Front and Center: LAWIM President, Leanne Summers

The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here

Front and Center: Los Angeles Women in Music (LAWIM) President, Leanne Summers.

As a professional singer, vocal coach and president of LAWIM, Leanne Summers wears many hats in the music industry.

As a vocalist, Summers has traveled nationwide as a solo artist and musical director with her own Top 40 band, and as a backup singer/opening act for major artists.

Her vocal coaching/production clients include an extensive list of independent and major label recording artists, feature film and television actors, soundtrack artists, dancers, Broadway performers and prominent music supervisors, as well as production and management companies.

And then there’s LAWIM. As president, Summers leads the nonprofit organization which was founded over 25 years ago to support and empower women in the music industry.

Leanne Summers took some time to talk with The WiMN about her experience with music, the industry and LAWIM below. For more information, please visit www.lawim.com and leannesummers.com.

WiMN: Can you tell us about LAWIM? When was the organization founded
and what is its mission?

LS: Here’s the official mission statement and it really says it all…

Established in 1986, Los Angeles Women in Music (LAWIM) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) Public Benefit Corporation dedicated to fostering equal opportunity for women and men in the music industry and to promoting the advancement of women through empowerment, support, education, encouragement and recognition of their achievements. Our goals and activities are founded on the belief that women and men working together in mutual respect, sharing abilities and expertise, will strengthen the music business and the music that is at its heart. At the same time, we recognize the unique and valuable contributions of women and advocate a musical world where these contributions are acknowledged and talents are nurtured.

We provide forums and opportunities for emerging talents; pay tribute to women who have made distinctive or significant contributions to our musical culture; recognize those who have contributed to the betterment of women in music; provide educational programs and events at large; and give rise to social and civic issues in our local community through musical endeavors.

WiMN: How has LAWIM helped you specifically with your career?

LS: I became a member a few years after arriving in L.A. Even though I was well established as a singer and vocal coach, I found the organization to be a fabulous ‘connect’ to others. As a matter of fact, my first gig as a vocal coach for a major TV show came from a fellow LAWIM member. She passed my name on (without my even knowing), and I got a call. I’ve since carved myself a niche as the go-to person for musical productions on many TV shows. I don’t know if I would have even thought of that gig, much less had a door open to that world. LAWIM is a great networking community of quality people. Not to mention, it’s been a wonderful resource for my own continued education, and a support system, which we all need along the way.

WiMN: As a professional singer, what have been some of your favorite projects, tours or recordings to be a part of?

LS: There was a time in my career where I opened for many major country artists… T.G. Sheppard, Eddie Rabbitt, Crystal Gale, Stella Parton. I had a blast! A project for In Harmony With the Homeless that resulted in a live show for ABC in Concert singing with Jonathan Cain (of Journey), Ritchie Havens, Brenda Russell, Mavis Staples and many others, was a true highlight and also a good cause to be associated with. I loved my work for The Drew Carey Show. Not only was the musical process gratifying, they had me in stitches the whole time. Working on West Wing, Californication, and House of Lies…  they were all exhausting and exhilarating rolled into one. My work with latin sensation, Manny Manuel, was a joy and a real lesson in learning to live life, especially when we were in Puerto Rico. Singing the national anthem on homeplate in front of 100+ women that had played in the Women’s Baseball League during World War II. Does it get any more inspiring than that? Singing for the troops in the middle of a tin building out in the desert. What a privilege and an honor. And lastly… I don’t think there has ever been a recording of any kind that I haven’t enjoyed. I love the studio and I love the challenge of giving the producer what they need when I’m a gun for hire, or losing myself in the cans and having that amazing take reveal itself and not have to fix it in the mix! I sing all styles, so I never get bored. It’s all about creating.

WiMN: As a vocal coach and vocal producer, how do you prep a client about to track an important song or hit the stage for a big audition?

LS: Well, that has a lot to do with the individual or the particular project at hand. I pride myself in catering to the specific need of the singer or actor. Part of being a really good coach or producer is being able to think on-the-fly, really be in tune with the person in front of you, and adjust as needed to get the outcome you/they want. You can teach all the technique in the world, but instilling confidence and getting to the root of the emotion of the song goes a long way to a killer performance in the studio or on stage. There is the actual care for the vocal cords. I have my trade secrets along with a list of dos and don’ts leading up to any performance and helpful aids that should be in every singers gig bag.

In the studio… many times it just comes down to creating a comfortable environment while tracking. This is crucial for singers. Our body is our instrument and if it’s not happy, the track probably isn’t either. If I’m not with them for the final recording, we work out as much production and arranging in advance, even recording test tracks, so the actual session goes smoother. If they don’t have a lot of recording experience, I get them on a mic and with headphones and practice studio techniques. It’s not the same as singing ‘live’ and many singers are thrown off in the studio no matter how good they can really sing.

