Composed and arranged in connection with a Melinda Jean Myers-choreographed UI Dance Company piece, Right Here is the latest release among a prolific string of work from Iowa City’s Lex Leto. Over the past few years you may have seen or heard Lex via their work with Penny Peach, the Christine Burke Ensemble, or most recently the refined jazz pop of have you been the night? with Jarrett Purdy. This sort of creative dexterity remains on display in the new seven song EP, which balances a largely instrumental body of music with sparse vocals of both an personal and abstract nature. In our conversation, we discussed Lex’s lyrical approach on the release, our personal interpretations of some of the EP’s songs, and the collaborative nature of their ongoing projects.
villin: A concept that seems to have played a significant role in your life over the past several years is that of moving away from an individualist to that of a collaborator. On Instagram you offered a note, adding that “As we began conceptualizing Right Here, we were thinking about + in conversation with each other about climate change and our relationship with our home and each other.” How did the role of collaboration play into molding what you wanted to say with Right Here, and did it end up affecting how you now view the project?
Lex Leto: When I talk about this transition from individual to community, I’m primarily speaking about the people I have become close to since moving to Iowa. I used to have a lot of pride in my independence, insisting on doing everything myself. The love I have felt from friends here, artistic relationships and otherwise, has shown me the beauty, importance, and necessity of being held by your loved ones and holding them. I’m soft with community love and I’ve seen how it can heal myself and others.
Speaking specifically on the collaboration in this work, it was truly the key to the entire thing, because the music and dance were created so symbiotically—it’s the closest I’ve ever worked with someone who creates in a different medium. We were constantly creating work in complete tandem through improvisation in rehearsal, or in direct response to each other, with the work taking further shape with each new added sound, choreographed phrase, or new conceptual conversation about where we wanted to take it. It felt like there were all these beautiful and spontaneous synchronicities that kept happening between the music and the dance because of how in conversation those two elements are in the work. Mindy (director of the UI Dance Company) and I talked a lot about how, even though the dancers and I were performing in different mediums, we were not separate from each other in the work. Because of that symbiosis, Right Here pulled music out of me that I don’t think I would’ve otherwise created and I’m very proud of what we all created together.
villin: There are spurts of lyrical direction guiding a largely instrumental album. With “Fluffy Plastic Land,” however, the cycle of “everything is good, everything is fine, everything is mine,” speaks to me, in a way emphasizing the degradation of the natural world but also our personal internal experience. Elsewhere there’s a line directly aimed at American psychopathy and I’m wondering what your interpretation of the EP’s lyrics are when taken as a whole?
Lex Leto: One of my favorite styles of lyric writing is when a song has only a few lines of lyrics—it gives them so much more weight. That interest of mine worked very well for this project because long instrumental sections with no lyrics allows the dance to speak for itself without the words getting the the way. When writing the lyrics, I was primarily writing about my own experiences and interests in relation to the themes we were exploring in the work, and the overall cohesion sort of realized itself as the work developed. In “I AM THE MAN” we wanted to evoke the power and machismo of these men who run everything, showing the darkness of that while also acknowledging the duality that holding power in your body can feel good.
The “American Psycho” line is a direct reference to the film of the same name, because Christian Bale’s character really sort of epitomizes that character of a powerful man who can get away with anything just because he’s a clean cut, rich, white man. Right Here feels incredibly personal to me just because of the transformation I feel I have undergone since moving to Iowa—going from this stubborn, individualist embodiment of “I AM THE MAN” through a recognition of the social systems that have fostered that feeling in me, and finally into an ever-evolving place of deconstructing those individualist traits in favor of community love. To pull words from the dance company, because I think they said it so well on their website, “the work shows themes of power, greed, obliviousness, striving, grinding, and collapsing. It also shares an aim toward hope, connection, and collective action.”
villin: Albeit in a very controlled manner, that song devolves slightly into a whirl of electronic noise. For me, this provokes a similar feeling as a segment from DREAMSCAPE which blends a frantic flute with incoherent howls. The through-line for me comes with recognizing the unavoidable anxiety of our time, whether that’s found within a dream or awakened state. Am I making any sense with that or is this interpretation way off base?
Lex Leto: I love that interpretation! I think any interpretation anyone could have is equally as valid as my own. There are as many musical interpretations of the work as there are people and I think that’s one of the fun things about art. For me though, I think that through-line has come from sonic interest rather than some kind of realized feeling—I just really love the juxtaposition of hard and soft sounds and it’s something I enjoy creating a lot of.
villin: A line that stood out to me early in DREAMSCAPE speaks to the “attempted understanding of the chaos of things.” I hear echoes of that throughout Right Here. What role does writing and performing music play for you in terms of using it to try to make sense of the world around you?
