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ON BEING LEIGH ANN YOST:
On the Acrobatic Life as a Mother of Two, Wife of a Louisville Musician, Former Mortgage Broker and Karaoke Champ Who Has Just Released a Debut CD, How it All Works, Why the Fascination with George Michael's Second Solo Album and the Real Reason the Rolling Stones Came to Louisville
By Tim Roberts • Photos by Laura Roberts
Praying for Time
Anytime George Michael gets bad press, Leigh Ann Yost gets a bunch of hits on her web site.
The Internet has cyber-flipped the "no such thing as bad press" cliché. In our hyperlinked cosmos, bad press for someone might mean good press or at least a flash of exposure for someone else. Name drop like crazy on your web site, pack your body text with keywords and the search engines will stretch out their spidery virtual legs, snatch your site and pull your cyberpresence into a long list of others that may have some vague relation to what someone was originally looking for.
To be sure, though, you won't see Yost's site listed first on Google if you do a search on George Michael. It appears several pages later, sometime after an article on "George Michael's Fat Slug Obsession" (written after he was caught by a photographer, staggering from a batch of shrubs where he had been riding the skin bus with an unemployed van driver with stubble and a beer gut) and a few pages after several links to fan sites for Michael Cera, the young actor who played the character George Michael Bluth on the TV series Arrested Development.
"I love George Michael," she gushes quietly, "absolutely. I didn't like the Wham! Stuff too much. It was more when he came out on his own. He had an album out, Listen Without Prejudice, the one with the song 'Freedom.' The whole album is phenomenal. I loved it from the first time I played it."
So what does George Michael have to do with a mother of two boys in her mid-thirties, a wife of a veteran Louisville musician, a mortgage broker who has just released a debut solo album after working as a vocalist with Hank Sinatra, one of the city's barroom favorites and the defunct Gigolo Gypsy? Other than the fact that their names are connected by a fine thread in cyberspace?
Not much, other than she's a fan and that Michael's song "Waiting for That Day" from Listen Without Prejudice is the next-to-last track on her debut recording Basic Needs.
And it is fitting that Leigh Ann Yost would cover a song from that George Michael album, considering that it was released at the start of a new decade, when we had just emerged puzzled and weary from one of Conspicuous Consumption, with Yuppies and their 'Baby on Board' signs in the windows of their BMWs, when songs more than twenty years old were resurrected from their peaceful slumber to sell shock absorbers and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Michael had crafted a smart, sexy, focused pop album, Faith, toward the end of the decade and seemed just as puzzled as the rest of us with his follow up: should it be pop, should it sound like wailing Gospel, should it have a touch of swing that conjures up grainy monochromed images of a Manhattan skyline at night, should it question the shallow benefits of celebrity or bear hug it.
He was pulling himself in thirty directions at once and somehow making it all work.
A lot like Leigh Ann Yost.
"I'm really so strapped for time," she said. "Any time I have a show, it takes me two hours to get the e-mails all together to send them out, then I have to get the posters up. It takes a lot of time to promote yourself and every night, when the kids go to bed and I'm not playing, from nine to 11 or 12, I'm trying to meet people [in the music business]."
We were seated at a table at the Heine Bros. coffee shop at Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway, a major node along the Baxter-Bardstown-Bonnycastle Subculture Conduit, where bars share street blocks with boutiques, where you'll find chain restaurants and local eateries, health food and fast food, places for live music and recorded music, all prowled around-the-clock by skateboarders, students, latter-day Bohemians, the upscale and the curious who come from other parts of the city to wander the streets and make wishes about living there.
The Parkway's intersection is one of the conduit's entrance points, where continuing east takes you into Cherokee Park bordered by large, expensive older homes and west takes you to the university area and a node into the city's South End. Consider it a crossroads, but not like the one in the legend of blues singer Robert Johnson who was said to have sold his soul to the Devil so he could play guitar. More like the one Leigh Ann Yost is facing: continue full-time with a music career while handling the full-time responsibilities of being a mom, or continue to split her life in three ways by continuing with her job as a mortgage broker and handling those other two life tasks.
"No one's goal in life is to crunch numbers all day," Yost said, "I'm left-brained, right-brained all day long. It's a constant daily struggle for me, so I try to be creative with mortgages, try to find ways to get people into a house with no money. I actually call myself the social worker of mortgage loans.
"But ever since I could play guitar, I'm telling you I have got a fever."
