With a debut album on the horizon, this songwriting duo have the world of Americana at their beautifully harmonious feet
This month sees the release of Lewis & Leigh’s debut album. Ghost is a collaboration between Wales’ Al Lewis and Mississippi’s Alva Leigh which sees the pair uniting over a love of harmonies to create their own unique take on Americana. It’s a genre-transcending record, sparse of instrumentation but full of emotion, and promises to be one of the year’s most exciting offerings.
Ahead of the album’s arrival we spoke to them about how their union was forged, the dynamics behind their writing partnership and the surprising similarities in their upbringings…
How did you come together?
Lewis: “I went to Nashville four years ago to make an album. I also did some co-writing, as a lot of people do while they’re there. One of the guys I wrote a song with was called Matthew Perryman Jones. A year or so after I came back from Nashville, Matthew got in touch to say that he was going to be in London to do some shows here. I went and saw the show and really enjoyed it and Alva happened to be singing on stage with Matthew.
“I assumed that she had come over with him and they were both Nashville-based musicians but then I found out that she was living in London and so we pencilled in a writing session for a few months after that. We both thought that the first song we wrote was pretty good and so we thought we’d see if it was a fluke or not and pencilled in a few more sessions. We quickly realised that we had five or six songs, enough to release an EP, so that’s what we did and we haven’t looked back since.”
Are you able to put your finger on why you had that spark between you from the very start?
Leigh: “It was great that we could write together and that we brought different things to the table in terms of songwriting but I think the spark was that we sounded so good singing together. Our harmonies were so good from the start and our voices fitted together really well, which I think is what made us decide to release songs as a duo instead of songs just from Al or songs just for me.”
You’ve said previously that a similarity between you was that you both separately felt like you couldn’t write Americana, was that something that you were able to bring out of each other?
Lewis: “The first thing we did before we picked up an instrument or sang anything was that we just played each other stuff that we liked. We quickly realised that we had this common appreciation for what is now dubbed as ‘Americana,’, we both loved Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams and Wilco and going back further to Emmylou Harris and people like that. We were scratching our head thinking ‘if we both really like this music and we both have never written this type of music why don’t we just give it a shot.’ We felt like we didn’t have anything to lose because nobody had heard of us and no one would care if we wrote something terrible, so we just went for it.”
Was it reassuring to have those influences in common?
Leigh: “Definitely, when you write on your own I feel like you have put this pressure on yourself, or I definitely do, to make something that feels really fresh. It was great to be able to go into a session and play songs that you really love and then try to write something like that. It meant we had a starting point and I think those limitations of genre really helped at the beginning. Of course as we progressed we were able to make it our own and bring some of the personal stylistic elements from our solo careers to make it more of what it is today, but at the beginning it really helped to go in and say ‘actually, let’s just try to write a song like this.’”
The end result is definitely quite different to traditional Americana…
Lewis: “The term ‘Americana’ is such a wide one and it encompasses so many different elements of roots music that we’ve always felt that we could dabble in different types of production. I think the production often steers where you get categorised and we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves with what instruments we used. Like Alva said, at the beginning we thought we needed to stay in a box of pedal steel and mandolin and not leave there but since then we’ve got more confident in knowing how we like to perform and what we want to sound like. Songs like Heartbeat are a bit more leftfield but we feel like it’s good to have things like that.”
Leigh: “I think it was important for us to be able to reproduce as much of the album as we could live. Unfortunately we don’t tour with a drummer at the moment but having the album be about us, two voices, a guitar and a little bit of keys, having that be the centre point was important to us because that is what you hear when you come and see us.”
From the outside it seems like a brave decision to put the vocals right at the front of the mix…
Lewis: “We’re both just really egotistical!”
Taking it back a little, what’s the process you go through when you start writing a new song?
Lewis: “We’ve had a lot of different ways of starting out songs. Personally I’m someone who likes to mix things up in terms of writing because I don’t want to write the same song again and I feel like if you start the process identically then you’re more likely to come out with the same result. We’ve started with different things like maybe a guitar lick once or a melody line but then recently we’ve moved to starting with a title or a beat. I like to start with something completely different because then you’re a bit more on your toes and you have to think a bit more out of the box.”
Does it usually work first time or do you have many missteps along the way?
Leigh: “I think several of the songs on the album had different drafts before we called them finished and then some of them we finished in the studio right in the moment. We strive to write very tidy songs, to really trim the fat and to have everything serve a purpose. That’s a very clinical description but lyrically, melodically, with every harmony and every section if it’s not really doing its job then we keep trying to make it better or we’ll say ‘maybe it’s time to move on’. It just depends on the process and if we think we can take it further or not.”
