Lauren Leigh: This Girl Is on Fire!
Lauren Leigh stands, nearly naked, her closest friends gently painting her skin with orange, red, and yellow flames. It takes a while, and between coats, she sips from a coffee mug as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on. At the end of the session, she stands as a stripped-bare muse, armored in the fire of trials and tribulations of her young career. This became the video for her song “Burned by Bridges,” a standout track from her first EP, Flare, from 2020.
“I had this video shoot planned, literally, a week after recovering from surgery. I didn’t know if I still wanted to do it. The theme of the song was embracing things that aren’t perfect. This is who I am, I’m still a bad bitch. Even though I have these scars, it’s not your typical magazine cover body, it’s my body,” the singer/songwriter says.
Although she committed to music later in life than some, at age 28, she has made up for that with incredible artistic integrity and enthusiasm. Inspired by Joni Mitchell, many of Lauren’s songs are solidly grounded in the natural world. “When I’m purposefully writing, I’m next to the water or something, or it’s raining, there’s something going on that is getting me in that headspace to let the words flow,” she says. “Nature is a jumpstart for me there. A lot of times when I’m starting to write, I’ll start describing what is around me—like a freewriting exercise. Inevitably, nature does kind of play a big part.”
Lauren Leigh sings “Foul Play.”
Like so many so-called “recovering Catholics,” Lauren says her spirituality ebbed for a time, but the sensual world of the woods and water brought her back. “I do find spirituality in nature,” she says. “There is something that grounds me and makes me feel connected to everyone and everything.”
Check out the lyrics to many of her songs, and you’ll see the motif. In the slow rocking, piano-driven “Burned by Bridges” (2020 EP Flare), which candidly discusses what happens when your family is absent on the road due to a music career; she phrases it this way: I was burned by bridges, I was burned by strings/ Tossed by body in the fire, burned down everything/ I was standing on solid ground, the smoke was gone, my soul was found. Or “Black Rose Canyon,” a song featured on her current album, which pegs the sky pregnant with rain and the Oak trees of California hiding underneath the freeways/ And if you don’t pay attention, you won’t notice them most days/ I don’t notice them most days.” (Lyrics by Alfred Howard.)
Another prevalent theme in her work is the idea of romance gone wrong and the coping skills developed to protect a tender heart. She describes the emotional armor that women are sometimes forced to wear for protection, especially in relationships where men are a possible threat. “My album is really about a relationship that went really wrong. And it’s about putting that armor down and really getting hurt. There is a lot of that in my writing. My brand is sadness and grief, but that’s also what everyone is going through from 2020 to now—how are we getting through this?”
Born Lauren Leigh Martin, she was first nominated for San Diego Music Awards (SDMA) honors in 2021. Last year, she won for Best Pop Song for “Trust Fall,” and she has been nominated again this year for Best Pop Artist as well as Best Pop Album for her latest offering, Ghost in the Picture (reviewed in this issue). As a San Diego artist, born and raised, Lauren has music in her blood; her father, guitarist Claudio Martin, is featured on her album. Her aunt, Americana powerhouse Eve Selis, encouraged her in music from a young age. However, she did not want to succeed on her family connections.
“People didn’t know she was my aunt until recently, on purpose. I didn’t want to be the little San Diego nepo baby, with gigs handed to me, so I didn’t tell anyone that she was my aunt or that my dad was my dad for a long time,” she said. “I wouldn’t use them to get opportunities. I wanted to make a name for myself on my own.”
In fact, when she was chatting with SDMA’s Kevin Hellman at last year’s awards ceremony, he was gobsmacked that she hadn’t revealed her rich musical blood line. He said, “Eve Selis is your aunt?” Lauren remembers, laughing. “He didn’t even know! That made me feel really good.”
She says Eve Selis, though, encouraged her to use any connections she could. “Like around the time when I got the Pink Floyd tribute gig, she said, ‘Why are you not telling people I’m your aunt? Look, I did not work as hard as I did, being one of the only female artists in San Diego that made it, for you not to use me, so use me, please!’ I knew that I needed to prove myself, to make sure I was worthy of those opportunities.”
Even though musical talent was her heritage, she didn’t fully commit to it until about ten years ago, when she was 28. “I started late, because it took me a long time to figure out that this is what I wanted to do. I went through a lot of different things trying to get there. I worked as a drug and alcohol counselor for eight years before I became a musician full time.”
