Leah – Songs of Winters PastSunday, 15th December 2019
Canadian solo artist Leah has done some impressive things for herself since 2012’s Of Earth & Angels debut. With no help of touring, she has produced impressive crowdfunding efforts for her albums (of which Ancient Winter is number five), and has built a massive following for her Celtic/fantasy styled symphonic metal. Ancient Winter isn’t just ‘another Leah album,’ but a holiday/winter themed album that removed the symphonic metal elements in favor of a quieter and gentler tone. But it still sounds 100% Leah, and like past efforts, contains a bevy of all-star metal talent (including Nightwish, Cellar Darling, and Eluveitie members). We were afforded a chance to talk to Leah herself (full name Leah McHenry) about the direction of this winter album, how she’s been successful as a musician, and even a bit about her Savvy Musician Academy endeavors and candle-making passions.
Dead Rhetoric: Where’d the idea come from to do a Winter-themed album?
Leah McHenry: It came from someone who put a bug in my ear – over the years fans have requested that I do a Christmas album or Christmas songs…every year I get those sort of requests. But it wasn’t until a friend of mine said, “You should really think about doing that.” That was all it took. That was in November or December of 2018. It started marinating in my brain, and then January came around and I thought that if I started at that point, there would be enough time to do it. That was all it took for me to go ahead and do it.
Dead Rhetoric: Was there any hesitation in dropping the metallic elements from your sound for this release?
McHenry: No, I didn’t have any hesitations at all. I had always planned on doing strictly fantasy-based music. It didn’t have to have heavy metal in it at all. So it was always in my mind that I was going to [have music without heavy metal elements]. For me, a holiday/winter album was the perfect way for me to dip my toes into those waters.
Dead Rhetoric: And it made more sense to you to go back towards an older theme for the album, rather than doing songs like “Jingle Bells?”
McHenry: Yeah, I could not see myself doing that. I had a lot of fans who requested that I do songs like that. When I asked fans, I was shocked at how many modern day songs, like “Oh Holy Night” and all the classics people were interested in. I considered a few. But when I went through my research and demo process – I don’t always turn things away until I try it out. Does it suit my voice? Do I feel like I can do something special with this? Most of them were a no. At that point, I really did some research about some really old songs – the medieval, Renaissance periods. That was when I landed on the few that I have. There were others that I wanted to do, but didn’t have time. So there may be a second Christmas album one day.
Dead Rhetoric: What was most important for you in taking the three medieval songs and covering them, in terms of the material?
McHenry: It’s always important to me that I keep the original integrity, as far as I can, in terms of the melody. It should be recognizable. The lyrics of course, they’ve already been changed a whole bunch of times over the centuries, so there are different renditions, but especially the melody – so that it’s recognizable. Then I like to give it my “Leah sauce” – it’s recognizable but refreshingly different. For me to do that, it’s all about the production, instrumentation, sometimes the tempo. Just adding different flavors to it that you don’t expect.
Dead Rhetoric: Where’d the idea come from to design candles along with Ancient Winter? It almost seems like a no-brainer, from an objective standpoint – having a holiday album and a candle to go with it.
McHenry: Yeah, that’s cool that you think that. I don’t even know where the idea came from. My husband calls me “The Idea Factory.” I’m never short on ideas. I always have a lot of ideas; I don’t act on all of them of course. But I think I saw something on Facebook, like an ad for a candle or something. I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I have to make candles. I’ve never made one before, but I’m going to do it now!” This was no rocket science, candles have been around for thousands of years, so I was sure I could figure it out. So I just started developing a passion for it – I became obsessed! I was testing all of these types of waxes, fragrance oils, dyes, containers, wicks – it ends up being kind of science-y. Especially the wax.
There’s a lot more to it than I ever knew. Certain kinds of wax need to be heated to certain temperatures, or they need to cool to a certain temperature…if you do this or that, you get a completely different result. It’s really quite something. So I got quite obsessed with it, and when I came across some fragrances I really liked, I thought it would be really cool if I made these to go with the music. To create a more immersive listening experience. I think that’s something people are craving. I think that’s what solidified me doing it.
Dead Rhetoric: So did you make all of the candles yourself? Or did you do the design and then send them to a company to produce once you knew what you wanted?
McHenry: I hand-made all of them. I think we made a thousand. I had all five of my kids and my husband helping – I have elves! It ended up becoming like a homeschooler project, since my children are homeschooled. It’s awesome though! They learned so much through it. We were trying to create a quality product, so they learned about quality control, math – we are duplicating my candle wax recipe, and ended up doing more math than I am comfortable with on a normal day. Everything from that, to becoming expert labelers – labeling the stickers on the containers and packing. I was so proud of them, they did amazing! I also paid them, of course.
Dead Rhetoric: As a solo artist, what do you particularly enjoy about being able to work with various guests on each album?
McHenry: That’s one of the most fun things about my career and how I have created it. I can kind of ask anybody I want to be a guest on an album. If they like me and my music, and they have the time in their schedule, most of them say yes. It’s a wonderful thing, to be able to do that. I really enjoy it. The challenge will be to put together a band when I try to do live shows, which I don’t do yet. That will be a challenge! Who do I get? It would be weird to have someone playing Timo Somers’ guitar parts. So I’m not sure how to approach that yet.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you have a lot of interest in that? From what I have read, it seemed like you had more interest in writing and recording.
McHenry: Yeah, I mean for my lifestyle with a super-busy family life – that’s the core of my career. If I ever do live shows, it’ll have to work for my life. I am thinking of it a lot. There’s a part of me that is a born performer. That’s in me for sure. So I will go there one day, so it’s a matter of timing. There’s a lot of timing and logistics, and it’s expensive to tour. It all has to come about at the right time.
