Fort Worth native Lorena Leigh‘s upbeat indie pop music is a joy to discover, with thoughtful lyrics about empathy, nostalgia and self-love in her original live set.
She performed on Sunday at the Dallas Arboretum in the Pecan Grove. Despite a technical difficulty that left her without a sound system, Leigh belted her songs to the crowd, creating an intimate experience.
Before music, Leigh pursued a career in dance. She moved from Keller to New York, where she lived for 8 years. She had an apprenticeship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, though unfortunately injuries halted her dance career.
“I learned how to surf in the summer of 2013 at Rockaway Beach,” Leigh said. “That’s also the summer I started writing melodies for a music producer that was involved with commercial, jingle and sync music. By that time, I was struggling with dance through the numerous chronic physical injuries. I was at a crossroads.”
Through surf and the healing power of the ocean, Leigh made a mental shift.
“Sometimes you decide to do something that shakes up your whole world,” she said.
Leigh’s “cowgirl mermaid” aesthetic originates from her time finding her sound in New York, where her local friends would call her Sandy the Squirrel (from the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants). Her Rockaway Beach music friends liked to call the place “Rockini Bottom,” and dressing up as Sandy on her first Halloween there solidified the nickname. The combination of her Texas roots and affinity for the ocean guided her songwriting, leading to her first EP, “Jellyfish Queen.”
Watching Leigh perform live is a real treat. Whether it’s solo on ukulele or with a full band and dancers, her light shines through her positive attitude and willingness to be vulnerable on stage.
She played a song written during COVID called “17,” citing inspiration from Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song by the same name.
“In 2018 I moved back to Keller, and when the pandemic brought everything to a stop, I started to reflect more on how I felt 17 again, so intensely reconnecting with hometown friends and thought about the lyrics ‘You’re always 17 in your hometown.’ But I wasn’t running from the law or anything like that, so I decided I needed to write a girl version of that.”
The lyrics are relatable and down to earth, playfully putting into words the way it feels to be filled with nostalgia and a flood of emotions that comes with retaking inventory of your current life.
“COVID for me was really important,” Leigh said. “When nothing else was there, the thing I missed most was playing music.”
Leigh’s 2022 single “Sunsets” was released in March, and she has much more music on the way.
She’s working on a new album, and plans to release a new single in the fall called “Whales.” The general theme of the new single is about times of crisis and who you are in your darkest moment.
“It’s about becoming okay with your shadow self, not shying away from your depth and accepting all of yourself,” Leigh said. “It’s like you’ve shaken hands with your darkest self and your lightest self, and it cracks open the freedom to confront anything head on.”
“Whales” was recorded in January 2020 in New York with producer Ernesto Valenzuela at Sticky Audio Labs, who also produced her album Water Theory.
She also plans to release an EP of Christmas songs at the end of the year, which may be accompanied by a theater-style production release show that include full band and 2 dancers for two 45- minute sets.
“Growing up, Lorena would get all the cousins together and make them do Christmas performances where she created costumes, sets and a script for them to do,” her aunt Nancy and uncle Herald Phillips said at the Dallas Arboretum show. “She’s always had a flair for creative expression.”
“I’m the oldest with four younger cousins. I would make them do all kinds of stuff during the holidays,” Leigh laughed. “There was one 4th of July that I made these sparkly rock instruments out of cardboard and we all lip-synced to the song ‘Only in America,’ then jumped in the pool as the big finale. It was so silly. I think I did those productions from ages 7 to 14. After that, I had other outlets like dance to help with that need to create.”
Currently, Leigh is excited about her forthcoming performance Jazz Aspen Snowmass on Labor Day Weekend, whose headliners include Stevie Nicks, Chris Stapleton, Black Pumas and Leon Bridges.
“I’ve never been to Aspen, and this opportunity is really exciting,” Leigh said.
Below is my favorite music video by Lorena Leigh, which showcases her dance skills in a way that makes a viewer feel more connected to her sense of identity. “El Aqua” is a song from her album Water Theory.
Keep up with Leigh on her Instagram Page to find out when she’ll have another local show.
Jessica Waffles is a freelance photographer/videographer and regular contributor to KXT.
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