LeAnna Eden arrived in Charlotte from Milwaukee three years ago, in a relationship that went south and a car that broke down. In a word, she was stuck. But Eden didn't waste a lot of time spinning her wheels.
"I had to sell the car," the 26-year-old singer-songwriter says. "That was my only transportation and I couldn't afford another one." She laughs and reflexively adjusts her glasses. "So I just stayed here."
And she hated it. For the first year, Eden absolutely despised Charlotte. She'd walk around Plaza Midwood and silently scoff at the clusters of hipsters hanging out in front of Common Market and along Thomas Avenue between Commonwealth and Central. "I felt like I was too northern," she says. But Eden had her guitars. She had her songs. And eventually she realized those Plaza Midwood "hipsters" might actually be her people.
What's more, things were changing in Charlotte. Rapidly. "I feel like I got here right in time for, shall we say, the Charlotte renaissance," Eden says. She's sitting at a window table at Zada Jane's on Central Avenue in a hoodie jacket over a black shirt, black jeans, and brown sneakers, her hair freshly buzzed on one side, with dangling locks on the other highlighted in brilliant brown and reddish streaks. Eden is shy and a little awkward. But when she sneaks out a smile, it's a big, confident, radiant, creative smile.
"From the first to the second year here, so much changed, aesthetically," says Eden, who will perform an acoustic show at The Station in Plaza Midwood on Thursday, Jan. 19. "It's crazy! And it's just so cool to be a part of that birth."
Eden isn't just part of that birth; she's one of its midwives. Not only did the singer quickly form a band, LeAnna Eden and The Garden Of, after getting her footing in Charlotte, but she's also surrounded herself with a vibrant circle of artists. Some of them appear in her powerful recent video for "The Protest Song," about the epidemic of police violence against blacks. On March 18, Eden's band — whose name is not just a clever play on the Genesis story, but also an acronym, LETGO, which serves as a useful affirmation — will drop its first EP, 11, during a release party at Petra's Piano Bar and Cabaret on Commonwealth.
"It took me 11 years to find the community I needed to create and finish this project," Eden says. "Eleven years to find the right studio and engineer. Eleven years to find the right band. So I named it 11."
It's impossible to gauge how much impact Eden will make on the Charlotte music scene in 2017, but our prediction is that it will be felt far and wide. Eden is a singer-songwriter with a powerful voice, cogent messages, and a genuinely singular sound. Her first recordings from just five years ago, when she was still in Milwaukee, are deceptively simple lo-fi songs set in an indie-folk tradition that spans back to early Cat Power — impressionistic nuggets of strummed or fingerpicked acoustic guitar that find Eden meditating on dreams and nightmares.
But when Eden straps on her big sunburst Epiphone semi-hollowbody electric guitar with The Garden Of, and kicks out gnarly distorted licks and angry lyrics about the poisoned waters of Flint, Michigan, she sounds like nobody else. That song, "Dirty Water," is one of the highlights on 11, whose five tracks run the indie-rock gamut from knotty, funky, guitars-and-bass riffage in "Walk Away" to simmering intensity in the darkly sublime "Secrets," which builds to a crescendo with Eden wailing the words, 'For all of your secrets, get in line, give it time, give me mine."
If music alone were what made LeAnna Eden such an important player on the Charlotte scene, it would be enough. But there's more. She was recently tapped by Hip Hop Orchestrated's Octavia Moore to be part of Moore's Music Speaks series, which brings musicians into classrooms in underserved schools.
Eden also has signed on with Petra's to do the first of what she hopes will be a monthly experimental performance series, Session: A Listening Party, later this month. She conceived the series to bring attention to artists from other parts of Charlotte who don't get many opportunities to perform in the city's musical hotspots. "The purpose of Sessions is that I won't be performing — it's just me presenting these artists and saying, 'Hey guys, these people are worth hearing!'" The first Session is scheduled for Jan. 30 and will feature the soul singer Darian La Sparrow, rapper Black Linen and female DJ SPK.
The Session project is very personal for Eden. "I want to give people the tools that I wasn't given when I first started out," she says.
Eden started out on the streets of Milwaukee more than a decade ago, after leaving the home of her adoptive parents at 16. Her parents were strict Christians, and Eden was a more complex human being. "My dad was the choir director at church and my mom was the organist," she says. "So I grew up around a lot of Christian music and classical stuff."
She played oboe in the school band at an early age, but left that behind when she started hearing the snotty punk of early-2000s alt-rock acts like Sum 41 blaring from the CD players of fellow misfits during recess at school. "I was like, 'Oh my god! What is this?' Then when I got older, my dad would let me listen to the radio, but a lot of that was oldies stations — like Beach Boys and stuff like that," she remembers. "And then once I was a teenager I was allowed to listen to alternative stuff, so it was grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and all the stuff that's still being played on 106.5 right now."
