Interview with Jamie Leonhart: Artist-hood, Motherhood, and the Estuary

Today, I'm doing an interview with my friend Jamie Leonhart, an NYC singer-songwriter. As an artist, Jamie walks in the worlds of singer-songwriter, jazz, indie pop, and cabaret. She's also a supporting singer for other artists. Her latest project Estuary is about the balance between motherhood and artist-hood, which is one of my favorite topics. She has some beautiful thoughts to share about her project, which will happen again in November at Joe's Pub in NYC. 

Jess: Jamie! Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me about your process and your project Estuary.

Jamie: Jess! So happy to be doing this with you :)  

Jess: Before we jump in, let’s give a little intro to the readers. You’re originally from New York. Your grandpa was a cantor and you and your siblings all loved music. You studied English Lit at Barnard while building a career as a singer. You’ve performed in Avery Fisher Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Joe’s Pub and Rockwood Music Hall. You also do radio and TV work (Betty Crocker, Kohl's, HomeGoods, Lifetime, Oxygen, TRESemmé, Neutrogena brand, Johnson & Johnson, Bratz brand dolls, etc.) and background and session singer gigs (Donald Fagen, Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata, St. Vincent, Paul Brill, Judy Kuhn and more). What are some other things you think people should know about you?

Jamie: I’m a songwriter and a writer - I love, study and voraciously eat up both the Great American Songbook and more alternative songwriters, who might start with the feel of soul or folks or even music theater, but then veer off in an unpredictable, exciting direction.  Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Bjork, and many more.  I am so attracted to esoteric lyrics -- where meaning is barely perceptible, but depth of emotion great -- but I find that I am much more of a realist when I write my own lyrics. 

Jess: Oooh, yes. Esoteric lyrics. I'm there with you. Your style is described as “postmodern cabaret.” I think that term really captures the feel of Estuary well. You love Great American Songbook verse, and you take inspiration from the sturm und drang of Weimar-style cabaret. For people who might not be familiar with cabaret, can you talk about that? 

Jamie: I can only talk about it from a personal perspective, as I’m not an expert on all things cabaret, but what I identify with is the idea of story telling  -- of a narrative.  I think that there is a stigma around cabaret as being cheesy or insincere (which, unfortunately it can be.)  But, of late, cabaret is being redefined by a spate of performances by cutting edge “theatrical” artists who have serious chops like Justin Vivian Bond and Bridget Everett.  They are changing the way cabaret is seen. There will always be the more conventional style, but now, the “fringe” is becoming recognized as one of the new “norms” and that excites me.

Jess: Your style is also described as singer-songwriter with influences from jazz and indie pop. Do you feel like “postmodern cabaret” is something you’ve identified with all along, but is just now crystallizing with a clearer descriptor? Or was there an actual shift?

Jamie: I think I’ve settled there for now. I can’t say what I’ll be doing two years from now, but I think that it will be an extension of that. When I first started playing with a band, 20+ years ago, it was more of a traditional rock/pop set up -- bass, drums, guitar (and electric violin!) and the songs were more folk/pop -- see if you can find “methuselah jones” somewhere on the internet! My influences are so vast and diverse.  My writing reflects that.  Also, my voice has changed, matured, a lot over the years and I am able to do so much more with it than I could 20 years ago.

Jess: You received a commission through New York Voices and Manhattan's Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. How and when did that come about? 

Jamie:  I’ve had a long, wonderful relationship with Joe’s Pub.  It is a great venue that celebrates and champions artists, and I’ve experienced that first hand.  After I had Milo, I scaled back on performing my own material -- I couldn’t find a foothold.  I was so uncomfortable, I wasn’t enjoying my performances (I address this in Estuary) and I felt at a loss.  I didn’t want to book a show there without having something “important” to say -- and I didn’t like the feeling that I couldn’t envision when that would happen.  I wanted to be vital and connected.  I started writing again thanks to Gretchen Cryer’s workshop.  I didn’t know what I was writing for, but I knew that it was imperative that I started writing again.  After I found the beginnings of an idea for the piece, I started sneaking narratives into my performances, and realized that I wanted to do more, on a bigger scale. I approached Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub and shared my experience with her and she was excited by the idea.  She shared with me that she had been putting me on the short list for the New York Voices commission program for some time, and challenged/encouraged me to create a narrative for my material, and to develop a piece.  And accepted!  It was perfect timing. 

