Insightful, charming, and funny even at 7am, Leisha Hailey, 36, is one of the most affable women in show business. Here, Hailey shares her thoughts on her musical metamorphosis from Murmurs’ alterna-pop singer to Uh Huh Her’s electro-pop fusion. She opens up about her innocent youth in New York and Nebraska, her fateful first trip to a gay bar (the Village’s stalwart, the old Cubby Hole), and what she really thinks about gay Hollywood’s tacit Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Uh Huh Her’s barely three-month-old EP has received rave reviews from fans and critics alike (expect a full-length LP around March), and the duo is selling out concerts in New York in less than a day. As the inevitable end of The L Word approaches (though we’re banking on a sixth season), Hailey’s branching out, producing documentaries, and making cameo appearances on some of network TV’s most successful dramas, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI. Let’s all hail Hailey’s comet as it rises.
MELODY WELLS: You just got back from filming Season 5 of The L Word in Vancouver and also spent the summer touring with your band. You’ve been busy!
LEISHA HAILEY: It’s pretty wild. I never anticipated Uh Huh Her going as well as it’s going right away. Usually with a new band you have time to work out all your kinks and get your show together before people start showing up! [laughs] Our first and second shows were in New York, and we sold out The Knitting Factory. Obviously we have so much room to grow. And we’ll get so much better. It’s kind of hard to make all your mistakes in front of people, but still it’s such a thrill the way it’s going.
How do you balance a touring schedule and a shooting schedule that takes you to multiple cities?
It’s really hard. But I’m in my element. I don’t ever want to do just one thing. We’ve always been under the gun, but it’s made us step up so much faster. We wrote five songs in two weeks for those New York shows, and now I’ll have the luxury to just sit around and write music. Next week [The L Word] stops filming, and maybe then I won’t feel as schizophrenic. [laughs] Oh, that didn’t come out right. I’m like, shit, this coffee needs to pour. [laughs]
How does being away so much affect your relationship with your partner [Nina Garduno, a fashion exec/designer and boutique owner]?
It’s actually been a really great thing for us, because you get to have your independence while knowing someone is at home for you the whole time. We both grow a lot when we’re away from each other and when we see each other, it’s a lot of fun to reconnect and see how the other person’s really blossomed while you were gone. So I think it’s done great things for our relationship. I hate when you’re with someone and you feel like you’re smothering each other constantly. That’s not for me.
You’re in an entirely new genre with Uh Huh Her, sort of melancholy electronica. What brought about that change in your musical styles, from what you did with The Murmurs and Gush, and was it a conscious evolution?
I’m completely aware that this is a whole new style of music from what I did before. I feel like I’ve grown up or something. I’ve always loved electronica and anything with rhythm and dance beats, and my favorite thing to do in the world is harmonize. And our voices sound so good together, it’s strange. Camila Grey’s voice is airy and beautiful and mine is, I don’t know. But they complement each other really well. We feel like when we sing together it almost completes one voice.
How did you and Camila meet and start the band?
I met her at a party. She was playing the tambourine and I just thought she was so different—I was like “who’s that girl?” I was intrigued. It was a complete gut instinct. She seemed so quirky. I asked someone about her, and it turns out her music experience is amazing. She’s worked with Dr. Dre and she went to Berklee College of Music. And I was like, “I wonder if she’s cool.” So I called her, we met and we got along right away. I asked her to consider just sitting down to write some music. I was the eager person, like, “Let’s do this! Let’s do this!”
What type of relationship do you feel like you need to have with a band mate versus a cast mate?
You get really close with someone in a band because you’re spending so much time together. There’s the touring aspect, where you live together, and then you’re stuck in the studio 24-7, it’s very intense. Intimate’s the best word, even though it’s cliché. And when you perform, it’s this intensely scary thing you do together. With cast mates, you’re bonded, but it’s almost more of a family feeling. It’s like best friends who are having a good time together. For me, acting is more free. It’s like being a kid and playing house. With acting, there’s this fun element all the time, whereas music feels much scarier. It always feels like [gasp!], like I’m grabbing onto my band mate for dear life. [laughs]
When it comes to changing genres, you said earlier that you feel you’ve grown up. When you go back and listen to your earlier music with The Murmurs and Gush, what do you hear?
