Throughout singer/songwriter Leslie Nuss’ vast travels, she’s found herself magnetically attracted to the fashion magazines plastered across airport newsstands, coffeehouse facades and hotel lobbies. The Chicago born artist (who’s previously spent a residency in New York but since returned home) has always found the eye catching headlines, glossy covers and glitzed up models to be especially intriguing, not necessarily at face value, but with an underlying sense of humor as demonstrated on the cover of her brand new self-titled endeavor.
“I’m kind of paying an odd homage, but sort of poking fun at how they get caught up in trying to catch people’s eyes with a twisted sense of reality,” she shares. “I have a degree in design, and though the music is the most important element of the record making process, there’s no reason the booklet can’t be art as well.”
Those perusing the linear notes will not only be greeted by Nuss’ provocative poses and outrageous headlines, but several pages of lyrics laid out in article format, along with a mock interview and centerpiece spreads. And just like the latest issue of Vogue, viewers can’t help but lock their eyes on each image and soak up the content at hand.
“I’ve always liked different types and fonts and the different layout options out there,” Nuss explains. “It’s sort of a reading of our culture, which mostly picks up information with their eyes first and then their ears. Why not incorporate that into a really appealing visual package?”
Not only does the artist have her finger on the pulse of America’s societal stereotypes with that perfectly pinpointed theory, but Nuss follows through just as solid in musical contexts. Spread across ten tracks, the acoustic guitar slinger offers an outpouring of personal observations, wry narratives and poetic prowess, evoking all the elements of a stellar project.
The entire project was recorded in the Big Apple with an all-star behind the scenes cast, including producer Mike Shimshack, engineer Kyle Kelso (Tony C), mandolin and slide player Ann Klein (Joan Osborne, The B-52’s Kate Pierson) plus guitarists John Balicanta and Brian Spina and drummer Alex Smolinski (all from Epic/DC Flag act Lola Ray). Besides the ammunition of those key players, Sterling Sounds’ Greg Calbi (known for his influential work with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Spingsteen and David Bowie) mastered the record.
In addition to the influence of collaborators, the recording environment also had an apparent impact on the lyrical infrastructure. Take for instance the appropriately titled “New York City,” a track that wraps the city’s most archetypical images- like scenic drives, strips of shops and taxi hopping- wrapped under a joyous romance. It’s joined by the empowering “Blanket of Stars,” which Nuss dually equates as a “thank you” to lifelong friends who’ve always stuck by her side and an anthem for any artist courted by an industry insider whose intentions go beyond a career boost. Resolution to her midwestern roots is provided throughout “I Was Not Made For This World,” comically tracing the frustrations of day-to-day apartment life and a longing for home.
“New York was just a different world all together than what I was used to, but sometimes that’s what stretches you the most personally and as a songwriter,” Nuss relates. “I remember being so sad when my landlord bought me out of my apartment over there, but it worked in my favor because I took the money and made this record!”
Indeed that blessing in disguise also yielded colorful cuts like “He’s Not Gay (He Just Doesn’t Like You),” “If You Were My Boyfriend” and “What Do I Do To Make You Mine,” all of which incorporate earthy organics with rocker girl instincts. They’re joined by the sexually charged “Drive,” which personifies passion with clever car metaphors and the graceful tribute to the songbird’s aging mother “Setting Sun,” riddled with emotional imagery and sonic delicacy. Though Nuss is hard to stylistically pigeonhole, fans of Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow and even early Liz Phair will likely fawn over this fodder.
“I’ve been inspired by so many people, but in terms of female artists, probably the most by Sheryl Crow,” she reveals. “There’s a lot of rootsy pop/rock on the record. While we were making it, we talked about 60s surf up through Matthew Sweet. I think we really ran the gamut of so many different things- maybe even some English artists and some new wavey type things too.”
