Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A Very Candid Conversation With Leslie Hunt


Leslie Hunt (year unknown)


On the music reality show American Idol, most of the contestants sing pop like Kelly Clarkson, or country like Carrie Underwood. Leslie Hunt was a completely different contestant. In 2007, Leslie was a semifinalist on season 6 of American Idol, and would stay in the semi-finals for two week. On her first week, she covered Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” On the second week, she covered Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” At the end of her performance, she was “scat singing,” which is an improvised way of soloing using various nonsense sounds and syllables. Her scatting didn’t warm the hearts of Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, and she was voted off the show shortly after. Her performance of “Feeling Good” and the reactions by the judges can be seen here.

Leslie may have been done with American Idol, but she was not done with her music career. In 2009, she recorded a solo album, Your Hair Is On Fire, and then joined District 97 as their lead singer. District 97 was unlike anything that Leslie had done before. They are an unusual music mixture of metal and progressive rock. (An example of the musical style of District 97 can be heard here in the video for “Snow Country.”) District 97 have recorded six albums, starting with Hybrid Child (2010) and most recently with Screenplay(2021). Their music has received favorable mentions from legends in the progressive “prog” rock genre as John Wetton (King Crimson and Asia) and Bill Bruford (Yes).

In addition to fronting District 97, Leslie has decided to make two solo EPs in 2021. The first EP, Ascend, will be released on June 25, and the second and EP, Descend, will be released in September. Each EP will have seven songs and both will contain new music genres for Leslie to explore.

In this candid conversation, we will cover Leslie’s musical journey from American Idol to District 97 and her current solo endeavors. I want to think Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview with Leslie, but most of all, I want to thank Leslie.

Jeff Cramer: So what got you interested in music?

Leslie Hunt: Well, I was raised in a very musical family. Both of my parents played music. They performed it, rehearsed it, or taught it in some capacity every day. I loved to sing, and I started playing piano at the age of four. Music was just a huge part of my upbringing. All of my aunts and uncles, and cousins, and grandparents on both sides played music. It was just a super musical environment. I basically had no choice.

JC: When you were on American Idol, you mentioned that your grandfather was a particular influence. How was he an influence on you?

LH: Yeah. Well, I grew up in the same neighborhood as my grandparents, so I was able to walk over to their house quite easily. And my grandpa was very supportive of my songs. When I first became a songwriter, he loved to listen to them and analyze the lyrics. He would say. “Oh, play that part again.” With grandparents, it’s usually a less complicated relationship than with your own parents, so in a lot of ways that was probably the easiest adult relationship that I’d had at that time. It was sad to lose him so early in my career because I felt he would really have gotten a kick out of everything I’m doing now. 

JC: When did you discover that you could write songs?

LH: I think the first complete song with words and instrumentation was when I was fourteen—that was like when I finished a song. I used to write little mini songs, like silly songs all the time. The first song of mine I performed with my friends when I was in a band in high school. The band was like, “Well, you don’t need to be writing songs for this band,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah. All right. Challenge accepted.” And yeah, and it just hasn’t stopped.

JC: Okay. I understand before American Idol, you actually teamed up with Jim Peterik (performer and songwriter for “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, and “Vehicle” by the Ides of March). 

LH: Jim Peterik took me under his wing when I was fifteen years old, and he started mentoring me as a songwriter. He helped me shaped my songs and record them. We still work together, actually. He helped me a lot when I had a development deal with Sony, which didn’t end up going through, but he definitely was a big help.

JC: I understand you had a health scare shortly before you went on American Idol?

LH: Yeah. That was actually a big reason why I even did American Idol in the first place, because I realized how I almost died at the drop of a hat. I ended up getting the Yellow Fever vaccination to go to Brazil. We had plans to be in the Amazon rainforest, so I had to get the Yellow Fever vaccination. But I had a very adverse reaction to it, and basically all of my organs started to fail, and I was more or less unconscious for roughly ten days. My parents came to say goodbye to me, and I ended up pulling through. The doctors said that if I lived, I would be basically a vegetable and I would suffer severe brain damage. But none of those things ended up happening, and I’m completely unscathed. So I was thinking, “I’d better do something big—so yeah, that’s pretty scary.” But I don’t remember any of it. I just remember waking up and feeling pretty much okay.

JC: Okay. How did you become involved with American Idol? 

LH: Well, I auditioned. I was one of the 104,000 people to audition in Season 6. I was a singer and had always been, and I thought that might be a key thing to do. I’d never seen the show, so I auditioned without any knowledge of what the show was like. It probably would have been helpful for me to know a little more about it going into it . . . but yeah. I ended up making it to the top twenty, so I was like a top ten female finalist. But overall, I was a semifinalist.

Leslie on American Idol (2007) 

JC: Okay, I was about to ask if you had seen American Idol before you got on the show since you performed both Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, both who aren’t usually covered by American Idol contestants.