In going through that process did you find things out about each other which then helped further?
Lewis: “Yeah, it’s quite funny how a guy from Wales and a girl from Mississippi can find things in common. But our relative upbringings are not too dissimilar; North Wales still has a strong history of the church and the chapel. Where I grew up Sunday was a dry day until the late nineties and in the Deep South…”
Leigh: “… some places are still dry!”
Lewis: “That’s how a lot of our writing sessions would start, chatting about our lives and seeing if there were any common threads and then accentuating them and bringing them into song.”
Are there any specific examples from the album where that would be apparent?
Leigh: “Rubble is definitely an example of that. It’s is a song that started with the title and then we just talked about what that word meant to us and it just started as a long conversation. I really like this book called Writing Better Lyrics and in that book he talks about how you sometimes have to start with a word or an object and go mining for details. It’s almost like taking a word and free-writing, but for us it happened as a conversation and we talked about what we associate that word with. We started talking about our histories and the relative rubble of our home towns and then I guess a more general emotional rubble, of loss or grief or whatever. That was a song that definitely came from just having a long chat, lots of dark chocolate digestives and Yorkshire Gold!”
Is there an over-arching theme across the album?
Lewis: “Lyrically there’s a lot of talk of loss. The title is Ghost so there’s always that element to it. We both harbour some sort of romantic feeling towards where we used to live. Neither of us live there anymore and none of our parents live there anymore, so these places are definitely ones that are just in our hearts and in our minds and that makes you feel nostalgic. We talk very honestly on the album about our aspirations, our dreams for one another, what we hope to achieve and the scariness of the industry we’re in because it’s so volatile and uncertain.
“All these things we talk about but we try to talk about things that other people who aren’t musicians will get. We’re very aware of not sounding like we’re just playing the violin and saying ‘poor us musicians’ and we try to limit the songs about being in a car at midnight and driving home from a gig.”
Are you able to put your finger on each other’s biggest strength as a writer or musician?
Leigh: “I can say Al’s strengths, he writes great melodies and he’s a really talented guitarist as well. He definitely knows his way around a pop song and a pop chorus. He can work very quickly and in coming up with melodies he can really kick-start a song which makes it really exciting.”
Lewis: “For Alva I think her strength is her attention to detail. I tend to work in thick wide brushstrokes and forget the finer details in song, which I know a lot of people care very deeply about. She can rein me in and we’ll go and sit and work on something that I might have disregarded as not being important. Then when I look back on our finished product I realise how important those elements are. She makes sure that everything is tight and has its purpose.”
You’ve got shows coming up, will you treat the songs differently when you perform them live?
Lewis: “Alva was being modest earlier because we do have a drummer in the band and she will be debuting the drums very soon actually.”
Leigh:-“I’m going to start playing with a Roland drum pad, don’t worry it’s not too Jack Garratt or anything, but we’re going to incorporate some simple percussion in the set. To Al’s credit he’s really stretched me to try to see songs as taking on a new life when played live. It’s probably very obvious that I’m a perfectionist but I love things to be recreated and to be just as good as they are on the album and for our harmonies to be just as tight. Of course they should be, but when it comes to performance Al’s really helped me see how it can be about creating a moment with an audience and making something really special that only they can experience and so I think we’re trying to do that with these songs.”
Lewis: “When we recorded the album we definitely left plenty of room for scope for interpretation of these songs. And like you said, the vocals are just smack bang in the middle and so that allows us to put whatever bed around them that we want to. Sometimes it’s really nice to have those acapella moments, like we have on the album but I also think we can stretch the songs and add little interludes, be it instrumental or vocal. That’s what I think I’m most proud about this album, I have no fear of performing any of the songs live because I know we can deliver it and give the audience something that when they go home they’ll be more than happy with.”
What are your hopes for the album?
Leigh: “World domination!”
Lewis: “We’ve tried to be very humble and realistic and think about what we can achieve with this first album. We were talking to Ethan Johns backstage at the Americana Awards and he was saying that you have to think about albums as vignettes of where you currently are in your life. That’s what I think about this album now, I think about the twelve to eighteen months when we were making it and it’s then just about hoping that the songs connect with people. So far we’ve had some good radio play and some really nice reviews and it’s now about going out live. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing audience members singing your words back to you, so we’re hoping there’ll be a few of them along the way.”
Will you continue working together in future?
Leigh “We’ve already started writing songs for the next album and starting to think about what’s next. It’s something that we will both continue to do but and hopefully everyone will want us to make another album.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Ghost is released on 26 August and the duo will be touring the UK in November, further details can be found here http://www.lewisandleigh.com