It was only a few minutes after sitting down for my interview with Seattle visionary Leeni Ramadan that she was getting asked to play a show by a nearby diner that she knows at the Capitol Hill restaurant we were meeting at. That show, at the Blue Moon on Halloween night with the Country Lips, marks the first of two shows that she’ll be performing this weekend as Prom Queen, her retro-influenced pop band. The other will be as the Tractor as part of KEXP DJ Greg Vandy’s Dia De Los Muertos show at the newly-remodeled Sunset.
But that’s only part of what I want to talk about. We’re meeting on the eve of the release of her new album/DVD Midnight Veil. It’s an ambitious project that features twelve, luxurious pop songs with accompanying music videos. The videos set the tone of the songs, and they feature several prominent Seattle-area burlesque performers like Kitten LaRou, Lou Henry Hoover, Inga Ingenue, Fuscia Foxx, and Lily Verlaine. It’s a cohesive and compelling work, and an unqualified success. It’s available for viewing here, or purchase here.
I meet up with Leeni to talk about this new project, her background in Chiptune/8-bit music and improv, and what she has coming next.
How did Midnight Veil come to be?
I had this collection of songs for a while. I had this idea because I do video for my job; it would be really cool to have the whole thing be a watchable album from start to finish. I made one video for a song called “Night Sound” on my first album, with a pole dancer friend of mine, Noelle Wood. I liked the idea of a music video centered around a single starlet or performer. I thought it would be cool if there was one central figure in each of the songs, like the one I did for Noelle. I know so many burlesque performers and dancers and people that had the right look for a song. I also know so many great locations in Seattle from doing video work.
I knew it would be possible if I had a successfully-funded Kickstarter. That worked out so we moved forward with it.
The first time I became aware of the things you’re working on, you were involved with making 8-bit music and were also heavily involved in improv, and plus a host of other creative ventures. Was there a process that led into this DVD/album?
I think it all happened gradually. I had been doing improv for about 15 years and I learned that while I love the immediacy of improv and how spontaneous it is, I missed being able to make something with intent and with legs and that lasts. I like making video for that reason: you can create something you can go back to over and over again.
I became more and more passionate about music and I stopped doing improv because I wanted to focus on things that had more intent and production value. Improv is a great tool to have in my tool belt and I’m still grateful to know how to do it, but it’s hard to devote my time to it when I have so many other artistic passions.
For chiptune music, I did that for a really long time, too. I still haven’t completely given it up but I felt like I got to a point where I didn’t have any more ideas with it and it started to get stale. I also liked the idea of producing with other people using different sounds. I branched out and did Romeo + Juliet. Through that band, I got into doing more retro-sounding productions, and that’s where Prom Queen came from.
Making a music video for each song sounds pretty ambitious. What made you want to embark on that?
I think I’m a very visual person and for each song, I had these snapshots in my head. I love Pinterest for that because I was able to make Pinterest pages for each of the vague ideas I had in my mind for each of the videos. From that, we were able to make storyboards and we were able to flesh it out from there. It happened very gradually. It starts with a stylistic idea or a single shot you have an idea for and it spiders out from there.
There are also some things that happen as happy accidents while you’re filming, where you don’t know what’s going to happen but then this cool location presents itself. There’s a lot of give-and-take with that process because we’re working on such a small budget.
When you talked about having a starlet or dancer in mind for each video, which came first, that idea or the song?
I think I always had performers that I wanted to work with. It wasn’t until I had a really specific vision for a song… Like Fuchsia Foxx is one of my favorite performers in Seattle and I will look up these performers on YouTube and there isn’t really anything great of them. I see them perform week after week and they perform constantly and they are so hard-working but that was never really captured. So I wanted to capture some of these amazing performers that I see all the time.
And from that mental bank of people that I wanted to work with, I was able to plug them into these ideas. Everyone I wanted to work with said yes. I’m really happy with how it came out.
I’ve written about burlesque a little bit over the years, writing a piece on the Atomic Bombshells and I’ve interviewed Lily Verlaine, who I know is in Midnight Veil, and you’re right, when you look on YouTube for videos, it’s almost all cell phone videos from shows at the Triple Door, or wherever.
Yes! It’s almost all cellphone videos that are of really crummy quality. We had Lily Verlaine in one of the videos and her family flipped over it. They never get to see her like that and she just lights up the screen. It’s really lovely.
How long did Midnight Veil take from beginning to end?
It did take us a whole year. We started in August of last year and we wrapped production in May. We screened it for the first time in June. The film was essentially done at that point. But it took the rest of the summer to figure out ways to make it a product and how I wanted to release it. It’s finally done now. From the beginning of recording the songs until the release date, it’s been about a year and a half. And it’s been a solid year and a half. I haven’t taken any time off or anything.
With Prom Queen being a band who plays live music, but the Midnight Veil project is so visual, how do you convert it into a live show?
So far we’ve been playing the whole movie and playing a live set afterward. Eventually we all want to get to a point where we can play along with the movie. It will take a lot of rehearsal time. We play to some backing tracks live now so it’s not a big difference but it’s still enough that it would take us a long time to develop that. We want to make sure that when we roll that out, it’s the right venue and the right time. We’re going to work on that.
For now, it’s a really cool piece of merchandise we get to sell at the show.
Tell me about your band, please.
I love my band, they’re just the greatest. Tom Myers is the drummer. His other is Thee Emergency and he sometimes plays with Country Lips. He has a recording studio called Ground Control Recording and that’s where he mixed the album. He’s great at all of that, but he’s also a fantastic drummer. At every show, you’ll see me and him.
For guitars, we sort of switch off. Jason Goessl plays with us and tours with us most of the time. He’s got a surf rock band called the Pornadoes and they’re great. He also has a project called Sundae and Mr. Goessl with Kate Voss. It’s a ‘30s jazz duo and they’re so good. He’s probably the best guitarist I’ve ever seen, such a virtuoso.
I also work with Ben Von Wildenhaus, who is this wonder to behold. He’s this amazing guitar player and amazing musician overall, but he’s also the most mesmerizing performer you’ll ever see. He does solo shows a lot and I always bring people out to see him because it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen. It’s very David Lynch, moody, and cinematic. I met him because we were doing solo shows together. We played a show together in an art gallery and I asked him if he would ever want to play with Prom Queen and be in a band, and he said yes. So he was actually the first member of the band.
I’ve played with a lot of band members, but the core is Tom, Ben, and Jason.
When can people see Midnight Veil next?
We’re doing a screening on November 5 at Central Cinema. I’m also talking to the Northwest Film Forum about doing a screening sometime. From there, I don’t know. We’re going to apply to play SXSW with it, and try to get it into film and music festivals wherever we can and see how many places we can get it screened.
Is there anything specifically that you want to happen from this project?
Obviously, I’d like people to hear the music, that’s the most important part. Also, I’d like people to know that there are a lot of hard-working artists in Seattle and I wanted to shine a light on them. It’s not just about Prom Queen or just about me, but about all of these amazing performers I know that have worked so hard. We’re all doing it for the love of it. We don’t make a lot of money. All of these burlesque performers and actresses musicians and all of the people who are in the film work extremely hard at their craft and are very talented but we’re all scraping by. I want people to see the magnificence of this collection of people that I know.