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The Untouchable 

Leona Naess refuses to let anyone get her down

First of all, it's pronounced "Ness," as in Loch, as in Eliot. Leona Naess. If the name sounds familiar, it may be that you saw her in a Gap ad a while back. Featuring female musicians, the ad had the shapely Naess keeping company with rockers like Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and Liz Phair.

Then again, maybe you saw her in Ryan Adams' video for "Answering Bell." In the Alice in Wonderland-inspired clip, Naess cavorted with then-boyfriend Adams under the watchful eye of one Elton John.

It could be you've heard of her father, Arne Naess, a billionaire shipping magnate, and a man who once commanded a Norwegian expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest. Then again, you might be better familiar with her one-time stepmother, Diana Ross.

She hopes that it will soon be for her music. If her third and newest record, the self-titled Leona Naess, is any indication, that new day might be dawning very soon. She's set to appear on The Tonight Show in a couple of weeks, as well as Kilborn and a few other places.

Right now, however, she's relaxing -- and recharging. We caught up with an agreeable, post-massage Naess in Nashville, where she was winding down after winding up a club tour with HEM.

Creative Loafing: How'd you hook up with Ethan Johns for this record?

Leona Naess: I have friends that have worked with him, and every album I've heard him produce I thought was just stellar. I liked the way he didn't use any computers. I'd always used Pro-Tools when making records, and I never really listened to those kinds of records. I've always liked the live sound that one gets when one uses tape and doesn't use computers. Sometimes when you hear a producer it sounds great, but it doesn't work with your music. Anyway, I got my manager to send him my demo, and that's how it worked out. He gets the sound right there, right then, and not later on in the mix. He was brought up in his dad's studio (Johns' dad is famed producer and engineer Glyn Johns). Most of the producers go to school now, or learn from current records. He was there when all the Stones albums were being recorded. It's a little less of an art form now, it seems. Sure, Ethan's very precious, but (it's) in the right way, you know?

You're close to finishing a club tour with HEM, and now you're hitting the "shed" circuit. How are you preparing?

With HEM, these are really intimate shows. Most of the people (at the large shows) will not have heard of me and they'll be there to see John Mayer and Counting Crows. I just have to try and entertain them however long I'm up there. I don't really know what it's going to be like. I'm kind of petrified! (laughs)

Are you able to write on the road, or do you need to be in certain mindset or surroundings?

Sometimes I can go without touching my guitar for months on end, and sometimes it just hits me hard -- there's no real recipe for it. I think I need some chaos around me. If I say I'm gonna go off (and write), there's too much pressure to do it. And then I don't want to do it. It's like the child in me: "Nope, don't want to do it." But I've written lots of songs where there was a party of people outside in the living room and I take my guitar and run in the bathroom, you know? Something just hits you, you know? (Thinks about what she has just said, and laughs.)

The songs are nicely sequenced. The first half of the record seems to be looking back, and the latter half seems to be looking ahead.

Well, I wanted the first and last songs to be really positive. After "Calling," the first song, it goes back into the past. I wanted it to be like a vinyl record -- an "A" side and a "B" side. The "A" side was to be about dealing with the past and the "B" side was to be about looking to the future, brushing the dust off you and getting back in again, you know?

It's not an album of singles.

I've done that kind of thing before, the single thing. That's another reason I worked with Ethan. I wasn't interested in singles. If there's a single on there, that's great. (But) I just wanted to make a record that I'd go and buy. It sounds easy, but not all that many artists do it. I sort of made this record thinking I'd get dropped, you know? "I'll make this record, and then take it with me to some small label." But they've (MCA Records) been great. We did a remix of "Calling" with some bigshot, and when it came back it just didn't sound right, and I said I didn't want to use it. And they were like, "you know, you're right." I think they understand what it is I need to do. I mean, I've sort of played that game before, and if you lose, you're left with nothing. I really need to get this album to do what I think it can do. Which is to establish me as an artist.

Most stories -- including this one -- no doubt mention your family when discussing you. Has coming from the background you have been any sort of albatross in the way, perhaps making your road to respectability harder than it might be for someone else?

It's funny. I was talking to someone the other day about the Strokes. And I said, "Yes, the record label put a lot of money into them." And the other person said, "Oh, it's probably Julian's father (modeling magnate John Casablancas)." I just got really mad. It's just such a stupid statement. If you know anything about the process at all, you know that that's not the way it works. At the end of the day, cream rises, and The Strokes are a wicked amazing band. It has nothing to do with their upbringing. Music snobs think you have to have a certain sort of upbringing to be "real," you know? I think that's really narrow-minded, because that's saying that all people care about is money -- and that nothing else could really affect you or could make you feel pain or make you feel the need to write. I cared a lot about it in the beginning. And I guess if the record started doing really well I'd get it more than I have. I'm at the weird stage where I've gotten some press but not been bombarded with anything. I've been lucky. I do get it, and I'm sure behind my back I get it all the time. But I've done this completely on my own, and have never asked for anything. I can sleep well at night, you know, and I think that's all that really matters --how you feel about yourself.

Leona Naess performs with John Mayer and Counting Crows Tuesday, September 2 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Call the venue at 704-549-5555 for more details.

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