Google “Leighton Meester,” and you get more than 3.1 million search results. The majority of those pages involve her work as a young actor, the blog-arazzi community’s tireless tracking of her every move.
It must all be oddly meta for Meester, given that her breakout role came on CW drama Gossip Girl (2007-’12), which co-stars an anonymous blogger (the voice of Kristen Bell), who relentlessly follows, snaps photos of, and writes about Meester’s character, Blair Waldorf, and all of her snobby NYC socialite friends. And given that we live in ’Merica, most people probably assume that the make-believe Waldorf is, in fact, Meester, whose Gossip Girl character’s second scene involves her jumping a guy and forcibly trying to get him to snatch her V-card (coitus interruptus occurs shortly thereafter, but it was still a steamy scene for network TV).
We’re here to tell you, this is simply not the case. Meester sounded genuinely nervous when first talking to us, likely because she assumed we’d ask her two questions about her incredibly catchy new album (keep reading) and then go down the celebrity-mag-question chute on a greased-up cafeteria tray. Fortunately for her (and you), we steered clear of that path.
“I like to think that I’m a little corny and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not ashamed to talk about my heartstrings and my heart and my love and my feelings.”
But first, a little background on that album. Meester’s music career kicked off in an unlikely fashion, simply because most musicians that go pro start out dirt poor, living in a van down by the river and playing the coffeehouse circuit. Having already made a name for herself, Meester came at things from the opposite direction. She began in 2007 with “Inside the Black,” a late-’90s alt-rock number, which appeared on the soundtrack for Drive-Thru (in which she starred); dueted with crooner Tony Bennett on Entourage the following year; and released a pair of radio-friendly pop singles in 2009, one of which featured the recently confessed addict/plagiarizer, Robin Thicke. She also provided guest vocals on pop group Cobra Starship’s tune ‘Good Girls Go Bad,’ which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a bad résumé for a part-time songstress.
Meester’s side-gig may be a thing of the past when people hear her first full album of original material, Heartstrings, produced by Jeff Trott (Sheryl Crow, Augustana), which will likely surprise even her harshest critics.
Out this week on Meester’s own label, Hotly Wanting Records—with help from her pals at the highly respected Vagrant Records—Heartstrings is a mixture of noir-y indie rock (the title track sounds like Meester fronting Interpol); ‘Wincing the Night Away’-era Shins (‘Run Away’); anthemic folk-pop (‘Good for You’); and Beach Boys-esque balladry (‘LA’). Verdict? She makes other actors who have attempted music as a brand-expander—we’re looking at you, Jennifer Love Hewitt comes—look like no-talent assclowns. She’s just that good.
She comes by it honestly, too. She’s a legit music geek, with love for artists many have never heard of, including Kurt Vile, Big Star and The Box Tops. She’s also quite open, thoughtful and self-aware, as you’ll see below…
You guested a while back on a Cobra Starship song and released a pair of pop singles. Heartstrings strikes me as the opposite. Is this the real Leighton Meester?
You know, it’s a… I guess it’s funny to pose the question in that way. I guess it just… yeah! In short, yeah.
Is there any reason why, or is it just sort of a natural ‘yes’?
I’ve been working on this for quite a while, and I’m really pleased with how everything’s coming together and how the album sounds as a whole. And I’m really pleased that you are remarking about it being sort of the opposite of radio friendly, because it sort of is. I would like people to grasp the lyrics, the music, and the feel of the song before I would ever want it to be just one hit and none, you know? It’s way less important to me, because I care so much [more] about the music itself than where it goes, just as long as the people who hear it can find common ground and appreciate it.
I hear strains of country in there, too. How much did your work on the movie Country Strong influence your songwriting on the record?
I would say it helped influence me to some degree; not necessarily the movie and the music that I played in the movie. But my time in Nashville was definitely really important for me—the way it sort of sparked a certain interest in country music and an appreciation for it. And just the musicians behind it. Also the songwriting. I have a very specific taste in country; I don’t like all of it. Being in Nashville, there were so many incredible musicians, and the songwriting process there is somewhat different than it is here… or from what I was used to, I guess.
It’s very technical.
Yeah, and also it’s sort of more the feeling, and I guess the biggest correlation between my songwriting and country [music] would be that it can tell a story. I think that [my lyrics] maybe [aren’t] as literal, but I like to think that I’m a little corny and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not ashamed to talk about my heartstrings and my heart and my love and my feelings.
Acting and recording have some similarities. You have to memorize lines, you have to embody both the role and the song. Do you find music to be more of a natural fit for you than acting?
No, not necessarily. It just… it all comes from a different place. When you are working in a film, you don’t know what could come of it. You’re not in control. Whereas when you’re making music, you can turn up and down whatever you want. You have complete control over what people finally hear, and that’s great, and it’s scary. It’s all you.
Your best-known acting role was on Gossip Girl. If your character Blair Waldorf heard your new album, what do you think her reaction would be to it?
I’m going to have to skip this question.
You’re killing me here! It’s all right, I understand. Music is a much more revealing art form than acting, in my opinion. Your words are your own; you’re more exposed to interpretation. Has living a life in the public eye helped make personal songs easier to sing live?
That’s a good question. Where some people stand, maybe that’s how I live [my life], but I don’t feel like I live [it] in the public eye. I have my own life that nobody knows, and I like that. I guess it becomes increasingly harder to show your feelings if you’re being examined by people you don’t know and that don’t know you, but this is not that. This is written in a way that I think people like me—whether you’re a girl or a boy—[will] be able to relate.
Your favorite paycheck to get in the mail: Meester the Actor or Meester the Musician?
Well, I haven’t really gotten much ‘Meester the Musician’ checks, so… you know, we’ll see. [laughs] I do really enjoy, like, 4-cent checks from when I was 12, doing a part on Law & Order or something.
Wait. You get 4-cent checks from Law & Order?
Oh, well, whenever you do a part on [a show], especially like a guest role, you’ll get residuals. And sometimes they’ll be, like, 85 cents or 3 dollars or 15 cents. So they get pretty ridiculous.
Has it been harder to be taken seriously as a musician than it has been as an actor?
I would say so. But no matter what, I can stand by the music and feel really good, and the people who have the same tastes as I do will like it. And people who have a different point of view, I won’t be able to necessarily change them. I might be able to change a few minds, which is cool. On one hand, it’s easier because I have a wider reach and that makes me really happy, but on the other hand, it does make [it] a little more tough to change the minds of people who already have a point of view. That’s with anything. And it’s such a subjective medium, that’s not really what I’m trying to do. Out of a hundred people, maybe ninety will go, ‘This is actually surprising.’ And that’s kind of cool, you know. For better or worse, the bar is set kind of low. And I think this will raise it a little.