJ, and local and national radio play. Most recently, this April, she was a featured artist on NPR’s “All Songs Considered”.
Siegel is playing this Friday night, June 15th at the Jezebel Music Benefits Common Ground concert at the Prince George Ballroom, 15 East 27th St (btw. 5th & Madison), 10pm, $20 with free beer all night.
A week later she’s doing a solo show at Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen Street, 9pm, no cover.
If you can’t make it to either of the above (they are on Shabbat after all), you can hear some of her tunes on MySpace and on her website. Or just buy her album.
But enough plugging, on to the interview: Below Siegel tells Jewess about the influence of Jewish liturgy on her musical career, being awoken by matzah at 7:30 am, and why she won’t audition for “American Idol.”
1. JEWESS: From your name it’s clear you have some Jewish roots. What is your relationship to Judaism?
LEAH SIEGEL: I was raised a Reform Jew in the Virginia suburbs of DC; Beth El was the temple. i chanted my Torah portion - the ten commandments ….oh how the rest envied me - and for my confirmation at 16 I led my class in a song we all wrote together, they the lyrics, I the melody and guitar part. For a short while after confirmation, I was an assistant music teacher at Beth El. Then filled a slot teaching 5th graders Torah Hebrew for about a year and a half.
In college, I didn’t join Hillel or push to take my Birthright trip. I missed a few Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs; rejected Judaism when I realized, while setting foot on German soil for the first time, that I was perhaps taught to be mildy racist; accepted Judaism again when I considered the connection it provided me to my family and to the history of my family. By now, I’m not a Zionist, though I see that I was raised to be one by the temple. I reject any values that claim I’m more deserving of a refuge than anyone else, and as our planet continues to deteriorate and globalization connects more and more of us, i find it difficult to be a part of an exclusive religion.
However, I was raised a Jew and i suppose it must still be strong within me, caveats (as I see them) and all. But my identity as a Jew isn’t nearly as strong as my identity as an artist.
2. JEWESS: How has Judaism influenced your musical career?
SIEGEL: I began in music at 6 years old as a violinist. I didn’t have a huge appetite for it. I wasn’t a voracious student of the violin. I hated practicing and didn’t respond well to any of my teachers after the first one - a nod to Laura Parks wherever she may be - but I was naturally drawn to classical music. It seemed to make sense to me. It was very romantic as well… i liked the way it “felt”… and when it was on - which was often - I was always humming along and paying attention.
Needless to say, the Kol Nidre regularly turns up when I’m practicing guitar and I inadvertently start soloing on that melody. I also credit my non-Jewish cantor. His name was Michael Peerless and he was a professional opera singer. A tenor, I guess. His voice was rich and deeply impassioned and I would mimic him or harmonize and attempt being his female counterpart during services. And then I finally got a radio and started listening to Q107.3. This was a completely different sensation and I loved them both.
3. JEWESS: You’ve been playing on the historically Jewish and now impossibly hip Lower East Side for years. How has the neighborhood influenced you?
SIEGEL: I’m not sure. I lived on Rivington Street between Clinton and Stanton around 2003 and 04. it was loud as hell down there and dirty
and disgusting and I was mostly impressed by the fact that my grandfather had lived on Rivington 80-some years ago. That made me
proud but not proud enough to research the details of his childhood I suppose. Though i do know he lived on Driggs in Williamsburg as a
child and around the corner you could get good whitefish for only a couple pennies.
Also on Rivington, I lived across the street from the Streits Matzah factory and every other morning at 7:30 a huge truck would pump
something into the place through a big hose they connected to a hatch they would open. Boxes of matzah, I guess. It was loud. It was impossible to sleep. I developed allergies I’d never had before. I was sick most of the time and was generally depressed and scared. So yeah I guess you could say that somehow the LES influenced me and my music.
4. JEWESS: Your song “A Trail of Peach Pits” – one of my favorites - is about sister rivalry. Is that based on your relationship with your real
SIEGEL: Thank you. Actually, my old landlord had two kids. A little girl who seemed very articulate and proper and a boy a couple years older who was hitting puberty and wore mostly black and would occasionally sport a spiked collar and things like that. They seemed utterly different to me, especially just by looking at them….hell maybe they were exactly the same but when the whole family walked down the street together it made me think about if the KIDS are thinking about how they MIGHT be being perceived by onlookers….
So I started writing about that kind of thing…. And after I finished the first verse I had to laugh when I realized what I was writing….
When I tracked this song in Seattle, it seemed everyone had a story about their sibling, whether they were older or younger, the good one
or the messy one. Whatever. Even only children seemed to have some rivalry that “Peach Pits” brought to mind. It was a kick to see how
relatable the song was.
In short, yes I do have a sister. And, yes, she’s perfect.
5. JEWESS: Why don’t you have a record deal yet? Have you considered auditioning for American Idol?
SIEGEL: I guess I haven’t been holding out for a record deal so I just keep pedaling on my own. Luckily I’ve connected with a lot of people who
seem to love my writing and my work so I’ve been able to do enough on my own that it seems like I SHOULD have a deal I guess. Alternate
answers to this are: 1. Bad management. They’ve sat on their hands and been afraid to think out of the box. 2. Three or four years ago
a nameless A&R person from whatever record label told my then manager that I was too quirky and the music was too smart. That was fine with
me and confirmed the way I feel about most A&R people and record labels. 3. Good management. Not all contracts are worth signing.
Sadly, most contracts aren’t. So there you have it. If the right one comes along we’d all be thrilled. But until then, I happen to have a
great manager and a ton of fan-based support, support from my band, musicians, engineers and producers. And that’s enough for me.
i have not considered auditioning for “American Idol” for a number of reasons but mostly because I’d suck at it. I’m terrible at karaoke.
6. JEWESS: You’ve been compared to Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen, probably because your lyrics are so poetical. Are there any women who you
count as musical influences?
SIEGEL: In no particular order: Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, you wouldn’t believe it but Barbara Streisand (who mostly i can’t stand but the record she made with Barry Gibb called “Guilty” and another record called “Enough”…. i grew up listening to my mom sing to them and I think it may have actually taught me how to sing as I have no vocal training), my mom (who used to harmonize to everything that came on the radio).
7. JEWESS: If you could do a duet with any woman, or man (what the heck), from the Bible, who would it be?
SIEGEL: Moses. We’d do a “Singin’ in the Rain” medley starting and ending with the classic “Moses Supposes…” Is that too obvious?
Posted on June 12th, 2007 Filed under: Interviews |