With a voice that’s been characterised as lush, gravelly, deep, rich and powerful, singer Leah Cotterell has audiences eating out of the palm of her hand.
Leah’s love of music, and her 30-year career, began after she debuted in a one-woman cabaret presentation, The Electric Frock.
“It was based on a costume which I hand-soldered and which included a cassette player,” she says. “Battery-operated speakers hung in the frame of a crinoline, all clad in orange and gold lame. The mind boggles now, but it was a hoot!”
After dabbling in political theatre and jazz, Leah took some time out to experiment with music degree studies, song writing, recording and producing shows before everything came to a screeching halt.
Both her mother and brother were living with severe mental health issues, and Leah began to care for her family full-time.
It was this experience that informed Leah’s latest work, The Pleasure of Sad Songs, a musical memoir about a family living with agoraphobia, schizophrenia and dementia. The production shines a light on the everyday challenges mental health carers experience.
As a witness to the journeys of her brother and mother, Leah delves into the shadows of isolation she experienced in fighting stigma and systems failure and finding comfort in the joys of recovery.
A delicate balance of powerful stories, beautiful songs and evocative family images, the intimate production is the outcome of Leah’s postgraduate research in music theory.
“The chance to spend years developing a work based on my own experience has been liberating, centring and validating,” she says.
“The overall effect has been to invest my singing and storytelling with social impact. That is a whole new level of satisfaction to me, bringing all the themes of my personal and public lives together.”
Leah says her show will lighten audiences by a safe and balanced engagement with troubled and difficult experiences.
“I make it easy for the audience through sharing pretty things, nostalgic family photos and gorgeous classic songs,” she says.
“For some people there will be big chills of recognition,” Leah reveals. “My story is singular but not unique – I talk about experiences that touch the lives of most of us. For others it will be a pathway to better understanding an experience they have only glimpsed.”
Leah is hoping for an emotional response from her audience.
“I always play for mixed emotion, the bittersweet, the poignant,” she says. “I would say audiences will feel admiration for my mother, tenderness for my brother and nostalgia for the lost beauty of our youth.”
An advocate for raising awareness of mental health, Leah is passionate about removing the stigma that so often surrounds it.
“I hope for a ground swell of awareness about the impacts of mental health stigma on our community,” she says. “Beyond the harms that stigma imposes on the lives of people experiencing mental heath issues, there is a shadow that falls over all of us when we fail to include and validate people who are vulnerable. It goes to the quality of all of our lives when we abandon people in need.”
This year has been a busy one for Leah; she’s set to hit the stage again at this year’s Women in Voice. Renowned for showcasing Australia’s best female vocal talent, Brisbane’s iconic cabaret institution returns with a formidable line-up of songstresses, including Leah.
The lively, funny and all-female celebration features beloved favourites and new talent, offering exposure to female artists.
“The creation of each new Women in Voice production is so much more than just another song concert,” says Leah. “It is an event that sees Brisbane’s enormous vocal talent creating and celebrating together.”
Catch Leah performing The Pleasure of Sad Songs at the Judith Wright Centre from October 14 to 15 2016. Get tickets here.
You can also catch Leah performing at Women in Voice at the Judith Wright Centre from November 3 to 12 2016. Get tickets here.