Once she did really commit to performing, though, she realized it was all she really wanted to do. Although now she is making a name for herself with her original music, she started as many musicians do: working in cover bands or tribute shows. “I grew up with so many different things in my brain; my dad has been in cover bands his whole life,” she says. “Around the time I was born, my dad was in a band called Doctor Feelgood and the Interns of Love, so I was listening to all the stuff he learned for that band: Etta James, Heart, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd. That’s what gives me my flexibility to be able to do all genres of music. And my dad gave me a love of jazz.”
She’s sought after in recording sessions as a backup singer, in large part due to her wide range of style and abilities. “My main source of income is cover and tribute bands. That’s why I get hired for a wide variety of things.” She’s a staple of the Six String Society, a unique performance challenge that almost didn’t continue after its first performance in 2014. The brainchild of Kenneth Rexrode, whom Lauren calls “a genius in his own right.” The mash-up of theater and pop music in his shows is never the same twice.
Each show presented under the umbrella of the Six String Society centers on a different theme. They’re often hosted by Gregory Page, the homegrown singer-songwriter who has gained an international following. According to the Society’s website, “each rotating cast member shares their stories as the evening unfolds. Musical genres have included blues, jazz, country, gypsy jazz, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, gospel, and even Zydeco. The size of the casts range between 12-25, depending on the theme of the show.”
Lauren was offered the part of Janis Joplin in the iteration of the Six String Society titled The 27 Club. “It’s all songs from these amazing musicians who died at the age of 27— Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin,” she says. “It’s a big challenge, but I love it.” Watching her rock out as Janis is a high-energy acid trip…it’s almost like being transported back in time to an intimate Laurel Canyon jam session or a less-muddy Woodstock.
Rexrode is one of many local music talents who are in the Lauren Leigh fan club. “Whatever expectations you may have of Lauren Leigh are always shattered by her brilliance,” he says. “She brings enough energy to the stage to light up all of San Diego.”
She also rocked out in the music experience called Back to the Garden in 2019, again tearing up the stage with her rendition of Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart,” along with many other fantastic local musicians who treated audiences to a re-creation of 1967’s Laurel Canyon era.
Lauren says she learned a lot doing these gigs, covering respected singers/songwriters from the ’70s, an era known for its rich original material. It gave her an opportunity to hone her performance skills. Original music came later, after she’d gained some stage experience. “I knew that I needed to prove myself, to make sure I was worthy of these opportunities. A lot of stuff came naturally, but there is a learning curve to performing. I was getting nervous before performances and I didn’t have the full confidence I needed to pull off some of these opportunities. I wanted to wait until I wouldn’t embarrass anybody.”
She didn’t actually pick up the guitar herself until, like so many others, she found herself with time on her hands during the pandemic. And even then, she says, she found her way using her heart, her ear, her instincts: “I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t do things purposefully,” she says. “I’ve been absorbing music since before I was born. A lot of what I hear is where I want it to go, but I don’t know why it makes sense. The people in my band and the people who help me arrange these are brilliant—they know where I want to go.”
And, like so many others, the pandemic and its uncertainty clarified for her how she really wanted to spend her time and creative energy. “Before the pandemic, my biggest problem was finding the balance between my work and my life balance with my son,” she says. “It was really difficult for me to because I was saying yes to everything. The pandemic made me take a look at what I really love to do, and how do I make that what I’m doing more. I was taking so many cover gigs that were wearing me out and not paying enough, and I realized that I have worked long enough to ask for more money. And I realized that’s where my heart lies and to make that a priority. I’m only going to say yes to things that further my career.”
People who know her talk glowingly about her talent and work ethic. “Over the years I’ve gotten to know Lauren Leigh Martin as a singer, as a songwriter, and as a very close friend,” says local blues whirlwind Whitney Shay. “As a vocalist her ability is truly exceptional; she navigates multiple genres with great fluidity and manages to excel every single time. I’ve shared the stage with her as a background singer, watched her destroy extremely vocally challenging songs up close (Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” as well as Janis Joplin’s catalog), but I’ve been the most excited to watch her growth writing her own music. Her original songs have a beautiful vulnerability and stillness that harkens me to Joni Mitchell and Carole King (who I know are two artists she really admires). “Trust Fall” still hits me every time I hear that chorus drop. I was so proud to see her album release back in January at the Belly Up; it felt like finally getting to celebrate this woman’s many years of hard work as an artist. I’m really proud to know her and to have witnessed her journey up close.”
