Leah Callahan’s musical journey started back in Boston in the 1990s, when she joined Turkish Delight, a band who fused influences of noise-rock and Riot Grrrl and were well known around the city for, “confusing the heck out of people”. After Turkish Delight’s demise in 1997, Leah formed the band Betwixt, before stepping out solo in the early 2000s with her debut album, Even Sleepers. After an eighteen-year hiatus, Leah marked her return to music back in March with her second solo album, Simple Folk, and wasting no time will release a follow-up, Short Stories, at the end of this month.
Leah has spoken of Short Stories as an, “invite into her world of outsiders, misfits and iconoclasts”, from, “fairy godmother bookstore owners” to “hot mess bffs”. Musically, Short Stories is something of a pick-and-mix assortment of the great and good of alternative music’s past, whether referencing her noise-rock roots on Night at the Cooler, through to country-tinged joys of Competitive Clara and the glamorous-indie of Neil The Dancing Girl, there’s even room for an excellent cover of Robert Palmer’s Johnny and Mary. Leah highlights a slightly surprising trio of songwriters as the key influences on the record, Elliot Smith and Daniel Johnston, so-far-so-indie, and the curveball, Biggie Smalls, Leah noting, “if I can paint half as vivid a picture on these Short Stories as he did with his songs, I’ve done my job”. A reminder that you’ve never been away so long that you can’t come back, Leah Callahan is proof that great songwriting knows no era or age, it’s just great songwriting, and these short stories are musical tales you won’t want to miss.
FTR: For those who don’t know who is Leah Callahan?
In a sea of bright eyed and bushy tailed young artists, I guess you could call me an old sage. But the interesting thing, I think, is that somehow I have managed to both keep my youthful temperament and my voice sounds better than ever. To explain the temperament point – I listened to a story about a male singer songwriter on NPR over the weekend, he said ‘in my 50s, I don’t feel like I have songs where what I say is really important or crucial and has got to come out’. In fact, I feel the opposite, the wisdom that life experience brings has given me some very interesting viewpoints; I wouldn’t be bothering to do all this if I didn’t feel I had something important to say.
FTR: What can you remember about your first show?
My first band Turkish Delight played to a full room at the coolest club in Boston/Cambridge, (maybe one of the coolest in the US then) The Middle East nightclub, because the opener of 4 bands cancelled, and people abolutely loved us, which was a fortuitous start that kept me going. Even bands like the Pixies and Talking Heads had to play to 4 people at their first shows – which would certainly discourage many bands – so there was something in the air that night.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
I have tried to quit music, let’s see, three times; the 1st time I was 15 and I quit singing and piano lessons, the last time I was in my 30s and felt like the world thought (and sometimes said out loud) that I was too old to be a performer, or that a woman in her 30s should be not seen, and not heard either.
I tried to not be a creative person, I tried really hard. It was nice for a while, a relief to not deal with all of the constant rejection you have when you are a creative person.
But then the whole Turkish Delight renaissance/resurgence happened in 2017. A local cassette label, I Heart Noise put out the bands’ albums. A UK label, Reckless Yes, put out a double CD. The band had a reunion show. People were discovering my music from the 90s for the first time, and it felt good. It felt wonderful, actually. Even then, performing, I was still like, this is just a one-off – but I got sucked back in.
I figured I would do something that didn’t have an age limit, didn’t have all those societal norms and pressures – write a book. My other motivation was my best friend was told she had a year to live. So I wanted to dedicate the book to her, write about her, immortalize her because she deserves immortality. When I tried to write a book – I came across a great deal of roadblocks. First of all writing fiction is really, really hard, then I felt that it would be extremely competitive, like anything, to try and get something published – or if self-published – seen and read. I had some friends who had some editing experience read it, they were like “you need to change all the names, you need to have more of a structure and a traditional story, etc.” Writing just wasn’t enjoyable enough for me to jump through all of the hoops to continue. Writing a song feels more natural, you can write nine songs and publish them and get them heard.
So my final answer is, I have something to say, and music is the easiest and most effective way to say it. I don’t know if I have the level of talent or passion it takes to be a fiction writer, but I do have confidence in my songwriting. I suppose I could focus on poetry, but for me the melodies are fun and just as important in the expression of the stories I want to tell.
FTR: What can people expect from the Leah Callahan live show?
It’s hard for me to say, because I am not watching, but the Boston Globe quoted a local musician that said very nice things about me in 2004. “She’s not just a technician…She’s a great creator of mood, using body language, facial expressions, and interactions with the crowd to build momentum in her performance.” I wasn’t trained or taught to do that sort of performance, it came naturally, and also came out of the fact that I enjoy watching performers who can put on a show; sure I have liked bands who were literal shoegazers, I guess there’s a time and place for everything.
This album coming out on October 31 has some great stories to tell, so I think when I perform them, my intention will be to connect with everyone in the audience, on some level. Maybe someone will be a little shocked by something I say, maybe another person will be shocked because they thought they were the only person that felt that way, and maybe another person will just have a beautiful melody stuck in their heads for days – but all of these things I expect someone will come away with and hopefully more. It will be obvious that I am having fun, and enjoying these songs and the stories they tell too.
FTR: What’s next for Leah Callahan?
I have been interviewed maybe fifty, maybe one hundred times over the years, maybe more. I always end the interview by saying “I hope to reach a larger audience” and I said that until I was ashamed to say it, because I felt like a failure in my 30s. And so for a while I didn’t have the nerve to even express those expections out loud. But I am extremely proud of this last album, and love these songs more than anything I have ever done. On a personal level all I can do is keep going, keep trying to be better, keep creating. Outside that there is hope to get some outside help, to be able to reach more people, have the ability to play in Europe, where there is definitely a more open mind for my music, for example, or play festivals. Get press outside of my small circle of contacts, get more college radio play for this album. Two out of these four things is beginning to happen, so I am optimistic.
I gave up on a lot of things, and I hate to sound like an annoying new-ager here, but when I gave up – things got better. Almost as if life was having a great joke at my expense, but it was a joke I could laugh at too.
They Listen To…
Deus – Bad Timing
Lockgroove – Sundown
Silvia Torres – Take Saravá
Mighty Shadow – Dat Soca Boat
Bush Tetras – Too Many Creeps
Short Stories is out October 31st. For more information on Leah Callahan visit https://leahcallahan.bandcamp.com/.