Songs of the Summer 2015: Mike Doughty Talks Leikeli47’s “Heard Em Say”

"Heard Em Say" might have a cold sound that's currently fashionable in pop music, but Leikeli47’s voice fills it with beautiful, uncommon humanity.

Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2015.
— the editors of the Talkhouse


I’ve been on tour this summer; “Heard Em Say” is my daily go-to track. Like a lot of my favorite rap songs, it’s deeply, deeply weird. I put it on when I get in the van in the morning and it takes over my brain, and I start making insane facial expressions and driving faster. The bass is so gigantic that the rearview mirror vibrates, blurring the cars behind me.

It’s a slow, huge, dirty beat, and Leikeli47’s reverbed voice, and every single thing she says, is a hook. It’s got a coldness and a smokiness — not like jazz-club smoky, but like a room, shuddering with bass, so filled with weed smoke it makes you claustrophobic. It’s sparse, spacious, and surrounds the listener with sinister majesty.

It’s a big 808 snare, her voice — which has a subtle rasp to it, and her vowels slide up and down in pitch, slowly and spookily — and some startling WHOOP! WHOOP! yells, used as a percussion element.

There’s a grindy synth thing and a couple of drifting elements that I didn’t notice until the tenth listen. Like a lot of tracks that appear to be absolutely spare, there are more elements to it than you notice. That’s an extremely difficult function of making a track that sounds huge and empty — you always want to add elements, make everything more of a chord, and then when you end up with something way more crowded than you wanted, you have to take a razor blade to your beloved creation. Not easy.

There can also be an insecurity — a difficulty in committing to the spareness. However many times I’m on a dance floor noticing that the records that people latch on to have the fewest, simplest elements, when I’m sitting at the computer composing, I keep thinking I have to add more parts, to prove that I’m musically worthwhile. So Leikeli47’s decision to go for the huge-emptiness vibe is in fact thoroughly gutsy.

I’ve noticed a thing in music, currently, for cold sounds: large icy strings/synths, much reverb on the vocal. I think it comes from the prevalence of MDMA. There’s something about those cold sounds that feels great, maybe even physically great, like you can feel it on your skin, when you’re on MDMA, on a dance floor, and it’s rippling over you. It can be fantastic, but it can also make the song feel distant. “Heard Em Say” has quite a bit of that cold sound, but Leikeli47’s voice — that spooky up-and-down — fills it with beautiful, uncommon humanity.

Leikeli47 wears a ski mask. I have managed to find out very little about her; in the interview on Power 106 in LA that I watched, she says it’s to keep the focus on the music, which I am respecting by not going, like, OH MY GOSH LOOK AT THIS CRAZY SKI-MASK PERSON.

I didn’t know that till I Googled her, not long before writing this. I tend to find my music by endlessly clicking “Listeners Also Bought” at the bottom of artists’ iTunes pages. I couldn’t tell you what chain of artists led me to Leikeli47, but when I saw that the EP’s cover was just her name in black, on an empty white background, I thought, I think I’m gonna be on board with this. Artists tend to be mysterious to me, not because I have a mystery fetish, but because I just don’t take the time to investigate. I’m kind of like the middle-aged lady who says, “Oh, I just listen to the radio, I don’t know what the songs are called,” except it’s all avant-garde ’70s tape-loop noise music from Japan and big, bizarre hip-hop records. I get everything I need from the record itself.

The Power 106 guy pronounced her name as Lay-KELL-ee, which I’m gonna go with, as I completely sounded like a soccer mom who doesn’t know song titles when people asked me what I was listening to. “Oh, I’ve been crazy for this record by Lee-uh, La-Ly? Kill-Eye?…”

The one thing I did wish I knew for sure is whether she produced herself ; based on a skit on the EP, where her dad (?) comes into her room (?) yelling about how it’s five in the morning, and why is she playing the same drum sounds over and over again? my guess is that she did this entirely alone, and I love that. It strikes me as kind of a folkie thing, almost — like a singer accompanying herself on a solo guitar, but this is one woman and one drum machine. Left index finger on the 808, right index finger on the snare.

I love it when artists have a certain group of sounds they draw from — a consciously limited arsenal can have a tremendous force of personality. This is compounded by her constant hooks, which are hauntingly, forcefully repetitive. It’s an aesthetic mindset I adore.

(Sidebar: I covet that. Anything with a root, even a distant root, in dance music also has license to be so. A thing I have been hearing my entire career is I hate that your songs are just the same thing repeating over and over. When I was newly out in the record-making world, I was on a jag of listening to house music; some of the greatest, most gorgeous records had a sum total of twelve words in them, and I would baffledly be like, What are you talking about? My song has at least thirty words! It’s an epic!)

(Another sidebar: I covet the weirdness that’s completely acceptable in rap music. If you go for strange-sounding or dissonant elements on a rock record — and long ago in my career I just chose to be in the rock bin (there were bins at the time) because I was friends with indie-rock bands I could do shows with, and performance with a live band was the essence of my early career, essentially, to be able to book my band in rock club — rock-music logic will put you in an experimental category. Rap records get to simply sound amazing.)

She’s just gotten some significant co-sign from Jay Z, a public mention of some kind, and I hope that’s good for her. I definitely want more records like this to exist in the universe.

Though it would be great if Leikeli47 turns into a superstar, maybe I can track her down and do a song with her before there’s paparazzi following her 24/7, waiting for the moment when the ski mask comes off.

Mike Doughty is a songwriter and performer. You can follow him on Twitter here.