Hometown: Los Angeles
Band Members: Shirli McAllen (lead vocals/ukulele), Austin Nicholsen (upright bass), Mike Bolger (keyboards/horns), Stuart Johnson (drums)
Album: Places to Go
For Fans Of: Feist, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones
If you watched any of the London Olympics on NBC recently, you probably heard the music of L.A.’s Leftover Cuties without even knowing it. The acoustic jazz-pop quartet’s catchy tune “Smile Big” was selected for a Samsung mobile phone commercial, which debuted during the Opening Ceremony and ran throughout the Games. (How’s that for a worldwide audience?)
Their signature style is playful and light-hearted, with the ukulele front and center. But the feel-good melodies often belie lyrics tinged in sadness. “It’s crazy how happy that song [“Smile Big”] is,” says lead singer/ukulele player Shirli McAllen, calling from San Francisco, where the band’s playing a few showcases and busking for fun. “Almost all my lyrics are very dark.”
It’s been a circuitous route for McAllen and the rest of the Cuties—upright bassist Austin Nicholsen, drummer Stuart Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Mike Bolger. While the current lineup formed in 2009, the Leftover Cuties originally began a few years earlier as a duo with McAllen and Nicholsen.
Israeli-born McAllen, who served the mandatory two years in the Israeli army, relocated to L.A. “for love” at age 22 after meeting her now-husband during a post-army vacation. “I was perfectly happy in my Israeli bubble,” she says, content with playing and performing Israeli music and writing lyrics in Hebrew. “I was a late bloomer and had to learn to write in English,” she says of her early days in L.A. “When you translate something from Hebrew to English, it doesn’t sound right.”
Like many other L.A. residents, McAllen was trying to make it as a singer/songwriter while tending bar in a Venice, Calif., restaurant. One shift changed her life—though not overnight. “It was a really slow night and I wrote some lyrics on a napkin.” Her friend Nicholsen came over with a ukulele and a melody, which serendipitously fit perfectly with her lyrics. “We wrote the song [“A Game Called Life”] in like five minutes.”
They promptly recorded a demo at McAllen’s house—and forgot about it.
Both were coming from different musical sensibilities, and neither had a particular interest in jazz or the ukulele. She was into folk and grunge, and he was playing rock and funk.
Fast-forward a few years, when McAllen found the song tucked away on her computer and was again drawn to the ukulele and the tune’s raw, lo-fi quality sound. “There was something really charming about the demo done at my house,” she says. “We wanted to keep that freshness.” That nearly forgotten ditty eventually became the theme song to Laura Linney’s comedy-drama series on Showtime, The Big C.
“To find your own voice is really hard for a musician, and the ukulele helped me find my voice,” says McAllen. And what a voice it is. As Nicholsen describes it: “Her voice is incredible…it’s breathy, powerful, smoky and warm,” he says, “like a smoker’s voice, but she’s not a smoker.” McAllen’s been compared to everyone from Billie Holiday to Feist to Zooey Deschanel. “I think I get [compared to] Zooey because of my bangs and the ukulele,” McAllen jokes.
But Leftover Cuties aren’t just about the voice and the ukulele. The distinctive melodies, Nicholsen’s cool bass, Johnson’s brushed drums—which never overpower the songs—and Bolger’s horns and keyboards, can transport listeners to a 1930s Parisian cabaret or a Manhattan speakeasy, even while the band tackles Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” or Coldplay’s “Trouble,” both found on their recently released EP of cover songs, Departures.
Nicholsen says they’ll head back to the studio soon to work on their next album. (Leftover Cuties only released their first full-length CD Places to Go last year.) They’re still label-less, but for now, it’s just fine for the band.
In less-deft hands, the music could easily fall into cliche, but the Leftover Cuties have added a breath of fresh air to L.A.’s music scene, alongside outfits like The Dustbowl Revival and Honeyhoney, who borrow elements from the past to make fresh music. “There’s definitely a revival in Los Angeles of a resurgence of old-school jazz music,” he says. “We don’t know what will come, but we’ll ride this wave as long as we can.”