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Under the influence: Leila Lopez

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Under the influence: Leila Lopez

A new CD and a celebratory gig at Solar Culture has Lopez in good spirits

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On Sunday, I met with Leila Lopez in her childhood home off of 4th Avenue, with the noises and smells of the street fair encroaching, to talk about music in general and her own music in particular.

Lopez has old-time street fair nostalgia: "I loved the pony rides at the fair when I was a kid. I would sit here and look out the window at the ponies. I guess that now, I understand that those poor ponies were probably abused, but at the time, I loved it."

Lopez is celebrating the release of her second CD, "Faultlines," at Solar Culture Gallery on Saturday with an early, all-ages show. There is no cover charge for the show, and copies of "Fault Lines" will be on sale for $15. 

When asked why she titled the album as she did, Lopez described her take on the tectonics term as "uneven ground, but in more of a hopeful way. Maneuvering around giant gaps, things that happen over time."

Recorded and mixed painstakingly by Lopez at home, the album was mastered by Tucsonan Fen Ikner, drummer of frequent Lopez bill-sharers Seashell Radio.

So you feel like this is a hopeful record?
Yeah, even though it sounds really sad in some moments, catastrophic. But for the most part, it’s hopeful. You’ve got to seek out the hopeful parts.

Tell me about your guitar training.
My dad, Jamie Lopez, plays guitar, and when I was little, I would mess around with it. I was 4 or 5, and I started trying to play his guitar. But kids are clumsy and small and they drop things, so they bought be one of those little guitars from Nogales that I could kick around.

I don’t think they knew if I was going to play it, but I started learning by ear. My dad would teach me the beginning of a song and say "I’ll show you the rest later—"

What songs were they?
Well, the first one was "La Bamba," one note at a time using just my thumb. And then Roy Orbison’s "Pretty Woman" the same way. And then I just played what I knew. I’d make up little things, but I didn’t know any chords; it was just little lines that I knew.

When I hit 13 or 14, I got really into grungy music, like Soundgarden and Nirvana. It was so easy for me because it was the birth of the power chord. I was like, “This is so easy! Who knew?"

I never took any guitar lessons. 

And when did you start singing? When did you know you had a voice like you do?
I think I was 16 or 17. I played for a couple friends, and even that was super-hard for me. I didn’t start trying to sing my own songs in public until I was 20 or 21. I was in choir in high school; it was easier to sing in a group.

What part did you sing?
Second soprano.

First sopranos are really paid a disservice by choir, in that they sing the melody so much. You must have learned a lot about harmony.
That’s true, you have to figure out the supporting role. But it wasn’t like I was preparing to sing my own songs in all that falsetto.

Well, most pop songs are in the alto/tenor range, almost without exception.
It’s easier to support an artist in that range too.

When I play those tenors’ songs, though, I have to use a capo to change the key. You don’t, of course. 

Who are the guitarists that were most important in that process, that taught you by your playing along to their records?
A lot of jazz, and I became a fan of Joni Mitchell when I was just a tiny girl. Also Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, a lot of classics. I wasn’t seeking out guitar sounds in particular; it was more the melody that I became accustomed to.

Fleetwood Mac, too.

Any particular era? I mean, I am a "Rumours" girl myself, but I understand that lots of musicians rep for earlier stuff, like "Bare Trees."
I don’t think that they rest on one album. It’s too much. One record is just a hole to look through. It’s the whole span.

What song can’t you stop listening to?
It’s a Grand Archives song on their new album “Keep in Mind Frankenstein.” Something about the melody or the mood of that song just makes me put it on in my car every time I get into it. So good. They have great harmonies, and that airy spaciness of his voice is so good.

When a song gets you in that trance, does it tend to be the singing? The lyrics? Melody? Arrangement?
It’s not often the lyrics, although sometimes I will hear something I like and grab onto a lyric, and then it’s a double bonus. But it’s the sound that I am digging for.

