Interview: Lewis & Leigh – On Fire
Meet the cross-Atlantic, harmonising duo who draw on their sense of home for inspiration – by Steve Faragher.
With their mouthwatering close harmonies, great songs and very personable stage presence, Lewis & Leigh look like a pair of singers with no ceiling. While they’re definitely country, they bring an exciting modern twist to their lyrics that makes them sound quite unlike any other act in these pages.
Formerly two solo artists in their own right, Al Lewis from Wales and Alva Leigh from Mississippi met at a Matthew Perryman Jones gig in London in 2013. “I’d worked with Matthew in Nashville,” explains Al. “He had this backing singer with him and I got him to introduce us.”
The pair struck up an immediate rapport, and before they knew it were writing songs together. Al expands: “We said ‘let’s pencil in some writing, then’ with no other plan than for it to perhaps appear on one of our solo albums.”
So was it exciting to work together from the start? “Day one, the first thing that excited me was the song What Is There To Do, Al continues: “It sounded really good, but Alva did the singing on that first one. It wasn’t until a bit later that we started really singing together.”
“Yeah,” Alva takes up the tale. “We didn’t think about arranging it as a duo song till later. But then we realised we had something special. It was a wonderful surprise.”
Suited to each other
You may never have heard two voices so suited to each other. “I always laugh that maybe I have Welsh blood, and Al and I are long-lost cousins. There has to be a reason we sing so well together.”
A good-looking pair, Al comes across as the more business-like of the two. Clearly driven, he’s jumped through some music business hoops already to get to where he is today. Alva’s more prone to laughing, but equally serious, and also has a solid history of music-making behind her.
But they took it slowly when it came to making music together. It was six months after that meeting, in early 2014, that they wrote their first song, and over the next few months they went on a journey of musical self-discovery via three EPs.
“Each EP, we explored different influences,” says Al. “The first one was straight down the middle country; we used pedal steel and every single instrument that we thought signposted country, like mandolins and all that.”
Alva continues, “The second EP was more folk noir. Very dark, brooding songs with some fiddle and banjo and Al got a beautiful new guitar, a 1965 Gibson with a beautiful tone. That guitar inspired the second EP. And then on the third we went down the big band/southern soul rock vibe with a horn arrangement.”
The album doesn’t sound much like any of those, but is the big band something that might appeal to them later on in their careers?
Alva laughs: “Well that would be fun, but we do know that what we have at the moment works, and when you add more elements sometimes it does make it better but sometimes it dilutes what you have.”
So having experimented, what did they decide on for their first album? “They were very different EPs and we didn’t feel we could just mush them all together and make an album, so we decided to start from scratch,” says Al.
“I think it was good that we entertained all these different kinds of influences that we have,” Alva continues, “and so when it came time to make the album we started from scratch. We said, ‘let’s strip this all away and see what’s left and also look at our live set and see what we can do there, because we won’t be able to tour with a horn section, much as I wish we could’. We wanted the album to be simple and to come back to what we did in that first songwriting session where it’s just two voices and a guitar.”
Chicken noodles in broth
The album was recorded over a cold period in London at a studio where Laura Marling had just made her critically-acclaimed album Short Movie. It was so cold they still fondly remember going out every day for a bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodles in broth to warm up. But in just two four-week sessions the album was done.
Opening track There Is A Light sums up the newly-discovered, stripped-back sound perfectly. Starting with just a harmony, sparse instrumentation fills in the almost-hymnal structure of the song, but where did the inspiration for it come from?”
“There Is A Light is about where we’re both from,” says Alva. “The first verse is about the house I grew up in, and that feeling of home. But neither Al nor I live where we’re from; we’ll probably never live where we’re from.”
Al explains: “We both grew up in small places. Alva is from a small town on the Gulf Of Mexico called Gulfport and I’m from North Wales, and we both have really fond memories of how we grew up, but we never see ourselves living in a place like that again.” So where do they live now? Al’s based in Cardiff, and Alva in Oxford.
And how does the songwriting process work for them? Al explains. “We each bring something different and we help each other in our weaknesses. I tend to think about the big picture of a song – you know, the chorus and the need to grab people, whereas Alva is more about the details, the things you pick up on listen three or listen four, whereas I’m like, ‘let’s not worry about that’. So I think we complement each other well.”
Lewis & Leigh are already catching on in Germany. They’ve already been snapped up by German TV for a guest appearance on a flagship show, and you can imagine their intense personal harmonies working really well on TV, but how does it work in a larger place?
“On a bigger stage, we can feel like we’re in different time zones. At Under The Apple Tree they had to position us far apart on stage, but with us singing so much in harmony we have to be able to hear each other. Monitors are great but sometimes physical proximity is best,” Alva asserts.
It didn’t stop them going down a storm, however, and now they’re embarking on a major tour supporting Deacon Blue around the country, at much larger venues than they’re used to playing. But they’re not daunted. “It’ll be good for us to get gig-tight and gig-ready,” says Al. As usual, he’s looking ahead, thinking of the time in February when they set out on their own headlining tour, at venues that have yet to be confirmed.
So, the killer question: are they a country band? Al answers first: “Modern-day music is drawn from so many influences. In the car, we’ll listen to pop music, R&B, old-time soul. We love everything. And would we be played on modern mainstream US country radio stations? Absolutely not.”
Alva picks up the argument: “We’re more inspired by old country, classic country harmonies like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or Johnny Cash and June Carter, the sort of acts that have massively inspired pop music today.
Who knows what we are? There’s this term Americana that someone’s made up, but we’ve been reviewed in a German jazz magazine and we’re Number 1 in the Amazon folk charts. People don’t know what to do with us! But whatever we are, I come from Mississippi and I couldn’t take the twang out of my voice if I tried,” Alva laughs. “That’s probably what really makes us country.”