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INTERVIEW: Leslie Vincent on Debut Albums, Making It Through Quarantine, and Puzzle Rooms

Art for Minneapolis vocalist Leslie Vincent’s debut album. Design by Brittany Ottum.

International quarantines and self-isolation directives have brought many things to a halt across the globe. For Minnesotans, however, being forced to stay at home is a seasonal event. Even in these extraordinary times, the urge to create art and connect with others runs strong. Life – and art – will find a way. With the Internet as their aide, they can even find an audience.

Vocalist Leslie Vincent’s debut album These Foolish Things is in many ways a triumph against all that Mother Nature has thrown out over the past few months. The songs were recorded amidst blizzards and winter chills, and the album mixed and mastered in quarantine conditions. The result is a showcase of Vincent’s trademark wit, soulful vocals, and riveting aural and stage presence. The album drops this Monday, available in CD and Internet download form.

Vincent spoke with the Arts Reader about recording her debut album.

These Foolish Things drops on Monday.

When and how did you decide to commit to making this album?

People kept asking if I had recordings they could buy. One day, I decided to respond and just make an album, so I talked with George Maurer – my mentor, my keyboardist, and my arranger on the album. George helped guide me through the process and gave me a lot of recommendations, but also a lot of freedom. I used a lot of his advice when I put together the song list, the band, chose the images, et cetera.

How did you and George meet?

George and I met working on Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story, which the History Theatre first did back in 2016. He was the music director for the show and I played Carole King in its workshop, but that character was ultimately cut per Carole King’s agent’s request (her biographical show Beautiful: The Musical was then touring).

Even though I wasn’t in the final show, George took an interest in working with me and we’ve gone all over Minnesota and Wisconsin on gigs. I do the St. Joan of Arc Cabaret with him every year (he’s one of the directors), and he did my very first Troubadour Wine Bar gig with me.

Tell me about your studio musicians – had you worked with everyone before?

Most of them I knew before. For example, Matt McIntyre plays bass on the album; I knew him from the arts community and had done some gigs with him, including with The Champagne Drops – I like his style. Rich Manik plays a bunch of different horns; I knew him through St. Joan’s stuff and gigs with George. Same thing with Jeff Nordquist, who plays trumpet. But I didn’t know the drummer – Pete Hennig – and the guitarist – Mike Lauer.

Vocalist Leslie Vincent (center) with the band and studio crew for her debut album.

What was your rehearsal process like?

I gave myself quite a bit of time to make sure the songs were right. George and I met maybe 6 weeks before our first day in the studio, and I had maybe 8 of the 10 songs picked at the time. We played around with them, talked about how they related to my personality, and tried out ideas for tempos. Our goal was to make each song different from recordings that existed already. Then we had 2 rehearsals with the full band in George’s apartment, where we ran through charts and figured out the structure of each piece. Then we went off to the studio.

Which studio?

We recorded at IPR. This was my first real experience in a recording studio…I hadn’t really done anything like it and it was wild!

Dik Shopteau was the recording engineer on the project; he set everything up and then we recorded the scratch vocals: I’d sing with the band, they’d play, we’d do a couple takes, and then I went back six weeks later and re-recorded the vocals with the band’s tracks.

Where were you in the studio during that part of the recording process – in an isolation booth, in the room with the band, or…?

I was actually in the control room to record the scratch vocals, so I could communicate more directly with Dik and we could adjust the sound. The horns and trumpet were in an isolation booth and the rest of the band was in their own room.

We did two six-hour sessions with the full band, and then I probably did another 10 hours just by myself. A lot of it was new to me, so I had to keep up as best I could, learn new terms, learn to articulate what I was looking for. I had to communicate my vision both to the band and to the engineer, so that we could tweak how I wanted it to sound as a whole.

After those first recording sessions, I first tried to give myself space to not listen to the recordings. Then I went and played around recording my voice with the studio tracks to see what it would sound like.

How was the mixing and mastering process?

Dik, the lead recording engineer, would send me tracks and then we would communicate via email or in person. There were a couple times where I said, “This ending is not at all what I want, I want to come back in and redo it in the studio” because I had learned more about what I wanted, and wanted that second chances. 

This all occurred during the winter – we recorded the band in November and I started doing the vocals in January, and we were mastering right when quarantine was starting. I sometimes sent him emails like “The drums sound a little loud, can we take that back” or “In another version, I sang this thing that way, can we put that in instead” to get the right sound. (Dik was very patient with me.)

