Nashville-based indie folk artist Leah Jean marches to the beat of her own drum. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. In conversation, Jean’s narrative style juxtaposes stream of consciousness and intentionality – much like her music – providing momentary glimpses into the inner workings of her heart.
On Dec. 2, Jean released her debut full-length album, Creatures In The Room, which spans a transformative journey of highs and lows, ultimately affirming the power of embracing your authentic self. The collection is all at once mesmerizing and triumphant, showcasing Jean’s strong musicianship as a jazz guitarist and lyrical depth as a songwriter.
Join contributing writer Cynthia Gross, as she sits down with Leah Jean to discuss the story behind Creatures In The Room, including the original album title; how Jean learned to overcome crippling stage fright and become the confident performer that she is today; and why she believes her “tendency towards negativity” serves to strengthen her art.
When she was in second or third grade, Leah Jean discovered that she could sing, but there was one persisting barrier that prevented her from exercising her talents fully: stage fright. “I had really severe stage fright, like really, really bad,” said Jean. “Like it would just give me the worst anxiety for days.”
During her early years, Jean would sing only when she found moments of solitude such as when she was waiting in the car while her mom shopped for groceries. Although Jean attempted to keep her talents hidden, it was not long before those around her detected her creative inclination, including her third-grade music teacher.
“We all had to play recorders in music class, and everybody thought it was so lame, but I would practice all the songs at home, and I would show up to class having these little tunes polished, ready to go, with dynamics,” said Jean. “My music teacher noticed, and she was like, ‘Do you want to play a solo at Monday morning assembly?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not’ because I still had really bad stage fright then.”
Jean shared that overcoming stage fright happened organically several years later, almost as if something clicked inside of her. “When I hit middle school, I started auditioning for the school plays for some reason, which is so funny because in fifth grade, we had to do a fifth-grade musical, and I was so nervous about it. I remember purposefully not singing as well as I could have in the audition so I wouldn’t get one of the main parts, which sounds insane, but I did not want to be on that stage.”
Once she hit puberty, however, things began to change for Jean from the inside out. She realized that becoming an artist was part of her identity that could no longer be denied. These days, Jean admits that she still has bouts of nervousness before performances, but she counters those feelings with equal measures of grace.
“I’ve had so much practice with it now that you just have to go up there and be yourself,” she said. “And also seeing that not all performances are perfect. Even the biggest stars will have flubs and mess up on stage. I’m a perfectionist, so I have this high pedestal for myself to give the best performance in the world, but I think just knowing that sometimes it’s not always going to be, and learning how to deal with those mistakes on stage is really important.”
For inspiration, Leah Jean takes her cues from an eclectic group of influences, including her top three muses: Kimbra, Kacey Musgraves, and Phoebe Bridgers. Kimbra is perhaps best known as the female vocalist in Gotye’s chart-topping single, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and Jean notes that the New Zealander’s solo career is especially noteworthy.
“She’s such an incredible producer, and she’s so colorful and vibrant and kind of similar to Björk – sort of out there, but a little bit more poppy,” said Jean. “I’ve always really admired her production, her performances, and the way that she writes music because I think it’s so unique and creative.”
Kacey Musgraves is one of Jean’s more recent influences. Per Jean, Musgraves “totally changed the pop game” and “flipped the narrative around what it means to be a country artist,” making it “more ethereal and psychedelic.” The simplicity and purity of Musgraves’ style rises above artists who “try to pull these gimmicks, or do crazy things with their voice and scream their songs,” desperately attempting to gain notoriety.
As evidenced by her original music – as well as her covers of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” – Lean Jean wears melancholy like a badge of pride. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that she considers Phoebe Bridgers, who “made the sad folk song popular again,” a defining creative force.
When asked for the essential element of a timeless song regardless of genre, Jean’s response was immediate: depth. “I think that’s the power of music. There’s so much that’s lost in conversation, or so much that I feel like I can’t just say in a conversation sometimes, but music feels transcendental.”
Jean’s desire to push the boundaries in music led to her pursuing a degree in jazz guitar at Columbia College in Chicago. The Dayton, Ohio-native found the move from a small town to a major city daunting and exhilarating, a pivotal quest in her journey to hone in on her sound.
