Leanor Ortega Till (aka Jeff the Girl, mother of children, breaker of saxophones), joined Dave Hawkins and Indie Vision Music for a talk about how she joined forces with other Five Iron Frenzy members to create the new synth pop band, The Fast Feeling.
Dave Hawkins: It’s wonderful to have Leanor Ortega Till here with Indie Vision Music. Thanks for squeezing out some time for us Leanor.
Leanor Ortega Till: Yeah, it’s great to meet with you.
Dave: I’ve spoken with you a number a times about your role in Five Iron Frenzy. Now you’ve jumped into something completely new, as vocalist with The Fast Feeling.
Leanor: Yeah, this is a big dream come true for me. To be using my voice and to be singing is really a big deal for me. And this year our album is going to come out. I’m very excited.
Dave: Who else is involved in the band and how did the idea of forming The Fast Feeling come about?
Leanor: Well, with Five Iron Frenzy, we write songs out and then Reese will put lyrics on those core songs. Scott Kerr had written a number of guitar parts. Scott’s the bass player, but former guitarist for Five Iron Frenzy. He had been writing a lot of songs for Reese to put lyrics and melodies on, but Reese hadn’t gotten to it. Sometimes I’ll also put lyrics and melodies on a Five Iron song for Reese. I was doing that with some material last year and I was singing over some of the parts. Then Scott said “Why don’t we don’t we try these with your voice”. It was surprising, on the first couple of songs we started demoing. It was exciting and he has a lot of recording gear. With technology and patience (laughs) and trial and error, we started to find that I actually could sing and had a voice! I really love writing melodies, that’s one of my favourite things. So, we kept working on it. Scott can write a lot of material. So we decided to email Five Iron and say that we were starting a new band and some of these songs that we had thought of for Five Iron, we were now going to use for our new band.
Andrew Verdecchio, who is the drummer of Five Iron Frenzy, listened to the songs and he was very excited and decided that he would like to play drums. The third person is Matt Langston. He’s with a band called eleventyseven. He and Scott have collaborated together on music before. Scott played the demo songs for him. The songs have an electronic and new-wavy feel. Matt was very excited and asked to be in the band. At first I was reluctant, because it’s difficult having long-distance members, but after hearing some of his songs and how excited he was, we added him too.
Dave; So that’s where the EDM vibe came from. I remember Matt doing something similar to that style on his Jellyrox project.
Leanor: Right, and Matt has what I call; “the sounds”. Scott will make interesting sounds also, but Matt, you know he just takes it to the next level as far as the sounds, the ambience, and all of the electronics. In fact, some of the songs that he has written as the main songwriter, he’s chosen to use electronic drums. So, on this album we’ll have Andrew on some of the drums and use electronic drums on other songs. It’s a mix and match.
Dave: It’s funny when you talked about your vocals, because the only time I can recall hearing you take lead vocals with Five Iron was for a whole 10 seconds on, “When I Go Out”.
Leanor: (laughs) Yeah!
Dave: You’ve probably heard this from a thousand people and now you’ll get it from me. I had no idea that you had such an incredible voice.
Leanor: I didn’t either! And thank you so much. You know, a lot people like to sing in church and I’ve tried my best. My husband and I have had a bunch of music projects together, but I really have a nasally voice. It’s kind of high. Umm, the good thing about electronic and pop rock music that we’re kind of doing, is that you can add effects to it. You can use filters and take your time to record it correctly through decent microphones. I think technology has made me realize that, in the right context, I really do have a good voice. I went for a couple of voice lessons and the thing that surprised me is that I have a much broader range than most women. I can sing much lower and much higher. I’m a soprano, but I can also sing low. That gives me the opportunity to double up my parts, an octave higher or lower. My range is just huge! It’s been kinda fun to find out that I have this awesome tool, I just need to learn how to use it.
Dave: Leanor, it really makes me wonder if the band members of Five Iron Frenzy hid you away behind your sax because they were intimidated by your vocals. (laughs)
Leanor: (laughs) Definitely not! I never sing in Five Iron. Nope! But this is going to be something new for me. With Five Iron, my favourite thing is performing. Some people’s favourite thing is to write songs. With other people, their favourite thing is to record. For me, being on stage is my favourite. As a saxophonist, there’s only so many parts that you can play. So I get to dance and run around and interact with the crowd. I feel that a vocalist has to focus so much more during a live set. But it’s nice to be in both bands because I can tone it down and focus when I’m live performing in The Fast Feeling. When I’m in Five Iron, I’ll have little spots where I can dance around and crowd surf and have a lot of fun. I think I’m going to love being a vocalist, but I love the opportunity that performing saxophone gives me – just to spaz out. (laughs)
Dave: Does that mean you have to take a tranquilizer to slow down on stage?