Dead Rhetoric: Knowing that you don’t go out and tour, what do you feel has been instrumental in making your crowdfunding efforts so successful, and developing your band without touring?
McHenry: Very seriously a few years ago, I realized I had to become an expert in digital marketing. That’s always my advice to other musicians. You have to become an expert at online marketing. You have to know how to build a brand that is bigger than just your music. I call it a culture. You are creating a culture around your music. The fact that I can sell jewelry, candles, home décor, and other things besides my music goes to show that it is more about a lifestyle, and a group of people that come together for a certain reason, than it is just about the music. The music is where it all begins, but it is more than that.
So I have become an expert in branding – building a brand and online marketing and e-commerce. I’m supporting myself and doing everything I want to do, and I get to be incredibly creative. I personally think that musicians can be the most powerful marketers in the world, because we are so creative and we really care about people. There’s a lot of brands out there that care about making money but don’t care about people. Musicians are very in-touch with people and the fans, and I think it’s really good.
Dead Rhetoric: You don’t tour, but you have visited places throughout the world with your family. Any places in particular inspire your writing?
McHenry: Definitely Ireland, Scotland, and the UK…that’s where we spent a lot of our time. Every week we are all saying to each other that we want to go back. My kids are begging every day, to go back to Ireland, or wanting to live in Scotland. It’s so inspiring. One of the most special places we visited – personally I love Edinburgh [Scotland]. There’s something special about it. Out of all the cities we visited, we all fell in love with it. Also, visiting Skye in Scotland. That’s way out. It’s such a remote place. We stayed there for 10 days or so. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and so otherworldly. I am very inspired by travel, especially when you are going to beautiful places like that.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk a little about the Savvy Musician Academy and blog, and the goals that you have for it?
McHenry: Savvy Musician Academy is a whole other thing that I do, separate from my music, that has become my passion project since the end of 2015. It’s actually one of the world’s biggest online marketing academies for musicians. We teach musicians how to market their music online and become an expert in digital marketing, like I talked about earlier. We have helped probably tens of thousands of musicians now how to create a music career that they want, without a label. It’s all about teaching people how to succeed in the new music industry – whether you can tour or not. More importantly, as an independent artist. There’s so much to say on it, but it’s become a passion of mine that I didn’t know I even had until I started doing it. I had no idea it would have this kind of an impact. It’s really taken off!
Dead Rhetoric: Given that you’ve always been independent and able to be successful, I’m curious about your thoughts on the new music industry. What role does a record label have?
McHenry: I think that there’s a place for them. I’m not anti-record label altogether – there is a place for them. But I will say, currently the way they are, there really isn’t a need for the average artist to have a label. When I compare what they are doing, compared to what I am doing, they are in the dinosaur age of marketing. They have no idea what they are doing, or have any idea of how I am doing what I am doing. They have no clue. But it’s funny, because any person who is familiar at all with digital marketing knows exactly how I am doing what I do, and how I am making my revenue. It’s very basic. It’s Internet marking 101, and e-commerce 101.
The labels are so far behind the times. I see what they aren’t doing, and its basic stuff. They don’t have a Facebook pixel on their website, for example. This is like kindergarten marketing. Always have a Facebook pixel, so you can track the behaviors and sales on your site. You can track sales, you can retarget people who showed an interest in what you are selling. They aren’t even doing anything like that. So for me, they don’t play the marketing role. If there is someone who is already pretty far along in their career – they already have a good sized following and are doing pretty well…perhaps a much larger info structure that they have that could be of use.
In my personal goals, there may be a place for that in my future…not because I want to get signed and further my career, but I may want to get into publishing and licensing. So I think there is a place for them, but for the average musician who just wants to make a comfortable living of their music, have fun, and feel fulfilled, a label is probably the furthest thing from what you actually need. You will be much happier if you do it yourself.
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of Leah’s sound, do you feel that you kind of have a blueprint of what your music should sound like?
McHenry: No, not really a blueprint. It’s weird, because I listen to all other types of music and wonder if that type of music will ever come out of me, but it never does. I try to give myself full permission to write what I need to write. A lot of times you’ll hear people say how the music wrote itself, and that’s often the case with me. I just can’t really force myself to write things that I’m not feeling at the moment. For some reason, this celtic/fantasy stuff is what comes out of me, so I go with it.
Although I would take a challenge. If someone asked me to write a song for like a film or soundtrack, I am sure that I could. It’s all about headspace. You would do research and surround yourself with the things to get into that headspace. But this is what I do best, for now anyway.
Dead Rhetoric: Would you be interested in doing some sort of film scoring? It seems that with the scope and scale of Leah, it seems like a logical jump.
McHenry: Yeah, absolutely. I totally would do it. I may already be making moves towards that direction. It goes so in line with that I’m already doing. There’s a need for it, and there are always new movies and fantasy shows that need either scores or female vocals or something – hence why I say the publishing/licensing side of things may be where I am going.
Dead Rhetoric: The album is out, what’s on the horizon for Leah?
McHenry: What’s on the horizon is doing more writing. I already have ideas swirling around that I need to act on and get in writing mode. But I don’t plan on releasing new music in 2020. I am going to take a break, since I did two albums in two years and it was a lot, in terms of energy output. So I need to take a rest, and focus on my shop and my fans. Just continuing to build my fanbase around the world with the albums I have, and I really am passionate about this candle thing, so you may see more from me on that in 2020. I’m having so much fun with it – it’s pure fun!