After leaving home, Eden bought herself an old car with her first paycheck and began cruising around Milwaukee's artsy neighborhoods. By 18 she had her first acoustic guitar. "My friend gave it to me and that's when I started writing songs," she says. "When I was learning how to play, I would listen to classical guitar while I slept so I'd hear things. But I didn't really know what I was doing or what I was playing. It was just acoustic stuff — I don't really know how to classify what it was."
Within three years, the young folkie with a punk-rock heart was playing open mic nights at clubs and cafes. By 2012, Eden had performed at the Milwaukee Pride festival and was putting songs on Bandcamp. But if some of her first recordings, like "Believe," recall the phrasing of early Chan Marshall and the feistiness of a young Ani DiFranco, it's not because Eden particularly likes DiFranco. At one point during her formative years in Milwaukee's creative community, Eden found herself around a group of lesbians who attempted to school her on the music she was supposed to be listening to. Eden recoiled.
"I was living with this queer couple who were telling me, 'You need to listen to these things in order to be a proper lesbian,' and so I really don't like the Indigo Girls or Ani DiFranco," Eden says. "And I know it's just because of that. I mean, I respect what they do and I can understand why people think that I may be similar to them, but I don't like their music."
By then, Eden had moved to Milwaukee's River West neighborhood, which she describes as "an area where a lot of artists and painters live, and where the vegans have their restaurants." There, she met people who knew how to record music. "There was this one guy, Sean Williamson, who really pushed me," Eden remembers. "His sister took my first pictures, and he's the lead singer of this metal band [Group of the Altos], whose bass player had a home studio, and he would take me there and like force me to record things. And then I bought a little USB mic and I used – well, I still use it, actually – this free computer app that's really, really bad. I mean, it's horrible. But I recorded all my songs on that."
All the stuff on Bandcamp? "All that old stuff," Eden says. "You can tell by the quality of it." She laughs. "It's really nasty. I like it, though."
Eden was coming into her own as both a musician and music fan — locking in on three of her favorite singer-songwriters, Lauryn Hill, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Regina Spektor. She was also landing gigs at venues she admired. "I was lucky. I got to play at the Cactus Club, which to me is just one of the best places, and they're really nice to locals," she says. "It seemed to me like when all the indie bands would go on tour, the Cactus Club is one of their last stops before their songs are on the radio. So I felt really lucky to be able to play there."
Another club Eden frequented was Frank's Power Plant, a little dive bar in Bay View, Milwaukee's equivalent to Plaza Midwood. "I went there a lot. I got drunk there a lot," she remembers. (Well, actually, she remembers hearing about it.) "I had a birthday there one time and it was open mic night, and I totally blacked out while I was onstage," Eden says, tugging at the ring in her nose and letting out a muted chuckle. "Apparently I played a whole set, but I don't remember anything."
By 2014, LeAnna Eden was in love and headed to Charlotte, but not all was rosy when she arrived in the Queen City. "I had a job within the first two weeks here, but when we broke up, it was hard," she remembers. "It was just a very different environment from the one I was used to."
Now that things are looking up for her, Eden feels more a part of the community. She should. She's made it better. "It's nice when people want me to play shows," she says. "That's always good. And now I know a lot of people — like everywhere. And it's really cool to go to the grocery store and recognize like five people. I don't necessarily know them enough to say hi, but just to recognize them. That sense of community is awesome."
Creatively, Eden says she's in a transitional phase now that the EP is done and the band has scheduled its release party. She's printing up new T-shirts, taking care of paperwork, planning a short tour, and thinking about songs for her next album. The solo gig at The Station this week is part of a purging of energy for her. "I'm opening for these bands from Winston-Salam and Asheville," she says. "It's like going back to how I started. Because all the music we play as a band — I wrote that before I even found the band. And I like having the two different sounds. There's something about being able to do everything yourself that's appealing to me."
She's also enjoyed expanding her geographical boundaries in Charlotte since she arrived — to creative areas that didn't even exist a few years ago. "Charlotte's a weird city," she says. "There's lots of really cool little places spread out all over the place. Like, I eventually discovered places like Area 15, which is really neat. My friend has a studio there, so I go over there a lot. And I like going over to the Neighborhood Café by Johnson C. Smith University. And then there's the house parties — they're really sort of happening right now and I like that."
But Eden's old nemesis Plaza Midwood remains her home turf. "Plaza Midwood is where there's a whole bunch of places in one little area," she says, pointing out the window of Zada Jane's, where scruffy haired dudes skateboard by on Central Avenue. "It's funny, I remember going through Plaza Midwood a week after I got here and feeling like, 'God I hate this neighborhood — look at all those hipsters.' And now I realize this really is the main part of town where I feel like, 'OK, if I'm going to go hang out, I'm going to come over to this little five-block radius. Because this is where the people I'm interested in come. This is Charlotte if you're creative."