The coolest of folk
Music-scene everyman Michael Leahy gives it up for the locals
If you go to shows, you’ve probably seen Michael Leahy. And this isn’t just because he’s 6 inches taller than everyone else in a crowd; it’s because he’s probably the reason the show was put together in the first place.
Leahy, deejay for the beloved Cool As Folk radio show on KDVS for six years, also runs Crossbill Records, a label that has released albums by such acts as Garrett Pierce and Matt Bauer. And Sea of Bees, whose Songs for the Ravens record recently was chosen by NPR as one of the 10 best albums of 2010. And between deejaying, running a label and booking shows, he still finds time to be a junior-high-school counselor and basketball coach by day. SN&R met up with Leahy for a chat during a taping of his new KDVS show with Maggie Cat, One-on-One.
What type of tunes do you play to seduce a woman?
Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been trying to create the ultimate mix tape or CD. I can remember recording songs off the radio late at night and then redubbing them in the perfect order, even adding voice-over intros. I was really into new jack swing, R&B/pop music in the late ’80s and early ’90s. … I want it to flow, build and always leave the listener with an excellent, interesting mix of songs. And if it produces some making out, awesome.
I think the women that have been in my life have benefited from some killer mixes. I’m sure those CDs are still getting some love, even if I’m not.
What’s so great about folk music?
It was more the songs themselves, or the stories within the songs, that drew me to that type of music. I like old-time music. I like pre-war blues or old string-band music or traditional folk music. I like the history that’s embedded in those songs and to see their modern-day incarnation has always been intriguing. Folk music can be found in anything. It can be found in a Public Enemy tune or a Billie Holiday tune or an Andrew Bird song.
Why did you choose the name “Crossbill” for your record label?
Well, good question. How do I say this? Simply, the reason I came to Davis is that I was married, and when I started the label, my then-wife was studying the crossbill bird. During the summer, she would go and do field research, and she kind of left me on my own. I needed something to do—an activity, some community. I moved here in support of her, and I didn’t have any friends in this new town. So it kind of signifies that point in my life where I really did something purely for me, and it’s my own. It was a difficult time in my life, because the marriage eventually ended. … I’m so far removed from that now, thankfully, but it’s kind of become its own force.
These days, going “mainstream” and having a lot of success in a band isn’t always looked at as a positive thing. How does that affect the goals of the bands on your label?
I think everybody on the label would love to play music for a living. I have no problem with that and I would love to help them get to that place. For that to happen, you have to have a lot of people enjoy your music and support you, and there can be a rub if you’re appealing to corporate interests or placing your songs in TV. … You can’t always control where the songs go, but you hope it makes a significant influence on people’s lives and that it brings them some joy on a very basic level.
What do you think has spurred Sea of Bees to be so successful?
There’s no faking it from her, and people are drawn to that. They want to believe in something or someone that has great intentions. And her phenomenal voice—it pierces my deep, dark places and brightens them up. (Laughs.)
How has the success of Sea of Bees affected the label?
Because of the success of the Sea of Bees record, for Crossbill, 2011 is going to be our biggest year. We’re gonna put out a Jake Mann and the Upper Hand record in January, a new Garrett Pierce record in March, and we’re gonna put out the Teddy Briggs Appetite record in the spring. It’s given Crossbill some clout, some credibility, some attention. So we can keep on rolling and supporting local artists. It’s still all done on a shoestring budget, but, you know, this is my hobby.
Describe something really moving that’s happened to you during a live show.
It’s always when I’m at a show with my friends and I’ve played some sort of role in putting it together. You look over at people and they’re smiling, they’re bobbin’ their heads, they’re singing and clapping—it means a lot to help people’s enjoyment or happiness. It’s a small community here in Davis, and you can truly make an impact just by putting your energy into the directions that you want to send it, and I chose the music scene.
When did you start Crossbill Records?
It started about five years ago. It really came out of the radio show and the connections and relationships that formed with musicians through KDVS and booking shows at Delta of Venus and other venues. The label just came from this ever-growing want and need to become more invested and take on a different role in helping to cultivate the local music scene, not only just in throwing shows, but also trying to help artists become more heard or well-known. … I’m really loyal to these friends I’ve started this label with, you know, the Garret Pierces and the Jake Manns, the Mad Cow String Band, Matt Bauer—those guys are some of my best friends in the world. Not only am I a huge fan of theirs, we’re also buddies. I can say the same for Sea of Bees, too.
Do your music and work lives ever intersect?
They come to shows and they see me around town. That’s the advantage of living in the community that you work in. Kids in Davis have some wonderful opportunities to be exposed to music and to play music themselves, so there’s quite a few kids that I’ve known at Emerson [Junior High School] who have joined bands. We talk music, and I try to give them advice and support. Some kids know I have a radio show, and sometimes I run into parents at shows.
Is it ever awkward to run into them when you’re drinking at shows and whatnot?
Any time you work in schools, you try to be a good role model no matter where you’re at, so I try not to do that. (Laughs.) I usually wait until later in the night.