Dave: You have to admit that you are a wild woman on stage. (laughs)
Leanor: I know! I am! It’s a different kind of music with The Fast Feeling. It’s not like Five Iron. I just reached forty this last year. Listening to the old songs, it’s like “What? How fast is that!”. Nahnahnahnah-nah. We just laugh at ourselves. Is that music? It’s really funny to listen back to old recordings and realize that we probably did play too fast!
Dave: So, at forty, what made you want to start up a whole new project?
Leanor: Right! That’s exactly it! The whole impetus is that I am forty. If I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it later. If I wait five more years, then I may not want to do it. I’m a firm believer that you don’t stop when you’re merging. I get so angry when drivers stop when they’re merging. The same is true for anything in life. After I had children the idea came of getting back in the game. Getting back into Five Iron, the practising, getting in shape again, learning new technology, staying out late, going to shows. I work at a church called Scum of the Earth, where the average age is 22. As person, you just don’t stop. You gotta keep merging if you’re going to be relevant. You want to keep young, active and healthy. So I feel really strongly that life is a gift and I need to do this at forty, even though I should be stopping, I want to start things. If I don’t do it know, when am I going to do it? Also, when is the opportunity going to come again to have such an audience? One thing I feel a huge burden and respect for, is that people care. People care about Five Iron Frenzy and they care about our message. They care about those things because they feel similarly. If I don’t use this opportunity now – to encourage people and to bring hope into this world, then there may come a point where I don’t care. I’ll be trying to shake people awake. (laughs) So I kinda feel a strong burden to keep going and so do the other guys in the band. We’re still relevant. We’re still capable. And for some reason, people still want to tune in.
Dave: You mentioned a moment ago about the message of Five Iron Frenzy. Is there a message you’re wanting to put across with The Fast Feeling?
Leanor: Umm, somewhat, but not as heavy-handed as with Five Iron. The interesting about Reese is that he’ll sing the whole spectrum of concept. I don’t think The Fast Feeling is going to be such a conceptual band. It’s more cryptic, but there are some songs about hope, about perseverance and there are songs that are straight up fun, like Blondie or the Go-Go’s. When you put on ’80s or ’90s music, it’s just fun music. It’s music that you can relax to. Sometimes you want to be shaken up and stirred, to change things in society, but what I want to do with The Fast Feeling is to make songs that matter, but not so much that it distracts from the music. The music and the lyrics are very balanced out, so that they’re enjoyable and not so heavy-handed.
There are definitely themes. There’s a lot things about growing up, because you can easily get jaded. I think young people just grasp music so much, that I wanted to give them a message of hope. The other guys in the band are very much lyric writers. Andy, Matt, Scott and myself, have lyric sessions where we are all in the same room. It can take hours and hours. We hash out each lyric for each song.
Dave: That must be brutal. I would have thought that that would make it chaotic rather than easy.
Leanor: Yeah, it’s actually my least favourite part of the process while it’s happening, but one of my favourite parts after the fact, you know, once we finally get it and record it. It’s like one of those things you don’t like – you know, going on the treadmill or to the dentist or whatever it is. While were at it, I’m so antsy and have so much energy. Then after an hour and we only have two lines and we just can’t get it. That’s when I’m ready to just give up. What I often do is say: “I’m fine with this!”. Scott will say: “No you’re not. You don’t think it’s that good. You’re just tired of the process” (laughs). But we get there. There have been so many songs where the whole theme of the lyrics have changed. I love that! I think it surprised me that the guys care so much about the lyrics and the message. You know, we owe it to ourselves to do that work. The lyrics are going to be worth reading and thinking about. They’re not just soft lyrics.
Dave: I think that maybe you should take some advice from the first line of The Fast Feeling song “Break”. It talks about taking a break from the pressure. Where do you find the time?
Leanor: (laughs) I know! I’m an Ortega–that’s my maiden name. My family is Mexican-American and we’re notorious for going insane and doing a lot of things. (laughs)
Dave: Seriously though, what about walking us through the song “Break”. How did it come about?
