“I think that’s what my message is,” says performer/singer/ songwriter Ginger Leigh, enjoying a chocolate martini one evening in May downtown “Let’s all just come together.” Sure, the phrase sounds just a bit like a Coca-Cola commercial. But it’s a fitting mantra for someone like Leigh, whose music brings together diverse audiences all around Austin.
Leigh, with her blonde pixie cut, grey denim shorts and purple blouse, is the picture of Austin casual chic. She’s also a bundle of kinetic energy, brimming with straightforward opinions on a range of different topics – and that rare breed of musician who truly defies labels. Songs like “Butterfly,” “Sugar In My Coffee,” and “Buddha Belly” contain elements of pop, rock, folk and blues. One minute you might hear shades of Ani Defranco, the next minute the angst of PJ Harvey. “I don’t necessarily set out to write a blues record. If we’re talking about writing, I want the sound to match the story of the song,” Leigh says. “I’ve been called a ‘genre-bender’ and I thought that was pretty clever.”
Coming from deep musical roots – it’s no exaggeration to say it’s in her veins – at the tender age of nine, Leigh was in a band called the Gospel Gang with her older brother and two cousins. They’d do songs like “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” at parties, talent shows and church functions. “My brother sang the Judds’ “‘Momma He’s Crazy’,” she says, noting that she danced to the song with her boyfriend at that time.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Leigh came to Austin for college and studied sociology, history and Italian at UT. However, her deep appreciation for Austin’s thriving music scene doesn’t prevent her from suggesting improvements. “It’s definitely the most unique city in terms of how much live music it has going on,” Leigh says. “There’s a lot of quality music here.”
As Austin continues to grow and morph into a larger, urban metropolis, and as projects like the W Hotel & Residences (containing a revamped space for Austin City Limits) come to fruition, Leigh believes that everyone – musicians and venue owners – need to kick it up a notch in order to make the city a place where musicians can have sustainable careers. “Being a musician can be somewhat taken for granted here, because there are so many,” she says. “Let’s challenge the city of Austin to create spaces where musicians can do quality performances, let’s really support the artists.”
After noting that she sees things changing a lot here, for the better, Leigh reels off the names of a few spots she loves, including Momo’s and Saxon Pub. “If artists feel that they are being respected, then they will raise the bar and put on a great show,” says Leigh, who lives in the heart of South Austin. “When they are just being served a beer for putting on their show, then they will not be into it.”
Having performed a range of LGBT events, including Austin’s Pride, Auckland, New Zealand’s Pride and a Human Rights Campaign event in Austin, Leigh was also an invited guest at an HRC event in Houston this year, which she described as very moving. “I play events of all kinds,” she says, “especially if there is an atmosphere created to show love and support to a community or a cause that I believe in.”
Entirely self-taught on the guitar, Leigh wasn’t always as confident as she is today. “A lot of people are afraid of instruments, they’ve never held one or been around one.” When Leigh first began to build an audience in Austin, she was performing regularly at the Rhythm House on 34th Street, which was owned by a lesbian couple. “There just naturally happened to be a lot of women in the crowd, many of whom still support my music and continue to be great fans of mine.” Sarah Dashew also played there, and one night they did a song together and the result was “magical,” so they began to record and tour together shortly thereafter as the Sarah and Ginger Band.
Leigh was primarily a singer at first, but she eventually started writing her own songs, which she says were “horrible” at first. When the lead signer, Daswhew, got sick, Leigh started playing their shows by herself. “Now the guitar is like an extension of myself,” she says. “It’s also a prop – a show to me is a show. Everything on stage, your body, your eyes, your hands, your guitar – it’s all part of it.”
Her biggest challenge these days is finding enough time for all of it. She does shows all the time – in Austin, elsewhere in Texas and across the country – and so has to set aside time for songwriting. “If I had a philanthropist patron,” she says, laughing, “who would take care of everything else and say, ‘You just sit down and write’, it’d be easier.”
Although Leigh describes the writing and music-making process as being challenging, her partner, Jayne – seated with us at the table – begs to differ. “She just wrote a new song and put it together very effortlessly,” says Jayne. “We all sat there and cried ‘cause it was such a beautiful song and had such touching lyrics.”
“Jayne is my partner in crime for almost two years,” Leigh says, noting that they prefer an air of mystery when it comes to their personal life. Like other musicians who have walked a sexually ambiguous line, Leigh makes no apologies.
Although her career flourished in the mid-90s, during that women-in-rock Sarah McLachlan-launches-Lilith Fair moment, Leigh says that labels around gender can be a double-edged sword. “I had an A&R person from a major label come to see my show,” Leigh says. “She showed huge appreciation for my music, but wasn’t able to sign me because ‘we can’t sign any more female artists.’”
Leigh says that she’s enjoyed a lot of success in the gay and lesbian community around the world, which she’s very thankful for, but that she personally doesn’t see her world through the filter of sexuality. “I view my movement across stages and radio stations as a result of desire, drive, talent and a big dash of luck!” Leigh says. “I always perform with gratitude for those who support me.”
Her work has brought her tremendous successes, including a sponsorship from Advanced Micro Devices, being a live musical guest on Oxygen Media and distribution through S4 Records (Sony Italia). Her most recent release, “Don’t Be Shy”, is available on iTunes. She is currently enjoying the sounds of Etta James, John Legend, Phoebe Snow and Sade. “Lately I’m more intrigued by the contemporary stuff,” she says.
Each of Leigh’s songs contains all the multitudes and variance of her experience – and of ours – fueled by her interest in reading about politics and history, religion, sociology and sexuality. “Is that politics? Or is that life’s beautiful bullshit?” she asks. “Reading that kind of material makes me think and makes me see the world in a certain way. I draw on all of that to write my songs.”
After explaining her inspiration and detailing the change she’d like to see in Austin’s music scene, but before her and Jayne head out into the night, she throws out one last zinger.
“I think I’m going to run for mayor – or city council.”