As an artist, postmodern cabaret diva Jamie Leonhart holds high her 31/2-octave voice, a penchant for magical reality in her lyricism, and an eclectic musicality. She's also a wife (to jazz trumpeter Michael Leonhart), and the mother of a 5-year-old son.
These sometimes-conflicting aspects of her world come together in her new song cycle, Estuary: An Artist/Mother Story, at the Kimmel Center's SEI Innovation Studio, and she handles the meeting with clever dispatch and hard-won honesty. Those familiar with her 2008 album, The Truth About Suffering, know that the commingling of smarts and heart is Leonhart's thing.
"Those songs explore the truth about being uncomfortable, about fitting or not fitting in, and the notion of accepting/addressing flaws and faults," she said of her recorded work. "A lot of the tunes explore . . . the human condition in its most basic form."
Lyric-driven and theatrical (she's big on "the use of the verse in the Great American Songbook"), Leonhart sets a scene each time she steps to the mike. "I'm excited by drama in the material," she said. "I love the sturm und drang of Weimar-style cabaret, and strive to heighten my material and how it's presented. So, my style is smart, quirky, passionate, humorous, and bold."
Then there's her voice, burnished by the inspiration of her cantor grandfather. "He was aware of, and excited by, all music - jazz, musical theater, even cheesy '80s synth-pop. I can still hear his voice," she said. "It had a warm, rich, plaintive quality."
Other family connections inspire her new work, too.
Leonhart says she had sought a change to the usual writing/performing format and "had been sneaking short monologues into shows, trying to create a through line for my material into a regular gig setting."
Leonhart received a 2014-15 commission through Manhattan's Joe's Pub at the Public Theater and began developing Estuary. Not long after that, Joe's partnered with the Kimmel Center Theater Residency program, which offers artists an opportunity to explore single stories.
Once in Philadelphia, Leonhart began delving into the subject of her life struggles as a new mother, the wife of a musician, and an artist. "I was having trouble writing new music, wasn't enjoying performing, and frankly, I was frightened," she said. Estuary is a merger of real life and aesthetic life, a hybrid concert/play with her monologues bouncing off music played by her husband with an all-female band.
"In order to be successful - maybe satisfied, or effective, are better words - these things demand attention," she said, "a lot of attention, most of the time. There's the rub . . . the challenge of the life/work balance and how that changes with the addition of a child. The importance of responsibility and communication in partnership. Perceived failures both professional and parental. The highly competitive nature of New York parenting."
Sounds a bit grim, but that's not the point.
"I hope that the audience will leave singing the songs, that they will use Estuary to engender conversation about the unspoken realities of parenthood," she said. "And that it encourages them to talk about failure and how debilitating perceived failure can be, and still be able to laugh at the end of the day."