MARRIED TO MUSIC INTERVIEW: THE MANY FACES OF LEANOR ORTEGA TILL

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(interview by Meridith)

The Fall of 2001 will go down for me as my favorite in my career in music. During that time I was the Road Manager for John Reuben while he was part of the “Electric Youth Tour” with Five Iron Frenzy, Relient K and Ace Troubleshooter. I got to travel the country on a tour bus and see sights unseen to me. Being a female Road Manager brought many challenges and this was one of the few times I wasn’t the only girl on the road. All the married guys in Five Iron Frenzy had brought their wives on the road and they also had a female saxophonist, Leanor. Those ladies made me feel so welcome and loved, they even let me stay on an extra bunk on the Five Iron tour bus. It was so much fun. Leanor and I became fast friends and shared many laughs and adventures that fall. It was such a treasure to meet somone so genuine, multi-facted and hilarious on the road who remains a friend to this day.

Now, 4 years after FIF called it quits Leanor is still surrounded by music. These days she wears many hats….wife, mother and saxophonist for her husband’s new band, Nathan & Stephen. So today we present you with a beautiful and candid glimpse into the real life of a lady who has traveled the world playing her music and then transitioned to a wife of a musician and a mother.

Did you ever think growing up that your life would be so affected by music?
No, although I am so glad it is. When i was younger my mom was attending college during the nights so my father was left to entertain me much of the time. We lived in an old stone house in rural Colorado with not much to do, so he made a “music” room filled with instruments. We would jam Motown records and Spanish records for hours and play saxes, trumpets, the piano and various gourds and shakers to the songs! I think my father’s love for music with soul and passion really affected me.

What is the evolution of music in your life?
During this time of “jamming” my father bought an alto sax at a pawn shop at presented it to me at age 9. I didn’t find it that difficult to play and ended up joining the school band when I got to 5th grade. From then on I played alto and tenor sax in school, but my school was so small often times I was the only sax player. We had marching and pep band and tried our hand at some classics too. Our music teacher wasn’t that great but I had fun.

My junior year, 1993/4 I met Reese Roper and Keith Hoerig through my cousin, Micah Ortega. Micah had always been in some crazy Christian metal band called Exhumator and was now fiddling with these guys on a musical endeavor that was ska. They asked me at a show if I still played sax. I found it strange anyone should care about something so “nerdy” but I said yes and after they asked me if I loved the Lord and I said yes, they asked me to join their band, Five Iron Frenzy.

My writing was poor in the beginning but luckily, Dennis Culp soon joined after I did and arranged most of the horn (sax, trumpet nd trombone) parts while I eased my way into this world called ska-core. By 2003, our last album, I had written melodies and horn lines for many FIF songs.

Now I play in a family pop outfit here in Denver. I still play sax and sing a bit which I love. This new project is called Nathan & Stephen (Stephen being my husband). I have no idea what God has in store for this band but I am enjoying performing again.

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What five records do you listen to the most often?
What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye
The Purple Rain Soundtrack, Prince
No Control, Bad Religion
Electric Boogaloo, Five Iron Frenzy
The God Songs, Johnny Cash

How did you meet your husband? Did you meet him through music connections or in your life outside of that world?
I met Stephen at the church FIF founded called Scum of the Earth. At the time there were about 50 or so of us congregating in a small victorian house in downtown Denver. I said “Welcome to Scum. I am Jeff.” (my old nickname) He said, “I know.” We went to shows and became friends for four years before our relationship became romantic in any way.

How has your involvement in music affected your husband’s musical aspirations? Has it increased them or was he already headed that direction anyway?
Stephen was in an amazing band called Black Black Ocean when we first met. They toured a bit, mostly playing bars and crazy party houses in big cities like Chicago and New York. They were very hip and catered to a much different crowd then our younger, Christian FIF fans. In between his tours Stephen would write spaced out strange music in his basement apartment and make albums based on odd themes, such as disco dancers finding their soul. He wrote a special friendship song for me at that time as well! He has always had a call towards music and is a very talented writer, so I think if anything, our relationship, especially the choice to get married, has altered what he would have been doing musically. He knows this, and now that we have a 19 month old son and a daughter due in two months, we both wonder if we will tour again. We would love to play fests, or tour with the children but we’ll see.