When you get sick of rock music, what do you listen to?
Bossanova jazz, Andres Segovia classical stuff, I love that. I turn that on when I get blown out.

Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez?
Oh yeah, love that.

You have to hear Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” if you love the Rodrigo.

What singers do it for you, and why?
It’s always when you hear them singing and you can hear them tearing apart or something. It’s not that clean-cut sound. I first noticed it with Led Zeppelin; Robert Plant is just wailing. I mean, his intonation is fine and technically, he’s good, but you can almost see the threads of his body just tearing open.

I could say that about Brandi Carlisle in the pop genre. You can almost ser her soul when she sings. The mood that they are feeling is presented by the way their voice sounds. I like it when it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Leila Lopez, pick your dream band. Dead or alive, any number of pieces you want.
Well it’s hard when you feel like you have already found your dream band. I am so happy with my entire band.

I would want Andy Stochansky, Ani DiFranco’s old drummer. Sorry, Bruce [Halper, Lopez’s current drummer]. He is the most on-the-spot drummer I have ever heard backing up a folk act.

I would want the bassist from Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Bakithi Kumalo.

Oh, and I’d want Bjork’s entire string section. She’ll piece together like 64 players, and they are always so amazing.

What’s it like being a woman playing music in a man’s man’s man’s man’s world?
The only time that it’s really tricky for me is when people come up to me and they are actually surprised [that I can play]; initially I am flattered, but there is something weird underneath that. I mean, why couldn’t I play well? We are all just people.

And when you’re a girl and you play an acoustic guitar, you just get thrown into this category, “Oh, you’re a folksinger.” You’re immediately categorized. It’s hard to get booked except with other girl bands. We live in a town that’s so musically rich, it’s annoying to be met with that kind of thing.

Do you have any “tricks of your trade” to share with musicians? Anything about your setup or technique that you want to reveal?
I never use a pick; I have fake nails that I get done at a salon. I have them put this heavy-duty acrylic on my right hand. And I still cut my hands up, but I used to just shred my hands, I’d grin and bear it, but it was bloody and awful. My friend Pete Ekstam saw me play, and he saw it, and he told me he went to a salon every two weeks. I did it, and it totally changed my life.

Do you feel like there are “untouchable” songs or artists, that should never be covered? I mean, I would rather never hear another cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as John Cale and Jeff Buckley pretty much owned that.
Well, yeah, a lot of bands. When you are covering a band of a certain caliber, you’re never going to touch it. These groundbreaking bands like The Beatles, I mean, anyone can play their songs, obviously, but you really can’t touch what they were reaching for or what they did.

Jimi Hendrix too, because he would go into this weirdly intuitive style, with his eyes rolled back in his head. Nobody else had ever done it, and you can’t just redo it efficiently.

What’s your favorite driving music?
Instrumental bands. Do Make Say Think, Explosions in the Sky, Pelican.

What about Godspeed You Black Emperor?
I actually just got introduced to them. I need to hear more. I also like to listen to new music on the road, because when you are driving, you can really listen.

If you were a superhero, what would your theme song be?
I think it would be ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” really poppy and ridiculous, because I’d have to have this gold cape and boots up to here. I am already seeing it.

Beatles or Stones?
Beatles, “Abbey Road.” It’s just such a solid record. Every single song.

Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
Neil Young, “Heart of Gold.” I love Dylan too though.

Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday?
Ella. I love Ella. She has this sound, there is something really round about it. I love Billie too, but there is just something about Ella that feels so comfortable to slip into.

Are you a sad-songs-when-you’re-sad person, or a cheery-songs-to-lift-you person, and what do you turn to in those rough moments?
A happy songs person. The one that I was using most recently was Liam Finn, “Energy Spent.” Man, that song picks me right up. And I got into an old Phoenix song, “If I Ever Feel Better.”

I don’t feel like I need any help to feel sad. I would rather hear something uplifting. And it usually works.


If you go

Leila Lopez "Faultlines" CD release party at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. Saturday at 7 p.m. All ages, no cover.

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