Singer-songwriter Lorena Leigh fell in love with the ocean, not in California, Hawaii, or any of the other places most people imagine when they think of the Big Blue, but in Rockaway Beach, a locale more people probably associate with the Ramones than with the rolling vastness of liquid life that covers most of the planet’s surface area. A little over five years ago, Leigh, who lived in Manhattan at the time, day-tripped to the neighborhood on Queens’ Rockaway peninsula and took a surf lesson.
“I got hooked,” she said. “I bought a board, and I would commute two hours in the morning to surf before going back to the city for classes.”
Before long, she moved to Rockaway Beach, where she would surf and sing for four years before returning to her hometown of Keller in 2017. But in her time in the boroughs, she honed her songcraft into a pair of EPs, 2015’s Bella Vista and last year’s Jellyfish Queen, as well as an album, due out on Thursday at a release show at MASS. Water Theory bathes the listener in waves of sunny, electronic pop perfection.
Leigh’s path to the ocean started with the Crimson Tide, when she studied at University of Alabama as a musical theater major for a year before deciding she didn’t want to spend three more in the Heart of Dixie. Leigh decamped for New York City with aspirations of studying at the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Studio, later enrolling in the dance program at Pace University and busying herself with nanny jobs, dog-walking, bartending, babysitting, and even the occasional professional dance gigs like flash mob performances. When she found spare moments away from that stuff, she wrote songs.
This was around the time she started surfing, and her head was brimming with inspiration. She met a producer named Ernesto Valenzuela, and the two ended up partnering on her music. “I downsized my life to fit into a tiny bedroom that rented for $400 a month,” she recalled, “and we were able to work in several high-end studios during their off hours on a really small budget.”
Leigh and Valenzuela also tracked vocals and ukulele – a signature component of her sound – at a lakeside cabin in Vermont. They worked in the winter, when the lake was frozen. “There was no cell reception and no running water, which is ironic for an album that’s inspired by the ocean,” Leigh said.
While the ocean indeed plays a large part in Water Theory’s sonics and imagery, Leigh’s songs are also deeply personal. “There’s this song, ‘Can’t Undo,’ that’s about a casual hook-up,” she said. “I wrote it in about five minutes.”
Leigh recounted a story about going on a date with a man who was considerably older than she was. “He was a nice guy who had a good job, but when I got home, I started crying, because he was nice, but I wasn’t into him, so I came home, I cried, and I wrote it really fast.”
“Can’t Undo” is actually a lot breezier than its inspiration would suggest –– its vibe calls to mind a Fleetwood Mac song made for a beachside cabana –– bouncing on lyrics like, “I’d like to get over being lonely with you / Let’s do something we can’t undo.” Overall, Water Theory is a cheery, hooky slab of pop that ebbs and flows with emotional color and depth and winsome turns of phrase. Leigh takes her craft seriously, which is why she ultimately moved back home to Keller. It’s a lot easier to focus on the business side of her music career when she isn’t distracted by NYC’s constant state of fight-or-flight.
Leigh just wrapped up a tour that took her up the West Coast, from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and the verdant wilds of Northern California on up to the Pacific Northwest, before returning home through Denver and Amarillo, performing her music along with an Ableton live rig in lieu of a full band. In December, Leigh will take her new album on a tour of the Midwest. While she’s looking forward to showcasing her music to that landlocked part of the country, the ocean is never far from her mind.
“I love DFW, but after living by the ocean, I really want to be coastal,” she said. “In the meantime, though, I want to give my music a real chance.”
Lorena Leigh album release show
7pm on Thu w/Ruff Wizard at MASS, 1002 S Main St, FW. $7. 682-707-7774.