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January 1, 2023IM -
Singers Aren’t Musicians, and Other Myths
There’s a tired old saw passed around among instrumentalists that singers aren’t really musicians. Rather than arguing to the contrary, however, vocalist and producer Leisa Way of Local 226 (Kitchener, ON) leans into it. “To be honest, even after 40 years in the music business, I still didn’t see myself as a real musician until I started leading my own band and learning from the band members,” she laughs. “I think I’m on my way now.”
The fact that Way studied music formally and initially trained to be an opera singer would seem to disprove that bit of humility. Way grew up in a very small mining town north of Sudbury, Ontario, in a home filled with the love of music. “Dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he would sing in the basement with his beautiful off-key voice,” she says. “That’s where I got my love of singing. Both my parents came from huge families. Mom’s siblings all played and sang, so I grew up surrounded by fiddle playing, singing, and country music.”
At nine, Way started taking voice lessons. Singing quickly took over her life, and as a teenager, she was already singing the national anthem for events like the Special Olympics, and solo performances for dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II on a state visit. “Then, I got into opera,” she recalls. “None of my family even knew what opera was. But I’m grateful for that classical training because it became my foundation.” Way seemed set on an opera career—and then, as planned routes often do, her road took a hard right turn.
“At 20, I decided to crash an audition for Anne of Green Gables, Canada’s longest-running musical. I took a bus to Toronto and hung out all day, waiting for the chance to sing. In the end, I got the lead role,” she says, and that was the end of her operatic aspirations. Way says she had sung in many musicals as a teenager at her hometown professional theater, the Sudbury Theatre Centre.
“Even back then, I was blessed to work with incredible artists who treated me as a professional and an equal.” From Sudbury, she went on to sing the role of Anne at the Charlottetown Festival, Atlantic Canada’s largest theater festival, where she says she collaborated with more amazing professionals and did six tours to Japan with the show.
“It was a phenomenal experience to kick off my career,” she says. “The festival was also my first time working with a full professional orchestra. It made a huge impression, and I understood that there’s nothing like having a full orchestra and a conductor supporting me. Way adds that her classical training came in handy, making it possible for her to do eight shows a week.
As the years progressed, Way began to think about how she could scale back her life. “I love Toronto, but when my husband David was offered a position at a professional Canadian theater one hour north of Toronto, all of our plans changed,” she says. “After that, driving down to auditions in the city and fighting the traffic and snow wasn’t something I relished. So, I started creating my own work as an excuse not to have to do that anymore.”
That was 15 years ago, and Way says it started her thinking about what she really wanted out of life. “I was in my early 40s and was tired of being a ‘singer for hire.’ I had no control over my schedule and I was tired of missing family gatherings,” she says.
Way decided that as a concert producer, she could schedule her own life. “I could even finally be here for my husband’s opening nights.” Equally important, she says: “As a producer, you get to choose who you want to work with. You don’t have that choice on a tour.” Accordingly, Way’s first show as producer included handpicked musicians she had either known, worked with, or knew of.
“Over the years, I’ve come to learn that when choosing who I want to work with, talent comes second. Being an amazing human being comes first. I want to work with people who love what they do and want to collaborate,” she says. Producing her own shows gives her the freedom to do just that. “Our musicians should be wonderful ambassadors for what we do.”
Way travels and performs with her band, but when it comes to sorting out the logistics, she is a one-woman show. “My husband has a full staff, and he just shakes his head at me in wonder. I do all the bookings—venues, hotels, etc.—and all the contracting with the AFM,” she says. “I even do all the sound equipment rental, so I’ve learned how to be a tech person. My goal has always been to make our shows as easy and consistent as possible for the people I love and work with.” Wanting this level of control, she adds, is also a direct result of many years of working in other people’s shows with no control at all.
Early in learning about the production process, Way discovered the importance of having the AFM on her side. She has been a member since 2007. “I only wish I had joined earlier. I was already in Actors Equity and ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), but as a singer, I didn’t know about the AFM. The problem is that college music programs don’t talk about it enough. They don’t tell their students that they should be joining the AFM as soon as possible.”
Indeed, Way doesn’t understand how anyone can call themselves a professional musician if they’re not in the union. “My band and anyone who works with me must be an AFM member. Aside from the wonderful protections, it’s an invaluable source of information for navigating a professional career. I file as many as 50 union contracts a year, and I always call and ask questions.” The union was particularly helpful, she says, during the pandemic. “I was determined to keep working and paying my band, so we filmed and streamed concerts. The union made sure no one took advantage of us.”
Way enjoys mentoring young musicians. Right from the start, she will talk to them about the union. “I tell them that if someone offers them 100 bucks for a gig, they can say that the union has a minimum. Bookers respect you more when you tell them you’re a professional, and these are the minimum requirements.” Moreover, she adds, they can call their local office and get help if needed. “I’ve done this so much that I’m pretty sure I know the local rates in every city and province across Canada by now,” she laughs.
She typically advises musicians to form their own companies. “It’s cheap and easy to do in Canada, and it gives them control over their own output.” They can contract themselves and other musicians through the AFM, and—most importantly, she says—pay into the AFM pension plan. “That’s my good deed. And if they work with me under an AFM contract, I’m hopeful they’ll tell their friends and colleagues about it.”
Way is also a proponent of the AFM’s Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF), through which she received funding during the pandemic to book musicians to play outdoors for senior centers. “It allowed me an opportunity to help musicians who were out of work. With MPTF grants, I could hire union members—which has also encouraged more musicians to join the AFM.”
Way has now produced 12 shows through her company, Way-To-Go Productions, many of which have performed to sold-out audiences at over 100 theaters across North America. The latest show explores the life and music of famed Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot, who was a longtime member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON).
“What sets our shows apart is the storytelling,” she says. “They’re theatrical productions, complete with lighting and costume changes.” However, she is quick to point out that these are not tribute concerts. “Coming from a theatrical background, I wasn’t seeing anything like this. I wanted to tell the story of these artists, how their careers came about, and how their songs were written.” The idea, she says, ultimately changed the trajectory of her career. “I put together my own band. We did eight shows weekly, and theaters started wanting to include them in their regular seasons.”
Way is quick to credit the musicians in her band, the Wayward Wind. “We are tight-knit, and it’s not easy for a sub to come into one of our shows because the arrangements are complex and all the band members sing and do backup vocals.” While she loves and respects every member of the Wayward Wind, she singles out veteran keyboard player and arranger Bruce Ley of Local 149, for special mention. “Bruce and his band opened for the Rolling Stones in the late ’60s. He was a composer for Sesame Street and wrote the score for an Oscar-nominated film. We’ve been working together for 20 years, and I love that Bruce is a believer in mentoring younger musicians in the band, just like I’ve done.”
In recognition of her achievements, Way was awarded a Toronto Musician of the Year award for 2020-2021. She says next year’s shows will feature the band’s own music for the first time. “All of us have put out our own music over the years, so it’s time to start celebrating that.” Beyond that, she says she is just grateful to be doing this. “If you’d asked me 40 years ago, I would never have guessed I’d be traveling with my own band and investing in sound equipment. Most musicians do all this when they’re younger. I’ve done it backward, and I love it. But what I’m most proud of is getting to work with talented people who I love, and who love what they do.”