When I look back and listen, I’m full of pride because what we did is incredible. We were so young. I met Heather [Grody] when I was 17, I’d just moved to New York. What I hear the most is our innocence, and I think that was what was magical about us. It was such a different time. Ten years later we were jaded and frustrated and lost. When I look back at what we did in the very, very beginning, it’s hard for me to listen to sometimes because I’m like, “Oh my God, we sound like The Chipmunks!” I can’t believe we did that, I can’t believe we wrote that, what were we thinking? At the same time, I think it’s the coolest thing ever, that we wrote music and put it out there and didn’t think twice about it. We were playing all around the East Village, for like every single drag queen that ever lived there. We were just doing these really different kinds of venues. And we always had our guitars on our backs, wherever we were going in New York. Even if we were on a scooter or if we were walking ten miles, we always had them. We played the subways, I mean, we did it all. And the whole time I was doing it with my best friend, and it was magic.
I think when the record companies came around, now I understand what they saw in us. We were so naïve, we really believed in what we were doing, and we didn’t think about getting signed. Nowadays when you see people, their intentions are—a lot of the times, I’m not saying for everybody—their intentions are like, “I want to be famous, and then this is what I’m gonna do when I get there.” We didn’t think that, ever. When the record companies came around, we were like, “What? Who are those older men?”
Uh Huh Her is named after a PJ Harvey song that’s about a heterosexual couple who is engaged, but the man has left his fiancee and she’s begging him to return. As a lesbian, I thought it was ironic that you named your band after a song about hetero marriage. Your thoughts?
Well, no, it wasn’t the lyrics of the song that made us say, “Okay, we should name our band that.” We’re all PJ fans, too, and I love her music. It really came out of a giant list of names that we had been collectging for weeks. We had 4,000 names. Well, maybe not 4,000, but definitely hundreds! And then you fall in love with a name, you Google it, and it’s taken.
Can you remember the first song that meant a lot to you, the song that possibly influenced your decision to pursue music?
I was a huge Sinead O’Connor fan back in the day. The Lion and the Cobra was one of my favorites. I played that record until it was broken. [laughs] And I loved the song “Troy.” That was my favorite when I’d just gotten to New York and was sort of discovering myself and realizing who I was. That was the record of those times.
Which is more meaningful to you, music or acting?
I don’t think one is more meaningful than the other. Both acting and singing…they’re like my purpose for being here, like I’ve discovered the secret of life. And painting, too. It’s my favorite high, it’s better than anything I’ve ever felt.
You paint, too?
Like twice a year I’ll find something I want to paint, and I’ll work on it for months. It’s kind of what I envision doing when I’m old and have all the time in the world. [laughs]
As far as acting and The L Word, there are rumors that this is the last season. Know anything we don’t?
We don’t know yet. Honestly, I have no idea. We all have our theories about what’s going to happen, and I can give you mine. But we won’t know, officially, until February. I think the rumors started because Showtime’s never had a series run for more than five seasons. But now it’s under a whole new regime, so it’s kind of like the rules are new, too. And the show’s at the peak of its success, the new season is really great, so at this point it feels kind of silly to end it.
You can’t start talking about how great this season is, because I’m entirely too excited for that kind of tease. I know you don’t want to give to much away…
Yeah, [laughs] it might be one of the best seasons ever! I never know what I can say and what I can’t. This season, Alice is more involved in Tasha’s storyline because Tasha goes through a big Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell situation with the military. So Alice is put in the position of supporting her through all that, although she doesn’t agree with it. And then, on a happier note, Alice has a big career change this year, which I’m obsessed with! I love it so much. It’s so perfect. It’s like, it’s so right. You know how she went from a journalism to radio? This is kind of the next step. But I don’t want to give it away.
The next step would probably be TV…
Maybe, I don’t know. [laughs]
What impact do you think The L Word has had on lesbian culture and culture in general?
I’m so bowled over by the impact the show has had. When I signed on to do the show, I thought it was going to be a really small, cult lesbian show. I think the show’s had an enormous effect on how people perceive gay people. Viewers become so engaged, they forget they’re watching a gay lifestyle and begin to see the characters just as people. There’s an L Word convention in town this weekend, which I’m doing. While speaking with fans, I realized that even I assume most people who watch the show are gay. So I was meeting some people last night, and this woman says, “Oh, my husband’s so upset that I’m here.” Like, awesome. I’d been looking at her and assuming she was gay. And it happened with other people, too: “I gotta get home to my man.” Wow! It’s weird. It has a giant straight following.
The L Word has a huge straight following. I assumed lots of straight men would say, “Ooh, let’s watch two hot women getting it on.”
Oh, I think they do exist. [laughs] ‘Cause I meet them at airports. Trust me. [laughs]
I’m glad that there’s a new interracial relationship on the show, and that it might work out. It’s refreshing to see a show that features racially-diverse recurring characters. At the same time, the characters are not portrayed as considering race a prohibitive issue when it comes to relationships.
