I sat down with Kathy Leisen — songwriter, singer and guitarist for the melancholic dream pop band Soft Location — at her Hamtramck apartment on Tuesday, November 12, 2013. We talked about her first guitar (which she still plays), her childhood love of spaghetti and Weird Al, and her dreams of performing in churches. Kathy’s laid-back demeanor, unrivaled love of music, and openness to the creative process are all an inspiration.
Name: Kathy Leisen
Current Location: Hamtramck
Day job: I work in the arts. I am the summer program coordinator at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, an artist residency in Maine. Last summer I saw an eagle in flight. I am with the DIA as an Exhibit Projectionist & IT for a special exhibit called “Watch Me Move”, a show about animation. You should come see it, its good. Last year I managed the opening of a design store in Midtown called Nora, and I’ll be working there again over the holidays. I am also a wedding officiant, at your service.
Which instrument(s) do you play?
I primarily play guitar. I play piano, and also the drums. My standard joke is that I’m not good at any of them but I love to play all of them. My favorite instrument to play is the drums. I play guitar the most. I write all of my songs on guitar.
I’ve been pretty focused on Soft Location since winter of 2011-12, and I’m always working on this magical solo album in my mind. Maybe this year it will happen. I try not to think about it too much. I never stop myself from doing weird projects with friends. Sometimes I’ll do stuff over the internet – people will send me tracks and I’ll do things and send it back – but I spend the majority of my time on Soft Location.
How would you describe Soft Location?
It’s a band that really feels like it’s own animal. It’s never been something that I’ve been in control of, or wanted to control. I think of it as this weird magic formula that I put songs into, and they either come out just right, or they don’t come out at all. The band is very temperamental – it’s a vibe band – we just sit and play and listen to each-other, and everyone has their own really specific thing. I would say it’s four parts that equal a better whole than each of us individually, and something that we never would have come up with.
Who are the other band members, and how long have you been playing together?
Matt Kantor plays bass. He lives in New York. We’ve been friends since we were 15. We started the band together 11 or 12 years ago. Chris Morris is the drummer. He lives here. We met at Utrecht in 2003 when we used to work together, and we’ve played in a band together ever since. Ben Good, who lives in Berrien Springs, plays synthesizer. Although, we’ve had years of not being a band, we released our first cassette in 2002.
How do you work together, since you’re so spread out?
The past two albums we did, I had them all come here for a week. Matt would take a week off work, and Ben has a flexible schedule. So each time we would play for a week, then go into the studio and record. It’s not that complicated. I write all of the songs. I send them the songs, so we pick them all beforehand. Matt is the most musically talented/skilled, and he spends an enormous amount of time preparing. Then we just get together and everything comes together from there. And even though I write the songs, they often change drastically in the bandification process. We all just let go and let it happen. With Soft Location, it just works or it doesn’t. We play occasional shows, so they’ll all come here, or we’ll all go out to New York.
Where did your name come from?
I’m sorry I can’t tell you.
Soft Location was my first band, but I played music with my brother for a long time before that. He is a very talented musician. He can shred on guitar. He always had drum machines and keyboards. When we lived together in California, he would set his keyboards up and say, “You play that, and I’ll play this.” I could do that, and I always loved come up with vocals. He was very encouraging.
I’ve had lots of other projects, but the only other band I’ve put out a record with is Glass Rock. Glass Rock happened because the guys like Soft Location, which was really weird, because we didn’t think anyone had ever hear our band, except for the people that came to a show at Motor City Brewery, where we played every two months – for free beer. We made a record and the band Tall Firs got their hands on it through Michael Troutmen, who’s band Awesome Color was on the same label as them – and they liked the record. So the guys from Tall Firs played Soft Location on the radio on WFMU in New Jersey, and they said, “We love this band. Kathy, are you alive.”- or something, and Greg Baise, who was my neighbor at the time, came over and told me, “you were on the radio today!” I was like, no, really? So I e-mailed them and said I’m alive, I’m hanging out in Detroit, do you want to do something? So we got to know each-other over email, and I sent them songs. Then they reserved a weekend at a studio that Aaron (who’s in the band) worked at in New York. Since Matt (Kantor) was living in New York, he played with us. It worked out really well, and we did two records together before moving on to our separate things.
Is there a future with Glass Rock?
We’re all still really close, so why not?
Where did you grow up?
When I was young we lived in Detroit, in Lafayette Park, and then we moved to Grosse Pointe Park.
Do you remember your first experience with music as a child?
I definitely remember listening to the album soundtrack for Cabaret over and over again. And I remember that weird feeling that I had when my mom always played Abbey Road, and I remember really liking that feeling.
What was your first favorite song?
I’m sure it was Weird Al Yankovic. I was really into Weird Al Yankovic. I have a strong memory of answering one of those kids surveys, and it was like ‘Favorite food: spaghetti. Favorite cartoon: Garfield. Favorite song: Slime Creatures from Outer Space by Weird Al Yankovic.’ Close second was Jam on it by Nucleus.
Tell me more about when and why you started playing music.
It was really when Matt and I recorded our first song for Soft Location. It was just the most intoxicating experience. It was so fun. I remember listening to it over and over again and thinking, you know, that’s not bad… I think that might actually be ok, and just being thrilled at the discovery and the process. I became obsessed, and I started recording songs with a casio on this crappy boom box that I had, that had a microphone in it, and I figured out how to put tape on a cassette tape, so you can record over it. I would record in the closet for reverb effects.
What was your first instrument?
