With Firehorse Leah Siegel stops self-sabotaging her career
Leah Siegel has been something of a hired gun. She was asked to sing on the upcoming record from rapper Ja Rule, has written or co-written numerous songs for commercials, and clients have asked her to sound like everyone from Julie Andrews to Kelly Clarkson to Nina Simone. It paid the bills, barely, but it also wreaked havoc with Siegel's attempts to get a solo career up and running.
"I’m lucky that I have that range of character and identity, but it sure has been confusing," said Siegel, who will perform Tuesday night at the Bootleg Theater with Holly Miranda and ex-Shudder to Think singer Craig Wedren. "It’s a big bag of tricks, and I started feeling like my life was really fragmented because of it. I started feeling confused all the time. For someone who is already confused about most things, it was not helpful."
In order to be herself, Siegel adopted a new identity. With her debut album as Firehorse, she has crafted a nine-track album that shows off her vocal range and drapes it in adventurous orchestral pop arrangements.
The album, "And So They Ran Faster…," ranges from the playfully eerie electronics of "She's a River," a more down-to-earth-sounding Björk, to the grand movie-musical pop of "Machete Gang Holiday." There's plenty of melodic oddities between those extremes, such as "Puppet," a breathy, warped take on vintage soul with Portishead-like effects, swooning backing vocals and a snaking, classic rock guitar.
"I don’t mean to say I’m split personality," she said, "or to say I have a really bad mental disorder, but if I had to choose to be one thing, I don’t even know what that would be.
"One of the things I really wanted on the record was huge, huge backing vocals that reminded me of the great Disney movies I loved as a kid. I was always inspired by that sound and continue to be, once I realized that’s the same sound on some great Elvis and Roy Orbison records. That was part of my thesis."
That childhood Disney reference is key to understanding Siegel's fearless mix of styles and collision of modern-day studio effects with time-honored pop arrangements. The 32-year-old Brooklyn resident released her solo debut, "Little Mule," under her own name back in 2006, an album that hints at Siegel's ambitions but that sticks more closely to sultry acoustics. While she's proud of the record, she reflected on it by comparing it to a photograph in which she was unrecognizable.
"It was kind of a façade of me," she said. "I was really scared to go all the way me, but I got over it. What’s the point if you’re not going to really do it? Everything I did was in conflict with itself. I knew I was supposed to be a performer. I knew that singing and songwriting was the thing I did best. At the same time, I felt bad asking people to pay attention to me. That’s the stupidest thing ever. It’s a bizarre type of self-sabotage."
She broke free from her insecurities with Firehorse, and numerous songs on the album document the emotional torment. "Machete Gang Holiday" is a bouncy sing-along about being unapologetically happy, even when a city is populated with "kamikaze feral cats" and sword-wielding criminals. "Our Hearts," meanwhile, strikes a somber tone but does so with handclaps and strums of a guitar that sound like strikes of a harp. The song was written shortly after Siegel moved into her own apartment, only to have it burglarized weeks later.
"The song was written when I realized I had no control over anything," she said. "I have no control over my apartment and my security. I have no control over my security and my home even when I am there. I have no control over what happens when I so much as step off the curb. We all have to live in some sort of denial to even get out of bed every day. Every day is a risk, and you have no control over any of it. I finally accepted all that in a 12-step program sort of way. Once I realized that, it was one of the most amazing feelings."
The burglary eventually helped Siegel get over her personal hang-ups, in which she said she would talk herself out of composing or writing for fear of how those close to her might receive it. By choosing the name Firehorse, she said, she could create the "mental space" in which she could play whatever character she wanted. That in itself was freeing enough that Siegel isn't concerned at the moment about the debt the album racked up.
"I made a music video earlier this year, and between that and taxes, I knew I would run into serious trouble," she said. "I’ll tell you something: I do not have a dollar right now. All the money has to go right back into the art. I’m sure I could have been smarter about a bunch of stuff, but I have no idea how I’m paying rent next month. I don’t regret any of it."
Is that a childishly carefree attitude? Perhaps, but that's the point.
"I could take care of myself and I was independent, but I was naïve about people’s perceptions of me," Siegel said. "I had spent so much time thinking that I was a broken person. Then I had the memory of being a little girl -- it’s hard to explain -- but it was the realization that I’m not broken. I took a couple massive leaps of faith and started accepting myself. I started doing things that I hadn’t done before because I had always judged them.
"I started dancing a lot," she continued, "and just started playing -- playing the way you would when you’re a child."
Firehorse with Holly Miranda and Craig Wedren at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $10.
-- Todd Martens
Photo courtesy Tijuana Gift Shop