NEW YORK — It’s an unusually chilly afternoon when I interview Camila Grey and Leisha Hailey, collectively known as electro-pop duo Uh Huh Her, in the lounge of their midtown Manhattan hotel. Since there’s no driving or playing on the schedule, their tour manager explains, it’s the first true “day off” the ladies have had in weeks. But you’d never know it.
Hailey, looking slightly frazzled in glasses and a ponytail, steps off the elevator clutching a Starbucks cup, and Grey follows a few minutes later, huddled in a purple hoodie.
“They’ve really packed a lot in for us today,” Hailey explains to me as she asks a concierge where she can drop off her laundry nearby.
Midway through our chat, Grey and Hailey are whisked away to approve mock-ups from a recent photo shoot, and after the interview concludes, they’re off to film a segment for Fearless TV. All the hubbub precedes a sold-out show at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom the following night.
It’s the eve of what was supposed to be the release date for “Common Reaction,” the band’s debut full-length album. But the record was pushed back to August for reasons that remain unclear (more on that later). As a result, this spring Grey and Hailey found themselves in the unlikely position of playing a string of shows to capacity crowds who had never heard most of their material, save for a five-song EP released last November. But apparently that did nothing to dampen fans’ enthusiasm.
“Other than the fact that people are bummed out that they can’t get the record sooner, it hasn’t really had much of an effect,” Grey said.
“It’s tricky, but then we play the songs off the EP and they’re like, â€˜Yeeeaaaah!’ â€˜cause they know those,” Hailey added. “And I guess we’re just anxious to have that be the whole show.”
Hailey, 37, who portrays blogger/podcaster/talk show host Alice Pieszecki on Showtime’s lesbian drama “The L Word,” is best known musically as one-half of â€˜90s college radio faves The Murmurs. Grey, 29, has a resume that boasts collaborations with Busta Rhymes and Dr. Dre, as well as soundtrack work for film and television. Hailey, who knew Grey as the bassist and keyboardist for L.A. indie outfit Mellowdrone (for which she’s credited as Cami Gutierrez), broached the idea of a musical partnership in the fall of 2006.
“We were complete strangers,” Hailey said. “I was looking to do music again, and Cam was in Mellowdrone. And I basically just, you know, asked my friends about her. She seemed like a cool girl and obviously had a stellar roster of people she’s worked with. So I just called her out of the blue one day and was like, â€˜Hey, do you want to start a band?'”
Borrowing their name from a PJ Harvey song, the pair recorded the “I See Red” EP in Grey’s house and embarked on a mini-tour of major U.S. and European cities in late 2007. In order to fill their set times, they were forced to write new material on the road almost daily. (“We had nothing to play!” Grey stresses.) The outing included a sold-out date at London’s Shepherd’s Bush that they cite as a pivotal show in their burgeoning career.
“It just sticks out in our minds as the most exciting because it was a giant theater filled with people, and it was probably our 15th or 16th show ever,” Hailey recalled. “For us, it was a massive thrill.”
Grey, however, says being thrust in front of such large audiences from the start (thanks mostly to Hailey’s “L Word” fame) has been a “double-edged sword.” The more soft-spoken member of the duo admits that transitioning from a behind-the-scenes collaborator to frontwoman has taken some getting used to.
“I want to say it’s been seamless, but it hasn’t,” she said, laughing. “It’s been kind of difficult to just know what you’re doing immediately in front of that many people. … But I think I’m coming into it pretty well. I mean, it’s different every show. You know, there are good shows and bad shows.”
Fans in New York would probably agree. The Highline Ballroom show earlier this year was the band’s second in the city in the span of five months. A performance at Webster Hall last December was marred by sound problems and technical difficulties, and neither Hailey nor Grey appeared to be comfortable, either on stage or with the songs they were playing. But during their performance this spring, Grey demonstrated a newly-discovered commanding stage presence and Hailey sashayed behind her keyboard, openly enjoying the rebirth of her inner rock star.
It’s clear that the vast majority of Uh Huh Her’s following — for now, at least — consists of fans of “The L Word” and Hailey in particular. That said, it’s also clear that the band has bigger aspirations and hopes “Common Reaction” will nudge their music into the mainstream.
“We’re both really grateful that we have an audience to play for. … It’s every band’s dream,” Hailey pointed out, with Grey nodding beside her in agreement. “We do want to branch out, but there’s no negative to it. It’s just basically given us a springboard.”
“A launching pad for bigger and better things,” Grey added.
But while Hailey’s name is likely the big draw at this point, it’s arguably Grey that’s at the helm. In addition to handling production duties on the EP, she’s credited with lead vocals, keyboards, synthesizers, bass, guitars and programmed drums on the album. Hailey lends backing vocals and synthesizers, occasionally picking up the bass during live shows. Their writing process is collaborative both in terms of music and lyrics, they say, so recording the songs that would become “Common Reaction” revolved in part around Hailey’s shooting schedule for “The L Word.”
“It (was) different every month of how we sort of put this thing together,” Hailey said. “When I got home … we would get together and write all the time. Cam would fly up to Vancouver (where “The L Word” is filmed). I bought a computer rig up there that was exactly the same as hers so we could bring the same hard drive up there and have the same files.”
Hailey and Grey have their own theories about why the record was pushed back.
