By the end of 2008, Leona Naess was starting to feel disillusioned with the music industry.
Though she’d released four critically acclaimed albums, collaborated and toured with the likes of Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams (to whom she was once briefly engaged) and David Gray, and saw her songs appear on popular TV shows such as The O.C. and Weeds, Naess couldn’t help but wonder if her life’s sole purpose wasn’t just making music. A series of tragedies (her father Arne Naess, who was married to Diana Ross for nearly 15 years, died in a sudden mountain-climbing accident in 2004) and continued label shuffles didn’t make things any easier.
After a tour of England in the cold, rainy winter of 2009, Naess decided to let life come first. “I was tired, my label wasn’t working out, I felt like I was out there by myself trying to push this record and I didn’t really have a lot of support,” Naess recalls. “I had just fallen in love at the time, and he was in New York, so I thought, ‘OK, once this tour’s finished I’ll go home and be normal.’” Months later, Naess got pregnant with her first child, and she announced a formal hiatus in 2010. Her second child followed in 2011. “It wasn’t planned, but I was like, ‘Oh great, I’m just gonna be a mom and not have the heartbreak of standing on a stage in front of people and needing their acceptance and love.’”
After more than seven years away from the stage, Naess regained the inspiration and confidence to make music. She recently completed a series of intimate performances at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall that sold out instantly, and is gearing up for a new album and more extensive live shows in 2017.
“For a long time I didn’t miss it, and you can’t fake it,” Naess says. “I wanted to miss it, and I wanted to feel that ache to make music and that urge. I would read all these horrible quotes like, ‘Don’t Sleep to Dream,’ and I just thought I would be making kids’ meals all my life. And not that that’s not enough, but eventually it stopped being enough. And now I can’t wait to make my record, or play more frequently.”
Billboard caught up with Naess in a candid conversation in New York’s Union Square recently to learn more about her life out of (and back in) the spotlight, curing writer’s block and the benefits of writing about life at 42.
You had two children shortly after the release of your last album Thirteens. Did you intend to stay away from music as long as you did?
I was at home, and just learning how to be a good mother and not picking up the guitar. I read a lot about how if it’s possible to be a good artist and a good mother at the same time. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence of that in my research. I think you can be an OK mother and a great artist, but I don’t think you can be great at both at least in the first five years or so.
Madonna being the ultimate exception – she released Ray Of Light two years after giving birth to her first child.
But she also has unlimited resources. You can’t even put her in the same category though. She’s not driving herself to rehearsal, coming home at 6 to feed the kids. She’s got a lot of people to keep that boat afloat… It’s an extreme example, but I like it.
How are you approaching music now that you’ve established your family?
It makes me feel alive again, but listen, I don’t know what will come out of it. I think we’re so ageist. Especially in this business, in music and film and all these things. Everyone is so young, and you just kind of feel like, “Oh well, who’s gonna wanna listen to what I’m saying?” But actually, if you think about it, why would you want to listen to a 20-year-old talk about life when they haven’t lived a life, really? Wouldn’t you rather read a book by an author that was more experienced? Wouldn’t you want a teacher that wasn’t straight out of college? So what I realized was that I was the one who was ageist. You kind of lose when you’re not around it.
You seemed very at ease in your second show at Rockwood. But what was the first show like for you, after so many years away?
Fist of all, everything kind of went wrong as far as my guitar. I didn’t want to blame anyone, but I had a guitar tech that didn’t show up, and you should always check your batteries.
But it was surreal. I didn’t know how it felt to standup onstage as a grownup. I never really felt like a grownup [when I was touring], I think I was a 21-year-old until I was not. Until I was 40. [laughs]
It was nice to play older songs like “Comatised,” because then I could remember how they were played and I could tell the drummer things like, “OK, play this one like we’re on a boat.” And I never used to do that before. Maybe it was a woman thing, but I was always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or I’d let things slide. But now as a grownup, I’m so relieved, like, “No, I don’t want that. It has to be done like this.” I try to be my own musical director.
You’re no stranger to record label turmoil, especially since all of the labels that released your albums have since folded or merged with other majors. Have you given any thought to how you might release your next project?
I want to get all my songs together, make sure they’re all incredible, and then I would probably want to try and do it all myself. There are certain people I would love to work with, that would be kind of cool to make a record with, but in my head I’m like, “I’m gonna make these songs, they’re gonna be so great.” And then it would be so great that I’ll just be like “No I’ll just release it to iTunes.” It’s like when people spend hours naming their band when they haven’t even made any music yet.
You’ve worked with many great musicians over the years. Are any of them still in your circle as a sounding-board or potential resource as you ease back into the industry?
I do, if I wanted to call people up. I think what I have managed to do is I’ve always been a very nice person, and I didn’t burn any bridges, that I know of. But I’m also very bad at asking for anything. I’m very proud and I also hate to impose. I have friends who say “Call that person, just say you want to tour with them.” I would never do that. My mother always taught me, “Never be the last to leave.” I’m just not a very pushy person. I do think the squeaky wheel gets the oil; I’m definitely not the squeaky wheel. I do think if I make the record I intend to make, and if I’m really proud of that, I think with all these people I could say, “Would you come and sing on this?” I’m saving all my favors, and my advice. One thing is I do have a lot of people I’ve known for so many years, so I think there’s people who would be happy for me to succeed.
Andrew Hampp is a vice president at music sponsorship and experiential agency MAC Presents.