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Portrait of an Artist: Leah Reis-Dennis

Leah Reis-Dennis ’13 is a history and literature concentrator living in Eliot House. A member of the Harvard Opportunes and a soul group called The Nostalgics, she will give her first solo performance of jazz, soul, and R&B standards at the Holyoke Center on April 29.

The Harvard Crimson: When did you first start singing?

Leah Reis-Dennis: I’ve always sung. When I was very little, I used to stand in front of the refrigerator and just make songs out of the words on the different magnets. I was in my first musical when I was 11, and then after that I just fell in love with performing and singing. I started taking lessons when I got to high school, and then everything blew up from there.


THC: Harvard has so many different a cappella groups. What influenced you to choose the Opportunes?

LRD: The Opportunes really struck me at first as a group with really strong female soloists, and [it] was really exciting for me to see those girls get up there and just belt it out. Once I started getting to know the group, the social dynamic and the kind of family that the group fostered was really appealing to me, in addition to the repertoire. I sang a lot of jazz in high school, and as a performer and soloist, I tend to sing a lot of jazz and soul. So I like that the Opportunes gave me a chance to do that, but also gave me a chance to branch out in singing country or more contemporary pop.

THC: What was your favorite piece that you performed with the Opportunes?

LRD: I really loved singing “Wonderful” by Annie Lennox. I’ve worked on that for a while and performed it at the [semifinals of the] International Championship of Collegiate A Capella. ... But on a regular basis my favorite song that we do is “Midnight Train to Georgia” because I just love that song.

THC: Do you plan on continuing your singing after graduation?

LRD: I do, which is a recent decision. I always thought that singing was just a hobby and that I’d probably get a ‘real’ job, which is still a possibility, but more and more I’m realizing that I really love to sing and perform. I feel like I have what it takes to make it, and I’ll regret it if I don’t try. That’s currently my plan after graduation: I’ll go to New York and see what happens.

THC: What kind of singing do you hope to pursue?

LRD: Probably whatever I can get, because in the music industry, everyone’s a beggar, and beggars can’t be choosers. I would prefer to do something like Adele or Amy Winehouse because they are my prototypes—but of course without the Amy Winehouse crazy drug issues. The Broadway musical scene is really changing because it used to be dominated by jazz-hand types of musicals, but now [that there are] all these new modern rock musicals like “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening,” I think there is a greater opportunity to be cast as someone who doesn’t fit the ‘Broadway baby’ profile, someone with a more rock or soul kind of voice. I’m hopeful that that could pan out.

THC: Tell me about your upcoming performance during Arts First.

LRD: It will be my first time striking out on my own in the soul genre. I’ll be singing covers: some Adele, “Killing Me Softly” by Lauryn Hill [and featuring the Fujees], and others from the modern soul rock genre. I think my voice naturally tends towards jazz; I grew up listening to jazz, so whatever I do is infused with that. It will be really interesting since I’m so used to singing jazz with groups. I don’t know what the reception will be like as a soloist. Most of my experience singing as a soloist has been in high school musical theater or with jazz combos, but I’m really excited and hope people enjoy it.

THC: You lead Harvard Students for Choice. How do you balance your political activism with singing?

LRD: Everyone here at Harvard is busy and so I find that there’s time for both. I don’t know if these are two things that I’ll eventually be able to fuse, but in the ultimate fantasy world, if I were to become a famous singer, I would definitely continue to be an advocate for reproductive justice. It’s never something that I could abandon because I think that women’s rights and women’s health are so crucial, and I will continue to stand up for that, whether it’s writing blogs or going to protests, no matter where I end up.