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Leesa Coyne, July Artist of the Month

photo by Joshua Pickering, Madonna Night - Sally Os

Leesa Coyne, July Artist of the Month

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Interview with Leesa Coyne as told to Charan Devereaux

Leesa Coyne is a singer and songwriter who has performed in Boston for more than 20 years. Since 2017, she has led the band Lonely Lessa & the Lost Cowboys. Leesa's music was spotlighted in a January 2024 WBUR story about her video release for the song "Stayed 2017." Leesa is also a creative professional, offering graphic design and video production services.

Tell us about your background. What brought you to Somerville?

I’m a born-and-raised Massachusetts resident, and grew up just outside of the Boston Metro area. As soon as I legally could, I moved out of my parents’ place and into the city. I’m a “City Gal”! Many years ago, after college, I settled in Somerville. It was a great location for me -- I already had so many friends here, plus it was the hip place to be. It’s a nice blend of city life with just the right amount of nature. I’m obsessed with being outside, so you’ll often find me running the bike path, walking around town or just generally frolicking outdoors. There is so much to do in our city, and as a musician, I get to be part of the big, vibrant music community and scene.

What were some of your earlier experiences as an artist?

From as early as I can remember, I loved to perform and I loved visual art. We were one of those families that always had crayons and paper in the car, and the radio was always on a pop or classic rock station. In high school, as soon as I was old enough, I got hired at Newbury Comics where I got to go “full nerd” on all things music. The store also had a staff of older, cooler coworkers who had amazing and diverse musical tastes. Plus, it was the 90s, so the record labels would always put Newbury Comics employees on the guestlist for shows. It was the teenage dream! I got to see so many bands (rockstar research) for free, which was great because I had no money. I felt fortunate I had so many folks to show me the ropes when it came to stepping into the music scene. 

When it was time for college, I went to Massachusetts Communications College in the Back Bay and studied multimedia. I liked how I could do both visual and audio creative work -- I didn’t have to pick one or the other. I called it a poor man’s Berklee/MassArt, and even better, the program was only two years, more time to be a rockstar! Plus, it was a great skill set for when I became a rockstar (said 19-year-old me) because I wouldn’t have to hire someone to make videos and show posters, etc.

At the nagging of a professor who heard me sing at a poetry slam, I started out my songwriting and music career by going to Club Passim open mic nights (though I first had to ask my professor, “What is an open mic?”). I went to Club Passim almost every week for years until I felt I had enough songs to make a record and the confidence to get a band together. As a woman growing up playing music, I never fit in with the guys playing Metallica covers in my hometown. So for a long time I just kept my three chord girl-rock/love songs to myself. Honestly, I don’t think of myself as a lead guitar player, but at this point, I can hold my own on some cowboy chords and hold sh*t down just fine. Additionally, I’m a person who needs a goal to stay focused, so open mics were the perfect way to start. All you needed to do was have one song ready to go, and you didn’t even have to be good yet. Passim was the most welcoming room that had the most respectful multi-general audience/players; they were creating a safe space before that was a buzzword, plus the room is legendary. After that, I was hooked. I’ve been playing the Boston music scene regularly for over 20 years in different bands and formats.

Tell us about your band.

Lonely Leesa & the Lost Cowboys is an ever-evolving project for my songwriting. It has evolved over time from a studio project to a few different lineups over the past seven-ish years. The band falls into the indie-folk/indie-blues/alt country lane. Your mom would like us, we have a sort of Tom Petty accessibility. With my current project, I wanted to get back to my acoustic roots and have a bit of a departure from some of my earlier bands (Naked on Roller Skates, The Easy Reasons). Basically, I missed playing my acoustic guitar and wanted a bit more freedom to serve each song in a way that felt natural. I often write songs on an acoustic guitar, so why not stick with it for the live shows? And who says you can’t get a massive wall of feedback from an acoustic?! 

Your video for "Stayed 2017" was released this year. Can you tell us about the process of writing the song and creating the video?

“Stayed” is a song I wrote while going through a complicated breakup. The further out from that breakup, the more I could see clearly how toxic and unhealthy the situation had been. I’d also been doing a lot of work over the years with other survivors of domestic violence, to help process my own situation while also being a more educated and equipped ally to others. So overall, I’m dialed into a lot of the discussion around domestic violence and how access to a firearm can escalate the situation and how dangerous it can become. When I heard the details of the Rahimi Case, I felt like I had to make the video (which concept-wise had been kicking around in my mind for a while). I wanted to get the word out about the case. 

[United States v. Rahimi was a case at the Supreme Court of the United States which centered on the question: Can the government prohibit gun possession by individuals under domestic violence restraining orders? After this interview, on June 21, 2024, the Court upheld the existing federal law prohibiting firearm possession for those subject to such orders. For more information, Leesa suggests visiting The Center for American Progress.]  