Cowboys and Angels
St. Matthews, sometime in 1996. First floor of a building on Breckinridge Lane close to the traffic-heavy intersection with Shelbyville Road housed a bar called Jake and Elwood's (now called Saint's), named after the fictitious Blues Brothers. The bar's logo featured the sunglasses, homburgs and skinny ties of the two namesakes, arranged as if on the faces of a pair of ghosts. Inside once or twice a week, it was "Muffioky," the karaoke parties held by Muffy Junes during any night of the week and in just about any place in the city where there were people looking for some fun and an electrical outlet for her to power her karaoke machine. Known also as a frontwoman with her own band Muffy Panics, Junes had a massive collection of songs for her karaoke machine, so if a guy wanted to sing something as obscure as "Because" by the Dave Clark Five and use it to propose to his girlfriend, chances were good that Junes had it. She could have the guy singing into the microphone within minutes, reading the song's lyrics from the blue-yellow glow of the karaoke machine's screen and a young woman's face would be wet from tears of happiness. Provided she was at the bar in the first place.
One Wednesday night, a company softball team stopped by Jake and Elwood's after a game. Junes was there with "Muffioky." On the softball team was Leigh Ann Yost.
"Everyone was too chicken, so I just got up and sang," Yost recalled. "Then I entered a couple of karaoke contests and won them. Karaoke completely did it for me. It was all over."
Raised in Marietta, Georgia (the same city where former Louisville composer/musician/producer Stephen Moon was born), Leigh Ann Yost came to Louisville from Charlotte, North Carolina, ten years ago to take a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep. After winning the karaoke contests, Yost didn't limit her performing ability to reading lyrics from a machine that played and instrumental track she could sing over. Bold from her wins, Yost approached a musician during his set at a bar and asked if she could sing with him.
"I walked into the Hideaway Saloon at one o'clock in the morning on a Thursday. I was out with a girlfriend and Hank Sinatra was playing there. I asked if he knew any Indigo Girls songs. He said sure and I asked if I could sing one. So I got up to sing 'Closer to Fine' with him.
"Then he goes, 'Would you like to do this? 'Cause you're really good.'"
Her karaoke-champ boldness began a four-year stint as Hank Sinatra's vocalist. "We played every Thursday at the Hideaway," she said, "and it was packed. We got a really good following. Honestly, to get paid to sing was a huge deal for me, even if it paid 20 bucks."
After she finished with Hank Sinatra, she joined Gigolo Gypsy, formed by a handful of music students who had graduated from DeSales High School. She had also met and married Martin Yost, who had been the drummer for Fancy Pants, band featuring Peter Searcy and Ben Daughtrey. Martin Yost eventually became the drummer for Daughtrey's band Love Jones, but stayed in Louisville when they moved to Los Angeles to chase record deals (and eventually land one).
"I sang with Gigolo Gypsy for several years until we all started having babies. One of the members already had two babies, then when I got pregnant, the band dispersed. I had the whole mommy phase going on for a couple of years and I was really bored. So I decided I would learn how to play guitar. My friend Butch Rice talked me into calling danny flanigan for guitar lessons. I was so scared to do it. I thought he would say no."
Her fear of calling flanigan and anticipating his rejection was based on earlier experience in taking guitar lessons from others who had wanted to teach music theory. Yost just wanted to learn how to play songs. Fortunately, that's how flanigan teaches.
"danny has a unique way of teaching whether you're 30 or four. You bring him a song you want to learn how to play and he teaches you how to play it. So over the course of my pregnancy, he taught me 10 songs to play all the way through, most of them off Patty Griffin's first record [Living With Ghosts]. I was so surprised at how easy they were to play. Eventually, I learned enough songs to figure other songs out.
"Then I learned about the capo! It's a girl's best friend."
Yost discovered a new world of sounds available by fastening a capotasto (capo, for sort) to her fretboard, small device like a tie clasp that changes the pitch of the strings on a guitar. With it, more songs were available for Yost to play. And write.
After the birth of Yost and her husband's first son, McLain, she continued playing and learning. It was after the birth of her second son, Sam, that she started writing songs.
"It would always be at really odd times," Yost said. "And people always ask me 'what do you write?' Honestly, every song I've ever written I've just been experimenting with chord changes and a melody will come into my head. And it just goes from there. But first I have to be able to play it to write it."
A small catalog of songs ready. Skills as a vocalist and guitarist solid. Next step: record an album. So far a team of mentors, angels, if you will, guided Yost into a world where there's always the risk of hearing the devastating "you suck" at a live show. Now she needed help in bringing it all together, to wrangle the pieces she had created into a solid form.
Now it was time for the cowboys. The phone number of one she wanted to ride herd had been written on a small square of paper years earlier.
It was Bryan Hurst.
"I'd kept his number on a sticky note for four years. I kept saying I was going to call him, 'cause I'd talked to him about his help with some of the songwriting. It was always there. Every time I moved or organized a drawer, it would always come up. I finally called him and he came over to my house. I sat on my front porch. It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I'd ever done in my life. I played the songs that I wrote. He said, 'Yeah, I'm in.'"
Yost was familiar with Hurst's work as a producer with Heidi Howe's A Real Piece of Work, in addition to his own material. Noted for coaxing a crisp, layered sound from the singer-songwriters with whom he has worked, Hurst's production skills clicked solid with Yost's songs. Jeff Carpenter engineered the sessions in his cozy Al Fresco's Place Studios in the basement of his home in the Belknap Neighborhood, on a hill behind Bellarmine College.
