Although not a California native, Shirli McAllen, vocalist for Venice-based band Leftover Cuties, fits right into the picture as she rides her bike to a local restaurant to meet us for our interview. In a way, McAllen and fellow band member Austin Nicholsen are living the California dream, as two zealous musicians who are surrounded by inspiring scenery. Sure, they are two out of hundreds of other musicians doing the same thing in Los Angeles, but the stories that they tell as a band are unmatched.
From the group’s vintage aesthetic to the diverse audience it captures, everything about Leftover Cuties radiates with elegance, sincerity, and timelessness. The band’s debut album serves as a sophisticated start. Places To Go was recorded at Berkeley Street Studios with producer Tony Berg, best known for his work Jesca Hoop and Pete Yorn.
“He really does what he does for the right reasons,” shares McAllen. Because Berg only works with material he likes, his interest and willingness to work with Leftover Cuties came as a huge honor and compliment to the band.
“[Berg is] probably one of the most passionate people I’ve worked with in a long time, if not ever,” says Nicholsen. “There was almost not a day go by in the studio where he wouldn’t get very — you know, sentimental, or very kinda moved by the music. And it was just very powerful and really special to work with somebody like that who really felt the music so much.”
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Given Leftover Cuties’ brand of 40s and 50s throwback music, one might never suspect that McAllen’s musical roots lie in Israeli music and 90s grunge rather than jazz and blues. It wasn’t until after the duo began creating music and receiving public feedback that McAllen realized Leftover Cuties’ stylistic ties to days long gone.
“People started commenting on how it was old-fashioned, and I was like, ‘Okay, I better check this stuff out,'” McAllen recalls. “So I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong and Billie Holiday and I fell in love with it… It’s not the stuff that I grew up on because I didn’t grow up in America, but I’m glad I got to discover it as an older person, because I think I really got to appreciate it much more.”
After coming to the United States from Israel, McAllen pursued a solo career in Los Angeles, but it was when she met Nicholsen that she found a counterpart with whom to share a natural musical chemistry. The two wrote the core components of their first single, “A Game Called Life,” in a mere five minutes — and though the band has since expanded to include drummer Stuart Johnson, upright bass player Ryan Feves, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Bolger, songwriting still comes fairly easily. Once McAllen and Nicholsen have assembled the bare bones of a track, they turn to the band for refinement and collaboration, resulting finally in delightfully fleshed-out creations.
McAllen compares and contrasts the Leftover Cuties experience with that of her solo career, saying, “It’s such a great thing to have people to work with, to feed of off each other… you just bring different things out of each other than you would [find] on your own.”
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In the recent past, the band has worked hard to attract the attention of reputable producers and television networks. They caught a break when their single, “A Game Called Life,” was chosen for use on Showtime’s The Big C — after which they saw an influx of new fans and were even invited to perform at a San Diego Padres game.
Leftover Cuties have gained a devoted, atypical following. The tales that stand out delightfully recount the unusual but unforgettable crowds that the band’s jazz-infused pop songs have attracted. Amongst these is an older couple that has been seen dancing at several Leftover Cuties shows at Santa Monica’s Casa Del Mar, a hotel that has consistently booked the band over the past few months. And thanks to Nicholsen’s tinkering on the ukulele, the instrument’s niche community has also taken the band’s sound to heart, showing their support in unpredictable forms.
McAllen describes a homage Leftover Cuties received after their participation in the Denver UkeFest. “The Ukelele Community Of Denver wanted to say thank you for coming to the UkeFest,” she explains, “so they all learned how to play one of our songs from the EP, ‘Happy Song.’ It’s like a bunch of people sitting with the ukulele, and strumming and singing our song. It was so sweet. It was just priceless.”
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As a band comprised of five busy individuals, Leftover Cuties have reasonable goals — beginning, perhaps, with a series of remixes.
“[‘Movin’ On’] was playing on the radio in a dream I had,” Nicholsen explains. “I was like, ‘I know this song, but it’s not…’ and then it hit me: ‘Dude, this is Leftover Cuties!’ but it’s a remix! When I woke up that day, I was like, ‘We need to do some remixes of some of the songs — especially that one.”
The band is also looking for appropriate and challenging songs to cover after a successful cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
“With the Lady Gaga song, it actually really worked because the lyrics can actually fit the genre that we do,” McAllen explains. “And you know, not to talk bad about anyone or anything, but we’re just looking for the right songs to come along that work… I only like to do covers where I think I can either bring something new to them or do them even better than the original… or at least, in my mind.”
In the near future, Leftover Cuties plan to expand their sphere of influence beyond Los Angeles, where they currently have a stable following and decent name recognition. In the near future, they will continue to play assorted private events, frequent venues in the greater Orange County, and embark on short tours when schedules and opportunities permit.
“It’s tough for an independent band to just go on the road,” McAllen says, “because you end up losing a lot of money. I guess we’re just waiting for the right opportunity that will make sense… But we’re thrilled to go out.”
Band interview by Karla Hernandez and Vivian Hua; Video and Photography by Koury Angelo