Aside from all the accomplished outpourings on LESLIE NUSS, the performer also has her share of past acclaim. Both her 1998 debut Heliotrope and 2001’s follow-up Action Hero Superstar (both on Littleleaf Records) earned rave reviews, plus placements on several prominent prime-time TV shows. Nuss’ single “Time Capsule” made it’s way to a NBC’s sitcom All About Us and a Dawson’s Creek DVD, while “Fragile Flower” also landed on the latter program and the fellow DVD for Significant Others. (Most recently, two of the singer’s songs appeared in the independent film Indian Cowboy). Add in coast-to-coast performances, London appearances, plus opening slots for Julie Gold, Antigone Rising and Jill Sobule, and Nuss’ appreciation base extends well beyond the windy city.
“The plan is to stay visible and keep playing gigs around and out of town,” she summarizes. “There’s a process of rebuilding that comes with every record and the word is currently being spread once again. I would love it if some fashion magazines reviewed this and I want to get back to England again to play some more shows. You never know what’s gonna happen, but there’ll be plenty to keep me moving!”
What kind of songs do you write if you feel like you've been biding your time, waiting for a chance to come back, like a character in an Alexandre Dumas novel? What kind of songs do you write after you've been uprooted, trying to make a new life in a foreign land? What kind of songs do you write from the perspective of the second gender in music? What kind of music do you make if you realize that if this music truly is for you, then it better be what you want? What kind of music do you make if you hip-hop across the country searching for the right kind of vibe? What kind of artwork do you ask for that is beautiful and strong and symbolic as well as celebratory and victorious?
2017: In the middle of recording 2 eps. But here's some info:
Leslie Nuss is more than a singer-songwriter with a beguiling voice and insanely catchy songs. This poet- sorceress has a gift for channeling her life experiences into a sound that evokes universal truths and shared trials.
Leslie Nuss has seen it, done it, lived it. All the beauty, disappointment, sadness and glory of life can be found in her songs. She’s a Midwestern sage who experienced growth and tribulation in NYC, and has been a powerful sonic presence throughout the course of four remarkable albums (Heliotrope, Action Hero Superstar, Round 3, and Leslie Nuss). Each of her records features numerous hook-filled pop and rock tracks of memorable honesty and grace. These are songs that incite helpless whistling and humming long after the track has ended.
But Leslie Nuss hasn’t released any music in nearly 10 years. Where has she gone?
Leslie has returned to her roots, put down new roots – and has recorded some of the most profoundly moving music of her career. New tracks like Glory Days and Deaths Door speak to the adversity and uncertainties that we all face, rendered with deepened emotional intensity and a spiritual richness that would make Van Morrison proud. In these, and songs like Shook Me and Anybody Out There, Leslie articulates emotional truths for us all – we have all been scarred by life’s journey. Yet, Leslie offers a way forward, mindful of the past, aspiring to transcendence. If that’s not enough for you, just listen to the music – these songs are rendered in accessible yet achingly beautiful tones of abject worldly splendor.
With her new music, Leslie Nuss proves herself to be a restless seeker, whose captivating melodies and incantatory vocals blend with raw and heartfelt passion, all of which speak volumes of courage and strength. Leslie Nuss is blazing a path across life’s diverse adversities, to a warm and inviting place that feels like home. Take her home; she’ll be speaking your language.
Rich Kaminsky, Nov 2016
2015: After an extended hiatus involving marriage, births and several deaths, Leslie Nuss has been slowly building herself back up. First with regular gig at a local pub with cellist Elizabeth Allen, then since late 2014 with a new band, SPECX, made up of local musicians Peter Kiafas on electric guitar, Chris Gall on drums and Lin Wyatt on bass. "The freedom to rehearse and fine tune new songs over time has been liberating," Nuss says. She's been newly inspired by the death of a good friend and what it means for those of us left behind. "I can't say my writing is wholly different than my previous recordings, but as we get older, our perspective changes, and I'm looking for hope and release from the past." One song that Nuss recently wrote with SPECX involves a recurring dream she's had for the 10+ years after she left New York for Chicago in 2002. It's called, "Subway" and is an incantation of sorts about, "These dreams of traipsing through New York, sifting through life only to end up on a subway platform going back and forth, back and forth."
SPECX played its first live gig in late 2014 in a barn Nuss and her husband converted into a private bar/performance space. "It was one of the best gigs I've ever played," she said. "The energy was better (for me) than before, there was a comfort level that I'd never experienced and a joy with the understanding that we're still doing this."