Philosophically, as a person who has made/edited/directed/produced 100s of videos for her day job, if I’m going to make a music video, I really want it to mean something. This one had a concept and message I felt strongly about. I shot the video on my iPhone and edited it in Adobe Premiere. I wanted to be the only person in the room when I filmed it so I could give an honest performance. I wanted to depict how isolating and complicated abuse can be. I also felt like the editing and pace needed to slowly unveil the message, with the viewer almost wondering what is happening at first. I also had to convey myself in not-the-most-glammed-up light, and that is just something I had to be fine with. There is a lot of pressure to be “pretty” or “attractive” as a women in rock n’ roll, but this video was a difficult topic and it felt inauthentic to do a glow-up. There are so many emotions wrapped up in domestic violence survivorship and oftentimes, it is very isolating. It is not pretty. It is real and hard and a lot of folks go through this. I wanted to reach those folks in solidarity. 

Whose work do you gravitate to these days? Is there music you revisit again and again? 

Most days I do a blend of Sirius XMU and First Wave (80s New Wave) on my satellite radio. The Sirius XMU station is like having hip college friends. (Even though I’m basically a middle-age person, most days I feel like I’m 25.) I find a lot of cool bands on satellite radio, and then dive deeper into the ones that speak to me. I also go out to see local music A LOT, and Somerville has great places for live music: The Jungle, The Burren, Sally Os [Sally O’Brien’s], The Rockwell, Crystal Ballroom, Warehouse, and the Armory. Some newer national bands that make me happy are Sylvan Esso, boygenius, Washed Out, Wet Leg, and Waxihachee. I would name some local bands, but there are just too many to even get started -- I would hate to leave anyone out. You can literally go out any day of the week in the city and see a great band.

For timeless music: I got into a huge Dionne Warwick kick last year. I will never say no to a 90s hip-hop playlist, or any sort of pop dance mix. I’m pretty all over the place, I’m not highbrow about music. Growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to sound like Mariah or Whitney before I decided I had more feelings in common with Kurt Cobain… so that led to a strange blend. I never say no to Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, Van Morrison or Black Sabbath!

You are a musician and a creative professional. What do you do when you feel stuck when writing a song or working on a project?

For work stuff, when I’m feeling burnt or stuck, I go for a walk, a run, or do hot yoga. Especially with a walk I can clear my brain and process things. After a tough hot yoga class, I find I’m able to simmer down/ground myself enough to be heads down (I’m a bit on the hyper side). I had a high school art teacher who said “90% of the drawing is done off the canvas.” I try to keep that in mind, there is a lot of “mind work” when doing creative work. Part of my career was as an in-house designer at quite a few creative agencies, which can be super-fast paced. So with the day job/pay the bills part of my creative world, I try to detach completely from my own ego. I’m there to serve the client, the project, and do good work. I tend to like the more mundane parts of that type of work, such as report layout, and gravitate less to the lofty side of things. I save all the change-the-world, big-picture, lofty feelings for the songwriting.

With music, it’s a very different process. I’m very tied to the songs I write. I often write when I feel like it and back away if I’m not feeling it. It’s hard to force a song and some days, things just are not hitting. Oftentimes, songwriting is a way for me to process my feelings or what’s happening in the world. As I got older, I gravitated towards writing about broader topics such as being a woman, aging, being an atheist, and politics. If the mood hits, I still write a good old-fashion love or heartache song. I’m less of a technical music person and more of a word/feelings vomit person. From there, I bring the song (lyrics, song structure, general chords) to the band and we work as a group to bring it into the full band format. After years of playing a song live, we end up in the studio and each time, that experience is unique. Sometimes, the recording exceeds your expectations and other times you are like … “if I had to do this one again I would do XYZ.” Each time I’m in the studio, I learn something about myself as a person/bandleader and about making music. Music is hard and can be a grind at times. You have to remind yourself to keep the joy alive. Sometimes, I wonder what I’d be doing with my life/time if I wasn’t doing music… It sure beats binge watching TV or drinking too much! 

You've played the Back Room at the Burren and Somerville Porchfest. What are some of your other favorite places and events in Somerville?

I love the Burren. [Songwriter and Burren Backroom booker/engineer] Tom [Bianchi] is the best and has been a staple of the Somerville music community for years. The Burren is actually one of the first places where I played open mic nights as well. Lately my fav rooms beside the Burren have been Sally O’Brien’s and the Jungle. They both recently upgraded their sound systems and are great sounding rooms to play. The Crystal Ballroom is another great room I’d love to play at some point (hint hint, we’d love to be an opener!) and Warehouse now hosts shows as well, which is a nice new addition to the neighborhood. Rockwell is another room booking some great bands. Somerville also has great loft shows and house shows. Each year, I do a stripped-down set for Porchfest.… It’s the best of both worlds where I get to do a quick solo thing, then quickly pack up my stuff and check out as many bands as I can! 

Is there a project you are working on now, or see in your future?

Lonely Leesa & the Lost Cowboys have been working on a record … I think we’re on year six! I’m super-excited and hope we’ll finish it by the end of summer (fingers crossed).

We have three new tracks going off to mastering with another four about to go to mix. The record sounds amazing, the band really nailed it in the sessions, and we’ve spent a ton of time getting it just right. So be on the lookout for that and send us all the “get the record done” vibes to help us through the home stretch.

After that, I’m excited to start on the next set of songs and to road-test those live. 

To learn more about Leesa Coyne and Leesa Coyne & the Lost Cowboys visit: