PLAYING SEATTLE: Leeni Ramadan Goes from Craigslist Collaborator to Prom Queen

COLUMNS|Playing Seattle
By Carol Hodge

With her teased bouffant, vintage A-line dresses, red lipstick, and coy, lilting voice, musician Celene “Leeni” Ramadan, who releases music as Prom Queen and as Leeni, stands out as one of Seattle’s most unique exports. Though she currently lives and works her day job as an editor in Los Angeles, she has resided in Seattle and travels here often to play with long-time Prom Queen band members.

This blend of locales is part of what makes Ramadan’s music stand out. Ramadan called the most recent Prom Queen album Doom-Wop, and indeed, her music is an interesting mix of mellow PNW gloom and surfy-bright L.A. pop. In that way, her coziness with the Twin Peaks fan community comes naturally (Ramadan, as both Leeni and Prom Queen, has played many a Twin Peaks-themed event). Like the aesthetic of the hit ’90s show created by David Lynch, Ramadan’s music combines 1950s and ’60s nostalgia with an eerie otherworldliness. In 2017, Ramadan even combined the themes from Twin Peaks and Netflix hit Stranger Things into a viral Prom Queen single called “Stranger Peaks.”

Later this month, Prom Queen will open for Har Mar Superstar at the Crocodile. It’s a pairing that seems unlikely at the outset, but actually makes a lot of sense upon further examination of each artist’s knack for dark, clever humor. Audiofemme got the chance to talk to Ramadan about Har Mar Superstar’s “similar sensibilities,” the origin of the her unique songwriting style, and the new album Prom Queen has in the works.

AF: Tell me, briefly, how you did you get into music?

LR: Music was always in my family growing up. My father was a drummer and singer when he grew up in Egypt and he and my mother always encouraged my two sisters and I to play music. We ended up being a very musical family. My sisters and I all played multiple instruments and sang in choirs throughout our entire childhood and through high school. We even did music camps and all-state competitions… some failed attempts at rock bands… just lots and lots of music! 

AF: What was the first song or artist that you remember being really jazzed about?

LR: The first song I remember being obsessed with was a song by The Monkees called “I Wanna Be Free.” It’s a sweet, pretty song and we had the vinyl and I remember listening through to the end and then putting the needle back to the beginning of the song. Over and over and over again. 

AF: How did Prom Queen come about? What about that nostalgic notion felt like a fitting name for your music?

LR: First came “Romeo + Juliet,” a long-distance collaboration between myself and a musician I met on Craigslist from Pittsburgh named Jon-Michael. We made an album together under that moniker called Month of May and that year (2010) was maybe my most prolific year of writing to date. I wrote a bunch of songs for future Romeo + Juliet albums, but as time wore on, I wanted to do something that wasn’t long-distance. Something that I could grow into a band that played shows in Seattle and beyond. So I took a handful of those songs and started Prom Queen. I chose the name out of thin air, and partially as a joke because I never went to Prom. I also liked it as a play on my mother’s last name, which is “Queeno”, a name I’ve adopted in recent years as my chosen middle name, since I never had one. It all just seemed to fit – and no one had the name yet, which—if you’ve ever had to name a band before—you know it’s a miracle!

AF: What are some goals you had for Prom Queen when you first created the persona/music? How have those goals changed and evolved?

LR: The main goal hasn’t changed much since the beginning—I just wanted to craft something myself that I could mold and change and grow into whatever I wanted it to be. And I wanted it to succeed to where I could do it all the time. I still want that. It’s hard to want that out loud. But I do.

AF: A few years back you had the viral Stranger Things-Twin Peaks mash-up. What kind of doors did that open up for you?