Lex Leto: Thanks for sharing—it’s always so interesting hearing other people’s interpretations of your work because sometimes they pick up on a thread of yourself that you didn’t even realize was there!
With DREAMSCAPE being the title of the entire work, all the lyrics in “Dream Song,” the lyric you referenced included, were written during a time in which I was lucid dreaming a lot and having trouble getting out of bed because I would just lay there dreaming for hours. When I would wake up I would spend a lot of time writing and sort of researching myself to figure out why I could never get myself to just wake up from a dream. That lyric is literally me talking about simply trying to understand what was going on with me, because I was behaving in a way I didn’t understand. I don’t know if I would say that I write and perform to try to make sense of the world—I think, perhaps, a more accurate way of saying it is, I am often trying to make sense of things on my own, and I have a separate interest in writing and performing art, so whatever I’m exploring in myself at that time is sort of just what is most natural for me to create work about. It’s almost like it’s more coincidental? I just create with whatever is right in front of me/whatever I’m most interested in.
villin: Using a personal point of reference, stylistically the song “release” is akin with something like Björk’s Medúlla, despite its differences in intent and execution. Did anything specifically inspire the song and what role does “release” play in the story you’re telling with Right Here?
Lex Leto: I really like how that one came about, actually… Last summer I got a pretty bad vocal injury—not bad enough for surgery but bad enough that I was in vocal therapy for six months and still have some residual swelling on my vocal cords as I type this a year later. At the very beginning of making music for this project I had sent Mindy another work sample of mine, a song called “Don’t Come Find Me,” and she asked me to make something that had the same intensity of that song. At that time I knew I couldn’t perform anything vocally intense with my injury, so I made “release” from the vocal samples of the other song. I wasn’t trying to create any particular style of music, I was just using what I had and trying to follow the feeling of the sound. That song really is “sound as feeling” to me, and it was what we needed for that part of the work as a whole. That was always one of my favorite dances to watch because of how the dancers were able to turn that intense and gritty sound into movement.
villin: In closing with “I’ll Be Here,” there’s a warmth and feeling of homeostasis that accompanies it. In keeping with the context surrounding climate change, I hear something of an unspoken comment through the song that says a better option is available if I/we choose to direct action toward it. What do you feel when listening to this song?
Lex Leto: This was the very first song the dancers started working with and the only one that wasn’t written specifically for Right Here. I wrote that song back in 2020 actually, so it has taken on a new shape in the context of this work. I can’t recall the feelings I had when writing it then, but it was only a few months after moving away from all my friends in Georgia, so those relationships that I was physically far away from were heavy on my mind. I like your descriptors of “warmth” and “homeostasis,” and I think sonically that is what I still feel in the song, even though the context has changed. Despite how bleak things are in this world, there is hope and strength in community. The way this work came together so symbiotically embodies that message already and it’s the one we wanted to leave people with as well.
villin: There is another side to the release which comes with your decision to donate any proceeds from it to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. I saw that you did your undergrad at the University of Georgia-Athens—are you from Georgia, and what inspired the focus on the Atlanta Solidarity Fund?
Lex Leto: I am from Georgia! Any of my friends around here will be able to tell you that I am a fully Midwest-pilled Iowa City lover, but I still miss Atlanta and Athens a lot, all the time. In Atlanta right now the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Mayor of Atlanta, Andre Dickens, are pushing for an almost 400 acre military-grade training facility for police known as Cop City. Not only have they disrupted local ecosystems by destroying 85 acres of forest while our planet is heating, they are disrupting and endangering the local community, with Atlanta having lost one peaceful forest defender to police gunfire and there are more in prison on domestic terrorism charges. My thoughts have been very much on Atlanta during this time, seeing the disgraceful behavior of our Atlanta representatives, endangering their own community (and many others, if this were to be built) in favor of profit and oppression.
The community response in Atlanta is overwhelmingly against Cop City, and the solidarity shown from the forest defenders in Atlanta and all over the world is continually reminding me the importance of community and the power we have as a collective. Cop City will never be built. I don’t even remember when I made the choice to donate the money to that cause; it doesn’t really feel like I even made that choice. This work was made with my community, about my community, for my community—whatever amount of money it makes doesn’t belong to me. If I can pass anything along to any readers: talk to your neighbors.
Lex Leto will be opening for Emily Wells at the Englert Theatre in September, and they’re co-organizing the first annual midwestern VERY BAD ART SHOW!!!! with Lorelei D’Andriole, which takes place Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August, 6 at Public Space One in Iowa City.