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  • Marie-Hélène

Interview - Leo Sidran

Interview with Leo Sidran for the release of his album "What's Trending".

© Allan Tannenbaum

From what age did music have an important place in your life?

Music was important for me since practically the very beginning. Maybe that’s because it was important to my father, and he was important to me! I never thought about it. Music was not something that I chose. It was something that I did. I started “studying” the drums when I was maybe six or seven, and I wrote my first songs around that time too.

What did you listen to when you were a child / teenager?

As a child, I listened to pop music from the radio, and the music that my dad listened to. And of course, I listened to my dad. But I really loved Michael Jackson. As a teenager, my taste began to get more diverse. I was interested in becoming a songwriter, a jazz musician, and a producer, so I was listening to classic jazz music like Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Gene Amons, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. At the same time, I was fascinated by songwriters like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Ani DiFranco and Jonatha Brooke. And I was also deeply influenced by Prince, and eventually artists like Meshel Ndegeocello, The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Incognito. By the end of high school I was also beginning to explore Spanish pop music because I had started to spend time in Spain.

What is your first strong memory of music?

I don’t know. I remember being seven years old in a recording studio in Chicago recording one of my first songs, “Pushing and Shoving”. That song eventually was remixed and released on an album of music for children that I made with my father years later called El Elefante. You are a multi-instrumentalist. When and which instrument did you start?

I started with the drums as a boy. My first “lesson” was with Clyde Stubblefield, who was later known as “The world’s most sampled drummer” because of his work with James Brown in the 1960s. Clyde taught me how to play a basic beat and encouraged me.

Today, do you have one or more instrument preferences? If so, which ones and why?

I really don’t have a preference. For me, an instrument is really just a tool of expression. I think maybe it looks like I play a lot of instruments, but to me it doesn’t feel that way.

You have already made 8 albums and co-produced the Oscar-winning song, "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from the movie The Motorcycle Diaries. What is the most memorable memory of your career so far?

I don’t think about my career in that way. I don’t think anyone does! The most important moment of my career is this one right now. Yesterday I would have said the same thing. And tomorrow I will probably say the same thing also. The beautiful thing about making music - especially music with any amount of improvisation - is that you must stay in contact with the present moment. So right now the most memorable moment of my career is happening while I talk to you. You also did a lot of music for commercials. Is it something you really enjoy doing?

Writing for commercials is perhaps the most overt intersection I am aware of between art and commerce. It has taught me that writing music is a skill - a craft - that can be taken seriously and is valuable. It also taught me to not be too attached to my work all the time, to always be prepared to change the music, and to solve problems creatively. But it can be frustrating too because although the job requires the composer to create beautiful, original, compelling music, it is also managed by a number of intermediaries and many times the final product is diluted by so many opinions.

So you compose for yourself, but also for others. What changes in the way you work between doing it for yourself or for someone else?

I try to basically write the same way for me or for others. But it is situational - sometimes I can imagine a certain singer’s voice and so I’ll write a song with them in mind. Sometimes I am writing in collaboration with another songwriter, so the music is naturally influenced by that person too. When I write for myself, sometimes I make sure that the melodies are a good fit for my voice, but on every one of my albums I have recorded songs that I didn’t intend to be for me. On What’s Trending, a few of the songs were not really written with myself in mind - like “After Summer’s Gone” and “Everybody’s Faking Too”.

You have just released the album “What's Trending”. How would you present it in a few sentences?

I don’t know if artists are the best people to speak about their own work in that way. I believe it’s a document of the things I was thinking about in the last year, a portrait of my own life, but that hopefully speaks to the experience of others as well.

This disc mixes jazz, r&b, Hiphop lofi, pop. Have you always liked to mix various musical styles?

It has been a question for me from the beginning. I think I was unsure about doing it for a while before I ultimately decided that it was the most natural way for me to work. I believe that limitations are important for creativity. But I also believe that nobody lives in isolation and I have always liked many styles of music. So it’s natural to bring all those influences together. The challenge is to do it naturally and authentically. You have several guests on this album. Was it a desire from the start and it happened little by little?

It was little by little. I usually record the song by myself and then add the guests. I wait for the song to “tell” me what it wants, and who it wants. Can you tell us a bit about each of his guests?

There are actually over 20 guests on the album so perhaps it will be too much if I tell you about all of them.

“What’s Trending” features my daughter, Sol on vocals - she also inspired the song! - and Michael Leonhart on Trumpet. Michael is an incredible musician, arranger, composer and producer. He has played with Steely Dan for many years, but he’s also a brilliant artist. I have worked with him for a long time and I imagined his sound on this track from almost the very start.

“When The Mask Comes Off” was written and performed with Michael Thurber, another multifaceted, multi instrumentalist, composer/producer/arranger.

Lauren Henderson sings “Nobody Kisses Anymore” as a duet with me. Michael Thurber and I worked together with Lauren Henderson a few years ago on her album Alma Oscura - and I wrote a song to sing with her for that project. So I wanted to sing another duet with her on this album.

“Nobody Kisses…” also features Jake Sherman on harmonica. Some people know Jake as a singer-songwriter, or as a keyboard player. But he’s also a brilliant harmonica player. He recorded his solo after he came to my house to be interviewed for my podcast The Third Story.

In fact many of the guests on the album were also featured on my podcast, like Michael Leonhart, Michael Thurber, Lauren Henderson, and Jake Sherman. Also Janis Siegel & Louis Cato (who sang on “It’s Alright”), John Fields (who mixed the record with me), Jon Lampley (who plays on “Crazy People”), Orlando LeFleming (“After Summer’s Gone”), Michael Hearst (“Hanging By A Thread”), and my father.

Is there a song from this album that you particularly like? If yes, which one and why?

I am proud of the entire collection. Some days I like one song in particular or another one. The song “There Was A Fire” is meaningful because it deals with memory and legacy, and both my father and my daughter sing it with me. “It’s Alright” was written in the first days of the lockdown and I think of it as a kind of “gift” that I received.

We find three generations "Sidran" in the title "There Was A Fire". Sharing music with your family, is it important to you?

Well, yes I guess it is!


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