"Jeff's recorded a lot of people," Yost said. "He got all the musicians lined up for me. And I think musicians get to the point where the say 'this isn't going to happen.' There's drama in every band. He'd say, 'Leigh Ann, you're fine. Just do it.' He was totally instrumental in getting me through the tracks. He was so patient with me."
With guidance from Hurst and Carpenter and contributions from an impressive lineup of Louisville musicians including Tim Krekel, Brigid Kaelin, Donn Adams, danny flanigan, David Barrickman, Teneia Sanders and many others, Yost's cowboys and angels helped her create Basic Needs. It was released in the autumn of 2006. In the November issue of Louisville Magazine, WFPK on-air host Laura Shine named it as one of the top five locally-produced recordings for 2006, ranking above Tyrone Cotton's second self-titled release and Fegenbush Farm from Johnny Berry & the Outliers.
Learning guitar, writing songs, making an album with a team of the city's best-known musicians and production and engineering team.
Quite a leap from singing karaoke just 10 years ago.
Something to Save
Basic Needs, much like other singer-songwriter releases, is filled from lead-in to lead-out track with stories: some implied, most are direct. The are songs about something, point-of-view pieces that do more than bemoan loss or grovel at someone's shoe soles to ask for his or her love. Yost's songs are reportage from her heart, or from someone else's, from someone who has put herself into a stew of memories with only a notepad, a pair of eyes and a sympathetic set of ears. What she sees and hears gets saved into a song. Preserved and shared.
"The best story," she said, considering the songs on Basic Needs," is 'See Rock City.' When I was little, my grandparents took me all over the southeast. While we were in the car, as my grandfather was driving, my grandmother was always pointing out things. And the See Rock City barns have been a memory of mine for as long as I can remember."
In 2005, Yost had been challenged to write a new song for an open mic performance at Air Devils Inn. On a drive down to Atlanta, she began noticing the aging barns with "See Rock City" painted on their roofs. It was a cheap way for the owners of Rock City, a garden walkway on their estate in northern Georgia, overlooking Chattanooga to advertise their attraction that opened in 1932. They had hired a man named Clark Byers to paint the roofs of barns with the See Rock City ad. They were cheap, pre-located billboards and became part of the American landscape. By the time he retired in 1969, Byers had painted over 900 barns in 19 southern states. Anyone who has traveled two-lane roads throughout the south has seen those famous words.
"The barns started coming up in the middle of Tennessee," Yost said, recalling the drive, "and I said I'll write a song called 'See Rock City.' It came into effect because my grandmother would always say, 'look at that old church.' And I would always wonder where do these people go to the grocery, where do they go to school. I was driving and the very first line of the song came to me: 'The church on the side of the road, the beacon of saving old souls.'"
She took the song back to the open mic performance and it became a crowd favorite.
She absorbed more stories. One of them, "Jenny Brown," was written while she was awake during a long night with her youngest son who was having a screaming fit. It is based on the friend of a friend whose boyfriend was in a band that played a lot of Beatles covers. The line "Can't buy me love this time around" Yost claims is the hook for the entire song.
"I was really reluctant to be a songwriter," admitted Yost. "because I was afraid everybody would try to figure me out. Now it's just a by-product of being a friend with me. It's likely that if I know you, there'll be a song written about you."
Along with the batch of originals on Basic Needs, Yost also includes some covers. One is Tim Krekel's "Everything's Gonna Be All Right" and George Michael's "Waiting for That Day," complete with the line that is borrowed from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones.
"We have to pay royalties even though I didn't originally record that part of it. So Mick Jagger is making money off Leigh Ann Yost. They get a whole $91."
Is it coincidental, then, that the Stones played their concert at Churchill Downs about the time that Basic Needs was released? The $91 could have easily paid for the cost of four people at the Golden Corral's seniors breakfast buffet special, with quite a lot of change left over for a few buckets of balls at the driving range.
Now that the local office of the mortgage company for which Yost worked has closed, she has the time she needs. Time to be present for her sons. Time to focus on music. Time to wait and decide if it is worth pursing.
The time she spends waiting won't be idle, though. She's planning next year's Musefest, a showcase of female musical talent in Louisville. Last year's was successful. This year's she promises will be even bigger with proceeds being donated to the Center for Women and Families.
Yet she feels as if she had already waited too long to start a career in music.
"I really wish I had done this at an earlier age," she said. "I've gotten to the point where it's now or never. It's not like I'm getting any younger. So I have even more of a drive to do it now. Writing music is fun. Performing is incredible. There's nothing better than a huge round of applause. Nothing.
She reconsidered herself for a second. "Okay, maybe the love of a child. That's better. But applause is highly addictive."
Get your basic needs met at www.leighannyost.net.