Yeah, I think the show in general does an awesome job of transcending those things. There was Bette and Tina, and then Kit and Papi hooked up at some point. I mean, that’s just how real life is. It’s just like how you forget you’re watching a show about lesbians, and it’s just a show about interesting people.
Do you feel there has been a cultural shift during the show’s run regarding the way mainstream society perceives and treats lesbians?
I’ve seen massive changes, but I would never say that the show’s responsible for it. It’s kind of like what came first, the chicken or the egg? I think [the show’s] been a part of it, and I think we’re in the middle of a great movement toward more positive things. I remember when I first came to New York, and there would be 10 people in a gay bar. It still felt like that really seedy secret, like, “[gasp!] Oh my God, we’re in a gay bar!” And now you go out, and there are hundreds of people. I mean, the world is just opening up to the idea of differences, you know? And the world’s becoming more accepting. I feel that all the time. I’ve never really been closeted, so for me there wasn’t a giant change, but I see it around me all the time.
You came out really young—in high school, right?
No, I came out right when I left high school. I didn’t really understand what was happening back then. But I have to say I wouldn’t have done it [in high school]. I’m from a small town, you know, and I don’t know if it would have gone over so well. I fell in love with my best friend, but I didn’t know what those feelings were until later. I think that’s so amazing and incredible that now teenagers feel safe enough to be exactly who they are. It’s mind-boggling.
So it was after you moved to New York?
Yes, that’s when it clicked. Once I realized, I lived with myself in that little process—not little, giant process—for a few months to make sure I knew what was really happening, even though I knew exactly what was happening at that point. I wanted to tell my parents, and the second I told my parents, I never hid it from anybody. I wouldn’t say I was ever closeted. I’d just say I was figuring out how to tell my mom and dad. And then when I told them, it was like nothing. I mean for them. It was for me. [laughs]
Did living in New York make it easier?
Oh, I can’t imagine what this process would have been like while living in Bellvue, Nebraska. So, yeah, New York is the best place in the world. I was around people that were exactly like me, and that always helps. I was in a very supportive atmosphere. The only time I’ve ever had an issue, and it’s only happened to me once, was when a record company wasn’t happy about it. I think we were on a radio show with one of those Howard Stern kind of guys, you know? And he said, “Well what is it? What is it? Do you like boys? Or do you like women?” He kind of put me in a corner. I wish I had a tape of that interview to watch now because we were like, “Whoa, um, uh …” And you know, he’s talking to two 18 or 20 year-old girls, and we didn’t know that it was going to become an issue or that it was a big deal because it had never happened before. And I think when we told him that we liked girls, the record execs said, “Oh, we don’t think we can do this with you guys.” And we responded, “Mmm, not so much!” We were already signed at that point. They were not happy about it at first, but obviously they were dealing with two people who didn’t give a shit, so it didn’t go their way. [laughs]
Did you continue working with them?
Oh yeah, totally. I mean, they had to learn how to change, not us. We weren’t going to—I wasn’t going to go back into the closet. That would just be crazy.
Do you remember your first time in a gay bar in New York?
Oh my God, yes! I had my sister’s ID, because we kind of look alike and she was 21 at that point and I was 17, 18, something. And I was living in this girls’ dormitory with all these Juilliard dancers. There was one lesbian living there, too, I swear [laughs]. She took me to the Cubby Hole. And I’ll never forget the feeling when I walked in, just “[gasp!] Ahhh!” I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I realized that this is where I belong, that these are my people. I realized that I really was gay. And then when I got out of class around 4 or 5, I would go there by myself. No one in school knew. I would go there and sit at the bar during happy hour. God, I was so young. And I remember one time when I tried to send a beer to someone [laughs] who was probably in her 30s. She was probably sitting there like, “What?” But I was discovering this whole thing, all alone. It was crazy. It was a thrill.
So many people look up to you because you were out before you went to Hollywood, and you’re still unafraid to say you’re a lesbian. You’re a role model. How does that make you feel?
Wow. Well first of all it’s an honor that you said that. It’s amazing. You know, it’s just not an issue for me, and it never has been. I’ve had an easy time being out and being gay in Hollywood because I make it a very positive thing. It’s like when you meet someone who has a very negative attitude about something: you’re only going to pick up on the negativity that they’re giving you. But if you meet someone who’s okay with who they are and honest with who they are, someone who’s really positive about their identity, then you’re only going to see them in that light. So I think that’s what I’ve always done, and it’s only brought me great respect in return, because, you know, I’m okay with it.