For my 24th birthday, Matt and a good friend of mine – who had become a couple – bought me a guitar. It was just about the best gift I’ve ever received, ever. It’s a Takamine G Series. Coincidentally, my ex-boyfriend owed me money, and instead of returning the money he bought me a four-track. So for that same birthday I got a guitar and a four-track, and I pretty much spent all of my free time writing and recording songs. I didn’t know how to play guitar, I just made sounds that I liked.
What was the first song you learned to play?
I don’t know how to play any songs other than the ones I write. I seem to be pretty set on doing thing my own way.
What was the first song you ever wrote called, and what was it about?
With the Top Down. The lyrics are “With the top down, we’re driving.” Maybe it was metaphorical, I’m not sure.
So you still have your first guitar. What other instrument(s) do you currently own?
I have this really cool electric guitar. It’s a Rickenbacker I bought in 2003 from another really good friend that I lived with in New York named Leon Chase, who’s also a musician from Michigan. Every album has a song or two that I play on that, but I mainly play acoustic guitar.
Do you have any other music gear aside from your guitars? keyboards, amps, mics? If so, what are they? and how did you choose them?
I have an old church organ, but right now its at my friend Jason’s house in storage. I need to get that. It was found on the side of the road with a free sign by my friend Mary Beth, who is awesome and picked it up for me. I have a computer microphone that I use for recording, and it was a gift. All of my instruments and gear have fallen into my life, except for my Ibanez delay/echo that I purchased after the original one fried. The first one was given to me by my brother when he got sick of it. No other delay pedal will do.
What are your current influences?
My influences are less about what it sounds like than the approach. I absolutely love Missy Elliot. I really admire that she’s a writer, a creator, a producer, and I really like her music. I often feel self conscious that I’m not a music expert. A lot of times my favorite thing is silence, or I listen to stories, audio books. I’m not a huge music consumer.
What is your favorite thing to play?
Play drums and sing at the same time – that’s my favorite thing to do.
How do you balance your music with other obligations?
That’s something that I try to figure out all of the time. I know that I don’t care about those other things as much as I care about music. It’s a major priority in my life. I went to graduate school for one semester, and then I made a choice: This is not what I want to be doing. And what do I want to be doing? I want to be playing music. So I’ve been on a mission since then.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
It was a Cyndi Lauper She Bop 45
What was the first concert you ever went to?
My church got free tickets to one of those mega-tours – it was C + C Music Factory, CeCe Peniston, and probably whatever other early 90s band you can think of, at Joe Louis.
Who is your all-time favorite musician/band(s)?
The Ramones. I love The Ramones. And I absolutely love Black Sabbath too. Funkadelic. There’s too many…
Who is your favorite Detroit musician/band(s)?
There’s so many talented people here. Clem Fortuna really blows my mind. I absolutely love the way Warren Defever does harmonies. Matt Z does a really good hook. Mountains & Rainbows. Duane the Teenage Weirdo is a completely incredible performer. I really dig Ritual Howls.
What is your favorite local venue to play?
I had a really fun time playing at the Jam Handy. The kind of music I’m playing isn’t ideal for playing in bars, so I haven’t played in a bar in a long time. Ben Hernandez used to always challenge me, which I really enjoyed. He would put me playing solo on a show with Dark Red – a great heavy psych band – and I loved it and hated it because it was challenging. It felt like it was challenging for both me and the audience.
What is your favorite non-local venue?
We always play at the Union Pool in New York, which is very cozy. They’re really nice and it always sounds good, so we’re always happy. My favorite place I ever played was a Quaker meeting house near Skowhegan in Maine. That is completely my vibe.
Have you ever toured before?
Not with Soft Location. At one time, Ben (Good) and I were talking about doing a tour and playing churches and other weird places. Actually, Soft Location has always wanted to play a prom. Our best places would be proms, private parties and churches, for sure. Glass Rock had a charmed short tour in 2010 in the UK, opening for Sonic Youth, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and playing at All Tomorrow’s Parties.
What was the best show you’ve played?
My favorite show was the show we just played in New York. Mostly because we felt really relaxed.
What was the worst show?
It was great because it was so bad. The first Soft Location show was just awful. It was at the Detroit Art Space. It was just me and Chris, and I was just learning how to play, and I was petrified to play in front of people. I’m pretty sure my guitar wasn’t even on for the first song. It was like, oh my god, what was that? …It probably didn’t help that I was wearing sunglasses.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I wish I was more gifted at playing. Technically, I’m not very good… It sounds like my biggest challenge would be my self-confidence. And I really wish I had perfect pitch.
What advice would you give to other women who play (or want to play) music?
Do it as much as possible. Don’t question what you’re doing. Play how you feel, and play as many instruments as possible. The biggest thing for me was finding people that I’m comfortable with, and that is a huge deal. Don’t settle for a situation that doesn’t feel right. Don’t limit yourself, and don’t get discouraged by your own frustration. Don’t get caught up with what you think you should sound like, instead just let go and express yourself. Do it all the time.
What are your immediate (1-3 year) goals for your music?
My goal for this year is for Soft Location to be able to pay for our own recording. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but that’s my goal. And my goal is always to record an album every April. That’s my birthday present to myself. And a movie soundtrack [laughs] – so we can pay for these recordings.
Are you interested in working on new projects with new people?
Do you have any shows coming up?
No. That doesn’t mean that they won’t happen, but we don’t have any planned.
If you were to interview a female musician in Detroit, who would it be?
I’d be interested in interviewing Niagara.
Where can the people hear your music and/or get in touch with you?
for mega back up vocal stylings see “Between the Times and the Tides” Lee Renaldo