Interview with Leslie Hunt
of District 97
DPRP’s John O’Boyle
I had the great pleasure of being able to review Leslie Hunt‘s latest album Wait For It and bag an interview with her in the process. Result………. What followed wass an open discussion about American Pop Idol, (someone qualified to comment), being mentored by Jim Peterik, District 97 and more importantly her latest solo venture.
Leslie: My pleasure, John!
John: Just for those who aren’t familiar with you would you like to give yourself a brief introduction?
Leslie: Sure, my name is Leslie Hunt and I am a singer/songwriter as well the lead singer for District 97.
John: I believe you were mentored early on in your career by the great Jim Peterik. How did this come about?
Leslie: Jim had expressed an interest in working with a high schooler who was pursuing music, particularly songwriting, and my name was brought to his attention as I had just recorded and released a six song demo of all original compositions.
John: It must have been a dream come true to have been working with such a song smith and performer?
Leslie: It really was. He imparted so much wisdom onto me, and he definitely acknowledged my gift at an integral time, given that being a teenager is not without it’s share of debilitating self-doubt.
John: Are there any recordings knocking about from that encounter?
Leslie: There are! There’s a three song live demo called “Live at Norris Center” which was the first time I opened for Jim, and it features all the guys he was using in his band at the time. There is also a five song demo, including a Stevie Wonder cover, which I did not name because it was recorded as part of a development deal I landed with Sony. Actually, Jim and I have plans to get together over the next couple weeks, because he recently had everything re-mastered and I wanted to make it available.
John: How did you end up going from being in the top ten females in 2007’s on American Idol to being the vocalist with District 97?
Leslie: Jonathan, the leader/drummer/primary composer of District 97, asked me to open for them when they were an instrumental band, because we all went to music school together. When I heard them, my jaw was on the ground, and I told Jonathan that I wanted to be in their band. He then got to work writing new songs that would include me, and the rest is history!
John: Prior to you joining the band weren’t District 97 an instrumental band?
Leslie: Yes, and they were incredible. I had never seen anything like it.
John: It is quiet easy for people to bash shows like American Idol and Pop Idol, (here in the UK), but now having the chance to ask someone who has actually been through the process for real and not to court controversy, what is it really like?
Leslie: It’s definitely a TV show trying to be entertaining, and sometimes I would catch myself forgetting that aspect, only to be rudely awakened when I saw the pre-taped episodes all edited down. I don’t regret it, but it took a lot of healing to recover from that amount of public scrutiny at a time when my skin was particularly thin.
John: What made you choose the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusses song Feeling Good, which I might add matched if not surpassed Cy Grants version, with your sultry smoky performance?
Leslie: Before I decided to audition for the show, I had been playing with a band called Mark Twang and when we would perform that song, people usually went wild. I chose it because I thought I could really sell it, and I thought it would help set me apart from the other contestants.
John: Where you given free run on what you could sing or where the songs allocated?
Leslie: Yeah, pretty much! So long as it was cleared in publishing, it was fair game.
John: Given the opportunity would you go through the process again?
Leslie: I think I would have waited, watched a season, learned some things, recorded an album and THEN auditioned, instead of auditioning on a whim after having never seen the show and then also not having anything in place for when so many millions of eyes were on me. I think it could have been a great tool if used properly.
John: On your debut solo album Your Hair On Fire you worked with Vinnie Colaiuta and Vail Johnson. What was it like working with these gentlemen?
Leslie: It was like witnessing a rhythm section master class. I played piano and sang along with them for every song, just to show them the form and give them dynamic inspiration. We recorded all thirteen songs in two days, and would just listen to each song a couple times before tracking. We only played it a couple times and it was always magical.
John: How did they come to be involved with your album?
John: What do you feel where the highlights of recording your first solo album?
Leslie: The whole thing was such a process… We recorded in LA, Nashville and Chicago, and I would say, besides tracking with Vinnie and Vail, the highlight for me was sitting in the co-producer Christian Cullen’s apartment, working on the programming. I was listening to a lot of electronic music at the time, and I call Christian my sandbox buddy because we got to just sit there and try things out for hours on end.
John: Between the release of your debut and your forthcoming album Wait For It, you released an album with District 97, Hybrid Child which was DPRP recommended. Your vocal phrasing on the album is completely different from anything else I have heard by you. How do you feel the album was received?