Jess: Did you know when you received the commission that Estuary (or the seeds of it) would be the result?

Jamie: Not completely.  I knew the idea was my parent/artist challenge, but I had so many different ideas -- some that necessarily fell by the wayside from the first go-round of building a narrative.  I have pages about fairy tales and creatures being devoured whole.  I have pages comparing unborn children to parasites (dark, I know, but necessary to exorcise!). Through revisions after meeting with the folks from Joe’s Pub and The Public Theater and working one-on-one with Gretchen Cryer, I was able to develop the shape from which Estuary was born.  But the title didn’t come about until the piece was almost fully realized in its current form.

Jess: How did Joe's partnership with the Kimmel Center Theater Residency program affect the project?

Jamie: The residency with the Kimmel Center afforded me one magical thing that is elusive to most parents: time and space in which to create.  The other artists in the program were inspiring to be around, even though the time we spent together was relatively short: Ethan Lipton, Daniel Alexander Jones, Dito van Riegersberg (aka Martha Graham Cracker) and Migguel Angelo. I worked with Joanna Settle, an amazing director, for the first time.  I’d never worked with a director on my own material - I hadn’t ever had the need.  She helped me understand how to shape my piece, how to pare it down to the essentials and build from that platform.  It was a very exciting time for me.

Jess: How many performances have you had so far?

Jamie: Three in New York, three in Philadelphia and then an additional performance in New York, implementing the changes I’d made in Philly.

Jess: Are there more planned? 

Jamie: Yes, I’ll be doing it again in New York at Joe’s Pub in November, and recording all of the music from the show right around the same time.  

Then, my goal is to perform it around the country - SF, LA, Boston, Chicago - you name it, I want to bring it there!  I am building an Estuary website that will serve as a forum  - it will have performance info, but equally as important, related articles and interviews, links to artist/mother groups, etc.

Jess: I really loved the estuary as a metaphor for the balance between motherhood and artist-hood. When did you first connect with that?

Jamie:  I originally started playing with the idea of water as one of the themes that I knew was important to the development to the piece. I listed the following thoughts:  anchor, depth, tide, sailing (away), weightlessness.  In thinking about the tenuous relationship in parenting and artistry, I kept thinking about flow, movement and stagnation, and the idea of the estuary came to me.  I started reading articles about estuaries, and there was one in particular from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that was incredibly clear and rich with description.  It explained the idea of the smooth flow of the opposing fresh and saltwater streams, and also how a strong change in velocity can result in turbulence, mixing the fresh and salt water to create a brackish, potentially unlivable environment, that can later be flushed and rebalanced.  This struck me as such a great metaphor for this “motherhood/artist-hood” relationship. It’s rich, it’s volatile, it’s complicated, it has flow and stagnation.  It’s not a perfect metaphor yet, but I’m still working through it.

Jess: Has the metaphor altered or expanded since your first connection with it?

Jamie: It’s definitely expanded.  I love research, and I love finding/creating/uncovering subtext. One of the lyrics in the song "Estuary" is “What a rich place to be when balance is achieved.  Feed off the nutrients created - great blue heron, salmon and seals elated.”

I did some research on the creatures that thrive in estuaries and found this wonderful information:  In Celtic beliefs, the blue heron is the embodiment of the goddess Rhiannon and guides those who are lost.  It is the symbol of balance, as it’s surefooted on the ground and flies gracefully through the sky.  In Shamanistic beliefs, the salmon is the power animal of wisdom, and represents overcoming obstacles.  Also in Shamanistic beliefs, the seal represents protection during change.  It represents imagination, creativity, protection from danger, movement through emotions, and the inner voice.

I was blown away by these discoveries -- the relevance to motherhood and parenting was astounding. 

Jess: Oh, wow! What a fabulous discovery! I LOVE finding stuff like that. How perfect!

