Kathy Leisen lives in a former bait shop on an East Side canal street, has perfect teeth, and might be Detroit's last best-kept musical secret. An interdisciplinary visual and performance artist as well as a musician, she is not in fact from California, despite everyone thinking she is all the time — from both alleged "vibes" and her blonde hair and tan skin combination. Maybe that comes from her Mom, who is from California?
More likely, the vibes emanate from her output. Leisen's work in any media is playful and intense, yet appears effortless. She doesn't release records or perform too regularly, either with her band Soft Location or solo. But her music is haunting, melodic, and wholly idiosyncratic. And honestly, it's as perfect as those teeth. Last week, her band Soft Location, for whom she writes all the songs, released its third LP, Land Electric.
That's cool if you haven't heard about it yet. The group isn't playing locally until August; the album is self-released, and they don't have the dough to hire a publicist. A collaboration with the band Tall Firs under the name Glass Rock was released on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label in 2009, and Leisen has two other musical projects in town, but they've yet to release anything. You might easily live here and even be a total music nerd and never have heard Soft Location or Leisen.
While a Detroit band, two of Soft Location's members no longer live in the area; the keyboard player lives on the west side of the state in Berrien Springs, while the bassist lives in New York City. Soft Location has never toured, never had their music used in a film, TV show, or commercial, and the only radio station to ever have shown them any love outside of Ann Arbor is Jersey City's taste-making WFMU. Their ideal show, the one they have talked about since first getting together, is a prom.
Leisen started Soft Location in 2002 after Matt Kantor, an old pal from high school, gave her a guitar and she figured out how to play it. A similar thing happened a few years ago, when a different friend gave her an electric piano, on which she now plays what producer and fan Warren Defever calls "made-up chords." Leisen's music isn't avant-garde; it's pop music, and is meant to be. And her songs are all love songs, even — hard to be more conventional than that.
But the songs have their own internal herky-jerky rhythms, and often resist traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. There's the sense that this is the only way this band can exist, that their aesthetic choices are probably not even something they talk about much. When you see Soft Location play live, the keyboardist holds his instrument in his lap and it's falling off his legs the whole time, as if no one ever told him that a keyboard stand is a thing you can use. The drummer plays left-handed while sitting on milk crates in a way that looks a bit awkward. It's so good.
Soft Location is Ben Good on synthesizer; Matt Kantor on bass; Chris Morris on drums and percussion; and Leisen on guitar, keyboards, and vocals.
Where their first two LPs — Diamonds and Gems (Senseless Empier, 2005) and Fools (Physical Things, 2013) sounded like some lost 1980s pop classic with baroque 1960s elements woven into its DNA — Land Electric (Wet Tracks, 2017) is fuller-sounding, despite there being less guitar in the mix. Leisen's vocals are front and center, and it's never been clearer that she could be a solo R&B singer if she wanted to. When she starts to sing, you don't want her to stop. Leisen's vocal prowess and songwriting skills themselves are the clear focus of Land Electric. The thing was recorded back in 2013, and produced by Aaron Mullan and Defever.
Defever, who dislikes most contemporary rock-based music, is over the moon about Soft Location. He has also recorded unreleased solo music by Leisen for probable use in a future solo record. "A few years ago I was leaving a party, and thought no one had noticed me slipping out the door without having said goodbye, when a friend met me at my truck and handed me an LP and said 'I want you to have this; I think you'll really like it,'" Defever says. "I politely thanked them, although that is what people say when they give me really terrible music, so I placed the LP in the back of my pickup, where it stayed for six months. By the time I brought Diamonds and Gems by Soft Location into the house, it was beat up pretty bad, and the cover had a record ring."