Leslie: I feel like people really like Hybrid Child, and I’m glad they do, because it was a step in a new direction for me, but one that has since become a vital part of who I am as an artist and performer.
John: A particular favourite track for me on the album is Termites, which has a rather unusual video to accompany it. What would you select as your favourite songs?
Leslie: Off of Hybrid Child, I would say the my favorite song is also Termites, because the lyrics that I wrote for that came from such a passionate place and I get very fired up when we perform it live.
John: Performing some of these songs live can’t be easy?
Leslie: That’s what I love about them! Every show we do it like the ultimate endurance test. My stage persona is one of boundless energy, and the notes that the guys write for me to sing are all over the map, so at the end of each show, I feel like I got my workout in for the week.
John: What was it like playing the RoSfest in 2011?
Leslie: That was probably my favorite show to date, honestly. The crowd was absolutely unreal and the meet and greet afterwords was just as awesome as the show itself!
John: In the near future, will the band be playing any shows live in the UK?
Leslie: We are working on it, I assure you. With the release of our second album Trouble With Machines, we hope to get some opportunities overseas.
John: Which do you prefer, playing live or working in the studio?
John: So Wait For It is your second solo album. How different was it in the creative department compared to working with District 97?
Leslie: The creative process behind my solo album and that of District 97 is a little different, but there are familial aspects to both. With my solo album, I worked tightly with Rick Chudacoff and Christian Cullen, and engineer, Greg Panciera. Although the compositions were all products of my solitude, the album was a wonderful and effortless group effort of bringing each song to life in the best and most honest light possible. With District 97, our dense arrangements are all decided on ahead of time, and we mostly produce our own albums, with some help this time around from engineer Chris Harden. We discuss and listen to everything as a band, and have a very functional relationship.
John: The songs on the album all seem to have a bit of a dark under current? Would you like to talk us through each track?
Leslie: The entire album explores the concept of patience and acceptance. The Air Left discusses the aftermath of my sister dying in 2008, and how crippled I had become in losing her. As the song progresses, I start to heal and realise that the life I had set up while in that state no longer fits. In My Shoes was written to keep myself from going crazy whilst waiting for my boyfriend to decide to move back to Chicago from New York. Wait For It is about divorce when there is a kid involved. Right To My Heart is about the faith necessary for holding out for “the one”, and what a relationship “the one” might look like, which, to me, is fantastic communication. Wake Up Call was written about an emotional coward that I used to date. To Me, You’re Everything was written about my current boyfriend, and how he moved away right when we started dating, but I was willing to wait for him. Soon Enough was written in response to yet another frustrating dating experience, and all the questioning that goes on when it’s not right. Let It Be Lovely was the first song I wrote after a two year writing hiatus, and it talks about fending off the negative thoughts that creep into your head and keep you from making progress, be it on a new song you working on, or in a relationship. Loud & Clear is about the view you get when you take the negative clutter away.
John: What is your chosen tool for song writing, guitar or piano?
Leslie: These days, I’d say it’s about half and half, although I am definitely more comfortable writing on piano. Sometimes great songs come from being uncomfortable, though, so I definitely use both.
John: How does the writing process work for you? Do you write the melody and then come up with the lyrics or vice versa?
Leslie: Sometimes everything happens at once, and sometimes the melody happens first, but the lyrics never come first. I think they did once, but I was seventeen years old and it was basically like a journal entry put to music.
John: One thing that is very noticeable about the album is the attention to detail both musically and lyrically. For me the lyrical content is crucial and can make or break a song. A particular favourite of mine is, “The final straw that broke the back / It doesn’t come to mind / I only know we needed a pipeline / To get out in time”, from the title track, Wait For It. How do you come up with such powerful and memorable statements?
Leslie: Wow, thank you. I have come to terms with the fact that, more often than not, my songwriting process is brutal. I usually come up with at least three complete drafts of lyrics before I find what the song really needs. Imagery and metaphor are hugely important to me as a lyricist, and also how the words sound phonetically, so sometimes lyrics come from a gibberish improvisation may or may not end up being actual words.
John: If I was to press the button on your I-Pod, what would we be hearing?
Leslie: Graveyard by Feist.
John: Which song to wish you had written?
Leslie: In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel.