McKay & Leigh = Love & Humor
by Stephen Pitalo
How did a fluent Spanish speaker who loves pre-Colombian art and history end up writing songs with the 1993 Vergas, Minnesota Loon Calling Champion? Just lucky, they guess.
Brennen Leigh was well-rooted in Austin, where she moved after growing up playing in a family band in Minnesota. “I was attracted to the scene in Austin,” she says. “It was a great place to learn and get better at what I do.”
Meanwhile, McKay fronted the regionally popular McKay Brothers (Cold Beer and Hot Tamales), a band legendary songwriter Guy Clark had been championing for years. “Noel and Brennen are great songwriters,” says Clark, whose album My Favorite Picture of You contains the McKay co-write “El Coyote.” The album went on to win a Grammy for best Folk album in 2014.
Meanwhile, Leigh’s solo high watermark The Box garnered national attention. Fans know that Lee Ann Womack, Sunny Sweeney, Sarah Borges, and Charley Crockett have covered her proudly traditional country songs.
So, it turns out that the combination of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay tug at your heartstrings as much as they tickle your funny bone. Their album Before the World Was Made began taking shape in 2012. From the silly “Let’s Don’t Get Married” to the geographically lovestruck “Let’s Go to Lubbock on Vacation,” the duo’s whimsical take on romance still hits its mark. No doubt their fans long for more gems like “Salty Kisses in the Sand” and “Great Big Oldsmobile”.
“We were friends through the Texas music scene for five or six years before we ever went on to write a song together,” Leigh admitted.
“The writing part came very easily when we finally did get around to it. We were double booked, Brennen and her brother Seth and my brother and me,” McKay said. “I knew Brennen had a certain greatness right away. She was clearly coming from a somewhat different place regarding influences and knowledge of repertoire, but we had some in common as well.”
Leigh said her big influences are not just musicians like Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson.
“My favorite authors are Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton,” she said. “I’d say all of these influences factor in equally.”
McKay believes he owes much to the great Guy Clark.
“He took an interest in my songs when I was a relatively young writer and artist, and I listened to his records pretty much nonstop from that point forward,” McKay said. “I opened a lot of shows for him and wrote a few songs with him as well. I’m also influenced by the Mexican music that was sort of omnipresent in South Texas when I was growing up. I heard a lot of honkytonk music and some Cajun music as well.”
With these two, one would think it’s all laughs all the time, but is writing songs more like fun or more like work for McKay & Leigh?
“With Noel, it’s more fun,” Leigh said.
“Writing with Brennen is always fun,” McKay admitted. “She’s in it to dig out the best possible song. I’m trying to do the same. It’s usually hard work, mentally.”
In the songwriting, Leigh said that she gets ideas from the everyday conversation more than any other place. McKay said he has a fairly predictable pattern.
“[I have an] idea-collection where I write down pieces of inspiration in a list that sits there until the next phase, which is turning them into realized, playable songs, [then] repeat ad infinitum.”
Both McKay and Leigh see the other’s best traits, the talents that helped their duo rise to a higher level.
“Noel is a relentless perfectionist when it comes to songwriting,” Leigh said. “He also brings unique influences to our group: Mexican music, to name one thing. That spices up my fairly strictly 30s-60s country and bluegrass aesthetic.”
“In addition to the obvious greatness in singing, she writes in a fearless way and brings a specific un-self-conscious mid-western-ness that offsets my own inescapable Texas-ness,” McKay said.