“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”—Jack Kerouac, On The Road
Leah Siegel wasn’t necessarily thinking of Kerouac when she decided to dub herself Firehorse—although, having studied to become a writer in college, she no doubt spent some time with his work—but whether she realizes it or not, she burns.
She’s got that distinct quality—that spark, for lack of a better word—that’s always present in people who love what they’re doing, and music is the kindle that fuels her. You can hear it on her record, And So They Ran Faster, which dropped last fall. You can hear it in the way her voice picks up when she talks about her work. And you can certainly see it when she takes the stage. But, according to Siegel, it took a while for her to come to terms with it.
“I think in many ways it was one of the few things that I really loved to do and had a natural ability for, and it was the only thing I worked really hard at,” she says. “And nobody told me to work at it. It was the only thing I wanted to do, you know? But I didn’t exactly feel comfortable taking it on as a career…It wasn’t something I really wanted to deal with. I was scared of it. I was scared to go through with it. So finally I started playing in the subway in order to discover a reason why I had to do this for the rest of my life.”
The subway reaffirmed what Siegel’s been hearing from those close to her since childhood, since the days when her parents were hesitant to let her put down the classical violin.
“I told my parents I wanted to quit, and they weren’t happy, but they had known that I’d wanted to drop it for a long time, so they acquiesced,” she explains. “But they said that I absolutely had to continue doing music in some way, shape or form. And by now I had also taken piano and saxophone in the elementary music school program. So I told them that I would never quit music fully and that I really wanted to sing, and I picked up my mom’s guitar.”
On “She’s A River,” she sings, “Don’t fight what you’re made for,” and it seems she’s managed to heed her own advice, utilizing her talent to craft an album that sounds equal parts haunting and danceable, the result of Siegel blending together a seemingly endless supply of influences.
“The muse was definitely there,” she says. “I think George Martin talked about the muse in the studio, either it’s there or it’s not, and I felt that it really was. It was a long process, and I learned so much about sounds and musical ideas that I hadn’t delved into prior for tons of reasons I guess, but it was a blessing 100 times over.”
While music is now her primary pursuit, Siegel’s literary background has informed her approach to songwriting.
“Some people will say they hear the sounds first, and they sort of notice the lyrics afterwards, and other people say the opposite, and I definitely was in the latter group,” she says. “I was always listening to the words first. And it’s not that I wouldn’t notice the music, it was like my head was listening to the lyrics and my body was feeling the music…to me I guess, maybe because I sort of found all sound to be beautiful and moving, it’s really the lyrics that separate the great songs from the average ones or certainly the poor ones.”
When she’s not busy with Firehorse, she’s covering “obscure soul songs from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” with the Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout. She’s performed as a member of the cabaret collective The Citizens Band, and she’s featured heavily on Ja Rule’s upcoming Pain is Love 2. In other words, it’s obvious Siegel’s never allowed herself to be boxed in.
“The reason I created Firehorse was because I was so tired of feeling that I wasn’t going to be accepted for being an explorer,” she says. “And my wish is to create music that is maybe slightly outside of a genre—and not the songs themselves, you know, it’s just music, like anything else that’s made. You can only reinvent the wheel so many times. But as far as a whole album or the rest of the albums I make and how they relate to each other, I don’t want to be someone who has to think one way or sound one way. I’m really a sort of mutable person, and I want to make music that speaks to that. I want to make music that’s honest and in the moment.
“My next record, I’m not sure what it’s going to be about sonically or lyrically. I know that I want to be truthful to the moment that I’m in when I’m writing these, but that’s it. And people change. People’s lives change, and I’m the kind of artist who wants my art to reflect that kind of growth or personal evolution or digression or whatever it is. There are good times and bad times, and I don’t think I should be pulled by a critic or anyone else to stay inside their ideas of who I am and what they expect from me. I think that’s not why artists make work, you know? So those are my desires, and they don’t necessarily jive with having a lucrative career in the music industry,” she laughs.
Whether it yields a profit or not, Siegel’s career has been a long time coming, and it’s a safe bet that Firehorse will keep blazing for some time.