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INTERVIEW: Leslie Vincent on Jazzing Up the Return to Live Performance (Crooners/The Belvedere)

White Bear Lake-based singer-songwriter Leslie Vincent (front left) with her band at Crooners on August 10, 2020. Photo by Darin Kamnetz.

For some musicians, 2020-2021 has been a giant artistic blank spot – less a tabula rasa, more a vacant room. Not so for singer-songwriter Leslie Vincent, who is taking the stage at Crooners this Saturday with not one, but two album releases under her COVID-19 pandemic belt.

Two? Indeed: Vincent’s debut solo album These Foolish Things dropped in April 2020. Her band squeaked through its last recording sessions just as things were preparing to shut down across the state; the album quickly became a staff favorite at the Arts Reader offices with its smooth jazz stylings and taste of Americana music. The album launch party concert was pushed back to August, but even then Vincent managed to somehow make it rain: her band set up under a temporary tent in the Crooners parking lot, and sold out the darn show.

The cover for The Champagne Drops’ album Side by Side, which features Leslie Vincent and Emily Dussault as both vocalists and songwriters.

As if to prove that April is not the cruelest month, Leslie Vincent decided to to record a new album for 2021, this time teaming up with her long-time collaborator, singer-actor Emily Dussault. (The debut album for their duo The Champagne Drops dropped on April 16th of this year.) The two went ambitiously far afield: some 8 of the 9 songs are Champagne Drops originals that Vincent and Dussault wrote together. The cover of Side by Side, fittingly, has the two sitting arm-in-arm.

Recording a second album under quarantine is no mean feat, but it’s impossible to argue with the results. Their original songs are fresh, distinctive, and full of different personalities like a set of complementary palettes. As a whole, the album seems almost a testament that not even a pandemic could keep true musical friends apart. (Friendship goes many ways: one song, “Perchta”, includes a lyric in which the singers threaten to “come and gut you in the night” in deceptively sweet tones.)

Making an album in the studio and making an album at home because of a year-plus of quarantine are two very different things in the logistics. The second album required some pre-recording quarantining to allow the two to share an intimate recording space. There was, as well, a round or two of trial and error with the tribulations of in-home recording.

With these battles won and the album out in the world, Vincent is charging forward for a return to performing live, in-person, with no parking lot separation required. She spoke with the Arts Reader’s Basil Considine about live music’s return to Minnesota.

Where am I catching you today?

I’m in White Bear Lake, in our new home. I’ve created a little musical office so I can hide away and make music! I got a nice condenser mic and an interface, and set up my two regular mics for livestreams.

Tell me about the concert you’re playing at Crooners on Saturday.

It’s going to be a really fun mix of jazz, pop tunes, some Champagne Drops songs, with a 4-piece band: piano, drums, guitar, and bass. Emily Dussault, Max Wojtanowicz, and Kate Beahen will sing with me. The ukelele’s coming out for at least the one tune.

There are so many songs that everyone has wanted to perform – and musicians that you want to perform with – this past year. How did you narrow things down for this musical line-up?

Emily and I wanted to do a couple songs off our album Side by Side.

Max [curator of the Musical Mondays at Hell’s Kitchen cabaret series] and I talked during the pandemic about loving cabarets and concerts, and I thought it would be fun to make some music together instead of just talking about it.

Kate is a friend of mine who does a lot of shows, and we bonded and thought it would be fun to do something together. (She also has a show in Crooners’ Dunsmore Room on June 19 that I’m doing guest vocals for.)

For songs, I want it to be joy, celebration, and community – so I just picked the ones I like doing and think will resonate with the audience. For this particular show, I wanted to keep it upbeat and didn’t want to do too many ballads. (Just to help with the energy, and not to be sad or wallowing.)

Leslie Vincent performing at Crooners in August 2020. Photo by Darin Kamnetz.

Crooners’ new Belvedere space being a newly minted venue, have you had a chance to rehearse there?