LH: I’d previously just been to music school, and I’d been performing in different jazz clubs around Chicago. I played piano and sang exclusively. I didn’t really like just standing and singing. I needed to be playing piano at the same time. Actually, that’s how I entered American Idol too. So standing there and singing in American Idol felt very strange. I strongly would have preferred to have my piano in front of me. I did Nina’s “Feeling Good” pretty often. And I just kind of mimicked Nina Simone’s scat, which did not translate well, so that was a pretty hilarious unfortunate choice. I identified as kind of a soulful singer, but in hindsight, I guess I wasn’t really developed yet.  

JC: You would scat again over the closing credits of American Idol.

LH: I think I actually started to swear, and they cut me out before I got there. I walked off the stage, and I’m like, “Oh my God, what did I just do? What did I just say?” It was a horrible thing to ask a contestant to do in the first place, let alone something that’s so kooky. To have credits rolling when you’re like expected to do this big scat. I’m like, “Oh no, this is horrible.” So I was going to sing about how horrible this is.

JC: You scatted, “Why did I decide to scat? America doesn’t care for jazz.” You maintained a good sense of humor after what had just happened.

LH: Yep. That’s me. I’ll spin the worst things. Try to make it funny somehow. It’s a coping skill.

JC: You started your solo career before joining District 97.  I heard “All The Way” and “American Dream Man.” Those songs don’t sound like jazz to me.

LH: Now those are pretty pop. The first album that I made after American Idol was decidedly kind of all over the place in genre. You know, it had one jazz piece on the album. Jazz drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is on the whole record. There was like a slight jazz influence. You know, complex harmonies and things like slightly unexpected turns but sonically it hits the ear as more of a pop record for sure. [To see Leslie perform “American Dream Man,” click here.]

Your Hair is on Fire album cover (2009)


JC: After hearing your solo singles and American Idol stuff, I don’t think anybody could have predicted your next turn. You became the singer of metal prog [progressive rock] band District 97. How did that all come about?

LH: I was in music school, and that was how I met the bulk of the band members, at the time at least. We all went to school together. When I got off American Idol and got back into town, Jonathan [Schang], the drummer, asked me to open up for District 97 as a solo artist. So I did, and I stuck around to check out their set and they didn’t have a singer yet. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was blown away.

My sister had just passed away and she was a big fan of metal. District 97 had enough of a metal kind of quality in it that I just felt like I needed to kind of create an alter ego for her. For her kind of rebellious energy, and anger, and just a way to kind of get some of those feelings out. District 97 has been a wonderful outlet ever since. I’ve been in it for almost twelve, thirteen years or something.

JC: District 97 is metal, but it also has a prog element to it as well.

LH: My dad was a free jazz drummer. [Free jazz is an improvised style of jazz characterized by the absence of set chord patterns or time patterns.] Prog’s sort of like free jazz. It begins with a very bizarre, complex melodic odd kind of time signature line, which is really unconventional but complicated. It’s almost impossible to dance to.


District 97 in 2018

I had that grooming already and had that sensibility and appreciation for that. So, I guess the avant-garde didn’t feel like a stretch thing. Although, what I had been doing at that point wasn’t along those lines, but I just felt like I was able to fit right in and come up with melodies and words that would make it a little more memorable. I brought some of my pop background to those complex songs, and I think it worked out pretty well.

JC: I do detect a minor bit of jazz in “Forest Fire” when you’re doing the verses. [To hear “Forest Fire,” click here.]

LH: Oh, yeah. [Hums the “Forest Fire” melody.] I hear that. It’s in there somewhere.

JC: Now District 97 was getting attention from some prog legends. First, there was John Wetton. [John Wetton has played bass and vocals with King Crimson and Asia.]

LH: We did multiple tours with John Wetton. He really liked our music. John and I got along as singers and front men. We talked about a lot in common, and he was just such a generous, humble, appreciative person. He really opened up a lot of doors for us with his audience. I think there were three times when we did a set of our own music, and then he joined us on one song and then we played a bunch of classics like King Crimson.

JC: Did you cover any Asia tunes?  

LH: You know, we were about to. We didn’t end up getting there. Unfortunately, John got sick and we had to cancel it. So we didn’t have a chance to perform the Asia songs with him, but that was the plan. I think we had planned to do “Heat of the Moment.” 

JC: Another prog legend, Bill Bruford, who was the drummer for Yes, has praised District 97.

LH: Bill Bruford is a big, big supporter. He mentioned us in Rolling Stone as a younger band to kind of look out for. That was really cool. A younger band that’s been at it for a long time, I might add. I’ve never met Bill myself, but he’s very supportive of us.

JC: I was hearing the recent album Screenplay, and you did some covers. What’s not unusual is that you covered Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround,” but you also did “Walking On Sunshine” which is not prog or metal.

LH: Right, I know. I was working with a company called Music Dealers, and they asked me to record a version of “Walking On Sunshine.” Neil Kernon, who used to produce Hall & Oates, produced that track at Wax Trax in Chicago. District 97 had it in the vault. Jonathan, our drummer, runs the band and he keeps stuff around for special things like this. So we had content and we piled it all together. You  know, it doesn’t all match, but it’s all us. It’s all cool. [To hear District 97’s “Walking on Sunshine,” click here.]

