Name: Heather Leigh
Occupation: Sound Artist, Improviser, Pedal Steel Player, Songwriter
Current Release: Throne on Editions Mego
Recommendations: I’ll recommend two books that I go back to again and again for inspiration, one is a recent find, Lee Miller: A Life With Food, Friends & Recipes. I admire Lee’s photography and wild woman spirit and this book collects not only some of her wonderful photographs, but her recipes for the elaborate, celebratory dinners she prepared at Farleys House, her home with Roland Penrose and family. I love that the book captures the importance of art being a part of every aspect of your daily life.
I’m deeply influenced by the West Coast art/music/literary scene of the 1950s-70s and you can flip to any random page of the beautifully presented Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle book filled with Berman’s own photographs and art alongside his fabulous group of friends/collaborators and feel inspired to work harder.
If you enjoyed this interview with Heather Leigh, her website offers plenty of background information, current updates and release information.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was obsessed with music from a young age though I didn’t start making my own until I was a teenager. Early passions included my uncle’s heavy metal vinyl + 8track collection, storybook 7” records made by Disney - particularly Peter & The Wolf - I had quite a nice collection of various singles that I always played on my cheap plastic Fisher Price record player. Another major early touchstone for me was the “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House” LP by Disney, I must have played it thousands of times, I found it so evocative and truly scary, it no doubt influenced my love for horror films a bit later though my mother taking me to see The Shining in the theatre when I was 4 also haunted me throughout childhood, both the imagery and the soundtrack had a lasting influence.
Later I picked up a Fisher Price cassette player when I became obsessed with cassette tape clubs, the kind that were advertised in the back of rock mags like Rolling Stone, you’d sign up, get a bunch of tapes for free then would get deliveries regularly. I always went for the tapes under the “alternative" or "college rock” type headings, though I would often impulse buy based on covers or titles that intrigued me. Pop music, particularly Madonna & Prince mixed with New Wave was my passion, I loved the music and drama of the performance, all that makeup, colour and hair, the possibility of being a kind of star to yourself, something bigger and brighter. Particularly with the tapes, I built up my knowledge by reading liner notes and credits, drawing connections between all these artists I seemed to be attracted to but didn’t have the context for apart from what I read in magazines.
It was around this time that it became clear to me that my interest in music outstripped my peers, while I was busy “studying” all these bands, my friends could really care less about the details and seemed happy with whatever they were played on the radio. I grew up in the suburbs in Texas and mainstream record stores in shopping malls still had good selections or novelty shops like my favourite, Dream Merchant, they stocked band t-shirts, posters, mood rings, sex toys and drug paraphernalia along with tapes. I spent summers with my grandparents in West Virginia and there I visited Murphy’s a lot, a kind of Woolworths type store that had a little bit of everything, when my mother was young they even sold monkeys there, she said the sight of seeing dead ones down alleyways still haunts her. I didn’t have cable tv in Houston and my television viewing was severely restricted by my parents at home anyway while I had free reign in West Virginia so spent a lot of time watching early MTV videos, particularly 120 minutes where I learned a lot. We also had a great local VHS rental store in my neighbourhood in Houston. One of my closest girlfriends had a crazy mom so no parental restrictions, we’d rent tons of horror films together and watch them all day/all night, the soundtracks paired with the ghostly and sexual imagery was very inspiring - anything extreme to take me out of my suburban hell though something I always appreciated no matter what hood I was in in Houston was music blasting out of passing cars or through jamboxes on the street, I was mesmerised by how the sound changed the environment and I got a thrill from mishearing songs that led to me having sort of private versions of my own that I’d sing to myself as if they were the originals.
I briefly played clarinet in middle school band but it felt too square so I didn’t stick at it for more than a few years. Prior to playing the pedal steel guitar, my favourite instrument was the chord organ, my grandmother on my stepfather’s side had one in her trailer near Astroworld, a magical room filled with butterflies under glass and plants, no matter what time of day it felt so nighttime and mysterious, it was very dimly lit, so I’d play that organ while the adults talked about boring stuff in the next room and I eventually got my own, a more proper Hammond type chord organ that I could sit behind on a piano chair rather than crouching on the floor. It sat in the corner of my bedroom, next to my rainbow curtains (that matched my rainbow canopy bed) and I could escape into my dreams in this corner.