Was it hard to transition from being on the road touring constantly to being at home, married and becoming a Mom?
After touring from 1996-2003 it was EXTREMELY hard to be home so much of the time. I had managed to keep my close friendships with girlfriends by way of touring and now felt very isolated in Denver away from so many people I connect with. It was hard also to transition to a new lifestyle where people did not cater to me. I know it sounds terrible but it is true, I had started to expect people to treat me as if I was special. I couldn’t grasp not getting into shows free or waiting in line. I missed hotels and planes and tour buses.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, my first year of marriage was spent on the road with Stephen after FIF broke up and he and his brother joined FIF frontman, Reese Roper, in his pop punk band, Roper. This was nuts. Touring while married is so crazy! Sometimes I loved it, but most of the time is was a strain on our marriage. I loved visiting cities with Stephen, staying in cool hotels we would hotwire if we had extra money, and even selling his merch. It was hard for me to be on the back end of things when it came to band protocol however. I tried not to be a Yoko! Sounds weird but I found it very difficult to keep my mouth shut and be the supportive wife of a musician. As for Stephen, he has never thought of me this way and respects my musical giftings and especially my thoughts on touring and marketing etc. He has always tried to pry my opinion out one way or another. The hardest part about touring while being married was the lack of privacy and the strain brought on by inconsistent paychecks. I am sure all band wives can agree, the balance between money and time home is a hard one to find. Eventually Stephen left that band due this balance and the realization that a mortgage and wife must come first. Ah, what a guy!

What was the best part about being in Five Iron Frenzy?
The chicks! Oh, that was just me….hmmm……the fans! I still connect with many of them and hope they take the time to read this. Many former FIF fans became my friends and even to this day they support me via donations to the ministry at Scum of the Earth Church I am involved with.

What was the hardest part about being in Five Iron Frenzy?
Missing out on the lives of loved ones here at home. It is even hard to write. One wonders if they made the right choice at the end of the day. I know God called me to follow Him but it was not always easy to drive away from the stone house and see my parents and younger brother waving goodbye. So many years I spent away from them, I can never get them back…

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How does being a wife and mom affect your perspective on being in a new band? How is it different than when you were single?
Every single choice in my life is different now that I am a mom, so touring is no different. Being a wife made touring seem much more possible and probable, but now that I am the mom of two (well in two months I will be…) I have to think much differently. But it doesn’t mean I discount it. We want to buy a van, it will cost way more than we have though. We want to bring the kids on tour and play shows and bless people’s socks off. It would be great to at least go to fests so the kids can see the joy music brings and the community of musicians that exist out there.
Of course, monetarily, one thinks about the expense of hotel rooms. Babies need space and rest and quiet. I thought it might be cool to tour as FIF did once, in an RV and stay at KOAs. The kids could spend the nights there with my mom while we rocked various cities…we shall see. I really don’t know but I do know that I am open to trying!
So far, we played one out of state show since the birth of our son. We left him here in Denver with his grandma for 2 days while we went to New Mexico. I am not a big fan of that plan. I want to mother, so I would rather bring them with me or not go at all. I wouldn’t be hurt if Stephen and the rest of the band performed without me (but of course I want to be a part of the recording process and writing process and play when I can locally).
Nathan & Stephen might play SXSW this spring without me. I will have a 21 month old and 2 month old then, just can’t pull it off.

What would you like to differently with this new band? What things do you want to keep the same?
I am enjoying playing with new people. These guys have not become jaded as all of us eventually did in FIF. Not that we were entirely jaded but you do start to take so much for granted, like clean bathrooms backstage or dinners provided. I hated that when FIF ended many people would groan at the thought of another spaghetti or pizza meal, myself included. So what!? We really lost focus. These guys are so grateful it is infectious. Our backstage times sharing beer and laughs is a breath of fresh air.
Also I love playing to a crowd in a bar that wants to be impressed. Playing for musicians in a 21 and over arena is more of a challenge than playing for 12-19 year olds in a rich church’s gym. As far as what I want to remain, joy! I want the joy of the Lord to always encompass the music I write and play and I want to impart passion on every crowd. I love that our new band is wholesome and family friendly. I also love that the members have such musical integrity.

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How did your new band come into existence? Who are the members? Tell us more about the new music, your role and what your plans are for recording and touring.
Nathan & Stephen began as another one of my husband’s basement computer projects. His friend Nathan started to put melodies to his songs and they realized these could be really good with more instrumentation. They added a trumpet and later decided to make the songs larger than life and added drums, a total of three guitars, keyboards, a saxophone, bass and background vocals. We have also added strings on our recordings and live when we can.
We are working on over a dozen new songs now and will record this Jan. Should be interesting for me because I am due end of Jan! I play sax, but I am currently on loan to my pregnancy and look forward to next spring when I can perform again. In the meantime I will help write and record and thank the guys for making our one practice two sectionals. We have horn/guitar/keyboard practice for me, earlier than full on practice because the loudness was upsetting my baby within. Stephen watches our son while I practice then brings him downtown to our practice space, and I return him home while Stephen and the rest of the band rock out. Just another family sacrifice I love having to make…..

www.myspace.com/nathanstephen
www.nathanandstephen.com

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