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It’s hard to imagine two more different front people than Michael Lessard and Alex Luciano.
The Late Late Show’s James Corden has said that only two kinds of actors exist: aliens and humans. If we apply that dichotomy to singers, Lessard comes from a faraway galaxy. His performances with prog-metal up-and-comers The Contortionist verge on the theatrical; he captivates the audience with subtle movements, a thousand-yard stare, and stunning vocals that seem to emanate from some ethereal plane. Luciano, on the other hand, bursts with the most human of energy, jumping around like the craziest of fangirls as the vocalist and guitarist of two-piece garage punk darlings Diet Cig. Both, however, are outstanding at their jobs. So we spoke to each to unearth the secrets behind their success and try to find some universal keys to fronting a band.
For Michael Lessard, one key to a captivating performance is to create contrast. That’s come naturally to him since his teenage years, when he first discovered his fascination with mixing clean and growled vocals.
“I played with a band called Haste the Day, and they had this mixture, they had a frontman who’s a screamer, and then they had a bass player and guitar player who both sang, and both sang beautifully,” he says. “That was a turning point for me, because I’d only sang up until then, and the contrast was what really drew me in. I just fell in love with heavier music and the challenge of having to balance screaming and singing and trying to get good at both.”
Lessard brought the ideal of contrast with him when he joined The Contortionist in 2014, and it defines the band’s performances—not just in terms of the mixture of vocals, but in terms of the tone Lessard and his bandmates set. “Our album, Language [released in 2014], is a pretty uplifting album,” he explains. “To me, to play with the contrast of a darker stage and a darker vibe, I feel like it takes some people off-guard at times when they see us, and I like the idea of that contrast…the lighter makes the darker darker.”
Language tells an abstract story about human connection and perception. To Lessard, performing it live feels more like a play than a concert, which perfectly suits his taste for the visual aspect of music. He spearheaded the set design for the Language tour (a massive, circular, wooden piece called the Mother Sun), he’s produced all of the music videos accompanying the album, and he’s fallen into a frontman character predicated on slight motion and commanding eyes.
“I try to make my movements with the music, not necessarily just rhythmically,” he says. “When somebody sees me, I want them to go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m hearing, it’s what I’m visualizing.’ A lot of the time, when I’m writing music or working on it with other people, I have a very visual sense of what I’m hearing. I try to envision something and then make the sound look like what I see.”
The result: a mesmerizing set in which Lessard hardly interacts with the audience or his bandmates. He gets in his zone, easily slides into his starring role upon taking the stage, and becomes the embodiment of a Darren Aronofsky thriller for an hour.
Lessard isn’t always this eerie on stage; in his side project, Last Chance to Reason, he takes on a looser feel that suits the music better, and when he filled in on vocals for metalcore band Volumes last fall, he had to shift entirely to fit the crowd’s rabid energy. In each case, his goal is to find the perfect persona to front the band.
“It’s like when you go see a movie, and you see an actor, and that actor acts exactly the same in every single movie you see him in. You’re not gonna go see every movie he does,” he says. “You have to fill the role that you’re there to fill… it’s just about me channeling whichever [emotions] work for that specific role and, I guess, amplifying those things.”
While Lessard’s persona for The Contortionist evolved out of visualization, Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano grew into her role out of nervous energy. “There was one show that was our first big show, that everyone was coming to—it was Noah’s birthday so his whole family, all his friends, everyone we knew was coming to this show,” she says.
“I was so nervous! We were practicing that day and I just started dancing around because I was like, ‘Okay, I just gotta get my nerves out, start dancing around.’ And I realized that was pretty fun, and I could still play the songs when I did that. So at the show, I just let it rip and danced around, and I was so nervous and I was just trying to shake out my nerves, and it ended up being really fun and the easiest way to get rid of my anxiety onstage.”
And thus, Diet Cig’s frenetic performances were unleashed upon the world. Luciano, unlike Lessard, spends much of the band’s live set dancing around, bantering with the crowd, and making herself as big on stage as possible (crucial in a two-piece band). It’s not so much a selection of personality traits she’s choosing to amplify as a distillation of her purest, goofiest form. “When I go out with my friends, I’m constantly trying to get them to dance with me and be loud and goofy,” she explains. “And I feel like when I’m doing that on stage, I feel like that’s the one place where people want to see me be goofy, they’re like, ‘Yeah, do it!’ Whereas my friends are like, ‘Oh my God, Alex, what are you doing?’”
That energy is infectious, and it’s far more important to Luciano than getting every note correct. “A live show is supposed to be different than the record, it’s supposed to be a whole experience that you can take away instead of just listening to the songs,” she says. To that effect, she’ll yell parts of songs that she’d normally sing, never even attempting to contain the emotion that comes out when she’s performing. She’ll also get into the audience and make sure they’re having fun by dancing with them. Treating them like individual people, and not as a faceless collective, is key. “And once you realize the audience is pretty much the most important part of any performance, you start to feel more connected with them,” Luciano says.
And of course, there are her guitar antics. Luciano constantly jumps around while playing, sometimes leaping from the bass drum mid-chord. She admits that she practiced her kinetic performance in her bedroom, without her guitar even plugged in, much to the bemusement of her roommates. “It was like total Lindsay Lohan teen movie style, like Freaky Friday, jump on the bed playing guitar,” she laughs. “Now our bed is in a loft, which is unfortunate because I can’t jump on the bed anymore.”
So what commonalities can we take away from two such different performers?
First, practice is vital to their success. Lessard watches film of his performances like an athlete. Luciano had to put a lot of work in before she could unleash her energy while passably playing guitar. The goal for each has been to get to the point where they don’t even have to think when they’re on stage.
Second, both Lessard and Luciano know the type of performance their music demands and build their personae around that. Switch their personalities, and both The Contortionist and Diet Cig would suffer immeasurably.
Finally, the ultimate purpose of the front person is to elicit emotion from the audience. “It’s a matter of getting the whole room to feel some sort of way, whether it’s happy and jumping around, whether it’s still and frightened,” says Lessard. “It’s about setting a tone, and a strong tone.” Adds Luciano: “If you’re having fun, the audience will have fun.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zach Blumenfeld is a freelance music journalist from Chicago. He will vigorously defend his city’s music scene against any coastal detractors, though that’s probably just his Midwestern inferiority complex acting up. He’s an alumnus of Vanderbilt University, where he hosted a live performance/interview radio show for three years, and now he spends his nights reviewing concerts for Chicago publication Gapers Block. You can follow him on Twitter @zachblumy.