'Searching for the sun in the city of hope:' Redding woman's songs help through challenging times

In early 2016, Redding musician Leslie Costa set out to do something she has never done before with her music — record completely by herself.

“I set a challenge for myself because I was going through challenging times in my personal life,” Costa said. “I wanted to write a whole new album’s worth of material, perform all the instruments myself, produce and record — without any help from anybody on a zero budget.”

She did just that and more.

“I wrote two albums — Invisible Soul and Waiting for Summer — with a total of 27 new songs,” said Costa, who has played music since she was a young girl. On the albums, she plays guitar, keyboard, and bass, does the vocals, and programs drums.

A musical family

Costa, who grew up in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., comes from a musical family. Her grandfather played guitar, her father played ukulele, and her mother played the piano and sang.

When Costa was 12, she bought a $40 guitar and taught herself how to play it. Soon after, she started writing her own songs. “I got a song book and started playing songs by artists I heard on the radio like Neil Young and Jackson Browne,” she said.

From the beginning, when she started writing her own songs, she felt she wanted them to make a connection to the listener, as her influences connected with her.

“Whether the songs are upbeat or on the dark side, my role as a songwriter is to deliver an honest message,” she said.

After graduating from the University of Bridgeport with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design, she joined her first cover band, called Rumors, which played songs from Fleetwood Mac, Journey, and Pat Benatar. In 1989, she wrote the song Bad City and did a music video about the homeless and was filmed in Manhattan, N.Y.

Original music

Ninety-nine percent of Costa’s songs come from personal experiences. “Songwriting starts from a real place,” she said. “Sometimes it takes on its own path, but it always originates from an honest and vulnerable place.”

Costa said songwriting has always been an outlet for her innermost thoughts and emotions. “I can express what I’m really feeling and thinking and dreaming about through my songs with unconditional acceptance,” she said.

Making it big

In 1990, she started a band that she is still active in today — Leslie Costa and the Usual Suspects. When the band came on the scene, “we made a big splash in the local area,” she said. She performed at Apples Cafe in Stamford, the Norwalk Oyster Festival, Shenanigans Nite Club in South Norwalk, The Bitter End in Manhattan, and other venues.

“We got record company attention in 1992 and started recording CDs,” she said. One day, Seymour Stein, owner of Sire Records, sat down with Costa at a table at Apples Cafe. “He looks me right in the eye and said, ‘You are a star. You are just as good as Don Henley and your songs belong in the top 10.’ That was a really big compliment,” Costa said.

Costa said that once her band starting to gain attention, her parents began to take her music seriously. “They went down to New York City and saw all these fans follow us. They were singing along with the lyrics to my songs,” she said. “After that, my parents became my No. 1 fans and could finally see the payoff of all those years I worked at this so hard when I was young,” Costa said.

She said it takes a lot of time, a lot of discipline and drive, to work up to playing in a band professionally.

Cinnamon Girl

In 2015, Costa formed a new band — Cinnamon Girl — which she described as a Neil Young tribute band.

“Neil Young was my first real influence. I modeled my writing style to him — the way he writes all acoustic, acoustic/electric and all electric music,” she said. “All Neil’s songs don’t sound the same, and neither do mine.”

Cinnamon Girl plays all of Young’s classic big hits, such as Southern Man and Heart of Gold.

Costa said Cinnamon Girl’s music has gone over very well with people of all generations.

Filling a void

The term “tortured artist” is true because it seems for many art forms, the best creations are generated during darker periods in the artist’s life, according to Costa.

“When people feel empty and sad, their senses are more aware, so there is more inspiration with which to create,” she said. “Oftentimes people in those situations seek compassion and kindness as well as somewhere to go to be heard and connect to. Music has always been there for me and I am thankful I have the ability to share my point of view and give back to anyone who wants to listen.”

Invisible Soul, one of Costa’s newest albums, is a collection of songs about feeling “like my existence doesn’t mean anything. That is a very lonely place to be,” she said.

The theme of the album is the journey of making it through these emotions. A lyric from this album goes, “Walking with a fractured heart. Searching for the sun in the city of hope.”

Waiting for Summer, Costa’s other new release, has a more philosophical meaning than Invisible Soul. Included are two songs about depression and anxiety. “I wrote these songs because I see so many people struggling with this,” she said. “It’s a topic no one likes to talk about. On this album, I stepped up and I put it out there.”

In Waiting for Summer, Costa writes: “Listen to storms and the poetry rhymes. Taking my time, what will I find.” Both new records offer a positive solution, she said.

Mary O’Hare of Bethel, Costa’s singing partner of 28 years, said Costa is a prolific songwriter. “The music she writes comes from her soul,” said O’Hare, who has known Costa since 1990. “She writes from a place of emotion, of real life. Listening to her songs almost sounds like a diary. Her songs give us insight into her world and her experiences.”

O’Hare said everyone can apply Costa’s lyrics to their own life. “People can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Costa recalls O’Hare saying to her, years back, “Wow, you really lay it all out there — that is so brave.”

“As exposing as it is, being relevant and accessible is my goal,” Costa said.

Going forward

Costa said she plans to release three more records over the course of 2018. The first, Electric Blue, will be a collection of up-tempo older songs that have been crowd favorites over the years at live shows that have yet to be recorded. The other two will follow.

Her music is available on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, and Spotify. She performs regularly at local venues.

For more information about Leslie Costa and her music, visit lesliecosta.com.