October 24, 2016
How old are you?
I am about to be 34.
Where are you from originally?
I am from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. But I moved to New Orleans in 2004.
What brought you here?
When I was in college, I went out to dinner with my mother a friend who owns one of the big recording studios here. It came up that I sang and he asked if I would be interested in jazz. He gave me a couple songs that someone else recorded and he took the vocals off the tracks to see how I sounded. I had nothing else to do so I took the songs home, learned them, and the recorded them in his studio. A couple days later he convinced me to move to New Orleans. I was 20 years old at the time and he immediately said that I was almost too old for the industry and that I needed to lose ten pounds. I was about 120 pounds at the time. But if I moved here after my semester and lost ten pounds, he would set me up with all the right people. I tried to make it work with him but within weeks of me being here he tried to hook up with me. So I got a job as a waitress and partied and did anything but music and got to know myself for the first time really ever. I met my current husband during all of that. Katrina eventually happened, I moved back to Arkansas, went to nursing school, got married, got pregnant on accident in nursing school, had two kids, and moved back. But I didn’t try music again until I was 29.
What brought you back here?
My husband is from here so we knew we were going to come back. Music was something I always wanted to do but had convinced myself that my ship had sailed. I was convinced that I was already too old. And then after I had my second kid I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t try to get back into it. I was working part time as a nurse, staying home a lot with the little ones, and slowly worked my way into what I am doing right now.
And what is that?
I am still a nurse part-time but I sing jazz mostly every weekend. I really want to write my own music and this is the first time that I actually have time to do that. My youngest is five, she just started kindergarten and I can go back to part-time so I finally am able to put some time into music.
Is making your own music where you want to start putting a lot of your energy?
The idea of it is super scary. It’s different from singing standards. It’s a lot more vulnerable and time consuming. And I’m still fighting that feeling of being too old. I know it’s silly but it’s still there. I’m about to be 34. How many people do you see that aren’t even hitting their stride at 34? I know I haven’t hit my stride yet because I haven’t really had the time to dedicate to it. Would a man feel the same way? Do they feel the same pressures?
Growing up, do you remember being taught or told anything about behavioral expectations for you as a girl?
I could go on all day about that—I’m from the south. I grew up with the southern belle mentality. I took manners classes and was told constantly, “You’re pretty.” I felt like that was my greatest asset. Not that I was smart, not that I was talented but the fact that I was attractive. I did pageants when I was in junior high. I was thirteen wearing high heels and taping up my boobs.
Is there any truth about pageants and sororities perpetuating negative female stereotypes?
I would say more so with the pageants than with the sororities but it’s not across the board. But there were girls just trying to get their Mrs. degrees. When I brought home a boy, the questions were “What’s his career? Who’s his family?” I never heard “You should be a doctor, Leah.” I heard “You should marry a doctor.” Most of the boyfriends I had came from money and my current husband was a bartender. I remember when I first started dating him, my mom was like, “You can’t marry a bartender! Y’all are gonna have a baby in an apartment? Oh my god.” I moved here and I turned into a punk rocker who didn’t wear makeup and had a whole new persona because nobody knew me. Nobody knew that I was in a sorority, nobody knew that I have ever done pageants. I could be whatever I wanted. But it’s still there. I’m already having a hard time with aging. It’s wrinkles, it inevitable. I’ve had two kids and I accept it for the most part. But it’s still hard because it’s been engrained since forever that beauty is where your worth is. And with my music, part of my schtick is that I dress like I am from the 1940s and 1950s with the hair and makeup and pretty dress and people expect it. “We love the vintage look. You’re gonna do that, right?” That can’t go on forever, right? I’m not going to be able to be that character forever, right?
And do you want to?
Exactly. I was diagnosed with epilepsy three years ago and it’s been a process to find the right medication. The cognitive side effects are the best with the medication I am on right now but it has made me gain ten pounds that I can’t lose and I finally went to see my neurologist and asked to try a different one that is more weight neutral just to see if it will work so I can lose some weight. I am literally risking my health to lose weight.
Can you define sexism as it presents itself to you?
As a female, there are different expectations, different requirements, a different set of rules. My husband doesn’t have to worry about some frat boy grabbing his ass while he’s on stage. It’s just a whole different ball game. I don’t think men and women are supposed to be the same by any means. Being treated equally doesn’t mean treated the same. You don’t treat each of your friends exactly the same. They’re different people with different needs. But you treat them with equal respect and equal understanding that they deserve worth. It’s so deeply engrained that a lot of people don’t even recognize it. I’m just so used to it. You get hollered at and just try to play it off to make it the least awkward as possible. I was performing on stage and this dude literally grabbed my ass and ran out in the middle of a show in front of everyone. It was humiliating. My piano player stood up like he was gonna chase him down and what, beat him up? No. No. Sit down, stop. Everybody feel at ease. Is that the proper response? What am I supposed to do? Sit up there and give a dissertation on how messed up that is? I already struggle with anxiety. I just try to ignore and avoid and don’t make eye contact as much as possible. And sometimes when I’m in a bad mood or particular fired up or have had too much to drink, I’ll yell at somebody and call them a fuckface.
How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?
Something I struggle with a lot is when people come talk to the band after the show or on break, they say “Man, great drumming,” or “Great keys.” But to me they’ll say, “You’re dress is beautiful. I love those shoes.” I just sang my heart out for three hours and you’re going to tell me you love my hair or that I’m so beautiful? My guys can show up in t-shirts and jeans but if I turned up in t-shirts and jeans trying to do what I do, it would be not well received by the people booking and by the people watching.
Are there any particular stereotypes of men or of women that drive you insane?
I have a very good husband. He helps out with the girls a lot and he is just a better cook than I am. But the fact that he is helpful with the girls and will cook makes him lauded as the best husband. He is a great husband, I’m not taking that away. But I’m not lauded as the best wife because I take care of everything else. It’s just expected. It’s my job to literally take care of everything else. I take care of all the finances. I know where the girls are going at each moment. I keep the house in order. I run my music business and I work as a nurse. I’m always in charge of everything and it’s expected. There’s no one saying, “Wow, what a great wife you have.” He works full time and takes the girls to the park and cooks dinner and he’s the best dad in the world to people. It’s 2016. I work, too! We’re both working. I’m not saying I want to be lauded or that he shouldn’t be lauded but I’m saying there is a distinction that is so obvious. A man who cooks dinner or plays with his kid is a big deal. It’s just crazy to me. I work with nurses who work full time, go home, cook, and take care of their kids and that’s common.
I’ve started referring to it as the feminine guilt. It’s not a guilt that you’ve put on yourself but it’s still there.
It’s exhausting. You cannot be the best at everything. You cannot be the best mom, you cannot be the best at your job, and god forbid you’re like me and doing something else on the side like music. The guilt I have had to fight through to do this. It’s a weekend and I’m missing taking my kids to do something because I’m going to sing. It’s a job, I’m making money. I could be nursing and working through the weekend so it’s not that different but for some reason because I get enjoyment out of it, it feels worse. Do men feel that?