joe zorzi is a big fan of leftovers…
Leftover Cuties. You may not know the name, but you’ve probably heard their song “Game Called Life” in the opening credits of the Showtime series The Big C. What originally started as a one song experiment between singer, Shirli McAllen, and ukulele player, Austin Nicholsen, turned into a full band that’s been turning heads with their unique and vintage sound. Since 2009, they’ve released an EP and an album and this year alone they plan on releasing a cover album and their second full length. I had the opportunity to speak to Shirli about how everything fell together for the band and their hopes and plans for the future.
Pop-Break.com: How’d you guys get started and originally come together?
Shirli McAllen: Well, I was doing my solo project around four years ago and our ukulele player was actually a bass player primarily and he was playing bass with me for a couple years. And then one day he walks into my house with a ukulele. And that night, I’d just written some lyrics. So I pulled those lyrics out, started singing on the chord changes he was playing on the ukulele and this new voice came out of me, like this new style of singing and songwriting kind of came out. And we wrote that song, recorded it the next day, just a little demo at my house, and forgot about it for about two years.
We really didn’t realize what we were on just quite yet. But two years later, I was going through some music on my computer and I ran into that recording and I thought there was something really unique and special about it. So, I played it to some friends and my friends pretty much freaked out and told me to stop doing what I’m doing and do just that and write more songs like that (laughs). So, I called Austin out and said “Come over, lets write some more songs on the ukulele”. So, we started writing some more songs and recording some more demos and we would use everything that was laying around the house. You know, salt shakers and we would do some foot stomping and claps and whistling and glockenspiel. Everything that I kind of had around the house we would throw in these really intimate, raw demos that we made.
And for a while it was just the two of us and you know, the name came together and then we decided we want to make an official EP. And we sought out Ryan Hewitt who produced our first EP and he was very adamant about us having a drummer. So at first we were like “really?”, we really liked the way it was so raw. But, we were going to try it out and Austin knew this guy Stuart Johnson who he thought would be perfect for this, which turned out to be true. The moment he heard Austin and I play ukulele and vocals, he put together this vintage kit with some brushes and some toys and some cowbells and all types of fun stuff and he was a really perfect fit. So we made the EP, just the three of us, and then as time went by all the rest of the pieces fell in. Ryan Feves is the bass player and then Mike Bolger who plays piano, trumpet, accordion, and some other horns… he’s truly a multi-instrumentalist. And yeah, it all came together. We kept playing a ton and we made a record together and now we’re going to make, we’re hoping to make, a couple of releases for this year. One is a cover EP that we’re going to make and our second album is probably going to be released by the end of the year.
PB: Awesome, I heard about the cover album. Are you going to be putting your own spin on these songs? I know you’re doing “Poker Face” and Regina Spektor.
SM: Yeah, we also do “You Are My Sunshine” which is a very old song, but you know it’s usually sung in a very happy manner and we kind of turn it into this somber, minor key sort of thing. Yeah, we love doing that. We love taking songs and kind of turning them around, making them our own, doing something new and interesting with them. And since we play a lot of shows in LA and sometimes very long shows… like, we have this gig at this place called Casa Del Mar every Friday night and we play three sets. We always have to incorporate some covers with our originals. So, we started playing around with some covers and they became some of the fan favorites. Like you mentioned, “Poker Face” and more recently the “Fidelity” song by Regina. And we thought it would be a great way to reach out to more fans, because it’s really nice sometimes to start with something that people already know and put a spin on it and make that a way for them to get to your original music as well. We’re excited to release it, it’s going to be really, really fun.
PB: And that’s coming out late Spring?
SM: Yeah, mmhmm.
PB: You guys have such a unique song compared to everything else out right now. For first time listeners how would you describe your sound to people.
SM: Well, you know it’s really hard to put labels on it but we tend to say that it’s influenced by the music from the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, but we don’t really limit ourselves and it’s very modern and it’s very original in its own right. It’s not like it’s trying to imitate a particular era or anything like that. It just so happens that when Austin and I started playing with the ukulele this voice came out of me and then you know, people were kind of commenting of how vintage it sounded. And then we realized “yeah, it really does” and we kind of went along with it, but we always made sure along the way that it’s also very current and very modern.
PB: Your song from your first EP, Game Called Life, the title track actually got picked up for The Big C. How did that come about?
SM: Well that was the very first song that Austin and I wrote that night and forgot about for two years. That was “Game Called Life” which really started this whole thing.
PB: Oh, so that must’ve been wild then.
SM: Yeah! It’s wild that it’s the first song, you know? Once we made the EP, which was the title of the EP and also the title track, we basically gave it to everybody we knew, anybody that could help us get it out there somehow. And it somehow landed in the hands of the music supervisor for The Big C. And I think we had some competition at first, but when the show decided to go with an independent artist they really liked our song and it ended up winning (laughs).
PB: That’s great.
SM: Yeah, we were very grateful, I mean it’s been such a great exposure. It’s really crazy.
PB: You have noticed a big difference since that song was put on the show?
SM: Huge difference. Yeah, especially internationally. Like, I get CD orders from countries that I’ve never even visited like Ireland and Switzerland and Brazil. Definitely on an international level it’s really brought a lot more awareness to the band. And also in the United States. Like a lot, a lot more. It definitely has given us so many fans than we would’ve had if we didn’t have that opportunity.
PB: I know you said you’re trying to put out the cover EP and another album this year. Are you going to be touring at all this year too or is your main focus recording?
SM: So far we’ve done some one offs and we’re just waiting for the right opportunity to tour. We would like to open up for a bigger act. Because a lot of us in the band, you know we’re a little older, a lot of the guys have been there and done that and played at dive bars for two people before (laughs). And we just want to do it right this time. You know if we’re going to spend the money going out there we really want to be in front of an audience that would be interested. At this point the right opportunity hasn’t come up yet. We’re hoping that South by South will yield something.
PB: Awesome. And if you had the choice, if you could pick anyone to tour with right now who would it be?
SM: I would love to tour with Norah Jones. She’s probably my number one, I think we would be a great opener for her.
PB: Actually yeah, I could see that perfectly fitting.
SM: Yeah, I think that would be great. Or somebody like Tom Waits, that would be a dream. Yeah, I would say those two are probably my number one.
PB: Cool, and who are your band’s biggest influences?
SM: You know, we’re just influenced by each other really. We all listen to so many different music and we all come from different backgrounds and there’s so much, there’s so much influence, there’s so much inspiring things. But, I feel like when we get together we don’t really think about that at all, we just do what we do.
PB: Where do you hope to be in a year from now with the band?
SM: I hope to be on the road on a really awesome tour. Something like the Norah Jones tour. I hope to be on the road, I hope that our second album is doing really well and that we can go and play for our fans all over the world, maybe do a few festivals in Europe, get more licensing on TV. And just reach more people, get more people with this music and make people happy.