When Seattle-based synth-pop artist Leeni shops for synthesizers, she finds herself looking at them and asking herself, “Are there songs in there?”
Sometimes, like magic, the instrument answers. Just a little play with a patch or a twist of the controls and suddenly, the instrument transports you into a new sonic realm.
That’s how it worked for Leeni’s new full-length, Violet, which dropped last Thursday. Her tenth release, Violet is a study of her new, expressive Prophet Rev2 synth, and a vivid portrait of the personal transformation she underwent during the pandemic isolation.
Leeni is the solo project of artist Celene “Leeni” Ramadan. Ramadan made her first-ever Leeni record on acoustic guitar in 2005, and then began teaching herself gameboy chip tune, a style of electronic music created through programming vintage video game consoles.
Leeni eventually became one of the only gameboy chip tune producers in the Seattle area, and it led her to eventually explore other types of synthesized music-making.
“I remember… buying a bunch of vintage drum machines and playing around with them and learning how to sequence and just kind of doing it by like trial and error because there wasn’t a lot of guidance,” she says.
After releasing a lot of chip tune work, including the 2007 full-length album 8-Bit Heart, Ramadan pivoted to her moody, ’60s pop-inspired band Prom Queen, where her focus remained for many years.
Then the pandemic hit. Isolated from her bandmates, returning to therapy after a long hiatus, and learning new production techniques in her new job for Prime video, Ramadan began pouring her emotions and newfound synth know-how into solo synth-pop.
“I had a studio and I would go there everyday and just work on whatever. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the world, I just wanted to make something with whatever time I had,” recalls Ramadan.
In time, through the lens her new Prophet Rev2 synth, Violet was born. A dynamic and thrilling collection of expressive and skillfully-produced electropop songs, Violet explores Leeni’s renewed confidence in herself as an artist and producer, growing pains she’s experienced personally in the last couple years, and the beginning of a new phase in her life—an era she defines with the color violet.
On the album’s opening track, “Earthquakes,” Leeni’s lyrics explore this desire to escape the “little earthquakes” that arise in life—in her case, it’s a nod to Tori Amos’ first album, and to unhealthy mental patterns exacerbated by isolation.
“It also expresses a feeling that I was having at the time,” says Ramadan. “You think someone’s going to save you or like that if x happens I’ll be okay, but when you have these unaddressed patterns, the earthquake’s going to come.”
Likewise, on “Horizon,” a haunting track co-written and produced by Erik Blood, Leeni explores familiar feelings of distance, disconnect, and longing. “It touches on ideas about the exhaustion of prolonged hope without tangible gain,” she explains.
Aside from having used the album to help move through the difficult emotions of the pandemic era, the process of making (and sitting on) Violet helped Ramadan also better understand and embrace her creative process.
“I took so much time with these songs. I let them breathe. I wasn’t going to settle,” she says. “Sharing music is so vulnerable. I just really wanted to take as much time as [I needed] to build it right and to me all of that is confidence boosting. It is knowing that I could stand behind this work and say I absolutely cosign what I did on this record and can’t wait to share it.” She hopes to tour with Violet in the spring of 2023.
Through the emotional ups and downs of the album, there’s a real feeling of overcoming as Violet ends on its triumphant eponymous track.We’ve made it through something together—and for Leeni, who tends to demarcate phases of her life with colors, this record is a new beginning.
“I don’t have synesthesia entirely but… I have phases of my life that are different colors,” she says. “This [album] is a step into the phase of violet. It’s very harmonious, it’s regal, it’s dazzling, and to me it’s just grounded in harmony.”
Lately, pop star Britney Spears has been back in the news as she fights to end her court-ordered conservatorship, prompted by a fame-induced mental breakdown in 2008. Thirteen years later, Spears is fighting to regain her autonomy from her conservator father, who limits her access to her estate and allegedly restricts her reproductive rights.
The battle for Spears’ freedom has sparked widespread discussions about disability rights and the public voyeurism that contributed to Spears’ tragic predicament. As society’s scrutiny of Spears’ personal life escalates once again, Seattle and L.A.-based artist Celene “Leeni” Ramadan, also known as Prom Queen, has decided to put emphasis on a part of Britney that she feels is often overlooked—Spears’ talent and significance as a musical artist.
With that in mind, Prom Queen will release a new EP on July 30th entitled Lucky. The 5-song EP is comprised purely of Britney Spears covers, interpreted in Prom Queen’s quintessential macabre-pop language, with a portion of the proceeds from the album going to the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.
