Leighton Meester Talks Music, Debut LP ‘Heartstrings’ And What’s Next: Interview
You’ve gotta respect the gangster of Leighton Meester. The Gossip Girl veteran shed all of that Upper East Side television grooming to deliver quite possibly one of the most simplistically beautiful albums of last year. Heartstrings felt like equal parts New York and L.A., where acoustic vibes gave way to really sharp and thoughtful lyrics. (Buy it on iTunes.) And Leighton did it independently. She has her major label war stories, from back when she was crafting poppy tunes with Cobra Starship and Robin Thicke, but the actor who has a Broadway play (Of Mice And Men, with James Franco) under her belt, along with several movies (watch Life Partners, because it’s adorable) has struck a healthy balance between Hollywood Leighton and Rock Star Leighton.
When Idolator caught up with her, she was just Leighton, and she chatted it up with us about her career.
How’s it going?
LEIGHTON MEESTER: It’s going really good. Life is good. I’m just spending the day at home. I’ve got errands, and — I don’t know — life.
Are you taking a break from performances?
LM: Not really. I got back from tour a couple weeks ago, and the beginning of the tour started with me going, “I don’t know how long I can do this” — or not how long I can do this, but how long this is going to go on, if I can do this again right after. After the second performance, honestly, I was like, “Let’s try to extend this!” We’re trying to work out more dates, but something within the US, probably, to round it out. I did nine cities sort of Northeast, Midwest and Northwest, so I’d like to do some Southern United States areas. That would be really fun.
So coming off the TV show and films and Broadway, how did you personally transition to performing your music live?
LM: I don’t know that it’s a transition as much as it’s just learning something entirely new. I think that one truly doesn’t have anything to do with the other as far as where my head’s at. It doesn’t hurt that I did Of Mice And Men last year, and then this helped me a lot with that. It’s having experience on both sides — being in front of an audience and having a feel for that — but ultimately two incredibly different outlets in two different, really great ways, though. Acting, especially when it’s that kind of material, it’s so precious and bare and exposing. When it comes to music, it’s me out there, and it’s my music which is really thrilling, and also it causes me to be very vulnerable, and trying to emotionally connect to it each night is a similar thing. As far as the mindset, I’d say that is the biggest difference. Then the reaction from the audience – when you’re acting, you can’t really ask for a reaction. You have to just be in the moment and with your scene partner; you’re talking and you’re speaking; you’re not relying on anything else. There are different ways that things could go wrong, but really it’s just thrilling to sort of have a fourth wall and connect with somebody else, and yet there’s still the unconscious understanding that people are watching you. You have to make adjustments moving your body. You have to be aware, where as when you’re singing, you’re performing, you’re playing, there’s different things. You have a band to support you, you have no fourth wall. You’re just there on stage witnessing the reaction and the thrill and the excitement of that. So that’s great for me because it just gives me a different feeling about my music — which is a very personal, emotional and at times, quiet part of me.
Plus there’s got to be a little bit of a thrill where you can’t yell, “Cut!”
LM: Yeah, in those aspects that’s absolutely right.
Your album Heartstrings is beautiful, but it felt like such a long time coming.
LM: It was a long process for me. I had signed ultimately this record deal with Universal Republic, which wasn’t the right fit. We ended up separating amicably, just because it really wasn’t the right direction for me. Obviously now it makes a lot of sense that it wasn’t for me, and I’m really happy that I had that time and that experience because it did give me a lot of knowledge about what I do and don’t want. It was a big glaring red light as far as a direction that I didn’t want to go in, creatively. Then the other side of it is I learned a lot about the business and songwriting and the politics of that, and I ended up going in this direction and it wasn’t a conscious choice. The business side was a conscious choice to break away from that and I’m glad I did, but creatively it wasn’t a conscious, “I’m going to do this kind of music or express my feelings and make folk music or something.” I just went into songwriting by myself with no judgement, no thought of the future, and no sense of where it was headed, just writing and sort of unpacking things that I had wanted to say with my music previously. Obviously that music wasn’t fitting in this kind of emotional environment.
It’s pretty awesome you’re doing this independently. Your initial major label singles sounded s different from how you sound now. That process must have been so different too.
LM: The thing about that also was obviously I knew I didn’t want to do it, and I wanted that to end. But the funniest thing is that because of being with a big label and them backing it, the things that were smaller to me or of less importance to me I guess…those things got so much play for better or worse. I had a big label and a lot of publicity or at least enough publicity that somebody like you would have even been aware of that, whereas my music now is on such a smaller scale. It’s really something that at this point I have to fight to get out, because I don’t have a big label backing me and I don’t push it publicly. I don’t have a publicist or anything. I like this route a lot more, and it’s more comfortable and it fits the pace of the rest of my life. But it’s interesting. It really stunk for a second, and now I’m like, “Well, this is the music that I really want to make, and I have to kind of push it” – which I’m happy to do.
What about Broadway? Are you going to do another play?
LM: I’m not sure. I would like to. When I was doing the tour, I really was like, “Man, if I could just do music – the whole process over again and again for the rest of my life, tour, make music and turn around and do plays that somehow can capture that same experience — I would be a very happy woman!” [Acting on Broadway] was such a magical time and the most challenging — the most difficult in many ways and really the most fulfilling that I’ve ever experienced, because it was, I mean, it’s John Steinbeck; it’s Of Mice And Men! It’s this perfect story, really perfectly written and constructed, and it just was the best time ever. So I hope that I can be lucky enough again to have an experience like that or to be able to have the chance to do another play that is even close to that. But yeah, I would really love that. It would be great. I would do it in a second.
What kind of music are you listening to when you’re not making it?
LM: Oh man, what have I been listening to? I like Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge. I was listening to Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Carole King. Who else was I listening to recently? I really like Ty Segall’s record that he came out with recently.
Were you raised on Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson? My mom used to play me Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, so it just became part of my own soundtrack. But did you kind of discover that stuff later on?
LM: Kind of a little bit of both. My dad always played that genre of music when I was younger, and then when I was a teenager, I really got into it. So yes, and now I have even more of an appreciation as I get older.
So what’s next?
LM: Right now I’m making plans to do more shows and mostly hanging at home. I’ve done a ton of traveling in the last year/year-and-a-half which is great, but sometimes it’s nice to just chill. So spending a lot of time with friends and family. Besides that, I don’t really know.
You can grab Leighton’s album Heartstrings now on iTunes.