Whitney and Lauren will be sharing a stage later this year when they perform together at Gator by the Bay on May 23.
Nashville-based guitarist Sam Hunt is her longest-time collaborator, and although his career has taken him across the country, they still work together when they can. “I will say that I’ve worked with Lauren for ten years. We’ve played probably hundreds of gigs as a duo and a full band. She has always captured audiences with her voice. What I love about her is not only her taste and ability, but most of all her honesty. She doesn’t try to be or sound like anyone but herself. And I think that really connects with a listener.”
Lauren met Sam when her father taught music at their school. They’ve been friends and collaborators ever since. “When I was first thinking I wanted to write an album, Sam sat down and worked out these songs with me. I’d call him the best guitar player.” Her core band consists of Josh Weinstein on keys, with whom she’s done several co-writes; Josh Taylor on guitar: Harley Magsino on bass; Tony Econom on drums; and Joshua Taylor and Sandi King of the Taylor King Project doing back-up vocals.
The highlight of her songwriting journey so far has been her CD release party in January for Ghost in the Picture, held at the Belly-Up. “It was very close to a sell out,” she says. “I packed the place…my aunt [Eve Selis]; my cousin, Cole, who is Eve’s child; their band is Omo Cloud…Eve was in the middle slot, my dad sat in with me, and Jeff Berkley and Mark Intravaia played.”
Her journey as a songwriter and a person has led her to a place where, as she describes it, “I’ve been by myself for a while. I love who I am by myself, me and my son are really a team together.” Her son, Jack, who has autism, presented a lot of challenges, especially when he was younger. “We’ve been through a whole lot. It took us a really long time to get him stable enough to be happy and for us to be happy together and find a rhythm; I coparent with really well his father. It takes a village, and the village really helped me out. To get my son private insurance without the community I don’t know where we’d be right now. We’re blessed with loving network.”
She feels a resurgence of energy right now, similar to the explosion of singer-songwriter proliferation during the ’90s. “The songwriter community is exploding right now,” she says. “It feels like it did with Lestat’s and Java Joe’s. It’s happening now again. There is this thing called Writer’s Round and it’s Mondays at the Ould Sod, 6-9 p.m—an incredible community of songwriters, a wide range of people who show up to it. It’s booming into this incredible network of musicians. And there’s the Songwriter’s Sanctuary at the Normal Heights United Church; they turn it into a venue for the evening. And April 1, I’m hosting an all-female grampadrew’s Flim Flam Revue at the Whistle Stop.”
Lauren Leigh is in a really good place right now. People are recognizing her prodigious talents, and supported by the music community and family, she finds San Diego the perfect spot in which to create. “The music community in San Diego is different from any other town. We all support each other; we lift each other up. We make sure people are connecting that should be connecting. There’s nothing like it. Honestly, I don’t see myself working anywhere else.”
Every Thursday in April, solo performance, Wine Pub, 2907 Shelter Island Drive #108, 6:30-8:30 pm.
Saturday, April 1, hosts grampadrew’s All Female Flim Flam Revue, Whistlestop Bar, 2236 Fern St. in South Park, 5-8pm.
Saturday, April 8, duo performance, Mission Bay Resort, 1775 East Mission Bay Drive, 6pm.
Wednesday, April 19, with NuVintage, Center Bar at Pala Casino, 11154 Hwy. 76,
Pala, CA 92059, 6-10:30pm.
Sunday, April 23, full band (SDMA showcase), Navajo Live, 8515 Navajo Rd., San Diego, 7:30pm.
Friday, April 28, solo performance, Shake Bar & Lounge, 701 A St., San Diego, 6pm.
Tuesday, May 2, solo performance, Bar Lubitsch, 7702 Santa Monica Blvd. W, Hollywood, CA, 9pm.
Lauren Leigh’s website: https://www.laurenleighmusic.com/
Lauren’s video page: https://www.laurenleighmusic.com/video
Burned by Bridges video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhj6glFTmmQ
Lauren in a duet with Sam Hunt, performing the Weeknd’s Blinding Light
Lauren Leigh as Janis with the 27 Club https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlaTCv_tV-o