“We actually started a band when we were in sixth grade,” remembers Kira Leyden, vocalist for the Strange Familiar. The “we” to whom she refers (in a recent visit to Billboard’s New York offices) includes the group’s guitarist, who just happens to be her husband, Jeff Andrea. “I had a crush on him in grade school. I knew I liked him in the fourth grade.
“Our first gig together was a grade-school dance.”
From its classroom origins, the piano pop and guitar-styled group has graduated to national exposure. Since those early days in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Leyden and Andrea relocated to Los Angeles (in 2007), met its producer, Brian Malouf, and added members Frank Freeman (bass) and Nicholas Sainato (drums).
The foursome recently released its third album, “Chasing Shadows” (Krian Music Group/Fontana). TV viewers might be, um, familiar, with the band from numerous synchs tied to its 2009 release “This Is Gravity.” The band has been featured on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (Its song “Courage Is …,” included on the show, has sold 64,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan), ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters” and NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” Before logging such airtime, Leyden and Andrea also co-wrote Ashlee Simpson’s “Invisible,” which reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006.
Continuing the band’s TV limelight, “Chasing Shadows” has received an early boost from the song “Redemption” appearing in the April 19 episode of the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Current single “Unwanted,” meanwhile, has aired on ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars.” The band also played South by Southwest earlier this year.
*** New York-area fans: Catch the Strange Familiar tonight (Oct. 16) at 9 p.m. at Santos Party House, 96 Lafayette Street, New York. The show is part of the CMJ 2012 Music Marathon.
Not that the Strange Familiar wants to associate itself too closely with all things pop culture at the expense of losing its identity. As Leyden sings in “Being Me,” from “Chasing Shadows,” “Oh, I’ll never belt it like Janis Joplin, and I’ll never kiss Katy Perry / I may never sing a duet with Gaga, and I’ll never play this song on ‘Glee’.” (The song even cleverly cops a riff recognizable as that used in scene-to-scene transitions in the Fox series).
“I can’t be something I’m not, but I’m just fine being me,” the act concludes in the track.
“‘Being Me’ was the first song we’ve ever written with pop culture references in it,” Leyden says. “It started out as kind of a joke but, as it evolved, we realized, we’ve been fighting to try and fit in to one kind of a mold with our music. It felt really refreshing to say, ‘I’m none of these things. We’re never going to be the bad-ass guy on stage, or the rocker chick’. It just doesn’t work.
“When you’re true to yourself, you find something that’s real and that touches people more than trying to be something else.”
Even the band’s name reflects its adventurousness to explore musical avenues that feel in line with its constant evolution.
“We were coming out of a band that we had been we’d been in for 10 years, the same people since grade school on. We thought, we want to do something totally new. The name came from a class I took in college, cultural anthropology,” Leyden says, building evidence that she and Andrea often were thinking about music when the teacher was talking, no matter which school year.
“In studying other cultures, you need to ‘render the strange familiar and the familiar strange.’ I just love that quote, it always stuck with me. ‘The strange familiar’ … I love that. It fit our situation because (L.A.) was such a new world. It was so different being on our own, trying new sounds, and not the same band that we’d built up all these rules in.”
“We were still doing music, but it was unfamiliar territory for us. Yet, it still felt the same because it was Kira and me together,” Andrea adds. “It ended up being a good thing,” he says, remembering that before its current pop stylings, the twosome dabbled in hard rock and industrial extremes. “We weren’t really angry; we were just trying to be angry,” he says.
And, despite the name on which they settled, “we’re really not that strange,” Leyden promises, laughing.
The Strange Familiar is now working on making itself more familiar at radio, as “Unwanted” is being promoted to adult alternative. And, as has become routine, Leyden and Andrea continue to mix music with life as a married couple. “When we go out on dates, music is all we talk about. It’s kind of life-consuming,” Andrea chuckles. “But, we love it. We love to be immersed in music. It’s really all we want to do.”
Who knew that both a musical and romantic union would last beyond its earliest elementary school beginnings? Actually, Leyden did. “I just had a feeling about you,” she says, smiling at Andrea. “I don’t know how you have a ‘feeling’ in fourth grade, but I did.
“I used to drop notes by his desk. They said things like, ‘I like you’ … and then my friend would pick them up so he couldn’t read them.”
“It’s true – look who you’re sitting next to in sixth grade,” Andrea advises. “You never know …”
“I know,” says Leyden, “I tell all my nieces, ‘That could be your husband …’
“And, they’re like, ‘ew …'”