“I feel a responsibility to speak out on the things that I feel strongly convicted about, but sometimes it does come at a cost.”
Growing up in a family that encouraged the creative arts, Leslie Hunt realized from an early age that she wanted to be a performer. The former American Idol semi-finalist got a headstart at the fresh age of 4, and has kept steady on that track ever since. But even more than a musical artist, painter, or writer, Leslie is a trailblazing entrepreneur who challenges boundaries—those of herself and her community—with her music and songwriting. Her bravery and spunk, coupled with a deep passion and joy for her artistry, truly makes Leslie a gifted, ingenious visionary.
First of all, where are you in the world right now?
I’m just about an hour west from Chicago. How about you?
Me? I’m in New York City!
I love going to New York! Our band tours over there, and I’ve gone over there for vacation and visiting friends.
How did you get started in music? What made you pick music as a career?
I started out playing piano and singing. My parents were musicians and there was a ton of music in the house. I was surrounded by it all the time; people were always coming over and having rehearsals.
I loved theatre, and I loved performing on stage, so I did a lot of theatre as a kid. And then I realized that I loved writing songs, so I became a songwriter, and I’ve been on that path ever since.
What kind of music did you grow up with? What (musical) influences did you have growing up?
My mom was more on the side of folks-y singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King mixed with tons of showtunes because she was a professional actress. She was in Evita and all these different performances that I would then sit in the front row and watch over and over again.
And my dad is a free jazz drummer, meaning it’s completely improvised. He’s still in the free jazz scene in Chicago—he’s a pretty well-known drummer. He was also really interested in Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa—just anything that rocks—but is also musically out there. This made it easy for me to join a progressive metal band about 12 years ago, because I was used to those really intricate, strange harmonies and odd time-signatures. Just musically complex, but very compelling music.
What would you say your musical style is right now; what do you lean towards?
I would say I’m indie-pop, but harmonically I’m a bit more complex than your average pop artist. I went to music school and I have some of that knowledge, so I can write a song and have it take a very interesting turn, like “Whoa! I didn’t realize it was gonna go there!” I enjoy playing with that, and having musical surprises.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. I studied music composition and wasn’t sure it was a right fit for me, but I learned so much about music. I use that knowledge everyday: it makes me a good music teacher, it makes me a good band leader, it makes me a better songwriter, it makes me a better communicator with the musicians around me.
[The call gets interrupted halfway because of technical difficulties, but we’re all well-acquainted with this new world of Zoom calls and techno-conversations now. Leslie jumps back in with all the focus and concentration of a seasoned performer who knows the business and its idiosyncrasies.]
It was a music conservatory and I was a piano minor, and there were these hallways of practice rooms. Just so many people sitting in there for eight hours, nine hours at a time, hammering away, trying to get it all right. That showed me the work that it takes to do this, and I think I haven’t been as diligent (laughs) since, but I know if I ever wanted to, that’s what it takes.
That’s the thing! There’s always someone doing warmups, there’s always someone practicing their scales, their songs—it inspires you. But then you come to a point where you go, I will never be that, because I just don’t have the discipline, or I want time for other things—and that’s okay!
That is okay! I think that’s what makes the world go round—if that’s a natural inclination for you to tunnel in on your passions like that, great! Go for it! If not, don’t guilt yourself, or shame yourself for it.
So I was watching this YouTube video that you posted, and you said something that I thought was really inspirational: “You don’t have to have millions of fans to have a successful career in music.”
Yeah! When you think about the successful people in music, you think about the people that are selling out arenas. But there’s a lot of different levels of success, and I’ve really enjoyed the balance that comes with my level of success. I have two kids, and I’m able to be with them, more than I would be if I had higher demands and needed to be on the road all the time.
It’s easy to get discouraged, and consider a dream of pursuing music as a far-fetched thing that likely won’t come together, if your idea of success is at that one specific level.
The fans that I have—some of them I’ve had since American Idol, since 2007, some before. They’re so passionate! If you’re a friendly, grateful person that treats each show, each audience member like a gift, you can maximize these connections and create a real community around people that appreciate what you do. I’ve been grateful for every single opportunity I’ve had to perform for anyone, even if it’s in a coffee shop.
You mentioned American Idol! How was that?
I thought it was great! I was amazed that I made it as far as I did, because I had never seen the show, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just heard from other people, when they heard me sing, they said, “You should try out for American Idol!”