“I got really bored with the basic chords that I knew, and I expanded on that when I went to college and learned jazz guitar,” she shared. Jean notes that finding balance is key. “I need to connect with people. I need people to understand what I’m saying, so it’s finding that balance between saying something in a unique way and also making it accessible.”
While in Chicago, Jean met her boyfriend, Van Isaacson, who is also a musician, as well as a producer. Upon graduation, Jean and Isaacson decided to relocate to Music City, where one of the couple’s close friends pop-rock artist Allison Mahal is based. Isaacson runs Lovegrove Studios, a Nashville and New York City-based production company alongside Sam Roller.
Take one listen to Leah Jean’s 12-track album, Creatures In The Room, which was produced by Lovegrove Studios, and you realize that the creative partnership was meant to be. “Black and White,” the opening track, is nuanced, layered, and introspective. It combines the warmth of country with lo-fi experimental elements and the sophistication of jazz to a lovely effect.
“Is there something magic that I should take / To always feel this way? / Or something that I do every single day / The moment that I wake,” sings Jean. While the lyrics are likely influenced by Jean’s mental health journey, the song speaks universally to anyone who longs to feel wholeness in the midst of a fragmented landscape, where color serves as its own shapeshifter.
Another personal favorite, “Tucson with Holly,” is one of several instrumentals on the album. “This melody felt more light and dreamy to me, so I decided to name it after the times I spent with my sister Holly in Tucson,” Jean shared. “Some of my best memories exist in the pockets of time I spent exploring cities and laughing with my sister.”
“Tucson with Holly” carries a stirring undercurrent of nostalgia and longing from the tone of the guitar to the breathtaking melody. The track captures the tenderness of our fondest memories that we hold close. Like Jean’s sentiments, audiences seek to re-live the experience of the song long after it ends.
Jean shared that the running title for the album was originally Dysthymia, the title of another one of the instrumentals. Dysthymia refers to a low-grade, persistent depression, a condition that Jean has grappled with for years. As her creative team was wrapping up production for the album, she was inspired to write “Creatures In The Room,” which had a natural title track feel. “And I figured Creatures In The Room would make more sense to people than this obscure mental illness,” she laughed.
Jean’s personal relationship with Isaacson is equally as flawless the vast majority of the time. “We butt heads sometimes because we feel so comfortable with each other that we have to switch that gear to, ‘Okay, we’re doing business right now,” she said.
For better or worse, Jean realizes that their personality differences make them a stronger unit. “What I love about Van is that he is so Type A and knows how to get stuff done, and he is very organized. Whereas I’m definitely more Type B and kind of all over the place, so he’s able to pull those reins in.”
Leah Jean continues to be open about her struggles with mental health. Her single, “Stalker,” suggests that our worst enemy often lies within. “I have a tendency towards negativity, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” she shared. “Right away, you hear that, and you’re probably like, ‘Whoa, okay,’ but I think it’s a hyperawareness.”
“I’ve always put this intense pressure on myself to achieve these really high things, and when I don’t get there, it’s like, ‘well, what’s wrong with me? There’s something wrong with me,’ and that’s the heart of my anxiety and depression.”
The competitive music industry offers little reprieve for Jean, but she has learned to navigate by leaning into a supportive community whose interests go beyond the shallow, “What can you do for me?” “And I think, making sure that you’re writing to write and not necessarily to try and blow up,” she added.
“Sometimes, it’s really, really hard because I just want to be heard, you know. So sometimes, I’m like, I am just throwing shit at the wall and hoping that it sticks. And sometimes, I feel like it just slowly slides off of the wall and plops on the ground.”
With each release, Leah Jean’s impressive body of work is, in fact, gaining ground, empowering new and existing audiences alike to show up boldly with their pain, insecurities, and wildest dreams. At the core of Creatures In The Room is a heartfelt message that eclipses any cliché uses of the phrase, “You are not alone.”
“If you have felt these really specific things that I talk about on the record, then you’re not alone because I’ve felt them, too,” said Jean. “What’s kind of interesting about the record is that it’s not – I feel like when I think of someone like Taylor Swift, she writes a lot of breakup songs. They’re about a specific person, but that’s not really on my record. My heartbreak is more internal. Having these little internal heartbreaks all the time, and then, writing about them is what this record is about.”
Cynthia Gross is a freelance writer and award-winning spiritual pop artist based in Maryland. With more than a decade of experience as an executive ghostwriter, she understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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