"The first time I actually listened to Soft Location, it turned out I did really like it; I loved it," Defever continues. "It's perfect. I couldn't reverse-engineer it in my head. I couldn't see the lines where the pieces had fit together; it was as if it had just occurred naturally — each song a beautiful, perfect thing. It was such a mystery, an uncrackable nut. I mentioned it to my friend Davin Brainard, and he said he knew them and they played the album all the time at the Bronx. We went to the Bronx bar, and it wasn't just on the jukebox, but the album's title song "Diamonds and Gems" was playing when we walked in the door. How could there be a band so great from Detroit, that sounded so perfect, that I had never heard of before, that contained nobody I already knew? Was this a dream? Did I hit my head? Was I in a coma? A short time later, I received a message from the band asking "would you record us" and again I couldn't believe this was really happening. I told them I was their biggest fan, and the rest is history."
Leisen and I meet on a rainy Wednesday afternoon at Trinosophes in Eastern Market. Leisen drinks a Topo Chico and is still beaming over the fact that I asked her to send me the lyrics to the new album. I'm especially taken with the words to "The Park," with their New York School poetry-type heavy simplicity. The song starts out with only the sound of drums and echoey vocals, and then slowly bass, keyboards, and more vocals are introduced.
It begins "Walked in the park again/ Went around a few times/ Thinking that I love my friends/ And my new life/ And now that things have settled down/ I still feel lost/ And every time I get with a new man/ I just pause." Which is so perfect. Who doesn't do that with a new love or crush? A little later on the song goes, "I can dance and drink all night/ I'm like a modern man/ I can do what I like/ But after you/ I'm so afraid I'll let it down/ After you, I'm so ashamed I'll fail somehow."
Metro Times: Let's start with this song on here, "The Park." You perfectly nail those fears anyone has when starting to fall in love.
Kathy Leisen: That song definitely gets to like that feeling of, "Is it just me who can't get this right? Because right now it sure feels like it." That feeling is like ugh, you know. And certainly everyone feels that, right? I mean I'd imagine so; I only know what it's like to be me. That song is very fun to play with the band because everyone seems to connect emotionally to it.
To me that's always the magic of this band, is that it's like an emotional Voltron. You know Voltron? There are different people, and they're all in these machines, and they come together to form a giant machine. That's how it feels, that wonderful feeling of a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. Separate, it's not the same. I've always found that to be the same both musically and emotionally with this band.
This band rarely plays live and the trajectory of the band is a 15-year span, at this point. This is our third real record, and this was recorded four years ago. I think because we have been a band for so long, and we have no plans of stopping being a band, it's just that the spacing is not the same as other bands. We live in different cities, so we're just going at a different pace.
MT: How do you feel about this music four years later?
Leisen: Like do I have more insight, or less insight or any insight? I would say some combination; I'm thrilled. When I listen to the songs, and the lyrics here, I think I'm less judgmental now. I'm less critical and in general, I'm more appreciative of the fact that so many talented people are involved on it. Mostly, I feel appreciative.
MT: You've now known these people in Soft Location for close to half your life now?
Leisen: Yes, well Matt Kantor the bass player who I started Soft Location with in 2002; we met in high school. The group has always been a familial relationship. Ben Good is the synthesizer player and Chris Morris is the drummer and we all met at Utrecht Art Supplies, which now is Blick. Chris and I met while working at Utrecht, which was always a blast, the people you met while working there, at the corner of Warren St. and Woodward Ave. And Ben was one of them; he came to Wayne State to go to graduate school for art, so we met him.
MT: Utrecht was an interesting place to work?
Leisen: It was sometimes drug-influenced behavior on display, but there was always so much eccentricity, yes. That to me is continually fascinating — like, what is the line between what is art and what isn't, you know? Personally I find the line offensive, but that's just me. There's that idea that I've heard attributed to different people, but the distinction being if it's manipulative, then that's not genuine.
MT: That brings me to the idea of persona in your lyrics, and how directly I connect to them on an emotional level, at the same time that there is a remove here; you're able to find humor in situations that at the time might be painful.
Leisen: I don't even know why I'm compelled to write songs, it's just that I have a feeling and I want to do something with it. And songwriting gives me a vehicle to explore it, get it out, find comfort, share with my friends, with my bandmates. I can make this thing that is then able to interact in a much more fun way than when it's just inside me. Now I'm 39, and I definitely feel much different as a human than when we recorded Land Electric. I would say it's a wave that I ride. And the music just seemed to come to me as a natural thing to do.