“With this record, I want people to hear these songs in a different way, to celebrate Britney as an artist,” says Leeni. “If there’s a famous person who’s a man, and who is a brilliant artist but has mental illness, he is celebrated and he is given freedom and he is not being locked down by his mom. We make movies about men like this. These are celebrated stories for a man but for a woman to have any sort of challenges mentally is a problem and we need to lock her away and take away her rights and [say] oh my god, she can’t be a mother.”
Leeni, who is only one year apart in age from Britney Spears, has always enjoyed the pop star’s music and felt close to Spears, who she calls a “generational icon for people my age.” In fact, Leeni’s passion for Britney Spears actually helped her find employment after she first moved to Seattle in 2004.
“In 2005, I started really looking around for work and I was doing improv comedy and one of my improv friends was doing these singing telegrams through this agency called Livewire, and she got me connected with them. I became a performer for them and have worked with them for over a decade doing singing telegrams as different characters [including Britney Spears,]” she recalls. “I remember my first Britney gig – I was hired to walk around at the convention center downtown and all I had to do was wear this schoolgirl outfit and be Britney for a day and it was really fun. And then I remember also performing for some kid’s birthday party. It was so cute. There was a bunch of girls, and they just wanted me to show up and do a full Britney singalong with them.”
It was during her time working as a Britney Spears impersonator that Leeni said she learned Spears’ catalogue inside and out, and even then, knew someday she’d do a Britney Spears cover album. After all, Prom Queen loves to cover songs, something that garnered the band national attention in 2016, when Prom Queen’s mash-up of the Twin Peaks and Stranger Things themes, Stranger Peaks, went viral.
“I consider myself a melody junkie; there’s just melodies that I love and when you get to hear them in a different context – I don’t know, for me, it gives me goosebumps,” she says. “I want to hear a great interpretation of a melody that I love… Like when I did my cover of ‘November Rain,’ I was like, ‘That is a doo-wop song.’ I was so obsessed with making that song over the years. I think I started my first one in like 2009 and kept making that song until I felt like I got it right. I don’t know, I just always really love making covers.”
As for Lucky, Prom Queen has had the concept in her mind “for years,” and had been collecting and studying Britney Spears’ songs on a Spotify playlist, hoping to narrow down her extensive catalogue and choose the ones that would work best in Prom Queen’s style—which includes a slow country ballad version of Spears’ breakout hit “Baby One More Time,” a Dick Dale surf-rock version of “Toxic,” and a glimmering doo-wop adaptation of the EP’s eponymous “Lucky.”
“I’ve always wanted to do an EP of a single artist and Britney has kind of always been at the top of my list,” says Leeni. “I just feel like a great pop song is a great pop song and you can do a number of different things with it and if the bones of the song are good, you can really take it anywhere. I think these songs to me were some of the best. I had such a hard time choosing. I think these songs, it’s kind of my favorite cross-section of her [work.]”
Prom Queen started making demos of her favorite Britney songs in Spring of 2021, and sending them to her bandmate. She would lay down bass, the acoustic guitar and some sketches of the other instruments and then send them to other folks she wanted to include on the record—including locals Jason Goessl of Sundae and Mr. Goessl, guitarist Ben Von Wildenhaus, violinist Andrew Joslyn, and fellow Britney Spears-loving L.A.-based singer, Cassandra Violet.
“Cassandra Violet is a friend of mine and she’s a big Britney fan. She wrote a piece on Medium about Britney and she just released her debut album and she has a song about Britney Spears, and she and I have collaborated a few times so I thought it would be really great to have her sing the harmony on ‘Lucky,’” Leeni says. “And then I got Andrew Joslyn to do the strings, so those are real strings on the EP.”
Each musician recorded their tracks for Lucky in their respective home studios, for COVID safety, and sent them back to Leeni, at which point Tom Meyers, Prom Queen’s drummer, engineered and mixed the EP. Prom Queen has already released their video for “Baby One More Time,” and the band is currently working on a video for “Toxic.”
As for what she hopes this EP can achieve, Leeni hopes it reminds her fans that Prom Queen is still making music, and that it gives fans some fun nostalgic pop music to enjoy over the summer. She also hopes the EP’s celebration of Britney’s music can underscore the importance of Spears’ struggle, advocating that the pop star should get to choose what the rest of her life looks like—even if it means never returning to the stage.
“I hope that she can get her freedom. I hope they can end the conservatorship. I hope that she can even get a restraining order against her father or whatever she needs, but you know, I don’t think that she needs to be in the public eye ever again if she doesn’t want to,” says Leeni. “Whatever she wants to do with the rest of her life, I want it to be her choice.”
Follow Prom Queen on Facebook for ongoing updates.
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.
