It’s been said that having a breakdown leads to a breakthrough. It seems Leah Siegel would agree. A musician living in Brooklyn (down the street from where her grandfather grew up), Ms. Siegel has spent the last couple of years breaking out her most recent musical project, Firehorse (@thisisfirehorse), and last year released her first album as such (And So They Ran Faster) to much acclaim.
“I can’t remember which happened first,” Siegel says over the phone, on a break from a recording session in Seattle, “I knew that something needed to change otherwise I was just going to completely fall apart. And I think then I completely fell apart — through the process of breaking everything down, of breaking free… I just started doing different things in life and it really informed the kind of music I was making.”
With the new name (she previously wrote and performed simply as Leah Siegel) came a new energy and a new sound. While her previous work had a more intimate, unplugged sound, her recent songs are bigger and bolder, leaning heavily on electric guitars, synthesizers and vocal looping while still displaying her incredible vocal chops.
“I had always heard something more,” she shares, “but I felt kind of bullied to stay in a box. So for me, I just really needed to break out of it.”
Siegel more or less taught herself everything she knows as a musician, aside from her six years in violin lessons as a child. “They say [the violin] trains your ear really finely. I definitely think that was probably my greatest vocal coach; to have that ear and to have developed that at a young age.”
It was this early exposure to classical music that informed her songwriting as well. “[My songs were] always really composed and really structured, and that’s part of the other thing that I really wanted to break free from,” she explains, “I got tired of having to do so much composing…There was never any room to just, I don’t know, break out or put the mike down and just move my body.”
Once she realized that she was no longer doing what she wanted to be doing with her music, change was inevitable. “I stopped enjoying myself. I felt like I had done so much writing in one style that I was getting frustrated and bored,” she admits, adding, “That’s really what almost ended me a few years ago — I felt suddenly like I just didn’t want to be in front of people… whether I was writing somber songs or dark songs or upbeat, fun stuff, no matter what it was, I just wanted to feel a certain way onstage.”
So it all came down to a few basic ideas: “If I were to perform every night, and you know, God willing, I hope that happens soon,” she explains, “How do I want my life to feel? How do I want my body to feel? What are all the different things I want to offer vocally and sonically and rhythmically?”
The shift she wanted to make meant new instrumentation and gear. “The biggest roadblock was just that I didn’t know what I was doing technically in order to get where I wanted to go.” Working with her long-time producer, Geoff Stanfield, whom she credits as being the “first super-talented person” who came into her life and continues to support and encourage her, she started “kind of ripping things apart and then putting them back together.”
Her songs remain deeply personal, though her lyrics are slightly more obscure. “It’s become less about what I’m saying,” she says of her writing, “Certainly it all comes from your heart, but in the past it’s all been very, sort of, intellectualized emotions… Now I’m thinking more Big Picture.”
Following the album release and several stellar shows at SXSW this Spring, Firehorse has been creating quite a buzz. “I’m really, really proud,” she says, “I mean, the record isn’t even a year old and I’m really excited it’s gotten the attention it has gotten,” but, she adds, “None of it has changed my life… my goals have always remained the same and my expectations are high.”
She hesitates, then continues, “You want people to like it, there’s no two ways about that,” she says, referencing her slight detachment from all of the press, “But that was part of the whole mission of creating Firehorse in the first place — this was all for me. This just has to be for me. I don’t do anything else, so I just have to start living a life that I really love.”
And so she’s back in the studio with Stanfield, working on her next album. “It’s happening really organically,” she says, “In the past… I think I was just really unwilling to let the songs be anything other than how I first heard them in my head. So now I’m going in and there’s nothing there to hold me back. It’s a great discovery process… It’s just really starting with nothing.”
For the time being, she’s not paying much mind to the future, but she has her sights set on touring. “If I’m creating music now based on the desires I have as a performer, then [performing is] what I want to be doing,” she states. This seems quite reasonable when you consider that in the next week alone she has a Firehorse show and is also performing with two of her side projects, The Citizens Band and The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout. “I just love music. I love doing what I do,” she states, “I love when I’m asked to step out of what I normally do and do something else, sound like something else. All of that is just really, it’s a gift, and I want to use it all the time.”