MT: You have more than one way that you express yourself. What is it that makes something come out in visual art, and what makes it become a song?
Leisen: Music is much more primal. With art and visual things it's more about ideas. Music feels like a deep place inside of me that I don't understand. And music itself is the way I engage with that.
MT: Is there a theme to this album? Three of the songs have the word "love" in the title.
Leisen: Oh, yes! Though I can find broader meanings in these songs, they're love songs in the sense of being about another person or my relationship to another person. And when we chose the selection of the songs we did it this way because we felt like at the end of "Careless Lives," it just becomes a loop. You can see the album as a whole, just the cycle of emotions of any romantic affair. There are just so many highs and lows, and at the end she's in love again and then is like, "What's this feeling, I don't know this feeling; I don't trust this feeling," on and on. So now when I write lyrics, I'm not focused on that, and I think that gives a totally different feeling.
MT: What are they focused on now? Have you given up on love?
Leisen: I feel that I've expanded my definition or maybe... I'm not sure. When I think of romanticism — and I think definitely these songs have a fair amount of romanticism going on in them — I think of being removed. Because to me romanticizing a place or a person or a feeling is making it almost fictionalized. Because it's the idea of it that is so lovely. Now when I write, I'm more focused on trying to be more direct.
The songs on Land Electric sound like a person who's conflicted, and that's often been my experience in romantic relationships — feeling conflicted. Emotions are so complex, and I think a lot of times when I'm compelled to write a song I don't know what's going on, when they're red, green, blue, purple. Like in "Careless Lives," when the line is "I think I want to settle down/ I think I want to pick up and move." I don't know up or down, but I want. "I want to stare at the sun." I want to be obliterated.
MT: Will we be able to see Soft Location perform these songs live?
Leisen: Yes, we're playing at the BFF festival in August; I'm very excited. We're making plans to record another one, hopefully when we get together then. With some of my newer keyboard songs, actually, so that will be interesting to see how that goes.
MT: And you have a solo record in the works, right? What else?
Leisen: Yes, that will happen when it happens. I recorded with Warren in the last year. And I have recorded with another band in New York where I play drums, and Matt is the bass player, and our friend Alex is the guitar player; it's called No Motion. We finished half of a record and are planning on doing more. Then I play here in Detroit in a band here called Raft House which features Nathan Shafer, Jaime Lutzo, and Jordan Schug, who also plays cello on Land Electric. We recorded an album at that church near Roosevelt Park, Assemble Sound.
MT: How is making a Soft Location record different from a solo one?
Leisen: The past two records, and this one in particular, I spent a huge amount of energy on in terms of organizing. And I was like, "We've got to do this," and worked so hard to get all these different people involved. This was an extremely ambitious undertaking. I kept wanting to add more things on.
While I was recording a solo record, I had a tremendous realization about myself: Because I'm the leader of Soft Location, and always found myself uncomfortable in that role, I'd be frustrated. What I found as I have been working on the solo record is that working with these people and being in this band gave me a tremendous amount of courage, and I didn't even know. It's a feeling I revel in: of appreciation, and humility.
Now, Chris has taken on a leadership role, and that's the whole reason this record is out there. He started a label to release it called Wet Tracks, and created a website, soft-location.com.
MT: And what else is up with arts-based work and your own stuff?
Leisen: I got a lot of stuff going on; it's all very good. I'm working on a project to create work for a billboard downtown, above that bar Queens. And the Totems Riverfront Arts Festival will happen again in August, so I'll do another performance there. And I have an exciting job for the summer, which is to help raise money with a crowdfunding campaign for Dabl's MBAD African Bead Museum.
Fifteen years from now, one of those deluxe reissue labels will probably do a supreme box set in whatever the preferred retro media of the time is — DAT tapes? A trunk filled with 78s? For now, you can pick up The Land Electric at fine local record stores, and catch them at the Seraphine Collective's BFF Fest this August.