As one does, we met musician Lorena Leigh by chance at SXSW 2022. She was handing out colorful flyers to one of her artist showcases. Her energy and smile were infectious, and her hustle was commendable; she was the first (and last) artist we saw pounding the pavement to spread the word to would-be fans.
We couldn’t help but be intrigued and did some digging. She identified her melodic genre as “cowgirl-mermaid” and we knew we had to know more. We reached out to set up an in-person interview and two days later sat down in the Austin Convention Center to explore her journey, the genesis of “cowgirl-mermaid” music and all things SXSW.
District Fray: What defines your ethos as a musician?
Lorena Leigh: I call my music cowgirl mermaid music. It’s this dichotomy of [growing up] in Fort Worth, Texas [and spending] eight years in New York. That’s where I really got into music. [During] the last four years, I lived in Rockaway Beach and started surfing. The locals would call me ‘Sandy the Squirrel’ because I’m this raging Texan living in this island place and I played the ukulele. Somebody in Rockaway after a gig [said], “Your music is like cowgirl mermaid music.” I was offended. How could you belittle my music to such “camp?” Then I thought about it and the more people I would ask about it, [they’d say]: “Yeah, cause you sing about water, but it’s [also] the southern twang you have.” That informed my next album that I released in 2019: “Water Theory,” and that’s where this cowgirl mermaid ethos was born.
Who are your musical influences?
L.L.: I grew up on girl power ‘90s country, so Faith Hill or Shania Twain. I [also] was a huge Spice Girls fan and Last Club Seven — that cheesy ‘90s, early 2000s [sound]. And being from Texas, Texas country is its own genre; there’s always a fiddle in the band and really strong harmonies and that informs a lot of my songwriting. I moved up to New York to dance. I went to Alvin Ailey for a year and then [went] into commercial dance. That’s more hip-hop, jazz and very synth electronic music. That all culminated [into] what I do.
For someone who’s never heard your music, what kind of experience do you like to create during a performance?
L.L.: I love all aspects of creating art. I love doing music videos, I love producing the songs. But definitely playing live is my absolute favorite thing. And it’s my intention to not just put on a show but to engage people; they’re singing along and they’re dancing along and we get to have this soulful experience together. That’s really fun. One of the best compliments I’ve ever had is after a show this kid [said], “I felt like I was on Molly and I’m sober. What’s the point if you don’t have fun and you don’t tap into something true within yourself. As somebody that loves seeing live music, that’s what I love — when somebody really has a human experience.
I’m not sure when it happened, but how do you feel about the shift of people referring to musicians as artists and where does your art show up in your craft?
L.L.: That’s an amazing question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. I think that’s also the shift of record labels not being as big, because I feel there are people who are crazy proficient musicians, and that’s what drives their artistic journey. For me, I was a dancer and grew up playing piano, but I never identified as a musician. I can write songs and I can do what it takes to create something and I love the music video element. I love the show element. I feel like I’m a jack of all trades. My thing is not, “Come and see me shred the guitar on stage.” That’s not what I do. I feel the artistic experience of telling a story is where I fit as an artist and that’s something I can own. I can’t compete with Eric Clapton on the guitar, but I can tell a story artistically.
What makes a good story?
LL: That’s very subjective, right? [A good story is] something that resonates with somebody. If I’m authentically telling something that’s true and meaningful to me, it will authentically resonate with somebody else but to the next person it could be absolute shit.
What spaces, physically and mentally, do you seek out when writing a song?
L.L.: I like to write by myself, at least [when] starting ideas. I feel I’m more of an ambivert; I don’t feel fully extroverted [or] introverted. I like the safe space of writing for therapy. Even if it’s a song that’s really happy, a lot of times I cry. There’s only a couple people I have gotten really deep into co-writing a song with, but when I’m by myself, I can always tap into that, which I think is special. Even if the song doesn’t go anywhere, I’ve processed something in my life or my thoughts.
What makes coming to SXSW to showcase your music special?
L.L.: In the industry, it has a lot of clout. If you can say you’ve played a SXSW official show, then other festivals think, “Oh, they can do it.” In 2015, when I came here I was walking around with my friends and seeing people on stage and you see some bands who blow your mind. And I’m [thinking] “That’s what I want to do.” And then I saw some bands that seemed really tired and not interested. And I always remember thinking, “If I ever get a chance like that, I’m not gonna take it for granted.” And to be here now in 2022, years later, on my personal journey of music, it’s pretty cool. Every show I’m doing is a huge deal, even if it’s a small coffee house. It’s been very personally rewarding. On Saturday when I played at the Container Bar, that was a huge show. I was like, if this is the last thing I do, I’ll feel pretty good.
What it’s like being here as an official artist, while also having the opportunity to see other musicians perform?
L.L.: It’s awesome because you never know who you’re going to see walking into a bar. Every year even when I would just attend South By, I would learn about all of these bands I wouldn’t have known otherwise. The [streaming] algorithms would probably have never led me there. I really like that aspect of South By. This South By, in particular, is a lot of fun because I have a lot of friends who I used to play with or knew in New York or that I’ve met on tour in the past [in town]. Getting to see my friends play and see how much they improved or changed and it’s really exciting. It feels like a family reunion. That’s the coolest thing about South By — whatever resonates with you, cool, you start following them, know their music and hope you see them again.
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