Leah Ottman has made her mark on the Twin Cities scene as part of We Are the Willows, Better Bones, and batteryboy. Now, the talented violinist/vocalist is ready to take more of the spotlight on herself, as she assumes the lead on her own project, LOTT. Her two singles feature looped violin work evoking Andrew Bird and Owen Pallett, deft classical influences, and rich vocals.
LOTT is set to play both nights of the upcoming Southern Theater Sessions II this Thursday and Friday, along with intimate, stripped down sets from Murder of Crows (featuring Low's Alan Sparhawk), the Honeydogs' Adam Levy, Fury Things, Alpha Consumer, batteryboy, the Daredevil Christopher Wright's J.E. Sunde, and Har-Di-Har. Ottman will be playing solo, as well as with batteryboy and Adam Levy on a few songs. Gimme Noise asked Ottman about her musical beginnings, how things are progressing with LOTT, and her thoughts on the forthcoming We Are the Willows album.
Gimme Noise: So, how and when did you first get into playing music? And was the violin your instrument of choice straight from the start?
Leah Ottman: When I was a kid, my parents had two rules: play an instrument and a sport. For the instrument choice, all I wanted to do was play violin, so I started lessons (Suzuki Method) at age 6 and haven't stopped.
How did you first get involved with We Are the Willows, Better Bones, and batteryboy?
I first got connected to Peter Miller (We Are the Willows) through a mutual friend we both went to college with. I played violin with our friend's music project, and when Peter needed strings for We Are the Willows, I was recommended. And now he's my landlord, so I can never leave the band.
I started playing with Better Bones when the band was recording its first EP in 2011. It was initially only supposed to be a studio recording gig, but I guess they liked me enough to keep me around all these years later....
And I've only been playing with batteryboy for 8-9 months or so. They needed a new violinist to fill in, so my Better Bones bandmate (who also plays in batteryboy), Eric Carranza, recommended me.
Were these your first bands, or did you have other musical outlets before working with those groups?
The very first band I played with was an instrumental project by the friend who recommended me to WATW. Prior to that, I was just a classical music nerd who played in orchestras, chamber ensembles, quartets, etc. I still play in an orchestra -- it's just a part of my life and I can't imagine not playing classical music.
Did you find it easy to blend your classical musical influences and style with their modern rock sounds, or was that a creative challenge for you initially?
I definitely had a big learning curve when I started playing in bands. In the classical world, you play exactly what's written on your sheet music, so the concept of "jamming" was very foreign and new. I wanted to keep playing with bands, so I just worked on developing new skills and applying what I already knew.
What did performing in those bands bring out in your own playing style that you hadn't previously tapped into creatively?
The main thing was the ability to improvise with the instrumentation that makes up a rock band. Improv used to scare me. Now I love it and continually try to improve that skill set.
What inspired you to form your own project, LOTT, and how smooth of a transition was it for you to go from a full-band set up to a mostly solo endeavor?
I used to be a closeted songwriter and write "bedroom music" -- written and performed only in my bedroom. Having a solo project was something I've wanted to do for a while, but never had the guts to book a show for myself. This past December, my bandmate, Eric Carranza, told me I was scheduled to perform at a hoot night he was hosting, so I was kind of pushed to play for the public.
Besides the debilitating nerves that came with the first few solo shows, it's been a fairly smooth transition from the full-band setting. I think the years of violin recitals helped prepare me, to some extent. And I've always loved performing, so the solo project has been another way to do what I love.
You worked with some really talented folks while recording your initial singles (Adam Levy as a producer, and Zachary Hollander as engineer/mixer), along with top-notch instrumental contributions from Eric Carranza, Travis Collins, and Charlie Rudoy. How have they helped you realize your artistic vision, and how have the talented performers within the Twin Cities music scene both encouraged and inspired you as a songwriter and performer?
