GETTING TO KNOW: LEISA KEEN

Leisa Keen has been working in the Australian music industry for over 25 years, in both jazz and musical theatre/cabaret. Since 1990, Leisa has musically directed and performed in over 150 shows, including Beauty and the Beast, Chess, A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom Of The Opera, Cats and many others. Leisa studied jazz vocals at the Canberra School of Music, under the direction of Gery Scott, for 6 years. It was here that she also gained the valuable writing and arranging skills that have assisted in her musical direction and performance, making her one of Canberra’s, Sydney’s and the Gold Coast’s most sought-after accompanists and musical directors. In 2013, Leisa was awarded a Canberra Critics Circle Award for her services to music in Canberra.

THE STREET TALKED TO LEISA BEFORE THE WORLD PREMIERE OF FLIGHT MEMORY.

DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.

Music is another language. I navigate and manipulate music every day and it is present in every area of my life. Music is a beautiful way to communicate and express your feelings. It is a joy to touch people’s lives and take them on a journey, whether it be through a simple love song, or a song cycle of thoughts and emotions – like Flight Memory.

THE TEAM BEHIND FLIGHT MEMORY IS IMPRESSIVE AND COVERS A LOT OF TERRITORY. HOW DID YOU COME TO BE A PART OF THIS NEW WORK?

I have been involved in both music and theatre in Canberra for over 25 years, and as a result you make many connections with people in both communities. I was delighted when Caroline Stacey asked me to help workshop Flight Memory 12 months ago, and had a great time exploring the song cycle and discovering the life and work of David Warren.

HOW DO YOU FEEL THE SONG CYCLE AS A FORM IS HARNESSED IN THIS WORK?

The Song Cycle structure is perfect for Flight Memory. It allows each facet of the story to be told in an appropriate style and allows a small amount of dialogue to be integrated into the music to help the audience gain insight into the characters and facts without overusing spoken text. From a singer’s perspective, this is a beautiful balance.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR YOU PERFORMING IN FLIGHT MEMORY?

Performing a new work always presents a unique challenge – you have nothing to reference. When you are the first, you have to create the sound, the vibe, bring to life what the composer and lyricist have put on paper for you. It’s exciting, but a little nerve wracking at times. 😉

There is also a challenge in committing complex musical changes to memory. The band get to work from sheet music, but the singers need to memorise the entire work and move around the stage. My brain is pretty full right now! Hehehe.

HOW ARE YOU, LIAM BUDGE AND MICHELLE NICOLLE ESTABLISHING YOUR RELATIONSHIPS IN REHEARSALS?

It is wonderful to be working with two incredibly talented and skilled artists.

Michelle and I were both involved in the workshop of Flight Memory, and many years ago I was Liam’s singing teacher (when he was in high school). It’s a bit like ‘old home week’.

Musically, we are facing intricate challenges together and sharing ideas in regard to technique, style and how to tackle the work as a team. We work together extremely well and each have something to bring to the table

HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR WORK AS A PERFORMER AND DIRECTOR?

I guess I tend to manage/direct my own work as a performer most of the time. As a jazz singer who also plays piano, I build my band around me and direct them in regard to the parameters of the songs/arrangements.

I run big bands, musically direct musical theatre shows, and perform solo or in small combos, perform for corporate functions, cabaret shows, or sometimes just a quiet winery gig on a Sunday afternoon. All of these performance opportunities need to be treated slightly differently, and it is about drawing on my experience to direct both myself and my accompanying musicians to meet the requirements of the gig in an appropriate way.

It is, however, really refreshing to work in a situation where someone else gives the direction. It allows me the chance to focus fully on my own performance.

WHAT WAS THE IMPACT OF STUDYING AT THE CANBERRA SCHOOL OF MUSIC ON YOUR MUSIC?

Studying at the Canberra School of Music has had a huge impact on my work in all genres of entertainment……certainly not just jazz. We were taught arranging, harmony, aural, performance, improvisation – all of which are essential in every performance you give.

The ability to hear complex harmonic structures, pitch difficult intervals, and improvise has been crucial in working on Flight Memory. The ability to interpret the emotional content of the lyrics is also critical, and I am constantly drawing on my many years of musical theatre work to help me achieve this goal.  

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON MUSICAL THEATRE IN AUSTRALIA?

I think musical theatre in Australia is in a position where it *should* be thriving. The young performers are embracing the new shows and they hunger to bring them to contemporary audiences. We are moving forward into a new era and exploring the use of technology, challenging subjects, pushing boundaries and giving the musical theatre performer a chance to extend themselves in ways that were previously “untapped”. It is still a challenge to get ‘bums on seats” though, and I’ve never quite been sure why. Don’t people want to be entertained?

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

In my down time (particularly driving time) I am listening to a lot of different jazz singers and restructuring my repertoire for gigs. I think you need to take in as much as you can in order to be able to give out with freshness. There are so many wonderful singers emerging all over the world, and it is important to indulge in their creativity.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?

Reading? Haha – the score for Flight Memory. 😉

I get very little down time, but I am indulging in some ’Outlander’ when I get the chance. I love the production values and then acting and characterisation is stunning.

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