For the producer born Leah Chisolm, music really is a communal endeavor, with her Deadhead parents showing their young daughter the power of congregating with thousand of friends to take part in a sonic experience. Chisolm has created her own community both on and off dancefloors, founding the Animal Talk label with pals Sofi Tukker, developing a sprawling network of fans and collaborators and founding the musical collective Femmehouse, which focuses on creating greater gender equality in the dance scene.
Chisolm (a Billboard Dance October 2019 emerging artist) has hustled hard during quarantine, knocking it out of the park on livestreams and snagging upcoming IRL bookings that include Ubbi Dubbi, Elements and Bonnaroo. Here, she talks about studying piano, the synesthesia helps foster her productions and how the dance music renaissance is nearly upon us.
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
I am in Austin, TX and it is already hot and muggy!
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
I bought Cyndi Lauper’s album She’s So Unusual and the soundtrack to Clueless on tape!
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?
My mom worked for the NPR affiliate KLCC, and my dad worked for the NBC affiliate KMTR in Eugene, OR for my entire life — until they just recently retired. They are ecstatic! They are huge music lovers and appreciators and have supported my musical curiosities ever since second grade when I begged them for piano lessons. They went and found me the best teacher in Eugene, and I have never looked back.
They even helped support my way through college, where I was studying jazz piano performance. As Deadheads, they were the ones that taught me that being a part of something greater than yourself on the dancefloor is a wonderfully fulfilling thing.
4. What was the first song you ever made?
It was called “Covers” and it was just a solo piano and my voice. It was a sad and simple love song.
5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into electronic music, what would you give them?
Four Tet, “Only Human.”
6. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
A nice pair of cowboy boots.
7. What’s the last song you listened to?
DJ Koze, “Pick Up.”
8. What’s the first electronic music show that really blew your mind?
Tornado Wallace at Public Works in San Francisco.
9. Has there been a particular moment where you really felt like you “made it”?
My metric of success for “making it” is based on connection. So whenever I read a DM or email that someone took the time to write about discovering my music or a particular song or a show they saw, I feel whole, and like I’m in the right place in my life doing the right thing. The other day I got a note from a mom telling me her and her five-year-old have a daily morning dance party to one of my songs to start their day. I get to be a small part of their joy and connecting, and that means everything to me.
10. In terms of Femmehouse, in what areas of the dance scene are you seeing greater gender equality being achieved? How do we create change in the areas that still need work?
I see more and more female DJs out there doing their thing which is so exciting and encouraging. And I see a lot of the people in power taking ownership for needing to be the ones to diversify their lineups, playlists, visual representation of their products etc. This is important because if you see it, you can be it. As we work harder to equalize the stages, that will empower women to believe they can do it and therefore put in the work in order to do it. It all starts with belief.
11. You’re the current North American Music Director for W Hotels. What does that job entail, and what makes the perfect vibey hotel soundtrack?
I consult on their record label and recording studios as well as help curate the music in the hotels and coordinate the booking of live shows on property. We work to create an uplifting and energetic vibe, while hopefully bringing you a few records you might not have heard.
12. You’re also a classically trained jazz pianist! At what point did your focus on piano turn into a focus on electronic production?
Not until well after college! I was playing a solo jazz gig in a bar when I was approached by Peter Franco (an engineer for Daft Punk) to join an all-female electronic band. I told him I didn’t even know how to turn on a synthesizer and he said, “If you learned music theory already, the rest will be easy for you!” I believed him, and took the leap into joining this band, where I learned how to use synthesizers and produce music — and it all flowed from there!
13. Piano house is your “thing.” What is it about this particular strain of music that so moves you?
I actually see music in shapes, so the way the piano is laid out just works with my brain and is extremely fun to play.
14. Want to give a shout out to a few of your favorite collaborators and tell us why they’re amazing?
Le Chev and Bynon are two of my favorite people on the planet to make music with. They are insanely talented, having the most amazing studios with the most joyful energy!
15. Finish this sentence: The most exciting thing happening in dance music right now is _____.
That the need for it has never been stronger, and the community is about to come out and show up in the most magnificent fashion we have ever seen.
16. What’s been the hardest part of being off the road during this time? The best part?
Not getting to experience that feedback loop of joy, love and energy between the DJ and dancer. The best is being able to be with my family more.
17. How have you gotten all your pent-up energy during the last year, without shows to play and dance parties to attend?
I have been streaming my little tush off, so I have actually been dancing practically every day and that is definitely an energy releaser!
18. If you could have any talent (besides the ones you already have), what would you choose and why?
I would love to be able to sing. I am truly the worst singer in the world. Just no vocal control whatsoever.
19. Who’s been your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My piano teacher since second grade. At the age of 60 she went back to school to teach herself electronic music — she had never even owned a computer at this point and was the only woman and the only person over 23 — and by the end of the course she was the one tutoring all of the dudes! She lived by example for me.
20. One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
To really trust that life is a journey and one thing will lead to the next and you are exactly where you need to be.