For auditions…. I have prepped so many singers over the years for everything from college scholarships, to Broadway, to cruise ships, to all the major TV singing competitions. Knowledge is power. Knowing what is expected and giving them what they ask for is huge. I help choose the material and create the audition cuts and find the sweet spot that makes them shine. Many times you only have 30 seconds to win them over. But, again… emotional connect to the song, and having a beginning, middle and end are really important for auditions.

WiMN: What are the positive or negative aspects to launching a music career in L.A.?

LS: L.A. is saturated with people wanting to ‘make it.’ Whether you are an aspiring artist, session singer, studio musician, engineer, producer, or looking to land the next gig in publishing or any position in the music industry, it is tough. The competition is fierce, but the avenues of opportunity are endless. You have to know your strengths and capitalize on them. Build your network and use it! And if you are an artist, it is very easy to get caught up in re-creating yourself for whatever the flavor of the month is. Be true to who you are! By the time you get the new you ready to go, the flavor has changed!

WiMN: Running for 22 years, the LAWIM Singer-Songwriter Night is the longest running showcase of its kind in L.A. What have been some of the standout performances?

LS: I’d like to think we have a standout performance at every show! There have been so many amazing songs shared over the years by very talented artists. Our compilation CD’s are a testament to that. We’ve introduced emerging talent, have had hit songwriters grace our stage, and we pride ourselves in the fact that our shows are true listening rooms where you really get a chance to hear the stories behind the songs and respect the artists. Two recent performances stick vividly in my mind… Wendy Waldman performing a heart-wrenching unplugged version of her Grammy award-winning hit, “Save the Best For Last” (Vanessa Williams), and Suzanne Whang sharing her journey with cancer via her rap song, “Blah Blah Cancer Blah Blah”. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for either one! And Gaby Moreno’s LAWIM Comet Award celebration in 2010 – you just knew that someday you would look back on that night and know you were one of the lucky ones that had witnessed something very special and you would say… “I remember when.” I would be remiss if I didn’t mention long-time Board Member and Gold and Platinum Songwriter/Recording Artist, Harriet Schock, who started the whole thing in 1991 and has continued to host this event through the years along with our guest hosts.

WiMN: Can you share your experience as a woman in the industry? Have there been challenges?

LS: There are challenges for any person in this industry, but I think women have more obstacles to overcome, especially in certain fields. It’s one of the reasons LAWIM exists. There are still male-dominated positions, instruments that are assumed to be gender specific, unequal pay, and other general stereotypes. I actually quit college after my first semester because I didn’t get a particular musical tour – I didn’t sleep with the director! I figured if I had to do that to get the job, I wasn’t going to pay tuition. I’d go out into the real world and get a major record deal! Now to be clear… I wasn’t really going to go out and do that. It just opened my eyes and set me on another path. As a female singer in the early days, I had to deal with sexist remarks or being hit on or considered the decoration for the band. I was also blonde, so I couldn’t possibly have had anything but air between the ears. I fought the whole musician vs. the singer cliché. What’s that all about? I’m a musician and my instrument is voice. But, that’s a whole other article. I also remember a particular time when I applied for a bank loan. Saying you were a self-employed musician was bad enough, but adding single female to the mix made it even harder. There are old boys clubs everywhere! I could go on with more war stories, but in the end, some of them made me fight harder for what I wanted. And I’m not jaded or getting up on the pulpit and ranting or burning my bra. I am confident in who I am, (woman or not), and finding ways to shine a positive light and hopefully make a difference for other women.

WiMN: Do you have any advice for other women in the industry or students considering entering the industry?

LS: No matter who you are, you should always strive to be the very best at what you do. You should get the gig because you are qualified and can deliver. Women as a whole still have walls to break down and issues to deal with. Remember the old Virginia Slims “You’ve come a long way, baby” campaign? Well, we have, but there’s still work to be done. And there’s no more powerful way to change things than breaking the mold by doing. Be passionate about what you do, invest in things that will give you the tools or training you need, be business savvy – it’s not enough to just be an artist or whatever your gig is. Never stop learning or being willing to adapt to the changes around you, set certain boundaries and when someone tries to cross them, be strong in your convictions of what is right. The music industry is a tough business, but it can be one of the most rewarding. As women, we have a unique and valuable contribution to offer.

WiMN: What’s in store for you and LAWIM in 2013?

LS: LAWIM is only going to continue to soar in every way! We have built a great team and the energy is amazing going into this New Year. Our already fabulous programs are getting a bit of a facelift, and we’re partnering with others on new ventures. We will be releasing another Compilation CD this year, a new Comet Award is just around the corner, and we are constantly adding more and more member benefits. There is just no better time to be involved with LAWIM. As for me… I will continue to coach and produce and wear my LAWIM hat, but I’m finally going to be able to get back into the studio for the album that has eluded me, and to the stage, which is truly my home.

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