Leona Naess came radiantly onto the stage in a red gypsy blouse with long, dark curls falling around her shoulders, a plastic cup of wine and a guitar in tow: an absolute vision of the bohemian songstress. Her music is a breezy mix of Joni Mitchell’s confessional writing and Edie Brickell’s jangly guitar work—but most noticeably Brickell’s voice. Partnered with a cellist, Naess belted out some pretty, skillfully rendered tunes.
Her stepmother, until a few years ago, was none other than Diana Ross, so Naess, born and raised in England but now based in New York, is certainly no stranger to the showbiz life—yet her performance might have informed otherwise. She seemed the consummate professional while involved in a song, strumming away and doling out words of angst or praise for a lover, but whatever Carly Simon coyness she might have possessed rapidly melted away in between songs to reveal an oddly uncouth, awkward young woman. Early on in her set she derided all of Brooklyn because she’d “had a shit night” at her gig in Williamsburg the night before. But as Brooklynites are not known for their tranquility, Naess was booed without delay. Little did she know so many outer-borough residents would be present at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. Prior to this she revealed her dislike for pretty much the rest of the country by dishing on the other small cities she’d just come from. Maybe this was some sort of misguided defense mechanism in response to stage fright, or perhaps the half-full cup of wine wasn’t the first of the evening and Naess is really just an obnoxious drunk. I honestly couldn’t figure it out.
“Calling”, the hit single off her new album, sounds incredibly like a bouncy Edie Brickell tune but sung in an even more plain Jane manner, à la Lisa Loeb. In all fairness though, the singles are almost never the best songs, just the most marketable. Naess has a knack for extolling the delights of love but was most engaging when she sang about the stormier relationships in her life: the acoustic jangles adopted heavier tones and seemed to reflect a slightly darker visualization of the world—a viewpoint perhaps most true to Naess’ own reality. An idealized retelling of her parents’ relationship, her mother’s remembrance of standing by her husband even before the cash was rolling in, set amid a lush arrangement heavy on the cello, was an affecting moment that almost made me forgot about her slip of the tongue earlier on. As she continued her set, switching from gentle strums and melodies to a more forceful guitar-powered acoustic rock, then back again, she seemed to settle into herself a bit more. The pretty music poured forth and her persona was winsome for a few brief moments.
There is certainly no lack of talent in Leona Naess, rather it is her apparent adherence to the cliché of the singer-songwriter living tempestuously simply as fodder for subject material that left me cold. Her range is also limited: she writes about love, or the loss of it, which in itself is limiting—unless, of course, you’re someone like Joni Mitchell who keeps things interesting with idiosyncratic changes and time signatures—she doesn’t always hit the mark but pitfalls are an important part of exploring new territory. Naess, in turn, stays off the back roads, close to her straightforward format and each song seems to pick up where the last one left off. Now, holding a budding artist up to such scrutiny, against someone as monumental as Joni Mitchell is unfair to say the least and assuredly this is not the intent here. But if Naess wants to really affect people through her music, unless she yearns for the marginality Brickell has achieved, she needs to get out of her rut of uniformity and follow her muse though more uncertain, more fruitful terrain. In addition, a bit more awareness of who her audience is and who she wants to be for them, certainly couldn’t hurt her stage persona.