Leanor: Well, what’s coming through is that a lot of people are going through the daily grind. Financially fighting for their families and getting stuck in the mud by trying to keep up with the Jones’. It’s not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for health, it’s not sustainable for relationships, it’s not sustainable for spirituality, it’s not sustainable for life to the fullest. The line: “The doors are open wide” is an invitation to any person who feels that life is only what you see in front of you. A life that’s boring and a game you have to play. Sadly, I have to say that you do have to play the game. Dishes get dirty, you do have to get up in the morning and do some of the things you don’t like to do. But that’s not all there is. That’s why I think music is a tool to remind people that there are moments to celebrate. There are moments to relax. I had someone say recently on Facebook: “I can’t handle these burdens”. And many people responded saying: “You don’t have to. The onus isn’t on you to be the strong person”. So “Break is a reminder that we all want to escape and get away, but there are healthy ways to do it.
So that’s what that song is about and there are more songs like that too. There’s one…..I think it’s going to be called “Fall Back”. It’s the concept of the eternal perspective. Even more so than just escaping today, what about eternally? I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that there is going to be something better on the other side of all of this. It’s an invitation to relax and know that all we see isn’t all that there is.
One of the songs that we just released a lyric video for, is called “Factions”. This song is very much a political song. We’re talking about the systems that lie behind the systems. For any public face that you see, there are thousands of corporations, thousands of dollars, thousands of governments, and thousands of agendas, that you don’t see. It’s a reminder that our faith should not be put in the face of a person or a message from any single person, government, or corporation. There are so many different people at work in these systems. They’re doing the best they can on some levels, especially locally. But we can’t put our hopes in that. The song is trying to make us aware that the media is one of the ways that we can be blessed or we can be cursed. We can find a message of hope and restoration in the media or we can look to the media to feed us lies. We have to careful about what media we’re choosing to believe.
Dave: It’s an easy thing to fall into and find a distorted viewpoint.
Leanor: Yeah, I think that the message of the media can cause a lot of hopelessness. You can feel very small in a very big world very quickly. Again, if you’re not aware of what’s happening locally, then why get bogged down in what’s happening nationally?
Dave: Then lets head back to the media from The Fast Feeling. Have you chosen a name for album and how many songs you’ll include?
Leanor: Yeah We just came to that agreement recently that the name of the album is going to be Pulses. We’re thinking that we’ll have 11 or 12 songs. This next weekend Scott will fly out to North Carolina and he’ll continue to mix the songs and write some more parts with Matt. Then the songs go to mastering. They’re very close. We have at least 12 contenders and then we’ll see which we feel comfortable with. We may want to save some songs for something down the road.
Dave: You mentioned, a little earlier, about plans for taking The Fast Feeling on the road. Is this going to extensive touring or are you going to keep it in the Denver area? What’s your plan?
Leanor: I don’t even know if it’s going to be touring, per se. We’ll probably have to do something similar to Five Iron. What we do now is, once every other month, we leave for a weekend and do a Friday and Saturday show. That works really well because everybody has careers and marriages. Most of us in Five Iron have children, and similarly with The Fast Feeling. You know, we can’t just be gone long term.
I like shows where it’s a big event. What I would ultimately like to do is a Denver show, an LA show. Chicago or New York show. Just do some areas and feel it out to see how it goes. But it’s going to be a lot of work, because one of the issues with The Fast Feeling is that technology makes the songs sound a certain way. Now we need to translate that to live. When you’re writing the best songs possible, you don’t care if you have an extra guitar that you won’t have when you’re playing live. So we have to figure out how to create that sound and the show. I want our show to explode! I want it to be big. (laughs) I know it’s going to be a huge undertaking, but I don’t want to just do a show. I don’t want to open up for somebody and just say that we did it. I would rather work like half a year and make it a really spectacular event.
Dave: Before we go Leanor – are there any more surprises coming from you? I mean, you don’t have any hidden polka projects or anything of that sort? (laughs)
Leanor: (laughs) No. (laughs) No, there’s no more surprises. One of the things that I’ve been working on, and am really satisfied with, is the rereleasing of our Five Iron Frenzy catalogue on vinyl. Fans have been saying for a long time that they would love remastered versions of our old albums. I’ve been spearheading that for Five Iron Frenzy and I’m happy to say that, right now, “Upbeats and Beatdowns” is available for order on vinyl. These are the kind of projects that people are excited about, but it takes work to do. So again, you asked about where I get the energy? I get it when people respond. People are responding well. They’re buying them and they’re excited about them. So if the response goes well, we’ll do more of the albums. Yeah, I’m excited about that and who knows what the fans tell me they want, maybe I’ll do something else. (laughs)
Dave: Well Leanor, we’re going to be happy to hear more from The Fast Feeling. Thanks for joining me for this talk.
Leanor: Thank you so much Dave. I really appreciate it.
About the interviewer: Dave Hawkins is host of The Antidote, a syndicated weekly radio broadcast featuring interviews with innovative artists who share a Christian worldview.