To open her second set, Alejandra O’Leary decides to perform a cover song without her band. Wearing a denim jacket over a farmers market t-shirt and jeans, she sits on a stool with her acoustic guitar as the packed-in coffeehouse crowd watches her play a stripped-down cover of the normally bombastic, over-the-top “No Surrender,” a Bruce Springsteen song whose words, O’leary says, “perfectly express how I feel about this band.” With all of the attention focused on her, she sings, “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, no surrender.”
This show on the upstairs level of Crazy Wisdom, a spiritual bookstore on Main Street, is a homecoming for O’Leary. Less than a week after the release of her new album, Heartspace Timepiece, she’s already staring down a new chapter of her life. But the Crazy Wisdom show allows her to bring together everyone who played on the record, to celebrate the fact that they’ve all made it through difficult times to produce the fantastic finished product. “It’s like the butterfly that lives for one day,” O’Leary says. She and her band, The Champions of the West, only rehearsed three times for the nearly two-hour show, but aside from occasional feedback from the amps (probably more the fault of the unconventional venue than the band), the group sounds tight, mostly playing an old-school style of rock ‘n’ roll, with odder instruments like the mandolin mixed in. The fact that Rich Rickman plays his bass upright on some songs is indicative of the classic authenticity of the band’s aesthetic. Led by O’Leary and guitarist Jamie Church, The Champions communicate well and never step on each other’s musical toes. Their love for music and playing in the band shines through.
Five years ago, O’Leary was playing singer-songwriter sets in New York City, but she was always a fan of rock bands and never liked being a solo act. When her then-boyfriend-now-husband got into law school at Michigan, her first priority was to make a band, which she was able to do by using Craigslist. Through the site, she met musically proficient Champions such as Jamie Church, a Plymouth native with plenty of previous experience in the local music scene, and Jimmy Sindelar, who was getting his bachelor’s in biology at the University. Their front-and-center guitars are a huge part of the latest record’s charm, and they were able to fill in on other instruments when needed.
Heartspace Timepiece is the result of work put in during one of the most difficult times of the band members’ lives. The Champions of the West practiced and played enough high-profile shows to be able to get money to record, but about halfway through, O’Leary had to leave Michigan to care for her ailing mother in Washington, D.C., leaving Church to finish up the recording sessions. He had to take the lead in the studio, and the two mostly communicated over the Internet as Church mixed the parts together and added more instrumental tracks. O’Leary flew back about every month or so to record what was left.
Documentation of this time is found mostly in the lyrics of Heartspace Timepiece, not the pretty, Beatles-influenced melodies. “I think I’m a very positive person, and I want to see positivity, and that’s what music is for me,” O’Leary says, “But I also think that I can’t help being devastated sometimes in my life, so you need to get both in there or it’s not a complete figure.” On songs such as the up-tempo rocker “Positive Drag,” she croons lines like “being hurt by you was worth my time” among barbed guitars, but her sweet-sounding voice — even if it is tinged with a bit of a Liz Phair drawl — makes for a very catchy contrast. “When Will They Learn?”, a song from the last record (“The Blue One,” O’Leary calls it, explaining that she thinks of her albums as colors), is another example. The song has all the makings of a carefree acoustic strummer, complete with bright piano and girl-group backing harmonies, but the subject is a person whom everyone except the song’s narrator falsely believes is a cool, fantastic person. O’Leary doesn’t sing with scorn, though. She sounds very content with herself and her own convictions and seems almost amused at the wrongness of others.
The influence of the Motor City also shines through with the new material. The cover of Heartspace Timepiece (or “The Red One,” if you’re O’Leary) features a painting of the historic Art Deco-style Penobscot Building in Downtown Detroit. “It was very important to me to be near a big city,” O’Leary says, “We always like to go to Detroit to see music and play music and look at Detroit because the way it looks is something I’ll never get tired of contemplating.”
On the night of the show, the eight or so different Champions (depending on how many instruments the song requires) are squished up against Crazy Wisdom’s window overlooking Main Street. O’Leary jokes that “it’s like my first apartment in New York.” Space is at a premium, and with no risers or stage, the band is at equal height with the audience, making for a very intimate concert. Jamie Ascenzo, who recorded Heartspace Timepiece at his studio in Novi, stands at the back of the crowd, where they’re serving tea. Jimmy Sindelar is unfortunately nursing broken fingers, but he works on the sound and helps out by playing the Omnichord on a few songs.
O’Leary seems extremely comfortable in this setting. She’s mastered that sort-of-self-conscious, humble, shy type of audience banter, but she’s excited and smiles a lot. And when she has the opportunity to ditch her guitar, she takes full advantage of it. When The Champions of the West cover the old standard “I Put a Spell on You,” O’Leary completely intensifies her demeanor, singing in a deep, husky voice while putting both hands on the mic stand and leaning on it as hard as she can, before taking an open seat right next to where the band is playing and letting them jam. When she introduces and explains the songs, most of them seem to be about falling in love, out of love or both, but an exception here is “Beat Ohio.”
The track on Heartspace Timepiece with the most clearly Ann Arbor-inspired name, “Beat Ohio” is also one of the new record’s highlights. The song opens the show and also gets a reprise in the second set, before which O’Leary explains that it’s about “never being able to be from here.” Syrupy sweet, O’Leary’s vocals sing-song over a guitar that’s essentially soloing for the entire song. Mandolin, piano and the mellow trot of the drums join in as O’Leary seems to criticize someone who’d rather be from the East than the Midwest, telling him “you’re doing it wrong.”
This night at Crazy Wisdom is bittersweet for O’Leary, Church and the band. “This is closing the book on a chapter tonight,” Church says. He’s been really busy with the band and his family, but is finishing up a solo project that he’s been wanting to do for a long time. Sindelar and Martin Maginity, The Champions’ drummer, are also playing together in a separate band called The Landmarks. Most dramatically, though, O’Leary now lives in North Carolina. But they remain confident that they’ll continue to work together, once the timing gets better.
In explaining the album’s name, O’Leary says Timepiece comes from the fact that the year in which the record was made was seared into the band’s brain, and the album is “a document of a very specific time in our lives.” Heartspace, she says, “comes from when we were talking about being stressed out by personal tragedy, and how we didn’t have the headspace to think about music sometimes and how sad that was for us, and I was like, ‘It’s not even our headspace, it’s heartspace.’ Our heartspace is not big enough to encompass all this tragedy.” However, now that the band has lived through the tragedy, O’Leary says “I will never undo the pain of that time, but I feel triumphant.”