Long Beard: Assertive and Quietly Introspective Singer-Songwriter
New Brunswick's Leslie Bear conjures Fleetwood Mac and a candlelit closeness on debut LP 'Sleepwalker'
In a dimly lit performance space at In the West — a recording studio and performing space nestled in a warehouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey — Leslie Bear of Long Beard sways and lightly bobs her head to the slow guitar-picking of frequent collaborator Tom Christie’s insouciant alter-ego, Fraternal Twin. She blends seamlessly into the mob crowding the small rug on which the band plays. A single bright lantern sets the red walls of the tiny room alight, casting an even rosier glow on the eager young listeners’ faces. As a transition between his performance and Long Beard’s, Christie calls Leslie to step up to the mic to help cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
“The last few years, I’ve definitely been listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac,” Bear admits before she takes the stage for her headlining set, “which sounds nothing like my music.” Although there are few note-by-note parallels between Long Beard’s quiet strumming and Stevie Nicks and Co.’s epic guitar- and cocaine-fueled romances, Bear channels the Welsh Witch’s heartbreak. And — on paper, at least — Fleetwood Mac’s introspective lyricism isn’t too far from the self-aware verses on Long Beard’s affecting full-length debut, Sleepwalker.
Bear paints tiny, simple vignettes of quiet spaces in nature and in houses. Sleepwalker’s first pondering reflection, “Porch,” interweaves the two themes as its character worries — perhaps while seated in a rocking chair — about how long it takes to heal from a past relationship. Lacing her understated guitar work with wispy vocals, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter invokes the aerial intimacy of Grouper while speaking candidly about social anxiety like another up-and-coming (albeit much different) voice, Alessia Cara: “Alone in the dark / Is it more alone / Than alone in the light / That keeps you up at night?” she lilts on “Hates the Party,” her smooth flow belying such haltingly therapeutic lyrics.
Piecing together songs recorded on her phone, Sony tape recorder, and computer, Bear put out her first EP, Holy Crow, in 2014; she later released Ghost Graduation, a split EP with Fraternal Twin she recorded on Christie’s four-track. The soul-searching conveyed by the soft tape hiss and lo-fi transparency of Bear’s earlier work translates onto Sleepwalker — which, with the help of some friends in New Paltz, New York, Bear was finally able to professionally record for Team Love Records.
Bear grew up listening to ’90s Chinese artists like Canto- and Mandopop superstar Faye Wong, and eventually started plunking keys on her keyboard in middle school, picking up guitar a few years later “out of boredom.” She first staked out a space in New Brunswick’s scene while attending Rutgers University for computer science; in 2013, she started performing under the name Long Beard with the help of her close friend and bandmate, Devin Silvers, who was booking several Jersey bands, including DIY punk veterans Screaming Females. It was actually Silvers who encouraged Bear to release her first two EPs. “Devin was like, ‘You have to put something out there, otherwise no one’s gonna know you,’” recalls Bear. “She made me be like, ‘I want to make music and put myself out there.’”
“The first time I hung out with Devin was actually on my birthday a few years ago,” Bear says. “After she saw me play, she was like, ‘You’re going to play shows at my house and I’m going to book you.’ Then I started playing shows with people that she knew like Crying and LVL UP.”
Although Silvers made sure that spaces Long Beard played in were safe venues — non-discriminatory, non-judgmental — it’s hard to erect such protective barriers on the Internet: Bear has caught some heat online for her moniker, which originated as a sort of lighthearted joke, a pen name for a book she wanted to write. “People give me so much s**t for my name,” says Bear, who’s aware that her music is representative of a white, bearded male playing folk music. “But other names are actually problematic.” (Just ask Canadian post-punks Viet Cong, who announced earlier this year that they’re planning to change their name.)
In March, Bear addressed the issue on her Facebook page: “I’m not white, I’m not male. The appropriation of Eastern culture into the Western world makes me sick, and is honestly a bigger deal [problem] than a girl who is ‘nobody’ with a ‘disgusting’ name.”
Refusing to become disheartened, Bear waved all negative comments aside and continued to play shows, eventually making her way to Brooklyn for a round of official and unofficial CMJ showcases in 2015, where she stole the spotlight, somewhat literally: For several of her earlier shows she was accompanied by a charming antique lamp, a lighting and stage fixture that’s also at the center of Sleepwalker’s cover art. “It’s a lamp that my friend found in the trash,” Bear says, laughing. “Which I think is cool.”
She has an uncanny ability for seeing endearing qualities within ruin. Much of Bear’s creative process has taken place during the sleepy hours before dawn. On one of her habitual early-morning walks, she visited the site of a halfway house, a former shelter for recovering drug addicts that had been“It always had a little garden in the back [with] all these statues of Buddha,” she says, remembering how the setting inspired her to write the pellucid track “Morning Ghost.”
“At four or five in the morning, I went into their backyard with my acoustic guitar and just sat down, trying to play music… Overall, it wasn’t about the house burning down or anything, but what it’s about is [that] it’s hard to wake up. You know, when you wake up, and you feel something is pulling you back into sleep. And just realizing there’s a lot of pressure in the real world and your life… sometimes it’s just the heaviness of existence.”
But tonight, at In the West, Bear transmits a lightness into the room. Her soft murmurs coax her listeners into a drowsy suspension of self-awareness, captivating each individual so that they hang onto her every word as if it came from their own mouths. A beacon of soothing lucidity, she provides a guide for how to come to terms with the hardships of reality.