For Smith sociology prof, making music is a complement to academia

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Published: 8/14/2019 3:56:20 PM

Leslie King is a professor of sociology at Smith College, but she’s also a musician and an almost secret songwriter, having quietly snuck two records of her own original material out into the world.

The newest is a pop/folk collection called “In the Land of Yes,” released last summer. I only discovered it a few weeks ago, right before a cross-country trip, and it’s been a welcome traveling companion.

King’s voice has a warmth to it, a bittersweet ache at times, and a raw quality; my best attempt at describing her unique sound is “Suddenly Tammy’s Beth Sorrentino with a little Kristin Hersh.” I hear her sing the refrain “anything is possible” (on the beautiful song “Out On the Shore”) and it sticks around in my head, a reassuring nightlight in a dark and anxious world.

King started playing bluegrass mandolin about 25 years ago, devoting a lot of time to honing her instrumental skills, so when she got seriously into songwriting seven years ago, the results resided in the bluegrass universe. She made her all-acoustic debut album, “Say Goodbye to the Old Days,” with engineer Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab in Easthampton.

Miller gave her some of his original electronic-oriented music, and King got inspired, she said in an interview last week. “As I was conceiving ‘In the Land of Yes,’ I decided I wanted to incorporate Mark’s skills and sensibilities by peppering little bits of electronic sounds throughout.”

The most obvious example of this on the new record is the catchy and cleverly arranged “Everyone Laughs So Loud,” a song about being online; it’s outwardly cute but with a melancholy heart. Mixed among the drums, bass and guitar are samples of the familiar beeping and whooshing alert tones from the world of social media and smart phones.

With specific lyrics about Instagram and “so many likes on her Twitter feed,” the song instantly dates itself (like The Campbell Apartment’s 2008 tune “Addicted to MySpace”), but the concept of showing a happy face while feeling something else inside is timeless. “Everyone laughs so loud online / While you’re alone at home and quiet,” King sings gently, the sadness blooming as notifications ding around your ears like a candy jackpot.

My favorite track, “Fly Me Home,” uses electronic elements in a more subliminal and symphonic way, melding a chorale of King’s wordless falsetto vocals with otherworldly acoustic guitars and tones. The calm but intense sonics color an emotional tale about a kind of traveling, a longing to go; the stakes feel high. By the heavy final verse, I’m usually in tears: “I turn to you / we are tiny paper boats afloat upon the mighty blue / we are fireflies shouting light into a night without a moon / and our time has come / I am asking now, won’t you fly me home?”

A good amount of the album was made by King (guitars, vocals, keyboards) and Miller (synths and such), who co-produced the record together. They teamed up to do handclaps, asked each other “what does this song need,” and at one point even sat side by side at a MIDI keyboard on the recording console — he played the low keys while she played the high.

Also contributing to “In the Land of Yes” are bassist Paul Kochanski and drummer J.J. O’Connell (a busy rhythm section that’s basically the Valley’s version of the Wrecking Crew), saxophonist Dave Trenholm, and harmony vocalist Sean Kimball. Peter Nabut gave advice on editing, arranging and production.

King took some time for a quick email interview last week.

Clubland: You’re a Professor of Sociology, but music and songwriting is clearly something that means a lot to you, too.

King: My academic work can be pretty cerebral. Music is the perfect complement in that through music I get in touch with some other part of myself that is more about feeling and intuition than about thinking. I honestly don’t know where it comes from. When I was a little kid, no one in my family had much interest in music — they barely even listened to the radio! — but an aunt had left her piano to my dad and it was in the house. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting at that piano, making up little songs.

Clubland: A theme of optimism pops up throughout the album. Are you naturally optimistic?

King: I don’t consider myself particularly optimistic but I guess I was feeling pretty good when I was writing many of these songs. Then I had so much fun making the album. Some people might find it tedious to sit in a windowless sound studio for days at a time working on arrangements and production, but I really seem to enjoy it.

Clubland: Do you have an upcoming gig performing your own original material? If not, you should!

King: I’ve been sort of shy about performing my original material in public but I’m trying hard to get over that by occasionally playing at open mics (quick plug here for Matt Silberstein’s wonderful open mic at The 413 in Easthampton, and the one Pamela Means runs at the Luthier’s Co-op). One of these days I’m going to get up the nerve to do a real show!

Leslie King’s album “In the Land of Yes” is available through her website,, as well as at iTunes, CD Baby, and other online music destinations. Physical copies are for sale at Turn It Up in Northampton.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at

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