As much as 2018 was a good year for Seattle’s established music names – shout-out to Brandi Carlile for “By The Way, I Forgive You” and its six (!) Grammy nominations – it’s been surprisingly phenomenal for fresh voices and indie artists on the rise. Bear with me as I get sentimental; here are ten underground gems from Seattle artists in 2018.
Marlowe (L’Orange & Solemn Brigham) – Marlowe
Marlowe is the break-out album from a new duo of Seattle-based beatsmith L’Orange, and North Carolina-based rapper, Solemn Brigham. L’Orange is known for his nostalgia-soaked tracks, looping obscure vintage radio finds like an old-school crate-digger. Over those, Solemn Brigham raps conscious lyrics with that easy-yet-aggressive flow reminiscent of Kendrick’s early mixtape days.
Red Ribbon – Dark Party
Red Ribbon’s Dark Party is aptly named. While melancholic and cynical, the release is unexpectedly upbeat and fun to dance to, achieving a combination of dark and light that is often-attempted by musicians but rarely well-executed. Each song on Dark Party is a new psychedelic, trance-world, accented with new age flute, droning, and reverb-y guitar. Like a spiritual guide, Emma Danner’s soothing, slow-simmering vocals lead the listener through.
ParisAlexa – Bloom
ParisAlexa’s Bloom captures her rise on the Seattle scene. After many appearances at local events over the last few years, ParisAlexa has a sizable and devoted following of fans and critics alike, including the covetable support of KEXP, who recorded her in a live session in April. Bloom is a coming of age portrait, depicting ParisAlexa in a raw, sensual state, claiming her newfound womanhood. And it’s saturated with the echoes of neo-soul artists like Bilal, Erykah Badu, and pop singers like Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey.
Rat Queen – Worthless
Born of the quirky, colorful musings of two best friends, Jeff Tapia and Daniel Derosiers, Rat Queen’s “Worthless” is all about quick and twisted little ditties that pack a juicy pop-punk punch. Tapia’s growling and dominating vocals match Derosiers’ playful energy on drums, turning what could’ve been a just-for-fun party album into something anthemic: the chronicles of twenty-something punks and misfits just getting by in a changing city.
Bad Luck – Four
If noise-jazz could be your thing, brace yourself. Bad Luck, the tenor-drums duo featuring Neil Welch and Chris Icasiano, is an explosive, dynamic organism of sound experimentation. With a mic-ed sax, Welch creates wide swathes of atmospheric sound that converse with Icasiano’s energetic and impressive percussion. Four is (you guessed it) their fourth release since 2009.
Leeni – Lovefool
Leeni, also known as Prom Queen, is a wizard synth-pop producer and singer-songwriter who made national news a few years back for her clever mash up of the themes from ’90s TV show Twin Peaks and Netflix hit Stranger Things. Leeni’s 2018 release, Lovefool, is akin to that mash-up; one moment dark and brooding, the next bright and manic. Creating dreamy mirages of ’80s synth and ethereal singing, Lovefool gets lost in lush, velvety soundscapes.
Steve Tresler and Ingrid Jensen – Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler
Though largely unknown outside of the area, Seattle has a rich legacy with jazz music and education. Our high school jazz bands consistently win the prestigious Essentially Ellington contest, and we have been home to jazz musicians like Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. Local saxophonist and teacher Steve Tresler teamed up notable Canadian jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen to record Invisible Sounds as a tribute to jazz music legend Kenny Wheeler, who passed away quietly in 2014. The album is a spirited, expansive, and gorgeous merging of two of the most powerful Pacific Northwestern voices in jazz.
Chemical Clock – Plastic Reality
Plastic Reality will be the final release from Chemical Clock, a experimental jazz group made up of local avant-garde, jazz, and funk musicians who met during their time in the University of Washington’s music program. Their third album, Plastic Reality, is chock full of manic synth patterns and angular melodies that build into thunderheads of sound. It’s a triumphant culmination of a decade making boundary-pushing music together.
Thunderpussy – Thunderpussy
Thunderpussy’s self-titled full-length is a glam rock firestorm. In some ways, the band picks up where artists like Heart left off, as a self-possessed all-women rock group that oozes sensuality, musicianship, and sheer power on their own terms. They put on a hell of a live show, too.
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
The brainchild of Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest is probably the biggest artist on this list. 2018’s Twin Fantasy is a completely re-recorded version of an album he put out in 2011 and follows 2016’s Teens of Denial, which was named one of Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of 2016. Twin Fantasy doesn’t disappoint either; Toledo has maintained the self-deprecating awkwardness that makes him so relatable and revelational as a indie rock singer-songwriter.
Each week Audiofemme gives away a set of tickets to our featured shows in NYC! Scroll down to enter for the following shindigs.