Leftover Cuties' Retro Ukelele Sound Makes You Smile
With a name like Leftover Cuties and a penchant for unabashed use of ukelele, how could the Los Angeles-based quartet of Shirli McAllen, Austin Nicholsen, Stuart Johnson, and Mike Bolger be anything other than adorable?
The group's folksy sound evokes images of happy couples strolling down a boardwalk decades ago. Between covers of songs like "You Are My Sunshine" and Etta James' "At Last," and cheerful original material, Leftover Cuties strikes a warm, fuzzy chord with its listeners.
We recently caught up with singer Shirli McAllen to discuss the band's unlikely formation, her move from Israel to the United States, and why some songs should not be covered.
Up on the Sun: Leftover Cuties has a very specific sound. What inspired it?
Shirli McAllen: It happened very organically. Austin [Nicholsen], the bass player in the band, was a really good friend of mine and he showed up at my house one night with a ukelele. I had written some lyrics that night at the bar that I was working at, so I started singing over whatever he was playing on the uke. We wrote a song in about five minutes and recorded a little demo the next day, and completely forgot about it for two years.
Two years later, I was going through music on my computer and I ran into that song and I realized how different and how stylized it was. I played it for some friends and they really liked it. It ignited the whole 'let's get together and write songs like that' kind of thing. It happened as a fluke, really. When we realized what we actually did that night, we decided to keep doing the same thing.
You've covered a good variety of artists. How do you decide what songs to cover?
Most of the songs are artists that I like or songs that I think I can do something a lot different or interesting with. There are certain songs that are sacred and I would never touch them. Even though I surprise myself, because I did a cover of [Bob] Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Bob Dylan is my all time favorite artist. His songs are definitely up there in the sacred songs, but I really love the song and I'm super proud of what we did with it. I think it came out very original and I really liked how it turned out, somehow. There's a lot of songs that I love that I just love them the way they are, I wouldn't want to change a thing about them. And some songs, I think that there's more space to play around with them, they could use maybe another version.
I read that you're originally from Israel. Did you perform music while you were living there?
Yeah, definitely. I've been in bands since I was 17 and I started writing music when I was 14. I was writing songs in Hebrew, and when I turned 22, I moved to the states because I met my husband here. I basically had to start from scratch and start writing songs in English. It was very difficult at first, but eventually I got to a place where I felt very comfortable with writing and I had a lot of support from intelligent people in my life. I'm grateful for that process, even though for awhile I remember feeling very disadvantaged.
How has having your songs featured in TV shows and commercials helped build your fanbase versus internet or word of mouth?
It helped tremendously. We have a theme song on a Showtime series called The Big C, which has been airing all over the world. I definitely think that it would have been a lot harder to reach fans all around the world without that show. Thanks to that show, we have fans in places that we've never even been. It's incredible to get email from fans and even just looking at our sales report and seeing which countries are buying our CDs and our music. It's very varied; it's really all over the place.
What were some of the most surprising places you reached?
Recently I got an email from somebody in Venezuela, and then there was Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and there's a lot of Australia, Spain, and Austria. It's been really all over the place, it's pretty incredible, and now a lot of people from Korea.
It sounds like it may be time for a South American tour.
Where we're at right now, it seems like we have fans everywhere, but not enough in everywhere [laughs]. If we could get all of our fans into one place, it would be a lot of people, but they're pretty spread out.
Have you guys ever played a show in your home country?
No, I would love to do that. Just my family alone would be a really good crowd. I have a really, really big family. My mom has 11 brothers and sisters, so it would be like 200 people, just my family. It's just a matter of finding the right time to do it and for it to make sense financially.
You have an album coming out in a few months, what can we expect from it?
[We have a] release in a couple of weeks with six Christmas songs. For the next release, we started recording it, it's probably going to come out in April 2013. What can you expect? More original songs that hopefully will move and make people smile and do all of the things that are the reason that we do what we do. There's some more bluesy stuff in there and even stuff that's influenced by gospel music on the new album, but it's pretty much Leftover Cuties.
Are you guys going to play any Christmas songs when you come to Phoenix?
I don't think so, but I might ask people if they want to hear Christmas songs, and if they do, we'll definitely bust one out.
It sounds like you've got plenty of material to choose from.
We have a problem, we never know which songs to pick for our 45-minute sets because we have such a huge repertoire right now.
Leftover Cuties are scheduled to perform their first Arizona show on Sunday, December 2 at Yucca Tap Room.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.