By Andrea Domanick
Don't let the name fool you -- the Leftover Cuties are anything but stale. The L.A. quintet has been making crowds swoon with their fresh, sultry take on vintage jazz-pop that incorporates everything from horns to ukuleles. Their sound has made them a staple at speakeasies in their hometown, and their tune "Game Called Life" is the theme for the hit Showtime series "The Big C."
Next week, the Cuties head to Texas for their first SXSW showcase, where they'll play two highly anticipated shows (including one curated by Miles Davis' family). But first, they'll stop in Las Vegas for a three-night stint at the Cosmopolitan's Chandelier bar beginning this Thursday at 9 p.m.
I recently spoke with chanteuse Shirli McAllen from her home in L.A., where she weighed in on the upcoming gigs, covering Lady Gaga with a ukulele and the best cocktail to drink with their music. Here's what she had to say:
Andrea Domanick: You’re playing a three-night stint at the Cosmopolitan this weekend -- how did that opportunity come up?
Shirli McAllen: We’ve been wanting to play Vegas for a while, so we asked our agent to reach out. It’s a place where so many shows are going on, and lots of people from all over the world are there. It’s a great way to gain new fans and a great way to have a vacation while doing what we love. We’re probably gonna spend our free time lounging by the pool and doing some busking. We’d like to do something intimate and acoustic like that while we're here.
A.D.: How did the band develop its sound? It’s pretty unique -- I can’t think of too many new bands who use a ukulele and a French horn.
S.M.: It really evolved organically. One day Austin [Nicholsen, the band's ukulele player] walked into my house with a ukulele and started to play. It brought this style of singing out of me naturally, it wasn't something I did purposely. And I think everything else filled around that. When we met with our drummer [Stuart Johnson], he thought about how to play in a way that wouldn't basically demolish the vocals and the intimacy of the ukulele. So he built this vintage kit and played mostly brush drums. By the time we needed a bass player, we already knew what kind of a feel we had.
It's funny because people think I listened to old music from the '30s and '40s my whole life, but it actually happened the opposite way. For a long time, I was a singer/songwriter, a "girl with a guitar." Growing up, I was really into grunge and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, which people wouldn’t get guess listening to my music now. But when the band formed, people started comparing me to singers like Billie Holiday, which humbled me very much, so I started looking into them, and I just fell in love with that era of music. But, in a way, I'm glad I found this music when I did because it's made me really appreciate it.
A.D.: You grew up in Israel, right? How did you end up in L.A.?
S.M.: Yeah, when I was 22, I met my husband here in L.A. while on vacation. Since I was a musician and he worked in the film industry, it made more sense for me to be the one to move. But I didn't move here to pursue my music career, necessarily. Being a musician was always the plan, but not necessarily singing in English and doing it in the United States. I'd been writing songs in Hebrew since I was 14 and totally planned to be an Israeli musician. But, you know, things happen in life, and they change your plans, and now I see it as the biggest blessing ever.
A.D.: Do you have any plans to write or sing songs in Hebrew for the Leftover Cuties?
S.M.: No. You know, it is something that keeps coming to my mind, but I don't want to force it. But it might happen in the future.
A.D.: The band is about to come out with an EP of cover songs. A lot of the artists you guys have tackled, like Lady Gaga, are pretty stylistically different from you -- how do you go about making those songs your own?
S.M.: Well, with Lady Gaga, a friend was like, "You gotta cover 'Poker Face!' " and I just kind of rolled my eyes. But then I actually read the lyrics and thought they were actually really good. What's most important to me is a song's lyrics, that it's well-written, so that's what ultimately turned me onto the idea. Then we sat down to see what we could bring to the song vocally and with the ukulele. With other covers, like "You Are My Sunshine," the original sounds really cheerful, but if you listen to the lyrics, it's actually a really sad song. So we decided to put it in a minor key, and I changed my vocals to a sadder vibe, and it became this magical track that really does justice to the lyrics and what the message is. It’s very hard to pick covers because you want to know that you can make something different with it. You need to know that you can make it your own and you’re not just singing the song the way it already is. it’s nice to pick the ones where you can do something really special with it.
A.D.: Since you’re playing at Chandelier, which is big on mixology, and because a lot of people associate your music with speakeasies, what cocktail would you say goes best with your music? Is there one you all like to drink?
S.M.: I’m a big fan of scotch. We all like to drink Jameson, neat. I think that also probably matches the music best, too -- or an Old Fashioned. Simple, sweet, old-fashioned, right? We once had a bartender at the Tarpit on La Brea [in Los Angeles] make a drink after us. I think it was called the “Cute-ini,” but I can’t remember what was in it. Maybe we’ll ask one of the bartenders at Chandelier to come up with one. This time, we’ll be sure to ask for the recipe!