Your album has a selection of jazz standards and a cameo by a modern-day classic. Tell me about the song “Rhode Island is Famous for You”.

“Rhode Island is Famous for You” is a song that I love because that is where I was born – my dad was stationed at a base there. Even though we moved away before I could remember it, I still think of Rhode Island as my birthplace. (I also like it because it talks about how Rhode Island is little and people shouldn’t make fun of it, and I’m little and people shouldn’t make fun of me.)

Grand canyons come from Colorad-a
Gold comes from Nevada
Divorces also do
And you, you come from Rhode Island
Little old Rhode Island
Is famous for you

-“Rhode Island is Famous for You”

Do you recall how you first encountered the song?

The first time I heard it was on a recording by Erin McKeowan. She’s an artist I’ve loved since I was a teenager and does a cover of it on one of her albums, and I’ve loved the song ever since.

I think Erin’s take is a little fast for my taste; it’s a punny song, so I think it needs some space for the lyrics to breathe. For These Foolish Things, we do it at a medium tempo, but we also give it a snazzy ending because it deserves one. The ending on the album was arranged by George, and it took me a long time to get it right. There’s a different pressure in recording than live performing, and that was one of the hardest things to get right.

What about “The Nearness of You”?

I wanted to have a representation of the songs George and I have done together on all our gigs. It was probably one of the first songs we did together – an old standard, but Norah Jones covered it on her album Come Away with Me and I’ve loved it ever since then. I think it’s a perfect balance of love and longing in a song.

You finish the album with an acoustic recording of “Moon River”, which of course many people know Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. How did you decide to include that song?

I knew I wanted to do 10 songs, but I couldn’t tell you why. “Moon River”, however, was not on my original set of 8 that I took to George. I went back and forth during the process about having a ukulele on the album. When you’re a vocalist standing next to really good instrumentalists and feel that they’re a level above you on their instruments, you don’t think that you should be playing a uke with them.

Ultimately, this song really speaks to me and reminds me of my grandmother, so I decided to do it. If people think it’s cliched or overdone, that’s okay.

What was the recording process like for “Moon River”?

I recorded “Moon River” on the first day of vocals only, when I went back into the studio in January. It’s probably the most untouched, raw song on the album – only 2 or 3 takes, playing and singing all-in-one.

You are well-known for your duo The Champagne Drops, with Emily Dussault. Were there any factors that led you to decide to do the solo album now, versus doing a Champagne Drops duo album first?

Emily recently had a baby, so it didn’t seem a good time to make a full album together! I also wanted to learn some skills that I could bring back for us to use together…and Emily is on this album! She and I sing a duet together.

A promotional photo for singer-songwriters Emily Dussault and Leslie Vincent’s duo The Champagne Drops.

Tell me about your album art design, which recalls something of a 1970s jazz album look.

That sounds on brand for me. I worked with Brittany Ottum for the album design and did a photoshoot with Jessica Holleque. I had some starting ideas, but both of them spent a lot of time with me about bringing this to light. On the physical album, it’s mostly black and white, with some pops of pink. 

Given that we’re under quarantine, are there a lot of physical vs. digital orders? Will there be a release party?

Actually, I’ve had quite a few people preorder the physical CD, so I’m planning to ship them out. I’ve been social distancing, of course, and we will wipe them down and sanitize them before mailing. We probably won’t be performing these songs in public for quite a while, unfortunately, but we do have an album release party/concert scheduled for June 22 at Crooners. We are somewhere between optimistic and realistic about scheduling at the moment.

In the lead-up to the album release, you’ve also been doing a series of weekly streamed solo performances, accompanying yourself on the ukulele. How did those come about?

Back in those early days of quarantine, when I thought it would be “just” 2 weeks, my friend Anna Weggel at The Current told me that they were putting together a list of virtual performances…and asked if I wanted to be on it. I said “Sure!”

I ended up having so much fun, especially connecting with old friends in other places who can’t see me perform regularly anymore, that I decided to make these a weekly thing. People message me song requests; I haven’t learned music this fast since college, so it’s been a good challenge for my brain.

Any other quarantine highlights?

I work at Trapped Puzzle Rooms as my day job, and we’re running audio escape adventures during quarantine. I do P90x at noon with my fiancée, and in the afternoon I usually make music and read my book, then dinner, then hang out with Allison (my fiancée). 

These Foolish Things will officially be released Monday, April 27, 2020. 

Basil Considine