“To be honest, I just don’t think (the record label) had a really good marketing plan,” Grey said.
“We don’t officially know,” Hailey noted. “I think that the label was expecting us to make a record much like the EP, which was a really lo-fi, homemade bedroom thing that Cam did – which is amazing, and she’s a genius at it. But … it just (ended up being) a lot more polished and commercial, and I think (label executives) were like, oh, we need to set this record up properly then, and not just put it out.”
(When asked about the postponement, a spokesperson for Nettwerk Records e-mailed the following: “We are really excited about the album and believe this band is something special. So we wanted to give the music time to gain a life in the public and reach people before the release.”)
With the new release date — August 19 — coinciding with “The L Word” being in production for its sixth and final season, Hailey will once again find herself juggling two jobs later this year. (Grey, for her part, says she plans to work on solo material later this year while Hailey’s filming.)
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s straining,” Hailey says. “I have to admit, it’s hard. The hardest part is being away from home so much, because now at this point, I work on (“The L Word”) and then maybe I’m home for a couple of weeks, and then I’ll be touring. So, that’s hard. But it’s great because I’m doing two things that I absolutely love.”
Hailey’s colleagues at “The L Word” have been supportive of the band, both on and off-screen. Uh Huh Her’s sultry “Explode” was featured in an episode of the show’s fifth season earlier this year.
“It was super sweet that they put a song of ours in there,” Hailey said. “It sounded good, (but) it didn’t make any sense (in the scene).”
Grey begged to differ, pointing out that the song’s haunting “Don’t walk away” refrain was audible as a main character was preparing to fly the coop with her lover.
“Oh,” Hailey said, visibly grasping the significance for the first time. “I didn’t even get that.”
Once the show ends, Hailey said, she plans to devote herself full-time to Uh Huh Her.
“I definitely don’t want to stop acting,” she said emphatically. “But I love doing this.”
It may be a blessing in disguise that Uh Huh Her is finding its footing at the same time “The L Word” is coming to a close. Hailey and Grey are both talented musicians, and the quality of their music is respectable in its own right – good enough to warrant the attention of listeners who are unfamiliar with Hailey the actress.
Throughout “Common Reaction,” densely layered keyboards and guitars abound (“I tend to err on the side of synth,” Grey quips.) The duo recruited session musicians Brad Ackley and Jordan Medina to play guitar and drums on the album, and performed as a quartet during their spring tour, with “hired guns” Jacques Brautbar on guitar and Josh Kane on drums.
A few of the songs are products of Grey and Hailey’s prolific writing during that first tour, including rollicking lead single “Not a Love Song” (which is currently streaming on the band’s MySpace page) and the title track. On the former, Grey insists, “I am not singing a love, singing a love song,” then proceeds to blow that assertion out of the water over the next 10 tracks, which are all about … well, you know.
Two songs from the “I See Red” EP – “Say So” and “Explode” – also made the final cut. (“They were standout tracks … that we wanted to kind of polish up,” Grey explains.) The album version of “Say So” doesn’t live up to its EP predecessor, but the two versions of “Explode” are nearly indistinguishable.
“I think the album will reach a different audience,” Hailey said, reiterating the band’s intent to broaden its fanbase when “Common Reaction” hits shelves. “So it’s giving those new people a chance to hear the old stuff that they never heard. It’s not like we’re re-feeding the same audience. That’s not the plan.”
The pair’s breathy vocals blend nicely together, and the album is anchored by strong harmonies, particularly on the title track and the ridiculously catchy “Covered.” Grey’s occasionally mumbled singing often renders the lyrics indecipherable, but not to a fault.
“I think our voices fit well together,” Grey said. “A lot of it was production-conscious, trying to make two voices kind of sound like one.”
“I think a lot of times people don’t know who’s singing, which is funny,” Hailey added.
The title “Common Reaction,” the ladies explain, refers to the volatile relationships that are the subject of most of their songs.
“It’s kind of like when something’s really potent,” Hailey said. “It’s almost like chemistry. It’s like two things are drawn together, and it’s a good combination, but it’s also …”
“Like a chemical reaction,” Grey chimed in. “It’s explosive.”
“It’s explosive,” Hailey concluded after a lengthy ramble. “We just thought matched sort of the theme of the album. … I think a lot of our songs are about that very thing.”
The same might be said for Hailey and Grey themselves. Self-admitted polar opposites (Grey’s a Capricorn; Hailey’s a Cancer), the pair seem to make the most of their differences. Over the course of our 40-minute interview, both munching on bagels, they often clarified each other’s thoughts and finished each other’s sentences. Apparently they’re well-practiced at this after months of writing lyrics together.
“What makes it interesting, I guess, for us as writers, is just talking about the same thing, but talking about it from two different points of view,” Hailey said. “Just on a very shallow note … I’m a real sort of happy-go-lucky kind of person.
“And I’m … ?” Grey responded, feigning insult.
“No, you’re happy as well,” Hailey backpedaled, “I’m not saying that you’re dark or moody, but you’re just … You know what I’m talking about.”
“I think I have a bit of a dark side,” Grey offered. “And she’s kind of … ”
“I don’t really have one,” Hailey interjected with a laugh. “We’re just different. I don’t know.”
“We come from two different places, and just try to make (our songs) make sense,” Grey explained. “They somehow always do.”
Common Reaction comes out on August 19.