“My tears are dry before they’re shed, I am about to lose my head….” So goes the lyrics of “Touch ’n Go Game,” a song written by Laguna Beach singer-composer Ella Leya about Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of England’s King Henry VIII.
Leya just released her third U.S.-made CD, “Secret Lives of Women,” a collection of songs about women who, for better or worse, have made the world take notice of them.
On this recording, Boleyn is in the illustrious company of Cleopatra, Mata Hari, Sarah Bernhardt, Sappho and, timely it turns out, Princess Diana. The latter is memorialized in the song “Irresistible Lies,” a lament over loneliness, betrayal and ultimate self-destruction.
“I was inspired to write the songs about these so-called femmes fatales when I stood across from the Place de L’Alma, in Paris where Diana died in that fatal crash,” said Leya, interviewed recently by NPR about her new release. “Like many women throughout history, she is (by male historians) misunderstood and mislabeled. By writing the songs I wanted to give them a voice.”
Leya describes Cleopatra, for example, as an astute political player who could keep the Roman Empire at bay and still indulge her weakness for its generals (Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar)
Leya, ne Naroditskaya, was born in Azerbaijan, then a part of the former Soviet Union. The region is diverse with a large Muslim population that circumvented Soviet-mandates banning religious practices. Besides being Jewish, she was also unusual for veering away from classical music to sing and play jazz piano in a nightclub. She said that region, closer to Iran and Turkey, was far from the reaches of Moscow and thus freer than other Soviet republics. “Music was everywhere, it was my life,” she said.
Collectively, the femme fatales she writes about reflect on Leya’s own twisting path, finding success as a performer in her homeland, emigrating to America and struggling to set down roots, and finding fulfillment in her 20-year marriage to Rabbi Stuart Altshuler, whom she met after a performance in Washington, D.C. The couple have a 13-year-old son, Micah. “I learned early on that keeping busy is the best way to deal with anything life throws at you,” she said.
Leya writes her own mostly English lyrics and melodies, threaded by bluesy, jazzy and unmistakable Oriental undertones. Some of her tunes are used in the soundtrack of the recently remade film “Ocean’s Eleven” and television’s “Dirty Sexy Money.”
“In the Soviet Union, I was one of a hand-full of jazz singers and we were never allowed to sing in English,” she recalled. “America seemed like a dream but I never aspired to a Hollywood life-style,” she said.
Instead, she enjoyed purity and freedom as an artist, even if she earned roughly as much as a bus driver.
The dream became a reality after she performed in Moscow for American industrialist Armand Hammer for his 90th birthday. She later led him on a tour of underground Moscow jazz clubs. In turn, he helped her immigrate and Leya began performing in America.
Currently, she is collaborating with music writer Don Heckman on a music-based novel tentatively titled “Madrigal of Death.” It’s underlying premise is that music can move people for good or evil. “It’s a mystery that takes place in New York in 1969 with the music and life of 16th century composer Carlo Gesualdo as a narrative component,” said Heckman.
Leya and Heckman met roughly five years ago when he interviewed her for a Los Angeles Times article. Together, have also completed two unproduced screenplays. “Ella has a wide ranging command of language as a writer, lyricist, composer and musician,” he said. Musically, he describes Leya’s style as cabaret with a laid-back dramatic quality. “Think Edith Piaf,” he said.
Next month, Leya and Micah move to London where Altshuler now leads a congregation. “It’s going to be quite an adjustment for Micah who grew up in Laguna Beach. As for me, I am going to do what I do best, keep busy,” she said.
Since her resumé includes acting in the (underground) Moscow Jewish Theater, she is thinking of resuming acting, perhaps producing a play and re-issuing some early CDs.
Still she will keep roots in Laguna Beach. “I intend to stay in touch with the entertainment industry. I want to write more music for film and TV and Laguna is a good place for that,” she said.