I don’t ever tend to get rehearsal time in advance for music venues – they tend to be so busy.  So there’s no rehearsing in The Belvedere – I’ll experience all of that for the first time when I’m sound-checking!

At a certain point, when working with professional venues, you get used to knowing that they have good people and a good system, and will make sure that the sound will be good!

You did, however, manage to hear a concert there as an audience member, right? What’s the audience experience like in The Belvedere?

I did! It was a gorgeous sound – very communal, while still being outside. It’s normally really hard to balance sound outside, but the way they did it you still get the birds chirping and a really beautiful sound from the stage.

You’ve performed at Crooners before – any menu recommendations?

Their salmon is so good – I’m going to go early and eat it before I soundcheck! I had it when I performed at the Dunsmore Room in January 2020. I also performed in their drive-in series on the parking lot last summer – folks watching from inside their cars. It’s harder to make that connection with the audience when they’re so far away, but that show was still so special, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

With everything else you’ve been doing, did you keep up the weekly live-streamed concerts you were doing at the start of the pandemic?

I did not keep up the livestreams, but I’ve done some private concerts this last year. Quite a few corporate gigs, actually, and fundraising things where I make live broadcasts or video recordings.

All in all, I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about the kind of music I want to make, compiling ideas, and deciding what I want to.

Emily Dussault (left) and Leslie Vincent (right) in a promotional photo of the Umbrella Collective (then Savage Umbrella)’s June. Dussault will rejoin Vincent onstage at Crooners this Saturday. Photo by Carl Atiya Swanson.

So, should we expect a death metal album next?

OMG, that’s exactly what I’m doing – “Leslie does death metal!” [laughs]

I’m actually just trying to do more musical shows and being more selective about theatre shows. I’m doing Icehouse on July 27th, and as soon as Crooners is done, I’ll dive into planning that and homing in on what my audience wants and who they are, how to reach the people who want to see me, and what they want to hear.

You’ve mentioned how important mentors were in booking some early concerts. Has that continued?

I’m really lucky to have two leaders in this community who lift me up and really bolster me here.

Jazz 88 also had me on this week and they’ve been really big supporters. I also treasure people like my friends who come even they know all the songs, and my partner Allison who hears them all the time and still comes.

It sounds like you’re very busy with music. Are you sending in video auditions for theatre shows as the callboard notices go up again?

I haven’t – not to say that I won’t – but I’m trying to be more selective about the things I go out for, and to see that they’re in line with what I want to do. I’m still holding out to see how theatres adjust and what choices they make.

There’s certainly been a lot of talk this past year about making changes in the way that theatres and other arts organizations do things. What would you like to see?

I would like to see thoughtful consideration, whether it’s in the shows you pick, the way you announce and run auditions, select and treat cast, decide who’s behind the table.

I hope theatremakers take the time to really think about and not make slapdash decisions, that they think about the artists behind the table as people, too.

One of the biggest things to come out of this time is the recognition that we’re all humans, and need to be recognized and treated as such. Too often, the way actors are treated is an afterthought, not a priority, and I hope that this changes. This is true even so far as how compensation is discussed and schedules get created. There’s been so much pressure to not speak up and complain, and that allows theatremakers to do things that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other workplace for a moment.

Leslie Vincent taking the lead vocals at Crooners. Photo by Darin Kamnetz.

Did you pick up any unusual pandemic hobbies?

Not even one – but I did not kill two plants that I got, and really dove into the hobbies I already had and into making music.

I’ve also enjoyed [my partner] Allison’s new hobbies like grilling and smoking meat. She has an ability to pick up any hobby and being incredible at it.

Leslie Vincent headlines “A Night with Leslie Vincent” at The Belvedere on June 5, 2021 at 7 PM. The Belvedere, a tented outdoor performance space, is the newest venue at Crooners Lounge and Supper Club in Fridley, MN.

Basil Considine