Born in 1974; daughter of Arne Naess (a shipping-company owner) and Filippa Kumlin D'Orey (an antiques dealer). Education: New York University, bachelor's degree in anthropology, c. 1998. Addresses: Record company--Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Website--Leona Naess Official Website: http://www.leonanaess.com.
Singer-songwriter Leona Naess released two critically acclaimed records before ordering the studio's technical wizardry turned off for her self-titled third release in 2003. Her 2000 debut was a cache of introspective yet catchy and production-heavy pop tunes. It was shelved for several months due to a corporate shake-up at her record label, but Naess's style caught the ear of one top industry executive, and a family connection to former Motown star Diana Ross gave MCA an interesting publicity angle with which to promote it. Three years later, in 2003, Naess's third release was a stripped-down affair, and she pronounced herself finally confident in her musical abilities. "It took me two records to make the one I wanted," she told Amplifier's Eliot Wilder about this venture. "Everything I was afraid to do before I did on this one. I was afraid to just stand up and play a song."
Born in 1974, Naess is the daughter of Norwegian shipping magnate and mountaineer Arne Naess and Filippa Kumlin D'Orey, a Swedish-born interior designer. The marriage also produced an older brother, Chris, and a sister, Katinka, but had ended by the early 1980s, when Naess was seven. She spent her childhood in London, where her mother ran an antiques business, and attended a school in the posh Chelsea residential area with Jade Jagger, daughter of Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. The first guitar she owned was a gift from her mother, and the first song she learned how to play was "The Cross," a track from Prince's 1987 album Sign O' the Times.
Naess's tastes progressed into alternative rock when she was in her teens. "During the '80s, I was listening to the Cure, New Order, Madness, and all that," she told a contributor to the Fresno Bee about her early influences. She was also a fan of singer-songwriters of a previous era, such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell, an interest that expanded to include a new generation of women who were writing and performing their own work, among them Sinead O'Connor and Edie Brickell. "But I really tried never to worship any one person for more than six months, because when you're a songwriter, things go into you subconsciously that you're not aware of and you can get into the habit of copying," she said in the Fresno Bee interview.
While in her teens, Naess attended the Purcell School in Hertfordshire, which specialized in a music curriculum, but switched to anthropology when she entered New York University in the early 1990s. By then her father had married Diana Ross, lead singer of the Supremes, who had enjoyed a long streak of chart hits in the 1960s. Ross went on to enjoy a solo singing career, starred in several films in the 1970s, and became one of the most successful women of all time in the entertainment industry. The marriage produced two sons, and Naess often visited the Connecticut home where Ross and the boys lived. Naess's father's business interests kept him based primarily in London, however, and the Naess-Ross marriage ended in 1999.
Naess remained in New York City after she earned her degree. A resident of Greenwich Village, she began taking her guitar to area bars and coffeehouses for open-mike nights, and this led to regular gigs at small clubs. A Sony Records executive came to see her perform one night at the suggestion of a friend of Naess's who was an intern at the label. Soon other record companies were interested as well, and Naess decided to sign with Outpost, part of the Geffen label. She began working on her first album in 1998, and the finished product was ready for release in June of 1999. Then a series of business deals delayed that: Geffen was part of the Universal Music Group (UMG), which merged with PolyGram. The executive ranks were decimated by a wave of firings, and the Outpost label went under. Finally the chief of MCA, another UMG division, heard the as-yet unreleased work, and arranged to have Naess and her contract brought over to MCA. She had spent several months "cursing" the business deal, as she told Los Angeles Business Journal writer Laura Dunphy. "I completed the album and was waiting for it to come out last summer, and it demolished hope of that happening. Now, I'm thankful, because it allowed me to get better as a performer."
