It would be something of an understatement to say that Leslie Woods is her own harshest critic.
She's made two great albums of enchanting, brooding music, The Velvet Sky and The Luxury of Sin, and garnered a strong local following and found fans around the globe. But when Woods listens to her own recordings, she's generally disappointed.
As she set out to record her third record, Woods may have outdone herself in artistic self-torture. So far, she's recorded the music for the album seven times—all by Scott Minor of Sparklehorse—but has yet to be satisfied with the results. A release date remains uncertain.
"I've had plenty of people say, ‘I would have put that record out a long time ago,'" Woods says in a phone interview from her home in Corryton. "They're beautiful recordings. There's nothing wrong with the recordings. But I didn't get out what I needed to get out. Somewhere along the line, I didn't get the gritty soul of it. It didn't translate.
"It wasn't a problem with my band," she's quick to add. "It's a problem with my communication and connection with the band. That's always been the problem."
But Woods hopes she's finally found a collaborator to help her realize what she hears in her head. The songs are currently being mixed in France by a journalist, musician, and producer, Guillaume Nicholas, whom Woods met through a friend.
Nicholas stayed at Woods' house for a week while he was in the United States covering a tour by the Colorado psychedelic band Woven Hand. He felt an immediate connection to Woods' music. "We had wine and we're just hanging out and he started talking about my music and it was like he was reading lines out of my head," she says. "Everything I ever wanted anyone to get out of my music, he got."
When Nicholas returned to France, Woods e-mailed him a couple of tracks to see what he could do with them. A while later, he sent the remixed tracks back to her. Woods was floored by the result—for the first time she heard on record what she heard in her head. "It was like he was hearing my thoughts," she says.
Woods' music has always been difficult to classify. It's moody folk rock, with flavors of country and blues. But it's too somber to fit squarely in the alt-country category. It's quiet music that benefits from close attention. Nicholas continues mixing the tracks. But Woods has no idea when the record will be done—she hopes three months from now.
One of the songs, "Addict," can be heard on her MySpace page. The song starts with what sounds like gears cranking or a tape machine starting. Throughout the song there's a droning effect in the background—it's a mechanical, trip-hop effect, but the overall sound is sparse and bleak, matching the tone and theme of Woods' words.
Although she sings, "Shove that needle deep into my vein," Woods says the song isn't about a literal drug addiction. "The song isn't necessarily about being an addict to drugs, but being an addict to our self-destruction," she says. "It could be anything. It could be food or a bad personality type—you can't stop your destruction. I think everybody can find something in that. Most people have some destructive bent inside them that they can't stop."
Most of the new material is similarly bleak, she says. There's always been a dark streak to her music, but last year, Woods found herself plunging deep into despair and cozying up to a bottle for comfort.
"Things start falling apart and there's no release and for the first time in my life I turned loose from everything," she says. "Probably for six or eight months, there wasn't really a day that went by that I didn't put the kids to bed and start drinking.
"I had so much pressure on me and [my record company was] pushing and pushing so hard and I had turned 40 and my high school sweetheart and me were breaking up. I needed to stop thinking," she adds. "The only thought I had was to stop my brain for a little bit. Alcohol was easy, cheap and legal. So I ended up turning to that more and more. After a while it wasn't so great."
But throughout this period, Woods was able to connect with her art—expressing her pain through her writing and music. And although her depression has lifted, she says playing those songs now is often difficult. "It's hard to go back to them. I get transported back to that horrible wreckage," she says. "These songs are really about people who are in my life and me... They're not shrouded at all."
But she says it's important to experience those emotions when performing or she won't connect with her audience and then "the show's not worth it."
Woods hasn't played live with her band in about two years. Shows these days have been solo. "It's more difficult because I'm out there and responsible. But it's easier because I'm driving my own boat," she says. "It's easier for me to connect and have that emotional experience with the audience that I want to have."