Lea Thomas is an alternative-folk singer and songwriter currently residing in Brooklyn. Having grown up in Maui, Hawaii, her songs are described as “stories that explore the emotional landscapes as mirrored by the physical terrains of our environment.”
Having personally been a fan of Lea’s voice and songwriting since the first time I heard her perform live, I’ve always equated her vocal styling to a combination of Beth Gibbons from Portishead mixed with a dash of Natalie Merchant from 10,000 Maniacs. Lea’s voice, however, while feeling so familiar, is at the same time so uniquely her own.
Not excluding other artistic mediums, Lea Thomas is also an extremely talented weaver, herbalist, teacher, and visual artist. She released her debut full-length album Want for Nothing by Tacky Records in January 2017, and most recently released her newest EP, Part of this Place, by Spirit House Records in October.
Where were you raised and what was your home life like growing up?
I was born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, although I spent my toddler years in Bali. Each place has its challenges, but when I look back on Maui in the 90’s, it feels like a special moment in time. The island didn’t have as many tourists and was far less developed. The internet was too slow to keep us occupied. It was peaceful, and the beauty of the island really envelops all of my memories.
How did you come to discover music and guitar?
I started on piano when I was little, maybe 5. I was a pretty sensitive kid and started writing poetry pretty early on. I think I remember writing my first songs – like songs I’d want to play for friends and family – when I was 9 or so, on piano. But everything changed when my dad got me an electric guitar. I grew up watching him play around the house and eventually, I guess it just called to me and completely fired up my creative process. I became so obsessed. I was so attached, I would eat my meals and even sleep next to the guitar.
What made you decide to move to New York City from Hawaii?
Growing up on an island, I was always looking elsewhere to discover new music. As I started to pick up the guitar, I also became obsessed with discovering music. It felt like so many of my favorite artists throughout history had, at some point, passed through New York City. I never really hesitated. My brother moved here first – he’s five years older than me – so I got to visit him in the summers and I just fell in love with the infinite possibilities of where a day could go, where a life could go. All the intersections of culture and human story…it still fascinates me. By the time I was 17 and graduated, I had saved enough money from working for a few years at a cafe in high school and signed up for a year-long audio engineering program. Beyond that year, I didn’t have much of a plan, just a lot of trust in the unknown potential.
You are such a prolific songwriter; your Bandcamp page is filled with albums, EPs and single releases. What inspires you to write? Do you wait until you feel inspired to or do you choose to sit down and write as part of some sort of routine?
I don’t feel that my output is particularly prolific, but I do pick up a guitar every day and vocalize whatever comes to mind. It just makes me feel at ease. I think it’s always how I’ve organized my thoughts on things that are going on in my life or the world around me. It’s a very natural process for me. I love that liminal space, before a song has really taken root, when my mind is just a wanderer, following all those intuitive impulses.
I know as well as a musician that you are also an herbalist. How did you come to discover your love for plants and decide to discover their medicinal uses? Does this inspire you creatively?
I hesitate to use the word herbalist to describe myself because I feel like the level of understanding that I have developed could be more commonplace, as it has been in previous generations. That said, I first became seriously involved in learning about medicinal plants after I had been living in the city for a couple of years and was desperately seeking to reconnect with some semblance of nature. My childhood in Hawaii set me up with a certain foundational connection to nature that I don’t think I valued as much until I realized it was missing. I was working long hours at a mastering studio at the time, in an office with no windows, and I just had enough at a certain point. I quit and immediately sought out an apprenticeship at a long-standing herbal apothecary in the East Village. That experience led to other apprenticeships and books and conversations with a wonderful community of plant-enthusiasts doing amazing work in the city. There is so much to learn! Most importantly, my studies led me out into the woods, into city parks, getting to know the actual plants themselves.
I think that we, humans, see ourselves as separate and often superior to the plant kingdom, but it’s a pretty ignorant perspective. Once you start to see the complexities of the interconnectedness, the way plants react and adapt and communicate and care for each other, I think it is crazy to not be humbled by their intelligence.
I could really go on for a long time about what plant medicine has offered me in lessons and metaphors for life. For me, it was a gateway to seeing myself even more clearly, as just a small part of a really big and beautiful world. Small in the best way, humbled.
You are also an artist of many forms. Can you tell us a bit about what else you create aside from music, and how that impacts each medium as you work?
My parents had always encouraged me to explore visual mediums. Over the years, I had experimented with painting, mixed media collage, pen/ink, etc., but once I started to weave and experiment with natural dyeing, my interests in other mediums faded pretty quickly.
I don’t think that my expressions through music and weaving impact each other very directly. I tend to explore similar themes of the human-nature relationship in both expressions, but I see weaving as a pretty separate experience because it is so much more tangible. Music feels like a much more subjective and ethereal thing. I mean, when a weaving is done, I have to cut it off. There is no way, once I’ve reached the end of the warp, to prolong the process. The finish line for a song or a record is a bit more amorphous, so weaving can sometimes satisfy that feeling of completion more immediately, though they are both equally patient processes.
That is awesome! Finally, do you have any new releases, shows, or news to share with our readers?
I recently released an EP called Part of this Place with Spirit House Records. It’s a gentle listen, recorded in Vermont, in a house in the woods. I played most of the instruments other than drums and kept things pretty natural, with intention. I am also organizing a new release for 2019, a collection of field recordings, songs, and ambient drones that I recorded in a solar-powered tiny house in the middle of a desert on an artist residency last year with my collaborator John Thayer. Looking forward to sharing this one but we don’t have a release date just yet. Stay tuned.
Thank you so much Lea! Really appreciate you sitting down and talking with us.