Naess's debut was helped by a promotional effort that included a CD giveaway as part of a Calvin Klein magazine campaign, in which Naess appeared with other women rockers like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Liz Phair. Comatised earned solid reviews when it was finally released in early 2000, buoyed by the success of its first single, "Charm Attack," a diatribe about elusive men who come on strong and then retreat. Writing in Interview, Dimitri Ehrlich asserted that for a novice singer-songwriter, Naess's "harmonies with herself betray her conservatory education: They are exquisite, ghostly touches, delicacies in a song that's otherwise pure pop." Other tracks also reflected experience with soured love affairs, prompting Time critic Christopher John Farley to term it a work that "crackles and sparks like diary pages set on fire." Comatised had a heavy in-studio sound, with drum machines complementing instruments including the flute, violin, and even cello. A contributor to suburban Chicago's Daily Herald, Mark Guarino, described the record as "techno dance beats meet chunky guitar swirl," and likened some of its "swanky synth pop hooks" to seminal early-1980s punk-pop act Blondie.
Naess went on tour with David Gray, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and other artists for much of 2000, and finally headed back into the studio to record I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll, which MCA issued in 2001. Here Naess "leaves behind a more traditional rock setting for a style that blends classic pop-jazz-folk songwriting with synth-pop arrangements," noted Robert Cherry of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, who judged the effort "familiar yet alluringly alien." In interviews Naess seemed weary of answering questions about her famous diva-like former stepmother, or about her father's fortune, and she appeared uneasy with the business side of the entertainment business. One of the songs on I Tried To Rock You was titled the "Mayor of Your Town," which frequently mentioned the word "radio." "When you're in this business, radio is so important," she told Cherry. "It becomes a word you hear every second. So I'm sort of [making fun of that]." Other songs reflected the vagaries of modern romance, or found Naess in a reflective mood. "I get sad like every other person, and writing a song helps me get perspective on the way I'm feeling," she told Minneapolis Star Tribune journalist Vickie Casey. "It almost solves the pain because you can kind of pinpoint what it is that's bothering you. So I reckon I'm actually more of a happy person because of that, because I leave the misery and despair in the songs."
"It Was Definitely Scary"
Naess disappeared from the public eye for a time, re-emerging in 2003 with Leona Naess, a far quieter collection of tracks marked by a notable absence of synthesizers. Produced by Ethan Johns, who had previously worked with Rufus Wainwright and Ryan Adams, her third record offered a more vintage sound. Ehrlich declared its production style to be "a masterly recreation of druggy early-'70s soft rock." All of its songs, from "Calling" to "One Kind of Love," were recorded on tape, Naess explained to Wilder in the Amplifier article. "We didn't use any computers," she said. "The room where the console was was the room where the drums were. There was no place where you could go and be isolated when you were singing or playing an instrument. It was definitely scary, because you couldn't mess up because everyone's playing at the same time. I'd never done anything like that before." The album garnered reviews in mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly, whose critic Beth Johnson singled out the artist's "prettily winsome voice" in a positive review. Rolling Stone's James Hunter found it incohesive, noting that "it juggles frequently unintegrated agendas," but he commended Naess's "seamless voice ... with an eerie Ella Fitzgerald-like quality."
Naess declared she was no longer interested in media attention, and claimed to be pleased finally that she had made a record that reflected more of her own musical tastes. She told Wilder in the Amplifier interview that it was a record she would buy herself. "At least I have something I can show my kids one day. And I can feel good about that."
by Carol Brennan
Leona Naess's Career
Began performing her own songs in New York City coffeehouses and bars, mid-1990s; signed to Outpost Records, 1998; released debut LP, Comatised, 2000; toured with Eagle-Eye Cherry and David Gray, 2000; released I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll, 2001; released Leona Naess, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Comatised Outpost/MCA, 2000.
- I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll MCA, 2001.
- Leona Naess Geffen, 2003.
- Amplifier, September/October 2003.
- Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 16, 2001, p. 7.
- Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, Australia), August 19, 2000, p. 32.
- Entertainment Weekly, October 3, 2003, p. 72.
- Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 16, 2000, p. H8.
- Independent (London, England), August 26, 2000, p. 37.
- Interview, April 2000, p. 76; August 2003, p. 44.
- Los Angeles Business Journal, March 13, 2000, p. 1.
- Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), November 23, 2001, p. 22.
- Rolling Stone, October 3, 2003.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 21, 2000, p. 5.
- Sun (London, England), September 17, 2003, p. 3.
- Time, March 20, 2000, p. 88.