We’re getting into the nitty-gritty details of performing this week leading up to Sunday night’s Current Presents special on stage presence and banter.
When I started putting together this week’s show, one person jumped out to me right away as someone who would be crucial to include, because I’ve watched her undergo a complete transformation on stage over the past two years. Channy Leaneagh got her start on stage playing in the roots group Roma di Luna, and while she has always had a commanding voice, one got the sense watching her back then that she was a little uncomfortable being watched, and might prefer to be hidden behind a keyboard rather than standing out in the center of the stage. Even as Roma di Luna was winding down to its end, however, something started to shift, and Leaneagh started edging closer to the spotlight and taking more of an active role in leading the band.
When she started playing in Polica her demeanor shifted even more dramatically, and by the time her band’s neverending tour schedule led them back to Minnesota for a show at First Avenue this past spring, it was like Leaneagh had re-emerged a completely new person: she was bold and aggressive, guiding her words with soft, sweeping gestures one moment and spitting out her words with a fiery intensity the next, and her body moved fluidly around the stage, as if she was completely swept up in the music around her.
It makes sense, of course, that someone with Leaneagh’s tour schedule would become more comfortable on stage, but I got the sense that her evolution went much deeper than “practice makes perfect.” In a conversation for this weekend’s special, Leaneagh opened up about her approach to performing, finding her groove, and her thoughts on the importance of having a good stage show in 2013.
Looking back, what are some of the things you feel have changed between the end of Roma di Luna and the start of Polica, and how have you changed the way you approach the stage?
Channy Leaneagh: I have noticed, myself, that I am different, obviously, with Polica than I am with Roma di Luna, but I believe that I’m a pretty reactionary performer. Performing in front of two drummers, and the level of noise that I deal with, that gives me a balance of [feeling] aggravated and really needing to tune in. Because it is so stripped down. And I am pushed in front. So I think it’s fueled this aggravated and intense performer that I feel I’ve melded into more.
And I think that you find, when you find yourself at the front and needing to engage with people and entertain people, you pull out a lot of your inspirations that you didn’t even know you had, and people that you enjoy watching. For me, I’m somebody who likes to see a performer. I like to go see music and watch someone feel the music they’re making, and engage with the crowd. I’m not somebody who appreciates performers who are giving you instructions—as far as, you know, put your hands up, get down, get up, say ooh, say ahh, I’m not really a participatory audience member. But I find that reflected in my performing; I equally want to watch someone lose themselves in music, and I find that when you just do what comes natural, when you’re pushed into a strange situation or a new situation, like performing in a new band, that kind of came out.
And, just also being pretty shy. When I am on stage, I am much more comfortable when I am on stage than I am, for instance, in a group of people or at a bar or something. And I tend to believe that it has to do with the fact that I can shut out and create my own world and my space on stage, and I am just sort of acting. It’s more theatrical.
Has that always been the case for you, that the stage is a comfortable space?
I don’t think so. I do know that I’ve always been able to shut out—I’m not somebody who stares into the audience and is like, oh my god, I see that person, they don’t look like they’re having a good time. I’m not really reading the audience. I’m definitely feeling the crowd. But that’s always been there, from the beginning, that I tend to be able to just revert into myself when I perform, and put up a mask, or a wall. I definitely was a lot more timid on stage. I think, also, it’s the styles of music that you’re playing. As soon as I started dealing with Polica’s production, as soon as I started working with Ryan [Olson], that music made me want to move in ways that, in Roma di Luna, just wouldn’t have been appropriate. [laughs] You know? But I’ve always been a mover. When I played violin, when I’d perform and do recitals, I just always had this kind of movement that helps me—it helps me sing. I’m a singer who will move her body when she’s singing notes. It’s also very athletic to me, performing, I’m just trying my hardest to do my best job, and it becomes really kind of intense and athletic, and I’m trying to hit all the notes and I’m trying to tune into the drummers, and maybe I’m working too hard. I’m not sure.
It makes sense to me, with the way the band is set up, since there’s so much room on the stage for you to move around.
