Leslie Hunt: “You have to tour in order to build a following”

“You have to tour in order to build a following.” I have grown to love it over the past decade but when I first started, I didn’t realize how much being a well-known musician required touring. There is no substitute for that in-person connection with fans. As part of our series about rising music stars, I […]

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“You have to tour in order to build a following.” I have grown to love it over the past decade but when I first started, I didn’t realize how much being a well-known musician required touring. There is no substitute for that in-person connection with fans.

As part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Leslie Hunt, a true musician. The singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist regularly performs nationally and internationally. Many remember Hunt from American Idol, where she made it to the top ten females. She has gained fans all around the globe through her unique musical styles. Whether it is a cheerful, hook-heavy pop tune about love or a dark and insightful ballad of self-discovery, Leslie Hunt’s music is a window into her soul for any listener willing to look.

Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

My younger sister and I were raised by my parents in the Chicagoland area, eventually settling down in St. Charles, IL which is about an hour west of Chicago. My mom was an actress, a singer, an artist, and played piano, guitar, and electric bass. My dad was a jazz drummer and worked for the family business full time. We were always listening to music or someone was playing music. I started taking piano lessons when I was four and was always home when my mom taught private voice lessons in our living room. We had a family band and my dad helped me arrange the songs I would write. It was an emotionally charged, high marital conflict environment, but music was our saving grace.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

At a young age, I discovered that I had the gift of insight and I used that gift to try and create understanding in my family and friends. I thought I was going into the field of psychology until I realized that I could help more people at once by writing songs from my experiences. I wrote about young love, of course, but I also wrote about the damage of feminine social norms, my eating disorder, surviving rape, betrayal and abuse, and a general sense of entitlement I was seeing in my white suburban friends that I found disturbing. I recorded a six-song demo in high school that I sold out of my locker and a copy of it somehow ended up in the hands of Grammy-winner Jim Peterik, a songwriting legend that was looking to mentor young talent. He used to come over and write songs with me in my living room, and it was through his mentorship that I fully realized that that this was my path.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?

I would say that my experience on American Idol was the funniest, most interesting, and most pivotal of my entire career thus far. Up until that point, I had done very little performing without sitting at a piano, therefore when Simon Cowell told me I looked awkward on stage, he was absolutely right. I had very little connection to my body as a performer and it took that spotlight to identify the areas in which I needed to grow. For my first live performance on the show, not only was I physically clueless about what to do with my hands and arms, but the fashion stylist had accidentally gotten me boots that were a size too big, therefore exponentially increasing my awkwardness!

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

My advice is to always be available for inspiration when it strikes, which is usually when you least expect it to. I write in notebooks and record voice memos on my phone and most of my songs start when I’m not sitting at the piano or trying to be creative. If a melody or a rhythm enters my head, that is a gift and it must be recorded somehow before it vanishes. I would also advise that it is important to be a part of a community of musicians as a lot of my best opportunities have come from people in that community recommending me for things. It is hard to make anything happen on an island. Lastly, I advise young artists to be creative and cause-driven because it is not enough to just have great music anymore. Musicians have had to reinvent the market in so many ways since people are no longer buying music.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The first person that comes to mind is Jim Peterik, due to his strong guidance and contacts in the industry. The second person that comes to mind is Christian Cullen, who still is Jim’s main keyboardist for his various projects. Christian produces my solo albums and is responsible for a large part of their sound. His musical taste and sensibilities showcase my songs in the best light possible and he is one of the main reasons they sound so good, to be honest. I think you’re only as good as the team you put together, and it is best if they are more talented than you are so you can learn things along the way!