They made it really easy for me. I basically did nothing. I wrote and recorded the skeleton of the first single, "Parking On The Grass," and they made it a real song. I knew I wanted those three musicians to play on my single, but had no guidance for them. Luckily, Adam and Zach were able to envision something I couldn't. I just ate donuts and patiently waited.
I think the high caliber and fast pace of the Twin Cities music scene has pushed me to continually want to learn more and embrace my songwriting style. Because there's such a wide range of talents, you start to pick up on things you do and don't want to do. I go out and see a lot of live shows across many genres, so that has been very beneficial for my own writing and performing.
How were those initial recording sessions at the Pearl for you, and have you recorded more material since those two initial singles?
Working with the Pearl has been one of the most incredible studio experiences I've ever had. Zach has a lot of vintage gear and equipment, so I love the tone quality that comes out of that studio. They're just a well-oiled machine that I can really vibe with, so it was a dream. And I was able to use the same microphone model that Patsy Cline used on many of her recordings, so I was elated.
Nothing else is recorded yet. I hope to do another single and one day a full-length album, but it might take me a bit, due to other musical endeavors.
You've done a wonderful job fusing your classical sound with subtle sonic flourishes, as your songs take on an air that fluidly blends both 18th century charms and 21st century modernity. How do you find that creative balance within your songwriting -- where you pay homage to the past while also taking that classical sound confidently into the present day?
Thank you, that's a lovely observation.
I think my passion for particular periods and composers of classical music help inspire my melodies, and in turn, those melodies dictate what I loop as the foundation. And in all reality, I tend to write songs based what I can perform live with my looping pedal...
So, you are opening both nights at the Southern Theater Sessions. How excited are you to be a part of these shows, and what are your thoughts on the talented groups you are sharing the bill with?
I've been looking forward to these Sessions for a long time. Thursday night I'm pulling triple duty and playing solo, with batteryboy, and also joining Adam Levy for a handful of songs. J.E. Sunde and Har-di-Har are dear friends of mine who also write unbelievable music, so I feel very lucky. Friday night makes me a bit speechless. I'm sharing a bill with an Alan Sparhawk project, the Murder of Crows, Fury Things, and Alpha Consumer, so I definitely feel like a wimpy violinist, but I'm still very excited.
There is an ambitious new We Are the Willows album coming out based on old letters sent between Peter Miller's grandparents during WWII. What can you tell us about the album, and what were those recording sessions like?
Well, we just released our first single, "Dear Ms. Branstner," and the record will be released on November 4th on the Homestead Records (the same label that released my single). It's WATW's second full-length album, but it's the first album we wrote and recorded as a band, so it's pretty different than the previous releases.
The album is a narrative about two lovers who barely knew each other, but continued writing over years and fell more in love over time. It's a beautiful story and all the more beautiful that it's true. Some of the lyrics also explore the dark and sad experiences, so shit gets real, but then set on top of sensible chamber pop songs.
The sessions were both arduous and amazing. We recorded everything in a church sanctuary and our basement, so it was not glamorous. I probably shouldn't be this candid, but the rest of the band isn't involved in this interview, so I'm going with it.
When can we expect to hear more studio work from LOTT, and do you have plans for any official releases of your material in the near future?
As of now, I have nothing set. I am going to try to get back into the Pearl Recording Studio before the New Year, so I'm hoping for at least another single release in the next few months, and eventually a full length.
What do you have planned for the Southern Theater performances? And how has playing your songs live helped refine and breathe new life into your songs?
I'm going to try not to swear and ramble too much on stage and play some new tunes. Maybe even throw on a tux one of the nights because it's the Southern Theater and it would feel so right to wear a tux in there.
Performing my songs live has helped me tighten up my sound -- vocal parts and violin loops. I haven't changed my songs' structure much since performing them live. I tend to write, perform, and keep them how they are. Perhaps it's a bad habit to get into, but I'm still learning. I always think of live shows as practice, so I'm continually trying to grow and get better with every opportunity to perform.Southern Theater Sessions II takes place this Thursday and Friday at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Get tickets here.
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