JC: So what made you decide to go back into your solo career? It’s been a while since your last solo album.

LH: Yeah, it sure has. I just got really inspired again. My boyfriend and I have been together for almost two and a half years. I got very inspired when I started dating him. I just felt like I wanted to write songs again. I was writing some love songs, but I’ve also since written songs around the big George Floyd protests across the whole world. I’ve also written songs about the quarantine and the effects it has had on humanity. My boyfriend kind of helped open the floodgates.

JC: I’ve listened to the Ascend album. I understand that this is a two-part series. On June 25, the Ascend album will be released. But in September 2021, Descend, a second album, will be released.

LH:  Both albums are stylistically quite different. They sort of represent the world pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, but they are . . . you know, they feel like they could become one body of work. Like maybe go into a final double issue or something like that to kind of combine the two.

Ascend has kind of a Nashville feeling to it at times.


Ascend album cover (2021) 

JC: I noticed some country elements in one of the songs from Ascend, “Down the Road.” I hadn’t heard any previous country themes from you.

LH: “Down the Road” sounds like a driving song, like watching the trees go by. Kind of like writing a letter to my sister who passed. Kind of catching her up with everything that she’s missed.

JC: One interesting choice off Ascend is “Wolf Cried Boy.” That’s an interesting title choice. How did that come about?

LH: So I kind of slipped the metaphor of the boy who cried wolf. In this song, I’m kind of depicting somebody as the wolf. Basically, the girl has a lot of boyfriends and keeps trying to tell everybody, “This boyfriend is the best one yet. No, this one is the best one yet.” Kind of like you just had a long line of relationships when you start to kind of feel embarrassed after a while. You can imagine that people are gossiping about you. So yeah, it’s just sort of that. I don’t know. It’s a song about fear of judgment, or mild paranoia, I guess. [To hear an acoustic take on “Wolf Cried Boy,” click here.]

JC: Are there any other tracks from Ascend you want to talk about?

LH: Well, I’ve got some videos coming out from Ascend. There’s going to be a really, really fun stage video for “There You Are.” [To watch the video for “There You Are,” click here.] And then there’s this really cool video coming out for “Right Here.” When I wrote that song, I instantly had a visual of what I thought the video would be, and I think it did a good job with my vision. It’s like visualizing carrying this giant heart around the city of Chicago and trying to fit it into my car. Crossing streets just carrying this huge heart. And it’s heavy and it’s windy out, and it’s really difficult. I hope other people will like that one and think it’s pretty cool.

JC: Talk to me about Descend.

LH: I’m actually working on Descend, and my producer is in town right now. I’m taking a break from recording to talk to you right now.

JC: Really?

LH: And then I’ll go right back to work once we’re done. Descend has got some funk and soul quality to it, but it’s still my songwriting. It’s still my voice.

JC: And soul funk is yet another genre you have chosen to work on. Do you decide on genres before working on them?

LH: I don’t think so. I’m just realizing after the fact that they are kind of going along those lines, but it’s not something I deliberately did. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something I decided that I was going to try to do. I think it just happened.

I listen to a huge variety of genres. My main income source as a musician is that I lead an event band. We do a lot of weddings and stuff like that, and so I listen to just tons of different stuff because of that. And also just with District 97, I feel like I’m exposed to a huge variety all the time.

JC: What plans do you have with either District 97 or your solo career? Do you have any touring plans in the future?

LH: Yeah, we do. District 97 is planning a tour at the end of October to go down South maybe. We’re going to be in Florida and those surrounding areas. And then I am trying to line up some release shows for both Ascend and Descend, respectively. Yeah, so that’s kind of what I’m working on. I’m still trying to finalize some of the details to see what I’m going to be able to pull off. You know, pretty much everyone I know is vaccinated, but some of their standards are different from what they’re willing to do. So it’s always an adventure at this point still for music, but the future’s looking pretty good. And we’re going to be on the cruise again.

JC: The Yes cruise?

LH: Yes. Yeah, we’re going on the next one.

JC: It’s been quite a music journey. First, you started with American Idol, then District 97, and now you’re back on your solo career.

LH: Yeah, I think what really shaped my direction was my affinity for songwriting. I’m always taking a thing of beauty and making it more beautiful. I think that’s how I’ve always kind of dealt with life and also try to help those around me. My sister kind of had a troubled time of this thing called life, and I wrote a lot of songs to hopefully inspire her to see things in a new way. When I realized that I could really affect people and help them see things in a way that I found helpful, that’s really what did it for me. Just the outreach of it. I wanted to be a therapist, honestly, but then I started writing songs, and I would give a tape to a bunch of people, and they would all tell me how much my songs helped them. I was like, “Okay, this is it. I love this.” Honestly, performing is a huge part of my identity, and it just really feels like I get to be my whole self. I need the performance, and I need the songwriting and the singing.

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