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I have always loved making performances centered around a cause, either building awareness or raising money for it. I feel a sense of civic responsibility to effect change in the world for the better, especially since I noticed that when people hear that I was on American Idol, they care more about what I’m doing, and it draws people in. I love to use that interest to expose them not only to my musical projects but also to a cause that I feel needs their attention. I spent the year following my experience on American Idol singing at countless Lupus Foundation of America galas and walks. I have also spent the past twelve years leading a private event band that does numerous fundraisers each year for both local and national nonprofits. Over the course of the pandemic I have done acoustic live streams where I donated portions of the proceeds to Movement for Black Lives and Greater Chicago Food Depository. I am currently developing content for a new podcast geared toward finding common ground with people that hold different beliefs as I strongly believe that our tendency to dehumanize people on the other side of our beliefs has gotten out of control. If I can help calm down that rhetoric and also share my music with people, which I believe has a unifying quality, I will consider my efforts successful.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

My most recent fundraising effort for Greater Chicago Food Depository was triggered by this pandemic and how one in six people in the Chicagoland area require assistance from the food bank to feed their families. It is easy to politicize almost anything these days, but the basic requirements of human survival are not up for political debate or further polarization. People are losing their homes and are without food and I feel very strongly that if you can help, you must!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I was diagnosed with Lupus when I was seven years old and shared that fact while I was on American Idol, which led to other Lupus survivors getting in touch with me. One woman in particular has remained in touch with me over the years and I have had the privilege of supporting her through countless flare-ups while providing compassion and empathy for her disease, which is often invisible and very easy for others to gaslight. I have also shared lifestyle and dietary changes that have helped me manage the chronic joint pain and sporadic fatigue that she and most other Lupus sufferers experience.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

I know I have been bouncing around between causes in this interview, and this is a slightly generic answer, but if you have an audience or a community of people that look to you for leadership, take action and get involved. Cross pollenate your efforts with a cause. There is a lot of suffering in the world right now and if everyone helped a little, we could see some big improvements in the areas that need it most.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. “You have to tour in order to build a following.” I have grown to love it over the past decade but when I first started, I didn’t realize how much being a well-known musician required touring. There is no substitute for that in-person connection with fans.
  2. “You will not make your money back in album sales.” Music is basically free these days and no amount of financial security should be expected from people buying music. If you love a band or artist, show them love by purchasing their efforts so they can continue making records!
  3. “You don’t have to have millions of fans to have a successful career in music but the fans you do have must be passionate and eager to see you succeed.” I have learned through the successful funding of my recent Kickstarter campaign that my fans are highly engaged and unbelievably generous, thereby making my next album financially possible.
  4. “You must actively seek placements for your songs in commercials, television shows, movies, etc.” This is one of the main sources of income for songwriters and recording artists and it is a step I had no idea about in the beginning. I have since gained fans from different placements over the years and the royalties I collect quarterly are positively affected when one of my songs is placed somewhere.
  5. “Songwriters are alone a lot.” This is probably the toughest one for me as I have two kids and a really fun boyfriend, but I notice that when I carve out space for alone time, some of my best songs emerge from the quiet. I am not a “writers circle” type songwriter and have never written a song in the same room as another person so I end up being alone at the piano by candlelight a lot 🙂

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start with a movement to eliminate dehumanizing language on social media platforms. All civil wars and genocides have started with rhetoric that promotes dehumanization and the division in our country has been exponentially amplified on social media, thereby increasing the level of outrage and deepening the divide to an almost unrecognizable degree. If the overall temperature was brought down to a low-grade fever, we might start seeing each other as humans again and would hopefully be less driven to lash out against the “opposing side.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“We believe that it takes a strong back and a soft front to face the world” — Joan Halifax

This quote took my breath away as I have often prioritized strength above all other qualities, often presenting itself as a strong front protecting a weak spine. But if we work on strengthening our spine and building a sense of safety from within, regardless of what obstacles we may face head on, our fronts can soften with the knowledge that our spines do not need extra protection and we become less guarded and defensive.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

At the moment, I would give anything to sit down with Brené Brown. Her wisdom and insight have been life-changing for me and it gives me hope that her podcast is reaching so many people. She is a force for empathy and vulnerability and if we were all more in touch with those two traits within ourselves and how the lack of either causes us to act in fearful, guarded ways, the world would be a better place.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

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