It must be difficult being out because it seems like Hollywood has its own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Well, yeah! Of course. There are thousands of closeted people in Hollywood. I don’t understand the concept. People are so scared of losing their jobs and so scared of never working again that I guess they think they just have to appear straight. I don’t understand it. And look, I might hit a giant brick wall because I’m out, I don’t know. But I don’t think I will. I think it just comes down to this: if you’re good at your job as an actor, you should be able to play any role you want. Your sexuality shouldn’t factor into it.
Do you think that coming out in Hollywood could really ruin an actor’s career? Do you think gay actors have a responsibility to come out?
First of all, I don’t judge anyone who’s in the closet. It’s such a personal choice to come out, and for some people, it can be a very difficult one, maybe even scary. I think people are fearful when they don’t know what’s on the other side. I think it’s sad, and I wish we could imagine the impact if everyone in Hollywood came out of the closet! It could affect the whole world! But it’s never going to happen. I think people are just too scared that their careers might end. Maybe gay actors are afraid that coming out will affect their status as a sex symbol, or whatever those dumb Hollywood things mean. But it’s no concern of mine.
Do you think it would be different for you had you not been out before you went to Hollywood?
I think I probably would have been the same. But maybe if I just moved out here and had to make that decision, I’m not sure I would have done it exactly the same way. I would hope that I would have done it exactly the same way, but I think you get surrounded by business people that are like, “You can’t do that, there’s no way you’re coming out.” Or maybe, “If you do that, you’re never going to get this role.” That could very well have happened to me, but my gut tells me I don’t think it would have. And that’s because I just don’t care! Things like money are not important to me if I have to hide who I am. This is me. And I’m not going to change for anybody.
In your cameos on Grey’s Anatomy and CSI, you’ve played straight characters. Do you feel committed to working on gay-themed shows or in gay roles?
No, not at all. I want to play different roles. I want to play straight people and crazy people and funny people, all kinds of people. I don’t think it would be the best idea to go straight into another gay role, but that’s just because I’m an actor and want to do different things, not because I don’t want to play another gay character. I just like different challenges. But I definitely want to stay in TV; I love the steady work and getting to know your cast members really well. I really don’t know what the next role I take will look like.
You have a music label called Marfa Records, named after a town in Texas. Can you tell us about it?
I’m not really doing anything with the label right now. It was sort of too much. Let’s be honest—I’m not a business person. I think the idea of having a label was really great for me, but once I realized that I had to crunch numbers and promote and sell CDs, it got really hard. I just wanted to be a label where we could sign artists I liked and help them, but I’m not savvy enough for all that.
What originally took you to Marfa, and do you have a home there?
I discovered the town of Marfa when I was on my way to Austin for three months to work on my friend’s new hotel, the San Jose, when it was getting built. I was really broke at the time and was working on a little construction team. [laughs] I had my tool belt, and I helped build it. My friend had contacts in West Texas, and I kept hearing about this place called Marfa and how you could buy an old adobe building for a thousand dollars. Of course, I thought it was the perfect plan for me because I could afford to buy it at the time, so I just had to do it! When I finally went there, I just fell in love with it. It’s one of the most unique places ever because it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, it takes three hours to get there from any airport. So whoever’s there is there because they want to be there! It’s an old ranch community that [sculptor] Donald Judd bought in the ‘70s. He installed his artwork there permanently, and after he died, they set up a foundation that would allow artists-in-residence to come to Marfa to work on their art. Eventually, all of the artists started buying up the town, buying old warehouses and what-not. At this point the town is full of 20 and 30 and 40 year-olds who are opening up coffee shops and buying homes. It’s this sort of chic artistic community in the middle of the dust. [laughs] And it’s just amazing. And yes, I have a place there, and I go there as often as I can.
Did you buy the thousand-dollar adobe home?
No, by the time I got there they were more expensive, which sucks. [laughs] I missed the window on that one.
When you were growing up who were some of your heroes?
Molly Ringwald was my biggest obsession. In fact, I was part of the Molly Ringwald fan club. She was plastered all over my wall. I wanted to be her. I always beg Ilene [Chaiken] to have her on the show. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I was on the set with Molly Ringwald.
Overall, how is life treating you?
I feel like the luckiest person on two legs. I couldn’t ask for much more. I feel like a very fortunate person.
You recently produced a documentary, Raising Teens, about kids raised in gay families. Do you see children in your future?
Um, no, I don’t want children. [laughs] But when I say never, I find myself doing it five years later! At this point in my life, I don’t want kids. But, you know, talk to me again in a couple of years.
One last question. Finish this sentence: My dream career is…
Oh, I’m living it. I’m in it. I am living my dream career.