Leah Finkelstein
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What's in a name? Much, if it's Dear Claudia By AIMSEL PONTI
Portland musician Leah Finkelstein lost her mother, Claudia, to cancer. Needless to say, the effect on her was profound.

But here's the good news. Leah and her mom shared a huge bond, which was the love for music. Claudia was also a musician, a jazz vocalist to be exact, and was a fan of the Beatles, Billie Holiday, Elton John and Rickie Lee Jones.

This of course rubbed off on daughter Leah, who began to write music when she was 16. The songwriting of her mom's favorite artists was a significant influence on Leah.

After college, Finkelstein was living in Boston and trying to figure out what direction she wanted to take with her music. In 2002 she got the call about her mother's illness and relocated to Portland to be with her.

Three years later, when Claudia passed away, Finkelstein underwent a musical shift and began to refine her songwriting style. She started playing gigs again and, just as important, was able once again to write songs.

One fateful night last January, Finkelstein was playing at the Dogfish on Free Street and was approached by drummer Herb Clarke. Clarke moved to Maine in the early 90's and has been drumming ever since with a number of bands on a number of projects.

Before he left the West Coast to live in Maine, Clarke studied and played with musicians from places like Greece, Nigeria and Israel. This left a “world music” imprint on him that he likes to work in to all his music.

Clarke also introduced Finkelstein to bass and guitar player Matt Hansen. Hansen has been playing music since high school. He attended Berklee College of Music for a year, then returned to Portland and became a member of Strange Pleasure and Ebnflo, two mainstays of the local scene.

The connection between Finkelstein, Clarke and Hansen was instantaneous. The only thing left to do was to name the band and make a record. They had been listening to one of Claudia Finkelstein's CDs, and Hansen made the suggestion of Dear Claudia. The name most certainly stuck.

The self-titled CD was recently released, and it is a charming and smart assembly of 11 songs. Finkelstein has an expressive voice that is full of soul, and she plays a mean keyboard. Clarke and Hansen give her songs the royal treatment with percussion and bass lines.

As for genre, who knows and who cares? But OK, fine, I'll give it a whirl. In fact, I'm gonna coin a term. “Dear Claudia” is is piano-based smart-pop. It elicits a kind of 1970's FM-radio songwriter feeling that translates seamlessly to the present. “This Too Shall Pass” is my current favorite: “Spinning 'round my head, the things I gotta do, things I gotta do today. He smokes his first cigarette and I think about, I think about our love. This too shall pass.”

Hansen's acoustic guitar and bass and Finkelstein's organ licks converge with Clarke's drumming and make for an outstanding song, the centerpiece. Back-up vocals by Kim Elliott further decorate the song.

“In Other Houses” is another jewel, which includes the electric-guitar contribution of Kevin Dietz, who also performs on “What a Woman He Was.”

The latter tells the story of a woman named Dory who paid for everything with one-dollar bills and rode her bicycle wearing high heeled shoes. One night at the pub, big old Jim tries to steal a kiss from Dory, and during the exchange he knocks Dory's wig off, exposing “her” true gender. Jim punches Dory's lights out, but not to worry, Dory hit the road and is now a go-go dancer in Albuquerque. As for big old Jim, “he's never been quite the same, he lives in a cabin out in Aroostook County, Maine, and he's still singing, 'Oh, what a woman, what a woman he was...'” It's a fun and funky number complete with wah-wah guitar effects.

The tune “Cocktails” features a saxophone cameo from Darren Whitney.

Dear Claudia sounds seasoned well beyond its 10-month existence.

By the way, I've always been a fan of the “hidden track,” and the one on this album is worth waiting for. The final song, “You Were Right,” ends at about four minutes and is followed by nearly five of silence, which is quietly broken with the sounds of an acoustic guitar. Finkelstein's voice then comes in with a cover of Dylan's “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right” accompanied by several other singers.

It's a stark, poignant ending to an already fantastic record. The band plans to head back into the studio next year, and I for one am eager to hear what emerges.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't say that somewhere out there there's a woman named Claudia with a huge, content grin on her face, and she's likely singing right along.


Press Release/Brand X/LA Times Letter from Mitch Holden
Leah moved here from Portland, Maine, with her husband in January 2009, no job perspectives, completely new to the west coast, with plans to further a career that she has pursued professionally since she was 15 - their entire newly married lives in the back of an 18 foot truck. She left her day job on the east coast as a social worker. She had lost her mother to cancer in 2005, noted jazz singer, Claudia Finkelstein. They were extremely close; Leah actually moved back to Portland from Boston to be there for her and help to take care of her. (Driving her mother to treatments is a story in itself)
Within a month, she was put in touch with people who told her about my newly established non-profit, Warrior Theatre, a performing arts center and support center for adults who were victims of childhood abuse. She called me the very next day, we met immediately, and she offered to volunteer that afternoon. From that point on, she was my wing woman, she became our Assistant Director with her intense background as a social worker, and knowledge of non-profits, mixed with artistry she was a perfect fit. Over time we have developed the kind of working relationship that makes us much stronger than the one, so to speak.
We produced and directed Warrior Theatre’s first production together, and Leah composed original music for the play (The Dead Eye Boy written by Angus MacLachlan) which she performed as well, a bit like the Greek Chorus of the production.
She dedicated her time to Warrior Theatre, co-writing a book with me that details the therapy that we use (a therapy designed by our Chairperson of the Board, Dr. Arlene Drake Ph.D., who has been a therapist in Encino for over 25 years) and at the same time pursuing her music, playing gigs around the Valley and other areas in and around Los Angeles, including Hotel Café.
One of the things that I noticed from working together , was that because of Leah’s music, education and social work skills that she brought to the table, it was a level that I had never experienced before, working with Leah made me a better artist overall. Her business sense also pushed me to be a better Director of my non-profit.
I saw Leah attempt things she had never done before, such as directing, “Dead Eye Boy,” at the Pico Playhouse. She grasped theatrical concepts very quickly, and took charge when it deemed necessary. Her innate ability to cross over into the world of theater was inspiring, and she did it all for next to no money. Why? Because she cares. She is someone who integrates her work to help others and her work as an artist on a daily basis. She is doing it now, not waiting until she, “makes it.” In my mind and heart she is already a huge success.

At this point I has grown so fond of working with her and had such deep respect for her as an artist. I decided I would pitch her the idea of working together as a business/art/management team. I had a lot of experience in production of live shows and being an actor and director I know the business end of entertainment and I knew from working with her we would once again bring out the best in each other regardless of how difficult the odds. She liked the idea, so for the last year I have been managing Leah, which has been an enormous gift for me not only because she enriches my artistic life, but this partnership has given me the opportunity and challenge to step up to the plate and use all my skills to their fullest potential.
So now Leah and I facilitate our Warrior Theatre support group on Monday nights together and she continues to play up to four gigs a week. She has resident gigs at Smiles’ in Sherman Oaks, Michael’s in Burbank and Exotic Thai Bistro in Simi Valley, among other venues she has graced such as Hotel Café, Bellavino, San Manuel Casino, private functions in Malibu, etc.


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  • Profile Last Updated:
    11/16/11 20:47:58

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