If you’re interested in something easy on the ears, Lewis & Leigh are not for you. It’s not that the simple, sparse melodies of the indie folk duo aren’t pleasing, but rather the songs are deeper than something you leave on in the background. They’re complete stories with well-rounded characters engaging in meaningful dialogue and interesting situations. They’re complex songs for complex times, and they reach deeply if you allow them.
We recently sat down with Al Lewis and Alva Leigh to hear more about their approach, their first-ever full-length album and the worlds they create for the listener.
You guys just officially wrapped recording on the album. What are the emotions at this point?
Alva: It was exciting to get it finished, but you always get so nervous and terrified about playing it to people. It all sounds so good when you’re in the tiny studio and you’re in your head, but once you get it out there, you get worried like, ‘Are we crazy? Is this going to be any good?’
What’s the process for letting people in? Do you have close friends and family who’ve heard it?
Al: Yeah, the process is slowly letting the people whose opinions you value hear it. You hope they enjoy it or at least see what you’ve tried to do. What I need to do personally is to just step away from it and have a little bit of a rest. You don’t listen to it as a regular listener but it’s almost as if you’re listening for the flaws rather than enjoying it as you hope other people will. I’m ready to go out and play the songs live, which is what I enjoy the most.
When you listen back, are you surprised when you take it all in?
Alva: We’ve made three EPs before over the last 18 months, so we’ve been writing as much as we can just trying to test out our different musical styles to land on what we feel like we identify with the most. We’ve released three different EPs with distinct sounds. When we went in for this album, we wanted to have this cohesiveness that wasn’t too far from our live show, which is just me and Al with a guitar, keyboards, and two voices. That’s pretty much it.
So we went in with this vision for a minimal album and I think it was finished that way. It’s always shocking how so few instruments can take up so much space. I think I’m glad that we really sat on our hands and didn’t say, ‘Okay, we need to add all these overdubs. We need to fill it out or flesh it out.’ It’s quite simple, which I think is good.
It can be hard to employ such restraint when you have so many tools at your disposal, to fill in or layer like you said.
Al: That’s something I think you only get with experience with recording as well. I think back to when I started off, I just wanted to throw the kitchen sink at everything I recorded. It’s only as you gain experience and realize that the thing that people connect to is the intimacy and also the personality of the song and what you’re saying. You can drown that in synths and backing vocals, but you’re not going to translate to people what you were hoping to say. I think Alva is right is that’s what we’ve tried to do — keep our voices and our message at the forefront of the album so there’s no mistaking what we’re trying to say.
You’ve referenced that a few times, about your message or what you’re trying to say. What is that message?
Alva: We always try to write songs from our personal experience, even though I know that’s the definition of being a songwriter. [Laughs] We’re very original. But I think that we’ve tried to pick songs that we feel we can stand behind honestly. We can point to where it originated. We wrote songs for the album and some started as freeform or elusive in terms of the lyric, but some of our best songs started with a conversation about what we should write about today. They’re stories that you can grab onto and make something out of.
Al: I think people relate to music in different ways. Some people go for the groove. Some people go for the melody. I think both of us wanted to make an album where it was a demanding listen. That’s the thing we kept saying to ourselves. It has to require a certain level of attention from the listener. That’s important to both of us, because it’s hard these days to demand attention because we’re all living such busy lives. Music can often be pushed into the background, but we didn’t want to make background music. We wanted it to be something that you had to really listen and get into.
Is that what you hear from people when they listen?
Al: The songs that we get feedback on from our audience are the ones where there’s a strong story or a sense of the characters in the song being well-rounded. That’s again why we said we want people to take time to listen. The songs we thought were hooky haven’t resonated as well because what we were saying wasn’t as strong. That’s helped us move our songwriting more into that direction, I guess.
Alva: Musically our audience really appreciates our harmony — both the vocal harmony and our arrangements. We write structurally quite simple songs, but we work really hard to make sure that our harmony is interesting and that it supports the song. Instead of playing just 1-4-5, and we have those songs, we try to find different pairings that continue to support the story of the song that make a world for the listener to come into. It’s a world that you get to occupy. That’s how I feel about my favorite albums is that it’s a place that you disappear into.