In a previous interview, you talked about a one-person-show workshop that was the springboard for Estuary. You mentioned that you were initially determined not to write about parenting...that you were trying to create a “sacred space” apart from it. I really connected with that. I’m pretty new to writing, and I thought that I would be able to write about whatever I wanted. But I’m finding it’s almost impossible to move forward until I write something about the elephant in my room first. I don’t have to ever show it to anyone. It doesn’t even have to be very good. And sometimes it can be just words. But I have to write about it. Aside from your experience in that workshop, does that phenomenon happen to you at other times when you’re connecting with new content?

Jamie:  It does, and I have that same experience still and potentially always, Jess!  You’d think that I’d learned from it!  But I find that I still have that initial reaction. I recognize it more now, but it doesn’t stop this from happening.  I’ll notice that I haven’t been writing at all - in fact that I’ve been avoiding sitting down to write because there’s too much in my head and I can’t make sense of it.  So I too find that I have to get out the other “stuff” - the elephant in the room as you put it, to see what it is that I can want to write.  And it is mostly around new content -- how and where to start.

Jess: As part of your process, you said that you sent out questionnaires to other artist-mothers to learn about other experiences with this balance. What responses were the most powerful/helpful for you in your own life as an artist-mother?

Jamie: It wasn’t so much that I was looking for help in my own life as an artist/mother, but more that I was looking to deepen the connection in my community.  What I really loved is that everyone was honest in their responses.  Some of the pieces that excited/resonated with me: someone wrote that being a mother taught her artist “Creativity, resilience and commitment [she] had never experienced before.”  Someone wrote that it “expanded [her] thinking about the world, the future of the world, love, intimacy, patience, vulnerability and growth, which has all impacted [her] art.”

I was interested and curious about the fact that two of the three women who didn’t consider the impact that having a child would have on her artist-role were 10 years older than the rest of the other women I’d approached.  I wondered if my generation, specifically of women having children older than our predecessors, feel a different kind of pressure.

I watched a wonderful documentary called “Lost in Living” by a woman named Mary Trunk. She focuses her movie on four women who are artists and mothers.  Two are friends whom she follows for seven years, through pregnancies and the early years of their children’s lives.   The other two are older women, one a painter, the other a writer, who had very different experiences in their artist/mother intersection.  It was great research for my piece -- I had the opportunity to connect with Mary Trunk and share thoughts with her. I love that we have such an expansive, thoughtful and thought provoking community.  

Jess: Yes! Such a great community. I'm constantly inspired by the artists who choose motherhood, particularly when they share their stories and their support as women like you and Mary have.

I found a few artist-mothers in the book Daily Rituals, which includes the rituals and habits of artists of various mediums. One of my favorite books. It inspires me to try new rituals. It also helps me say, “Phew. I’m not alone.” The artists who were also mothers had some of the most interesting rituals. They were also the smallest demographic in the book. Do you have any regular rituals that relate to your artist self? How do your rituals now compare to your rituals before having a child?

Jamie: Jess, I love that you are so aware of this.  And I wish that my obsessive organizing would include ritual, but I have a hard time with ritual around creating.  I do meditate daily, and I try to clear away any known distractions when sitting down to write, or preparing for a performance.  What I have learned about myself is that I can get rigid and even superstitious if I think that I “have” to do something a certain way (self-dictated, of course) and that can include a ritual practice that I’ve supposedly created as an aid for myself.  

When I write, the one ritual that I have is to use a timer.  I write for 20-minute uninterrupted segments.  Sometimes I end up resetting the timer 6 times, but those 2 hours are taken in bite-sized pieces. 

Jess: You’ve mentioned that you think artist-mothers (and perhaps parents in general, especially in the very competitive New York parenting environment) may feel isolated, and you’re hoping to help them feel less isolated by sharing this work. I won’t ever be a mother, but I certainly identified with a lot of your story...the fear of losing control...knowing that taking next steps into my fullest life means relinquishing control...experiencing more intense joy alongside more intense risk and failure...struggling with shame. You certainly reached out to me with your work. Thank you so much for that. I’m curious to know: what are some of the things that have helped you feel less isolated as an artist-mother?

