In another lifetime, Leslie Stevens played in a badass punk band. Far from a snarling anarchist, though, she earned the nickname “Stalker Mom” for her sweet demeanor and habit of working out country/folk songs with Joni Mitchell in mind.
“I was the nice, normal one,” she says from her home in Los Angeles where she now heads Americana knockouts Leslie & The Badgers, a group that, while occasionally salty, isn’t textbook punk. She left Zeitgeist Auto Parts after a brief hiatus got her thinking. “You have to pick your battles, and I didn’t have time for two bands,” she says.
For Stevens, the transition to country wasn’t difficult. Punk celebrates storytelling, three-chord song structure and lyrics delivered at face value. “That’s true of roots music, too,” she says. The Badgers—Stevens, Ben Reddell, Travis Popichak, Charlene Huang and Glenn Oyabe—wrote a few numbers off their new album that don’t fall under the umbrella of traditional punk, country, roots music or otherwise—they’re unique to the group who had the good fortune of teaming up with producer David Bianco (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) to record Roomful of Smoke.
The album’s title refers to fallout from the raging forest fires that consumed parts of North Hollywood last winter—not just the physical ash falling from the sky “like moths,” but more specifically how one thing morphs into another without warning. “When you set out to make something you have to leave some of it up to fate,” Stevens says.
It helps to have someone like Bianco upholding Stevens’ belief that “music is a refuge; music is an escape, and when you’re in the studio, you sometimes take your eyes off the focus,” she says, adding that, in the wrong hands, even well-intentioned projects can wind up overly slick. The Badgers wanted Smoke to improve on their previous effort, which they no longer sell as an LP. They took five tracks off their first record—available as the EP Greetings From—and took two others to Bianco for an artful overhaul. “We were really pleased with the sounds we got from David even on the first day,” Stevens says, adding that the whole experience exceeded their expectations. “He really seemed to care. It was about communicating—it was about the music.”
The Bianco connection came through Rhino Independent, a subsidiary of Rhino Records, whose reps handed the Badgers a list of potential studio wizards and directed them to select a few favorites. Bianco was a long shot, but one visit to their MySpace page and he was sold. Stevens followed up by playing some acoustic numbers for him and they developed a quick friendship that extended to the rest of the band—folks she met through a series of happy accidents in the city of (some say lost) angels.
Stevens and Huang, for example, crossed paths at Hans Zimmer’s office while Stevens was working as a music supervisor on films (if you look closely, you’ll see her name in the credits to Constantine). Reddell and Popichak split their time in another Los Angeles group, Welldiggers Banquet, and made the easy transition to the Badgers. Oyabe simply responded to a classifieds ad. Thank lord they found one another, what with the town’s reputation for wearing down dreamers.
“Los Angeles,” the first song off of Smoke, considers how not simply L.A., but any town can take its toll. Growing up in the Midwest, Stevens didn’t feel as free to develop her craft. In L.A., where “creativity is placed on a pedestal,” artists are encouraged to do their own thing.
But what would a country band be without heartache, struggle and strife? “Los Angeles is grist for the mill,” Stevens says. “You need something to push against in order to make you stronger.”
Stevens wrote her first song at age 7 about a dead bird that perished in her parents’ atrium. Heavy stuff for a kid, but considering the gentle touch she applies to more recent subject matter, it’s likely the song offered a beautiful, fitting tribute for the fallen creature.
Many write-ups cite Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis when describing Stevens’ tone, but if anything it registers as a young Dolly Parton with slightly less twang. For all its distinctiveness, Stevens’ voice never overpowers her band’s musicianship— holy chops! From Reddell and Popichak’s sturdy rhythm section (the two started out and continue to play in Welldiggers Banquet) to Huang’s stunning violin, not a chord nor beat is out of place. On Smoke, the crew whips out myriad additional accents including the spooky theremin on “If I Was Linen,” and what sounds like a hammered dulcimer. The resulting stew is intoxicating and, in keeping with the Badgers’ original intent, crisp, classic and real.
Mission accomplished. Well, almost.
“These past three weeks have been incredibly intense—it’s kind of a Herculean feat to put something together independently,” Stevens says before hitting the road to promote Smoke. The Badgers’ van recently broke down 10 miles outside a gig in Arizona and offered her the first real break she’s had in months. “It felt strangely relaxing, being stuck in the desert.”
LESLIE & THE BADGERS
w/ Olin & The Moon
60 E. 800 South
Sunday, June 14