"I've just felt such freedom with this record," says Danni Leigh with a perceptible sigh of relief. Considering Leigh's checkered history over the past half dozen years, it's no surprise that "Divide and Conquer," the blonde honky-tonker's third album for as many labels in the last three years, represents a freer and more personal creative path than either of her first two.
The path for both of Leigh's previous releases - "29 Nights" for Decca in 1998 and "A Shot of Whiskey and a Prayer" for Monument/Sony in early 2000 - was marred by compromise and second guessing.
Leigh felt in both cases that to get along with the major labels, she was obliged to play along. In doing so, Leigh sacrificed a great deal of the creative decision making process, from song selections to arrangements to actual style.
Although she remains pleased with the final output, Leigh admits the discs could have been far better and more satisfying than they were. Still in all, Leigh is philosophical about her first attempts at recording.
"I'm one of those people that believes that everything happens for a reason, and the universe is so much smarter than we are, and I think there's always reasons for what happens," says Leigh honestly. "Obviously, I had to make those two records, and everything had to fall in place like it did in order for me to get to the point musically to be able to make this album."
Although Leigh diplomatically accepts equal responsibility over the demise of her first two albums, clearly much of the blame belongs to the entities that guided her.
"29 Nights" disappeared with Decca's acquisition and absorption in the Universal merger, and "Whiskey/Prayer" was simply ignored to death by Sony when the two singles pulled from the album failed to yield a discernible hit. The disc was released even though the label and Leigh already decided to split.
Regardless of the reasons, Leigh was forced to accept the fact that while she had accomplished her lifelong dream of making albums, they were not having the impact that she had anticipated.
To her credit, Leigh never thought of giving up on her dream; she merely retooled it. With help from her manager, former Decca honcho Sheila Shipley Biddy, Leigh attracted a pitch from upstart indie Audium Records and liked what she heard.
Although she and Shipley Biddy had briefly considered recording and releasing an album on their own, ultimately, the Audium offer was too good to pass up.
"Their ideas and their thoughts on what we should do were the same as ours," says Leigh. "I felt like creatively, they were going to give me the freedom that I really wanted. Before I said a word, I asked them what their practices were on production, and they said, 'You go out, and pick your producer, make the record, bring it to us and we figure out what the hell to do with it.' I said, 'That's beautiful, I love you guys!' And that's exactly what we did."
The biggest selling point that Audium made was in offering Leigh her choice of producers. She had been wrangling with labels from the start of her career to let her work with legendary honky tonk producer Pete Anderson, but they refused on the grounds that she might be saddled with the tag of "the female Dwight Yoakam," a fear that she scoffs at even today.
"I do honky tonk hillbilly music, but vocally I sound nothing like Dwight, and I never have," Leigh says with a laugh. "Influences, yeah, definitely. They come from Bakersfield. I'm lucky if I get a nasal sound out. And that's where he lives."
Working with Anderson was no mere pipe dream for Leigh. She had been in contact with him since before her first album, and he was eager to work with her, but each time he initiated conversations with Leigh's labels, he ultimately rejected their visions of her work and declined any further involvement.
With Audium's commitment to letting Leigh decide on a producer herself, the way was finally clear for she and Anderson to hit the studio together.
"You know, I've searched my memory bank in search of words to explain what it was like to finally get to work with him," says Leigh. "I've waited my whole musical career. I've been a fan of Pete's all the way across the board. I've already told Pete he's going to have to tell me to go the hell away if he ever wants to get rid of me. He's pretty much going to be working with me for the rest of my life, as far as I'm concerned. It was worth the wait."
As excited as Leigh was with the prospect of recording with Anderson, she was just as confident that she had assembled a killer collection of songs to bring to the table. She had scoured Nashville's publishing companies for good material, assisted by a pre-emptive call from Anderson, and she had written a few of her own, all of which seemed like pure winners to her.
"I got this fantastic collection of music together, and I went out to L.A. for pre-production with Pete, and everything that I had in my bag taking out there for the first time with Pete I really liked," says Leigh. "And I sat down with Pete, and all of a sudden he's going, 'Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.' His standards for a great song are much higher than most. And he played no favorites on my music. He was like, 'You needed to try harder there. You dropped the ball lyrically right there.' And he was right. Lots of time, you'll just choose the word that rhymes the easiest and stick it in there, instead of exploring a little bit. So, when we started going through songs, I realized that I didn't have near as many as I thought, and that it was going to take pretty special songs to please both of us."