I hadn’t ever performed without sitting at a piano. So body-wise, I was very disconnected from how to just stand on a stage in a pair of high heels. Not to mention my first performance for 36 million people—I think was the number at the time—it was a very high viewership in American Idol history! The producers were like, “What kind of album would you make?” And at that point, I had no idea. I had no idea what my genre was. I wasn’t The Rocker, or The Crooner—I was a little bit jazzy, kinda weird—I don’t know!
Now there’s Spotify, and all these different music-streaming platforms that people are exposed to—so many different kinds of music, that now it’s not as important to slap a label on somebody.
What are the top 3 highlights of your career?
Top 3! Okay!
I will say that I haven’t done anything that has reached as many people as American Idol did, so that experience is still number 1. That self-awareness, like I could actually do this! Enough people that were running the show saw enough talent in me to put me in that position and see if I had a chance.
I would say touring Europe a few times is number 2 as far as just being like, “Yeah, Les! You’re cool!” The fact that I can say that, especially with the music I was touring with, which is progressive rock, they just loved it over there! They love [music that is] intense, intricate, demanding, aggressive.
And the third one—we were able to tour with this guy named John Wetton. He was a bassist and singer for Asia; he was also in King Crimson—unfortunately, he passed away. He toured with us a couple of times, just him, in a van, with us. The fact that he got in a van with five 20-somethings that were quite a mess! We didn’t have it quite dialed yet, so he was like, “What time is load-in? What’s going on?” He was such an established musician, and we were like, “We don’t know! You want some pizza?”
So that was pretty cool, and it’s all been such an honor.
What about the social impact you make through music?
One of my favorite things to do is incorporate fundraising for charities in my performances. I have found that it’s easier for me to promote something that benefits others through an organization or charity. Otherwise, it starts to feel very egocentric after a while.
But with my band, District 97, we’ve talked about confirmation bias, and how depending on where you live, your Google results are going to be different. Our country, especially in the last 4 years, has gotten so divided because our social media is keeping us there. Everything that the Internet wants to give us—“they like this kind of stuff—let’s hit ‘em with it”—has gotten us trapped in this self-feeding bubble.
I’ve written about our screen addictions and how we’re missing the world around us. My daughter has Asperger’s syndrome, so I’ve written a song from her perspective and what I imagine would be her frustrations living in a world that isn’t designed for her necessarily—that she has to keep trying to join the neurotypical world, and I feel frustrated for her in that regard. I feel like she could probably teach us a few things about how to live and what’s important.
I’ve written about Donald Trump (laughs). When people realize what I’m singing about, I’ve seen them leave our shows. Like leave all the merch behind that they bought, because they’re like, “I can’t believe you said that!” And that’s a gamble—speaking out on social issues! We have to choose which crosses we’re willing to die on, if we’re willing to lose fans over. What’s the trade-off? Is it important to speak our mind, or is it important to keep everybody on board with this band? It’s hard to make that choice sometimes.
I also wrote a song called “Again and Again” right around the George Floyd protests, when everything was at an all-time high, all the protests going around the country and across the world. That’ll be coming out hopefully in the summer.
So what’s next for Leslie!
I am putting finishing touches on a seven-song EP that is coming out in the spring. Right now, the biggest hurdle is my 2nd EP—I have another seven songs that need to be recorded, and mixed, and mastered.
“Ascend” is the first EP. I started writing these songs in 2019 and everything felt like it was taking off, and my muse as a solo artist was coming back, and we were ascending, and then—pandemic! And now we have to land, and we don’t know how long we’re going to be on the ground, and we don’t know how long this layover is, and now we’re descending. So it’s “Ascend” and “Descend”.
At the moment, it’s very uncertain what’s happening with the second batch, but the first batch is sounding so good. I’m just going to go forward with this release, even if it’s the first seven for now. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the best-laid plans better be flexible! Otherwise there’s gonna be a world of heartbreak! We’re just gonna do what we’ve always done and improvise, and hopefully it all comes together in a timely manner.
You know what? That sounds like jazz!
Improvise! Exactly! A-one, a-two! Just keep progressing, keep it going!
Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
Keep in touch with me! That’s the thing that would make the biggest difference in my life. I’m resurrecting a very dormant, solo artist identity. It’s been a long time since I released a solo record. The music is some of the best I’ve ever written in my life, and it’s sounding so good. I can’t wait to share it with people.
And if fans want to reach out to you? Do you reply to all DMs?
I do! I respond to all my Instagram DMs, Facebook—you can reach out to me on my website as well. I get some messages, but not too many to reply to, so if you’d like to reach out to me, go for it! It’d be awesome! Thank you so much!
You can reach out and connect with Leslie Hunt through her various social media pages.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.