LR: It reinforced the lesson that sometimes the things you do as a one-off sitting at your kitchen table yield the best results! It happened to me once before where I recorded a cover of Echo And The Bunnymen’s “Nocturnal Me” in my apartment, only to have the band eventually find it and their manager reach out to me and ask me to open for them! “Stranger Peaks” was similar. I don’t have a PR person or any money to hire anything like that, so to have a totally spontaneous one-off creation enable the name Prom Queen to be splashed across so many reputable online publications was a real win for me. I wasn’t expecting such a huge and wide response and such a great reception, too! In terms of opening doors, I think it just strengthened our ongoing relationship with the Twin Peaks community. Prom Queen has been embraced by that community and we’ve been able to perform at festivals and events that are Twin Peaks themed over the years. It’s a really wonderful family and we feel really lucky to be in the mix. 

AF: Tell me a bit about a day/week in your life. Is Prom Queen your main gig? Do you have a day job? Do you have other musical projects going on simultaneously?

LR: I would love Prom Queen to be my main gig, but at the moment, I still have a day job. I am a video editor by day, I’ve been doing that for over ten years. Sometimes freelance, sometimes full time. I also do music composition for videos and podcasts on the side to make a little extra cash. I have an electronic / synth-pop solo project under my name Leeni that I’ve been doing since 2005 (before Prom Queen) and I’ll occasionally do shows and release things under that name, too. I have a love for electronic music, so I like that have an outlet to produce music in that genre. 

AF: I’ve seen you list LA as your hometown for certain projects and gigs. Do you bounce back and forth between LA and Seattle?

LR: I currently live and work in Los Angeles, but the rest of my band is in Seattle. I still call us a Seattle band and will go up to do shows. So, in that sense, I bounce back and forth because we get some great opportunities in the PNW and it’s easier for one person to travel than to have four people travel! 

AF: Your sound is a really unique blend of modern pop/rock, vintage doo-wop and jazz, all with darkly humorous and gloomy lyrics. What inspired you to combine those two sort of competing vibes? Does it have to do with your connection to LA and Seattle and how both places influence the music?

LR: I really just made the music I wanted to make. I am not sure how my surroundings may have influenced any of that. I love all of those elements and it’s difficult to trace where it all comes from or where I’m pulling inspiration. 

AF: Are there any bands in Seattle that help inspire you and feed your own music?

LR: I’m a total fangirl of my bandmate’s band Von Wildenhaus. Ben Von Wildenhaus has been in Prom Queen since the beginning of it being a band. We used to do solo sets adjacent to each other and I asked if he wanted to play together sometime and lucky for me, he said yes. That was the first piece of this ever-growing and ever-shifting puzzle of this band. Through Ben, I found Jon Sampson, who now plays saxophone with Prom Queen. Jon is an incredible talent. Ben writes some amazing stuff and his band is spellbinding in every iteration it’s taken, but the most recent iteration, with singer Amanda Bloom, is really arresting and haunting in a whole new, exciting way. I just love love love that band and I want us on every bill together.

AF: Any projects in the works? Tours? What’s next for Prom Queen?

LR: I have lots of projects in the works! The main thing is that I am currently writing a new album. It’s still the beginning phases, so I don’t have a realistic timeline yet. I’m just trying to work on it slowly and not force anything. I have a few other things not quite ready to announce yet, too. But I will do so soon! And touring – good lord. I will never do it again if I have to do it all myself. So if any experienced person out there feels really excited about the idea of Prom Queen touring and wants to help us put a tour together, please contact me. I need help. And I’m not afraid to say it!

AF: You’re performing with HarMar Superstar in a couple weeks here in town. What brought that show about? How does Prom Queen connect to his music?

LR: We are thrilled to be opening for Har Mar Superstar! Because… I just wanna be AT that show! I’ve never seen Har Mar and I’ve always wanted to—and I think the Crocodile will bring the best kind of energy to that music! It really feels like the perfect venue and we haven’t played there in ages. The Crocodile reached out to us for the support slot, and we were very flattered they thought of us. I think it’s a great bill because we have similar yet complimentary sensibilities. 

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