Once I hit high school, I discovered record stores because I moved from the suburbs to an area called Montrose, at that time considered the more interesting part of town, where you’d find the best clubs, shops, seedy bars and eccentric people. Sound Exchange, which is still in Houston, just on a different street now, was my lifeline. They were so generous with their time, I mean, they knew I was a good customer, I spent all my money I made from my part-time vet clinic job there, so they threw stuff my way with a lot of encouragement, haha. But in seriousness it was much more than that, it was a mentorship in a way, they could see my interests and naturally steered me deeper into where I wanted to go. Record stores were my heaven and I was lucky that my local was such an amazing one, I never walked out of the shop empty-handed. Soon I fell in love with labels like Majora, Siltbreeze, Actuel, ESP Disk, International Artists, Takoma, etc. While going to the record store I was also mailordering, particularly from the glorious K Record printed catalogues and was collecting/reading zines which is how I connected with a lot of girls who shared my interests in the pre-internet age.
I started going to gigs when I was underage. I always had older friends that would sneak me into the Axiom or Emo’s and other clubs if I traveled further afield to cities like Philadelphia, stopping into record stores, gas stations (found many John Fahey cassettes in middle America gas stations!), antique shops, anywhere I could score music, books, mags or weird objects. I started playing my own music when I was in high school. It naturally came out of the time I split at the record store and gigs (the ones I could sneak into, and when I was in Texas I’d often have to leave earlier than everyone else because I had an insanely early strict curfew. To this day I’ve never seen Royal Trux play live, I was in the same room in Houston and finally had to split as I saw Jennifer Herrema take the stage with all that wonderfully long hair. When I left the club I got chased by a pack of stray dogs and had to run to my ride in fear).
I bought my own Tascam 4-track cassette recorder in high school and my earliest recordings were me overdubbing acoustic guitar and voice. I already knew generous musician friends at this point that would let me borrow delay pedals, amps, mics, various bits of equipment and I rediscovered my love for the chord organ. During this time if you walked into any thrift store/charity shop anywhere in Texas 99.9% of the time, there would be a plastic chord organ mixed in with the household junk so I had quite a few. As soon as I started doing my own recordings I was interested in experimenting with the sounds instruments could make beyond the traditional way they were “supposed” to be played. So for instance, I’d rub the microphone on the grating of the chord organ where the air escapes and use that for percussion or I’d run bells through effects to achieve watery rhythms. When I moved from Houston to Galveston for my first few years of college, I bought my first electric guitar and recorded with that and organs and synths and bells and voice every spare moment I got, I was addicted to recording. Soon, I started playing the guitar with the slide, the blurring between notes and mimicking the voice with the guitar felt more natural to me than playing chords or plucking it in a traditional way. And while at University I started playing pedal steel which remains my central passion today.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
To be honest, maybe it has something to do with not having proper training on any instrument and not really being drawn to sound from a technical perspective that meant that even from my earliest days playing music, I wasn’t trying to sound like anyone else. I spent so much time through my childhood and teenage years devouring sounds as broadly as possible, educating myself about possibility and becoming so enamoured with a DIY aesthetic that I think it was clear to me that for myself, experimentation was key and I had to find my own voice. Maybe there was an unconscious part of me that thought if I tried to sound like someone else, it was a betrayal and a type of posing, a form of fake I couldn’t live with. And I’ve always found myself attracted to artists that seem to have a voice that’s particularly their own.
When I was very young, prior to playing my own music, I did like to emulate the LOOK of pop stars and punks and spent a lot of time dressing up TO THE EXTREME - lots of makeup, teasing of my hair, fishnets/lace, jewellery galore, I liked to push boundaries and wanted to be noticed but I was always in a sort of bind because I was under such strict parental supervision that this type of dressing up wasn’t allowed outside of Halloween. So I was always carrying around a bag of tricks and as soon as I was out of my parents’ sight, even if just going to a slumber party, I’d change into the REAL me who liked to be more loud and vivacious. Going back to sound, I think what I learned very early in my musical education is that no matter what I sounded like, I didn’t want to sound like anyone else.