Venice “noir pop” quartet Leftover Cuties strive to freshen their sound while staying faithful to fans
By Bliss Bowen
Creating music is a journey. If you’ve been doing it long enough to have a loyal following, how to keep those fans happy and interested in your artistic travels becomes a consequential question. It’s one with which the Leftover Cuties have been wrestling for the past year.
Based in Venice, the jazzy “noir pop” quartet’s biggest claim to fame is “Game Called Life,” which became the theme song for the 2010-2013 Showtime series “The Big C.” That introduced them to legions of new listeners around the globe (especially Brazil, home of their second largest fan base), and inspired many grateful letters and emails from fans living with cancer.
Frontwoman Shirli McAllen was touched by their communications though somewhat perplexed, as her original intent for the song had nothing to do with cancer. But not long after, when she was recuperating from brain surgeries and playing ukulele as physical therapy, she came to understand why they’d found hope in the sweetly sophisticated “Game Called Life” and other Cuties music.
Playing all the Cuties songs in order, from their 2009 album “Game Called Life” through 2013’s “The Spark & the Fire,” helped her feel like she still had control over her hands, and reminded her how healing music can be. Now she is extra mindful of that relationship with fans as she and her bandmates contemplate which direction to take with their next album.
Last summer, McAllen, bassist Austin Nicholsen, drummer Stuart Johnson and accordionist-pianist-trumpeter Mike Bolger finally resumed touring, blending material from 2013’s winning “The Spark & the Fire” and older albums with newer songs created in the wake of McAllen’s surgeries. She’s keenly aware of how long fans have waited for new music. Since last year she has been pondering a question confronting many independent artists: whether to release new tracks as they’re recorded, or wait until a completed album is ready so they can be heard in sequence.
“I think we’re going to release the first song hopefully by the end of the month, if I can find the right person that’s available to mix the songs,” McAllen says. “The goal is to release before the first of the month, and hopefully each month or hopefully even sooner than that we’ll start releasing song by song.
“I know our fans aren’t sitting home all day wondering, ‘Why haven’t Leftover Cuties released anything?’ But I am feeling pressure that it’s been two-and-a-half years of not releasing anything. I went through brain surgeries and all this stuff, but it’s been too long. But I also don’t want to release something for the sake of putting something out; I want it to be amazing. I’ve always been an advocate of quality versus quantity.”
She’s also thinking about releasing alternate versions of individual tracks, so fans can follow the band’s creative process: “I think audiences are interested these days in seeing [that] and being on the inside more.”
Composed in the aftermath of her surgeries, some of the new material is darker, “folky singer-songwriter stuff” that’s better suited to private listening than live performance, along the lines of what McAllen did before starting the Cuties. As she sang on “Game Called Life,” “It’s so hard to turn your life over/ Step out of your comfort zone/ It’s so hard to choose one direction/ When your future is unknown…”
Other new songs may get a test drive when the Cuties perform at Boulevard Music on Saturday.
And who knows? One of these days locals may — maybe — spot the Cuties busking around the Venice Boardwalk, although McAllen says it’s more “special and exciting” to busk in towns where they aren’t known. They busk on the road when touring schedules allow.
“It definitely helps supplement some of the income, and it’s just really a fun experience,” she says. “You get to meet a lot of people and people from the street end up coming to the shows, so it’s a tool to promote the show. We love doing it.”
For now, they’re focused on recording between festivals, private gigs and periodic appearances at downtown L.A. venues such as The Edison.
McAllen recently returned to Israel, where she was born and raised, to record with her cousin, musician Dorine Levy. The idea was to add some of Levy’s electronic elements to Leftover Cuties’ acoustic instrumentation — part of the Cuties’ goal to “do something different” with their next album.
She says the Cuties have been debating whether to stick with the “purist” jazzy acoustic sound that’s earned them acclaim, or introduce new production elements to develop their sonic identity.
“We don’t want to just start taking it for granted or doing what’s easiest,” she explains. “We’re always looking for that new thing that is surprising and delightful, something that is unexpected but still very interesting and fun to do. …
“There is something really special about basically keeping it pure in the sense that it’s just real musicians playing real instruments and that’s it. But we’ve done that for seven years and we have quite a few releases out there, and I feel like now is the time to go one or the other way: have a bigger production, with new elements, or take it back to a very stripped-down thing like we did on our first EP. That was really something special, really raw and broken down.
“I feel like this is the seven-year itch: How do we grow from here? It’s been a challenge, but it’s been really fun too, exploring different things.”
Leftover Cuties perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at Boulevard Music, 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. $17.50. Call (310) 398-2583 or visit leftovercuties.com.