On her album Leland and the Silver Wells, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Leland Ettinger creates songs that are expansive yet intimate, offering artfully layered arrangments that transport the listener while driving home the vividly personal lyrics of such intoxicating tunes as "We Dissolve," "Was a Prisoner," "Give Up the Gun," "Lost My Way" and the epic, Joan Didion-inspired "Play It As It Lays" (Didion's namesake novel also inspired the "Silver Wells" moniker). The album's lovingly textured arrangements incorporate strings, brass and woodwinds along with conventional rock instrumentation to create a stirring musical statement that abounds with warmth and humanity.
Leland and the Silver Well is the artist's third album, and her first in over a decade. While her two previous efforts—2004's Forever and 2007's The Golden West, both released under the name Leland—won Ettinger a fair amount of attention, she's also kept busy in her parallel career as a photographer, in which she explores the visual aspect of the same iconoclastic vision that drives her music.
"I wanted to make a true album that feels like an emotional journey and a singular entity, even though everybody tells me that people don't perceive music this way anymore," the artist says of Leland and the Silver Wells. "I think that there are still people who want the traditional emotional journey of an album. It's like a novel, and the songs are the chapters that inform each other and give depth to one another.
"This group of songs," she continues, "comprises the protagonist's journey through valleys and swamps, through dark alleys, across oceans, high atop the mountain, deep inside the forest, and across the desert plain to redemption. Similarly to my photography, I would like this music to affect people on a primitive level as something that first draws the listener in because of something familiar and then opens up into something new, fresh and transformative. I want the listener to be transported on an emotional journey of healing and truth."
For Leland and the Silver Wells, the Los Angeles-based artist—who plays piano, six- and twelve-string guitar and banjo on the album—assembled a large group of some of that city's finest musicians, with the help of producers Marc Dote (who also plays bass on most of the tracks) and Steve Gregoropoulos (who arranged the album's strings, woodwinds, brass and marimba).
Leland grew up in San Francisco and attended the Rhode Island School of Design and U.C. Irvine, studying painting, photography, video and performance art. She received an Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from the California Institute of the Arts, where she also took classes in piano, harp, sitar and Indian singing. She began writing songs in her early 20s, equally inspired by the introspective songcraft of Joni Mitchell and the widescreen presentation of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
"I think my expressions in both music and photography grew out of a need to collaborate and be social," she continues. "When I write a song, I am working to complete it so I can convene with other people to make it come alive. The song to me is the blueprint or the script that allows the real magic of collaboration to unfold. It becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and it is exhilarating to give birth to something that is the result of like minds plugging into the One Mind and creating magic in that moment. That, to me, is the high of art. Music to me is the superlative high of collaboration, so immediate and beyond mind and words.
"This album was the product of many years of stops and starts in songwriting after the birth of my daughter," Leland explains. "After I had her, it became very difficult to write, and I thought I would never be able to complete a song again. The songs on this album are composed of many of the scattered fragments I could come up with over these years, which I revisited on my iPhone and which miraculously came to life. After I composed three songs, I called my producer Marc Doten and we embarked on a two-year recording process. I worked with many of the same musicians I had worked with on my previous albums, but this time we spent a lot more time rehearsing, and we were able to create some interesting tempo changes and musical shifts that evolved during rehearsal."
With Leland and the Silver Wells having reached its long road to completion, Ettinger is looking forward to bringing its songs to life on stage. "We're excited to perform it live," she says. "We had our first gig in March with an eight-piece band including trumpet and violin, and another one coming up in June, and I'm very excited about booking more dates."