16.1 million people travel to Nashville each year and take in the ambience of the city’s rich culture. These visitors are either tourists just passing by or other artists looking for their big break. Among the buskers and nomads was one artist whose multi-genre attitude paved a spot for her guitar shredding downtown. Leilani Kilgore is a frontwoman with years of touring experience as a premiere blues rock artist. With the knowledge and styles of music’s greatest guitar players, she sits down with Roots Magazine to share her story and the music that changed her life.
Leilani, thank you for joining us here at Roots
Thank you so much for having me, it’s an honor!
Q. When people hear you for the first time, they find out quickly that you’re not like most Nashville artists who associate themselves with only one genre. You’ve done blues rock, southern roots, classical, punk and various others. How would you describe your music and what you’re doing now?
A. Someone else has described my music as “ferocious”. I think that’s a really apt way of describing it. It’s aggressive and it’s really atypical from a female Nashville musician. But it’s a little more “in your face”. Which I’m fine with since I prefer “ferocious” to subdued or quiet.
Q. Nashville is music city but you don’t often find an artist whose catalog has touched other genres. Have you ever felt pressure in your career to box yourself in one genre or having to compromise your sound to standout in the city?
A. Absolutely, 100% because a majority of my career was as a blues cover artist. So the originals that I would write would be very blues centered. And that’s what I love. That’s my roots. That’s my passion. That’s what I consider myself. But there is pressure to when you’re doing an original set, it needs to blend really well to whatever else you’re playing. Because I was so heavily involved in the blues community, that’s where I feel at home. I felt like that had to be my niche. But it’s important to stay true to what you’re going to be identifying yourself as and where you feel most comfortable.
Q. You can do it all, but what most people don’t know is that not only are you talented, but you’re also educated. While attending Berklee College of music for a couple years you studied under renowned musicians. Among these instructors were the prolific Tomo Fujita, who’s famously known for being one of John Mayer’s professors, and Livingston Taylor. How beneficial was your experience there and how much of it has impacted your artistry?
A. Everybody has their own unique experience at Berklee. I dropped out at the right time. Working with someone like Tomo and Livingston, you want to absorb as much as you can. These people are so incredibly skilled at their craft which is the reason they’re the pinnacle individuals in their field. It was a good experience, definitely. But by nature, I’m just a very stubborn person. Part of me felt that conforming to this idea of placing guitar playing in an academic environment made me resist it. I would try to take what they were teaching me and mold it into what I felt was complacent with what I wanted to be doing. Thankfully, music theory stuck with me. In summary, I’m grateful for the experience.
Q. You’ve listed numerous high-profile guitar players and artists who’ve been extremely influential to your music. But who was the first artist that inspired you to pursue a full-time career in music?
A. It would have to be Joe Bonamassa. I grew up on a lot of great blues guitar players. My parents, luckily, had great taste in music. I grew up listening to guys like Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Albert King. Those are all phenomenal guitar players. But the first one that me appreciate what you can do with a guitar was definitely Bonamassa. I saw him at a blues festival and the tone—the massive tone and emotion that he got out of the guitar; I was like wow. That’s incredible. That’s what I want to do. You can make a guitar sound like that? That’s what I want to be doing. He made me consciously decide on going after to play a guitar in that particular style. But then you open yourself up to the blues family tree and where it comes from. Howlin’ Wolf, Sunhouse, Robert Johnson, etc. You find all these variations and people’s interpretations of the style.
Q. You’re from Southern California originally, the music scene there is certainly eclectic. But what factored into your decision into coming to Nashville?
A. I originally came to Nashville my senior year of high school to audition for Belmont. While I was here, I just fell in love with the city. It was my first time in a metropolitan area where you can work full-time as a musician. It was like heaven! By the time I got on the plane back to California I thought, “Wow, I really don’t want to leave Nashville. It’s such a gorgeous city. The campus was beautiful. The other students were great.” Being in such a small space packed with music and all these incredible styles made me feel like I was in the mecca of a professional musician. Berklee gave me a very generous scholarship and I just knew I had to come back to Nashville.
Q. “XXX Moonshine” is your latest single and kind of a huge first impression to everyone in Nashville. It comes with the release of your first music video. But you’ve been putting out music for several years. What goes through your mind when you reflect on this single playing into your evolution?
A. In the past, the singles and music I released were more “pet projects”. It was never done professionally and a lot of it was self-mixed. I never genuinely pursued my own original thing and a reflection of where I am in my career. “XXX Moonshine” was really my first solid step forward into pursuing my own music. It was actually a song that I’ve been playing for a couple years, and it was a completely different song back then. But when 2020 hit, I decided to do a recording of it and see what happens. I rewrote the song, changed the key and recorded it. It just feels as a definitive placement on what I hope to be continuing to pursue.
Q. People can often find you writing for other musicians and bands when you’re not writing for yourself. Some of your other side projects have been for punk rock bands including you’re very own band, The Beat Creeps. Is there ever any difficulty in transitioning from helping others with their music to focusing on your own?
A. I think the challenge has been identifying what a project needs to sound like and helping that project get there. For my own thing, I have a little bit more freedom. I can tweak between styles and genres. But for the Beat Creeps, a project I’m so passionate about, it’s trying to pay tribute to what the band is going after.
Q. Since contributing for others as a music instructor, has it impacted your own songwriting process and style?
A. Yes, big time! Especially because when writing with someone else, it’s always good to know where they’re coming from and what they’re inspirations are. I try to do my due diligence and study what they’re going after and pay respect without stealing it. It’s helped me have a better understanding of songwriting itself. Being able to find the common threads but making it unique enough without it sounding the same has been rewarding.