Yes. There’s a lot of room, and you want to fill that space. And I like filling it. I also was surprised that I enjoy moving. I had this moment in Vancouver where—you know, I think it was Stef and Ryan that had been telling me, when I started with Polica, ‘You need to pick out a man in the audience and sing to him.’ And I was like, I don’t want to have anything to do with that. That sounds like that would just screw up my whole vibe. But in Vancouver, this girl in the front row was just wasted beyond belief and she had her eyes closed and she was dancing—she might have been feeling a little bit of what I was doing, the sounds we were making, but she was in her own land, in her own world. And I just kneeled down and looked into her and sang. And I wasn’t trying to be mean, but it was like a safe person to do that to, and to try to see if I could get her to look at me. So as much as I do tend to just really shut down, I’ve been—because I’ve been playing so many shows, you’re also looking to adapt, and also looking to grow and challenge yourself—so I have been trying to reach out to people and perform, and get more theatrical and push myself farther.
You’ve been on the road so much, and you’ve really experienced, more than a lot of Minnesota bands, what the larger music industry is like right now. Do you feel like it’s more important now than ever to have a stage presence, and to have a real solid live show?
Yeah, we were just talking about Summer Set, and how big the electronic dance music tent is, the EDM tent—there’s definitely not a lot of performing going on, and people love that. But I am a purist about performing; I still think it’s incredibly important. And I think there are people like Father John Misty that people, after they see him, they talk more about his stage presence, his banter, his engagement with the crowd. That is very attractive to people. I still think it’s very important. That’s why I think a good rapper on stage is going to survive this electronic dance music problem. [laughs] No, I’m just kidding, this craze. Hardcore bands, you know, like Crystal Castles, that kind of stuff—it’s key to have somebody who is losing your mind in front of you, I think, to enjoy music. Or to really feel things. You know, you go to a show and you want to have your heart broken, and just feel. So I think it is still important to me, but I might be outdated.
I want to talk specifically about your process. Do you have any before-show rituals, or how do you get into the zone when you’re about to take the stage?
I find that if I do breathing and stretches and warm-ups I have the worst show ever. I think I usually do better if I am relaxing, making jokes with my band, or we’re just having a good time and we get on stage and I just do what I do. But, that being said, I’m still learning. I’m still figuring it out. I’m bringing a guitar with me on this tour to warm up, by just sitting around and singing. Have a little campfire jam. But I don’t have it figured out. I just don’t have it figured out. I’m still somebody who, after every time I play, I’m like, that was the worst thing ever!
I’m still figuring out my groove, yeah.
Are you the kind of performer that can stay in the moment? For me, when a microphone turns on in front of a big group of people I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience. But I’ve always been curious about other people; are you able to stay connected with what you’re doing?
So far so good. As I knock on wood. I’m not somebody who’s thinking about, did I forget to turn off the lights or blow out the candle or something when I perform. I usually am working very hard to feel things and I feel like I’m just still figuring things out when I’m on stage, so my brain is very occupied with the crowd, my band, and that music—I feel like, for me, when you have something that’s that loud, when you’re on stage, that’s all I can do is just react to it. So for now, that’s still the case. But I might get really bored or something. You know, now we have all new songs so it’s still very much to me like, I’m not coasting yet. I’m not coasting. And that’s kind of the hope, is that we’ll always be challenged.
One big thing we’re talking about on the show this week is stage banter, so I wanted to ask: do you put a lot of thought into what you’re going to say between songs?
I have some things that I try not to ever mention. I usually always screw up the support band. I’m like, oh my god, I love that band that just played before us, and I cannot for the life of me remember their name. So I try to not rely on my own brain, but do write some things down if I really want to make sure that I mention it. Even if it’s Marijuana Deathsquads, I’ll get up on stage and be like, I have no idea who played with us. I just can’t remember. And then, maybe, you don’t want to screw up the city you’re in. In general, with stage banter, I have my good days and my bad days. And I think it is important to engage with crowds. But you have some places like the Summer Set festival where you don’t want to spend too much time being like, “Oh my gosh, you guys”—you don’t want to create the sense that they’re here for you. It’s sort of like at festivals you’re all in it together and your banter kind of changes. At festivals, normally I just try to make it more about their experience, and also not talk a lot about myself, but just more engaged in this experience that we’re going through together. And just make it fun, even if it’s serious music. It’s a break; it’s like smelling coffee in between perfume or something. It’s just a break to kind of prepare for the next thing.
Hear more from Channy Leaneagh, Brenden Green of the Goondas, Holly Hansen of Zoo Animal, Jeremy Ylvisaker of Alpha Consumer, and Dave King of Happy Apple and the Bad Plus on Sunday night at 10 p.m. on the Current Presents.
See also: Who has the best stage banter?