Belting It Out

Tucson 'folk fusion' artist Leila Lopez celebrates the release of her second CD

The songs of Tucson's Leila Lopez, while being what one might ostensibly refer to as folk music, balance assertiveness and sensitivity, navigate lyrics both oblique and frank, and incorporate the influences of jazz and rock.

All of which might explain why her Web site calls her style "folk fusion."

Lopez will celebrate the release of her second CD, Fault Lines, with a performance Saturday night, March 27, at the Solar Culture Gallery. She'll be accompanied by Christabelle Merrill on violin, Brian Green on bass, Bruce Halper on drums and Courtney Robbins on guitar.

She has high praise for Solar Culture, the downtown warehouse cooperative which is a forum for the work of visual artists from throughout the community and often is the venue for excellent concerts by off-the-beaten-path musical artists, too.

"I love what (director) Steve Eye has done down there," Lopez says during a recent interview. "I want people who don't know about it to come and check it out. I think that it is kind of hidden away. A lot of people don't know that it exists, even. It's such a cool artist space."

Lopez is providing some refreshments for the gig (as one might find at an art opening), and looks forward to having the concert in a non-bar setting, so people can bring their kids, and so teenagers and underage adults can attend.

"My parents are excited to come, too," she chuckles, modestly.

Lopez released her debut album, The Roots and the Crops, in December 2006. While she's proud of that record, she also sees it as part of a period that she has since left behind.

"I still really enjoy playing all of those songs live, but it's kind of like this transformative thing with each project—when I listen to it again, it's kind of like a time warp, but in a way, it's good, because you can see where you've come from."

There are earlier Lopez recordings floating around, too.

"I recorded 11 songs together back in 2003, but I never formally released that. I just kind of gave a bunch of copies to friends," she says.

Lopez, who is 28 and teaches kindergarten by day, grew up in Tucson and graduated from Tucson High Magnet School. A regular performer around Tucson since 2003, she's been around music all her life, but hasn't always followed the conventional path.

"We had this old piano in the house I grew up in, and I kind of tinkered around on that since I was tiny. Nothing too serious, though. My dad played guitar and bass, so I would mess around with his instruments. They eventually got me my own guitar, and I started trying to learn by ear and stuff. My mom actually put me in piano lessons, but my piano teacher fired me, because I wasn't doing the lessons.

"I learned eventually, with the cello when I was in junior high, how to read notes."

Lopez, however, remains primarily self-taught and plays bass, piano, cello, drums, banjo, violin and mandolin. She records most of her stuff at home, sometimes handling all of the instruments herself.

"On this album, there are a few songs where it's all me on guitars, vocals, bass, drums cello—stuff like that. And then there'll be other songs where I have my bassist play, or Christabelle on violin, or Courtney Robbins on a couple of songs on her guitar."

She has been compared most often to Ani DiFranco and Joni Mitchell, but Lopez at a young age was enamored of the work of pop divas such as Madonna, Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan.

"Because of their voices, mainly," she explains. "It was all these ladies who were belting it out, basically, and I wanted to learn how to sing."

These days, Lopez is primarily considered a singer-songwriter, but she also has mean guitar chops. She says, however, that among her instruments, her voice was the last to mature.

She describes her early singing as "shy and shaky," but that's definitely in the past. Lopez was recognized in 2008 and 2009 by the Tucson Area Music Awards, aka the TAMMIES, as the Best Female Vocalist (and also in 2009 as Best Folk Artist).

Ultimately, Lopez isn't concerned about whether her audience initially thinks of her as a singer, a songwriter or a guitarist.

"I feel like I am lucky I am known for anything. It's nice to have people listening in the first place," she says.