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Shine Bright Like a Gem

Leslie Hall rocks the dance floor her own way, while also juggling kids' music fame

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Leslie Hall is probably the most popular plus-size, bespectacled, sweater-modeling and cat-loving satirical rapper working in electronic dance music today. She scores straight F's: fierce and ferocious and fabulous. She's got "neon blood pumping through my varicose veins" and, at 32, still wears spangled costumes crafted by her mom.

Hall is a living art installation, but she'll also make you laugh at her self-effacing embrace of life, not to mention how she inspires anyone with a heartbeat to work up an honest sweat on the dance floor.

Touring to promote her sixth album, Songs in the Key of Gold, Hall will return to Tucson for a concert with her band, Leslie and the LY's, on Saturday, March 1, at Club Congress.

Songs in the Key of Gold is both a remix album and a best-of collection. Hall chose 14 of her "greatest hits" from previous recordings, threw in four new tunes, and took them all to up-and-coming mashup DJ and producer Titus Jones, who upped the dance-club frenzy inherent in Hall's music.

"I am so happy with how this record came out," Hall said during a recent phone interview. "Titus Jones is just a young kid with a computer, but he took these songs and just amped up the danceability. He brought the pudding and the cream cheese."

Songs in the Key of Gold includes serious paeans to dance-floor abandon such as "Blame the Booty," "Tight Pants Body Rolls," "No Pants Policy" and "Hydrate Jirate." But Hall also includes charming tunes about crafting ("Craft Talk"), felines ("#1 Cat in America"), zombies ("Zombie Killer") and, of course, sweaters ("Gem Sweater").

Born in Ames, Iowa, Hall started the group in Boston about 10 years ago while enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She appeared with a couple of friends at an open-mic event, performing satirical hip-hop/EDM songs she had composed with the program GarageBand.

Hall initially named her band Leslie and the LY's to refer to her first two bandmates. "My two original girls were named Emily and Kelly; they were the LY's. It was a terrible idea for a band name."

Looking back, she now says she never would have chosen the name, especially because Emily and Kelly left the group pretty quickly.

"My goodness, they lasted about a week. But by then I was doing it semi-full time. I kept the name for the recognition. I already had friends watching for our gigs under that name."

By the time the band took off, Hall already had achieved Internet notoriety for her website gemsweater.com, on which Hall modeled the 400-plus gem-encrusted sweaters she has collected. The gem-sweater revolution the site incited is still going strong, too.

"A lot of people are wearing the gem sweaters to the live show. We like to bring some of them onstage, and we talk to them and appraise their marvels. A lot of them are rescued and reused from the Salvation Army and places like that. A lot of people are making and embracing gem sweaters."

One is tempted, when hearing Hall's hilarious lyrics, to label her shtick as merely comedy music, but she's no Spike Jones or Tom Lehrer. She makes fun of her own generous curves and awkwardness, while embracing a greater sense of up-in-da-club outrageousness: "Hand me my glow sticks/ Mama wants to jiggle."

During Hall's performances, it's not just silliness. She's rocking a skin-tight gold tracksuit and blue eye shadow behind big glasses. She purposely thrusts out her belly to enhance its roly-poly shape and hunches her shoulders to create a double chin.

It doesn't take superior insight to understand that Hall's sly, subversive message is meant to rebut our culture's skewed preference for skinny models with pipe-cleaner arms. When she sings "Shazam, I'm Glamorous," it means we all can be glamorous.

Hall's music can be a little racy, but in a sweet and wholesome way, even when she's singing about humping someone in the friendship circle on the dance floor.

"In that sense, I have always taken a lead from Weird Al, who doesn't curse in his music," she said. "You don't always know your audience in advance, so it pays not to sing anything that might offend anyone. I mean, we're always out of control, but never overtly sexual."

Her tunes are safe enough for concertgoers to bring their teenagers and grandmothers—if the venue allows it. "I've seen people as young as 16 and as old as 84 at our shows."

Hall's youngest audiences, though, are on the children's TV show Yo Gabba Gabba!. She has appeared on several episodes and now juggles Leslie and the LY's with touring as part of that program's stage version.

You can also see many examples of Hall's whimsical videos on YouTube, which she says is as important a venue for the Leslie and the LY's message as are the band's live show and audio recordings. Not surprisingly, she has attracted more than 6 million views.

But she's on tour now and focuses on sweating it out each night on stage. Leslie and the LY's now is a sextet, including a DJ and two drummers.

Also on the tour are two opening acts handpicked by Hall: "Dean and the Delilahs is a country-folk androgynous prairie band, and the Boone County Comedy Troupe is a duo of two women just starting out and stretching their comedy muscles."

Even though Songs in the Key of Gold has been out just couple of months, Hall already is thinking about her next album and the future of the band.

"Hopefully, we are going to make more videos and enjoy much more success with countless Leslie and the LY's projects: action figures, embroidery, whatever we can think of. Also, I have to find time to watch the third season of The Killing."

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