Jamie:  Jess, I want to thank you for introducing me to Brené Brown’s work.  She addresses all of this so succinctly with such heart.  Almost every woman I know who is both a mother and an artist  - especially to children in elementary school and younger - has faced some sort of dilemma during these years.  Talking honestly about this has made me feel less isolated.  But Jess, as you pointed out, it doesn’t only have to be about being an artist and a parent.  It can be the dilemma between running your own studio and performing with the longer term goal to be on tour.  How do you tend to both without experiencing a loss?

Learning to separate myself into these two roles and prioritize each one is so important.  I am still working on this - wholly being a mother and wholly being an artist when I am in each of these roles.  I will call Milo to say goodnight when I have a late gig, but I will not micromanage what is going on with him.  I can (and must) focus on the task at hand, which is performing -- otherwise, I won’t do a good job in either of these roles.

Jess: How did the process of creating and performing Estuary change you?

Jamie: Creating Estuary pushed me way past the boundaries of my comfortable space.  I’d never written or performed monologue before.  I’d never written a song to specifically move from one event or another, a typical Musical Theater conceit. And I loved doing this.  Working on this piece shifted how I look at a performance.  I even see a more straight-forward gig through a different lens now.  

Jess: What did the process of creating and performing Estuary solidify about you?

Jamie: Creating Estuary solidified how much I love to develop a piece -- how much I love to research and rewrite -- how once I’ve crossed the threshold that we discussed earlier I am two feet in!  It also highlighted for me that I am still uncomfortable in that space that exists between creating and performing.  I do love to perform, and for the most part once I’m “in it” I love it, but I really feel this shift.  The excitement and energy that I feel while exploring in workshop; the freedom I feel in rehearsal -- they leave me when I start to prepare for a performance.  I stiffen, and have to work to soften those spaces again.

I proved to myself that I can take on a difficult, very personal project, and thrive in the process of developing it. 

Jess: Now that you’ve worked with the material for a while as a writer and a performer, are there any songs that stick out to you in any way?

Jamie: The title song, "Estuary," was one of the last songs completed, and I love it so much.  I love singing it, I love the idea of it, and Michael’s arrangement is just magical.  

I also absolutely love singing the duet with Emma.  She is such a delight.  The duet is between a “know it all” young mother and me at the height of a fear of “fucking up” neurotic episode.  The fact that she is 20 (and looks it) makes it even more ridiculous.    

Jess: I want to say I thought your placement and arrangement of “Rainbow Connection” near the end of the show was masterful. The one line…”Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors”...tied it so perfectly to your song about sailing away and the overarching metaphor of the estuary. I LOL’d at the little musical figure you put behind the lyric “Have you heard voices.” So great. Especially juxtaposed with one of the only moments you included the major chords from the original. The voices we hear as artists, as spouses, as humans...they’re not always beautiful or sane or helpful. The arrangement really turned the song on its head for me, and I was able to identify with it in a way I never had before. It allowed me to feel a jaded as an artist while also giving me permission to keep dreaming and working in the face of disappointment. 

Jamie:  Thank you Jess!  I was just having a conversation with someone who’d read Jim Henson’s biography.  I learned that when looking for Kermit’s opening song, he had requested a song that had a message of hope, like “When You Wish Upon A Star.”  You can hear it in that lyric you mentioned -- the voice that calls the young sailors offers them some hope.  In reinterpreting the song, I didn’t want to take that promise of hope away, but I did want to highlight how tenuous that hope can be.  That voice, the siren song, can also call those sailors to their death. The song, to me, is about both holding hope and admitting how unsure we can be at the same time.  

Jess: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about the project?

Jamie:  I’m so proud of this project.  I want to share it.  I want people to ask me about it.  I want people to talk to me about themselves - their experiences, their loss and gain.  

Jess: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with the readers and me about your experiences! Break a leg on your future performances!

Jamie: Thank you Jess!  Thank you for your candid and thoughtful questions.  And thank you for sharing yourself with me!

If you'd like to learn more about Jamie and her Estuary project, go to Her Joe's Pub performance will be listed on their website soon.

If you're a voice teacher, check out Jamie's related post on Commercial Voice Resources.