Hometown: Ypsilanti, Michigan
Band Members: Ben Collins, Aaron Diehl, Leah Diehl,
Album: Blonde Album
For Fans Of: Ben Folds Five, The Blow, Michigan Beer
It’s best to avoid the “C” word around Leah Diehl and Lightning Love—“Cute,” that is. Her music might be a lot of things, but that certain c-dash-dash-dash adjective isn’t what she’s aiming for, and it’s got to be grating to hear over and over again in reference to the great tunes she’s written with her brother, Aaron, and guitarist Ben Collins.
We’re not blaming you if you prematurely arrived at that conclusion. With Leah on keyboards and vocals, Aaron on a stripped-down drum set and Collins on guitar, Lightning Love’s music is intentionally simple, but it’s all the better for it.
“We don’t have toms on our drums, we don’t have a bass player,” Collins says. “The way we operate things, it’s almost an experiment in simplicity, in trying to get the song across without getting in our own way. I think it works out pretty well for us. It’s nice in contrast to a lot of groups. We can carry our stuff in one trip, which is good.”
And when they’re all plugged in, they’re throwing to-the-point, driving choruses and sugary-sweet hooks that are all tied together by Leah’s voice, which (her words, not mine) “sounds like a 4-year-old.” “I was surprised that it was kind of pretty,” Leah reflects on first hearing her voice in Lightning Love. “I was drinking a lot and smoking a lot. I never really sang. It was a pleasant surprise to hear that it was nice sounding.”
Leah’s songwriting splices that light musical aesthetic with some dark material. “I didn’t consciously try to balance it with darker lyrics, but that tone things down a bit,” Leah says. That style’s most pronounced on the bar-busting “Friends” on November Birthday: “They all had a laugh/when I climbed up the shaft/and I pissed in the elevator/in that old parking garage” doesn’t really draw up images of ponies and butterflies, but maybe that’s just me.
In only a few words, she’s not hopping on this whole Deschanel-fronted “adorkable” bandwagon—The voice, her bluntness, this is just how Leah writes tunes. And when we talk about it on the phone, she sighs a long “Dammit,” and chuckles to herself at the realization. But now, with the upcoming Blonde Album, the band has its first chance to release tracks with any kind of audience in mind.
“I wrote the first album [November Birthday], and I was being really honest,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to be cute, I didn’t think I’d ever play this music for anybody. I didn’t really want to, I did it because it was fun. Then I got some flak from people. ‘Oh, you’re trying to be so cute, the lyrics are so simple and so obvious.’” Diehl laughs before setting this wannabe critic straight: “They’re so honest, asshole.”
Diehl’s right about that part. Blonde Album’s an album that you might call cute, but if you pay even a little bit of attention, its tracks act as a no-bull look at life as a confused 20-something in a tiny Midwest town. Although the band arranged and produced the tracks together, Collins acted as the de-facto engineer, arming every musician with the same eight-track recorder and microphones to create what is Lightning Love’s most concise release to date.
“We do like to record at home,” Collins says. “I think you get better takes that way. When we started out, we had a recording box. I’d give it to Aaron, then he’d pass it to Leah, then I’d record my tracks. Last time we sat in a room and recorded with everyone being there, it was a bit stressful having people waiting around and having people watch. We were able to get better takes by letting people record themselves even if there’s a little clipping. It’s a little bit more of a collage than the last record.”
That recording took place all over Michigan—most significantly in the Diehl’s parents house— and that location, aside from being a functional and logical one for the brother-sister duo, brings Lightning Love’s journey full-circle.
After all, Leah and Aaron have been making music together since they were kids. Early on, the two cleaned their rooms while constructing off-the-cuff rock operas, some pre-teen version of a spiritual to make it through their chores.
“You have so much energy when you’re a kid, you think everything’s funny,” Diehl laughs. “I guess my brother and I have always sort of done this for fun—play music in my parents’ basement, but we’ve never done anything that seriously.”
Now, after two full-lengths, five years as a band, an EP and countless shows, there’s no question that the Diehls and Collins (who laughs when he refers to himself as “a third Diehl”) are doing it seriously. If November Birthday was our introduction to Leah’s super honest songwriting, Blonde Album shows it fully realized with wonderfully constructed tracks like the downtempo “I Know,” the synth-driven “Deadbeat” and the how-is-this-not-getting-radio-play push of “So Easy.” And now that Lightning Love has arrived, let’s cut out that four-letter name calling and enjoy their great new songs.