Q. You’ve always written your own music, even at an early age. But you spent the majority of your career playing covers. In fact, your tagline is “like Joan Jett but shreds”. What was the transition like into playing an entire set of your own music live?
A. It was huge! I was really comfortable in my previous gig because you’re just doing classic rock covers and it was a steady paycheck. I felt really secure. When quarantine hit, the company I worked for lost their contract, that force of reflection was really important to me. That’s when I said, “this is where I wanted to go, and I’ve been a little too afraid to do it while being comfortable with the cover stuff I’ve been doing. Let’s just try it.” The first original set I did was a feeling of risk. You don’t know if the audience is going to like it or not. They don’t know a thing about you and they don’t have to like you. It’s such a rush and it makes you feel so connected and decisive on the things you do with your music. Every note that you’re playing has to matter. It really needs to resonate with the message you’re trying to send out and the audience that’s listening. That exhilaration and adrenaline that comes from uncertainty of what’s going to happen is a really nice feeling.
Q. Do you feel any sense of pressure when audience members are starting to make comparisons between you and other high-profile artists?
A. Back when I legitimately had Joan Jett’s haircut and was frequently mistaken for Joan Jett, it was a little strange. Part of me felt a little disappointed just because if you try to do your own thing, you don’t want to be 100% associated with someone else. There’s always the compliment of being compared to somebody else. But now I need to prove how different I am from this person really set in stone that I’m not exactly like them.
Q. You’ve already expressed your admiration for a number of guitarists that you emulate. But you had the pleasure of playing with one legend in particular. Buddy Guy is one of the last remaining great blues guitar players. What was the moment like on playing with such an accomplished artist onstage?
A. The first time I played with him was back in 2017 and since then, I’ve played with him a number of times afterwards. Buddy Guy, though, is someone you have to look up to and never disrespect or overstep your boundaries. It’s Buddy Guy! He is one of the last living legends. I get pre-show jitters every time I’m onstage with him. Just standing backstage watching him perform, I’m like, “how on earth am I allowed to be with this individual?”. He’s always a sweetheart and backstage I feel like I’m on cloud nine after the show. It’s a privilege to get see this person do what they do so well. For me, it’s about paying respect to the person who’s been huge for the genre.
Q. You certainly thrive in front of a live audience. But you took a brief hiatus from concerts and started performing on cruise ships instead. Covid negatively impacted you having the ability to do what you love in front of a crowd. How did you react to it personally and what’s been the best feeling about performing live again?
A. Part of me thinks there is a silver lining to the shutdown. It made me pivot and pursue what I wanted to do professionally. But honestly, I never stopped playing. Because I couldn’t. I went from learning how to play covers to getting ready for shows on Broadway since some bars were still open. Every weekend I would drive to Mississippi because they still had live music. It was just a way to keep myself sane, keep my chops up and earn enough money to survive. I’m fortunate enough to say I never stopped playing. I felt that I needed to be in front of people and feel the pressure of a live gig.
Q. You’ve been really open about how music hasn’t just given you a career but how it’s kept you going in your personal life. How have you translated those feelings into your artistry?
A. Mostly, it comes down to my playing. I don’t consider myself a fantastic songwriter. In fact, I think it’s secondary to my playing. Which I’m fine with considering how much time I’ve spent playing guitar. I try to phrase things on what I’m trying to say without it actually being said. I feel the appreciation on what music has done for me at the beginning and end of every gig. It’s a huge blessing to even be able to get on a stage and do what I’m doing professionally. After 2020, I don’t think I could ever take another gig for granted again.
Q. Some might say that you were born a few decades too late since a lot of old soul’s have been attracted to your style. What message do you look to convey to other musicians and audience members?
A. You just have to try. That’s something that’s taken me a long time to learn. You just have to not be afraid of failure. It’s so important to not give up. Especially on yourself. Because you never know what’s going to happen for you or change your life. I think the most important thing is having enough faith in yourself to not just give it to chance. I think a lot of people of resistant to that because it’s such a terrifying concept. But it’s what makes people care about what you’re doing because you present yourself in a really honest way.
Q. As mentioned, critics and fans have really dug your old school approach with blues rock but really modernizing it. You’ve already touched on southern rock and punk. But what other avenues of music are you looking to dive into next?
A. This is almost borderline embarrassing to say, but I’m thinking of breaking into what my guilty pleasure bands are doing. People like Keane and Young the Giant. I’ve always been ashamed into delving into that side of things because I guess it’s just not very “ferocious”. But something I really appreciate is a great melody. These artists that I appreciate have great hooks. I do want to start messing with that a little bit. But still keep it rock ‘n’ roll enough to where there’s an amplifier in the room.
Q. Festival dates and concerts are being booked with you headlining several of them right here in Nashville. What can fans expect from you this year as we approach further towards “normalcy”?
A. I really want to get more into opening up for bands that I listen to in my free time. Because it’s a huge compliment and the amount of pressure is ridiculous. I really love that. That whole line of venues that I’ll be playing around Nashville including: The High Watt, The ExitIn, Mercy Lounge and others are all coming along. Definitely looking forward to that and being active in the music community here. But most importantly, paying it forward is giving someone else a chance to perform the same concert with me this year. I look forward to giving that opportunity to bands around town that deserve to be well known.
We certainly look forward to hearing more from you soon and I know your fans are as well. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your story on being a fast-rising artist in Nashville.
I cannot thank you enough for having me be a part of this and sharing my music and experiences. It’s been a huge honor.
Interview with Trenton Luber